NZME's award winning* football blog Goalmouth Scramble is back. Our rotating stable of football writers will offer daily hot takes on all the action from the World Cup in Russia. Today, Niall Anderson turns the blog into Goalmouth Ramble.
It has been a weird start to the World Cup.
Brazil have been under pressure, Argentina have been woeful, Germany have been very un-German, and Russia have controlled their games like it was the US Presidential Election.
Most people were picking one of the big four - Brazil, Spain, France and Germany - to triumph, but none of those sides have been entirely convincing thus far. Instead, the most impressive teams have been the second tier of favourites - England, Croatia, Belgium, Mexico et al.
With each team now having played two games, it raises several questions. Which teams are still a shout of winning the Cup, which teams should lose on purpose, what can the 1954 West Germans tell us about this World Cup, and how many people will actually read right to the end of this unnecessarily long piece?
Let us re-examine the tournament favourites and fruitlessly try to figure out which sides can still win this thing.
Brazil have played well enough but are yet to hit their stride. In doing so, they've showcased the thin line between success and failure at major events. After an opening draw with Switzerland (a fair result), Brazil dominated Costa Rica but couldn't break them open until the 90th minute. Without the injury time intervention, they would be on the brink of elimination. As it stands, a loss to Serbia would still put them in serious trouble, but they should escape the group unharmed.
Their chances: It's still good, it's still good
Another side whose results look worse than their performances. They did concede three against Portugal but the manner of that showing didn't exactly showcase any glaring defensive weaknesses. Sure, the rash penalty wasn't great, but a legendary freekick and a howler by one of one the world's best goalkeepers aren't likely to repeat.
However, history is not on their side. No team has won the World Cup while conceding three or more goals in a group game since 1954 - it's usually a sign of a defence which won't hold up in the knockout stage. The outlier in 1954 was West Germany, who outrageously played their reserve side and shipped eight in an 8-3 loss to Hungary, then ended up beating them 3-2 in the final.
(That 1954 group was the weirdest in World Cup history. The results in order: 4-1, 9-0, 8-3, 7-0, 7-2. Then, as an added bonus, Austria beat Switzerland 7-5 in the quarterfinals.)
Anyway, what I'm saying is that Spain merely need to emulate Sepp Herberger and dem boys and they'll be fine. Or something like that.
Their chances: As solid as a Werner Liebrich tackle.
Toni Kroos most likely saved their tournament yesterday with his stunning injury time winner against Sweden, but how he is being used is also partially to blame for why Germany have been unimpressive thus far. With four attackers bombing forward, Kroos is left in a two-man central midfield - a role he is not equipped to play. While he eventually ended up as the hero, he was also at fault for Sweden's goal, and will need more support in midfield if Germany are to have any hope of defending their title.
Their chances: Not great, Bob!
The French were iffy against Australia, but much better against Peru. There's still some uncertainty about who makes their best XI - with some tricky selections dilemmas meaning they have to either play one of their best attackers (Kylian Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann) out of position, or leave them out entirely. It's certainly not the worst problem to have, and if Didier Deschamps can finally figure it out, they have enough talent to go a long way.
Their chances: Better than their rugby counterparts.
Potentially too good! Their 6-1 battering of Panama means that a win over Belgium will see them top their group - but that's not exactly the ideal result. At this stage, it looks like the winner of England's group would be in line for a quarterfinal showdown with Brazil or Germany, while the runner-up could get to face Mexico or Switzerland in the quarters.
Of course, manipulating the draw is a dangerous game to play, but it would be tragically England for them to dominate their group only to run into Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Instead, we are left with a scenario where neither side will be too disappointed with a loss, and if there's a draw, the following could happen...
I am 100% here for England playing their reserves and racking up a bunch of yellow cards to ensure they finish second in the group. Much like Spain, it's time to emulate the 1954 West Germans!
Their chances: Swell, old chaps.
Belgium's blistering attacking outfit have showed out against the might of Tunisia and Panama, but Tunisia were trying to play like prime Barcelona, and a 3-0 win over Panama looks far less impressive after England pummeled them.
Their defensive structure hasn't done much to ease concerns just yet, and much like England, their hopes will depend largely upon the draw. A high-scoring quarterfinal clash probably awaits Roberto Martinez's squad.
Their chances: The justice squadron is still out.
Cristiano Ronaldo and friends
For all the jokes of Portugal being a one-man team (See above for a hackneyed effort from that genre), Ronaldo has scored all four of Portugal's goals so far this World Cup, and they would not be in great shape without him. They should be able to get by Iran and book a spot in the knockout rounds, but they're going to need to find some extra juice if they are to have any hope of emulating their Euro 2016 success.
Their chances: Elimination is coming unless Ronaldo continues his Just Fontaine impression.
Lionel Messi and anchors
Much like it's impossible to rely on one player in a team sport (LeBron James the exception), it's also ridiculous how much blame gets cast upon a star when their team fails to live up to expectation. Poor old Lionel Messi is going to cop an absolute battering if Argentina don't turn this around - and while he hasn't been at his best, he has been horrendously hindered by some of the strangest selections and formations at the Cup.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli has been throwing out some bizarre tactics, like a 3-2-3-2 with extreme pressing, with the added bonus of having largely sub-standard defenders and a goalkeeper who is fond of the odd howler.
A win over Nigeria will still see Argentina progress to the next round, but that is no sure thing with this Argentinian regime, especially after this rumour started doing the rounds...
Argentina get knocked out before Portugal, the resulting Ronaldo v Messi hot takes burn for eternity.
Possibly the most impressive team so far? They dismantled what was then proved to be a decent Nigeria side, before totally destroying Argentina and their wacky tactics. They have one of the best midfields in the tournament with Luka Modric, Ivan Raketic and Marcelo Brozovic, and if they find themselves on the right side of the draw, you never know...
Their chances: Not terrible!
Poor old Mexico have remarkably lost in the round of 16 at the last six World Cups, but with two reasonably comfortable victories over Germany and South Korea, there is growing excitement that this could finally be their year to snap that streak.
Their chances: Will lose in the round of 16
After being drawn into the easiest group in the history of the World Cup, Russia could now benefit from the easier half of their bracket. In fairness, they have played well in their two wins thus far, and they are unbelievably fit, something which is definitely not suspicious at all.
This all has a South Korea 2002 feel to it, and while I fear for the referee who has to make a big call in a Russian knockout game, I look forward to the reaction when the first person calls their showing "a fairytale run".
Their chances: Vladimir Putin raising the World Cup is what we all deserve.
*Goalmouth Scramble's 'award' was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.
Previously, on Goalmouth Scramble:
Steven Holloway: Funbag: Messi and World Cup conspiracy theories
Michael Burgess: Why I'm missing Sepp Blatter
Cam McMillan: The far too early second round projections
David Leggat: A few things you need to know about the World Cup
Damien Venuto: Messi - The Argentinean Andrew Mehrtens?
Cam McMillan: Why Brazil will (and won't) win the World Cup
Niall Anderson: The best (and worst) games to watch
Chris Rattue: Funny footballs and goalkeepers
Chris Rattue: The big World Cup questions
Steven Holloway: Fancy a punt? The World Cup's best bets