As the 2018 World Cup kicked off in Moscow, we took a look at the 14 Blaugranes, spread across nine teams, who’d trekked to Russia in pursuit of the most treasured amorphous golden mass in all of sports. The ensuing month produced arguably the best World Cup tournament in recent memory, culminating in the eventful, end-to-end goalfest of a final that this tournament deserved. A week removed from the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup – in which a pair of Barcelona stars took the field, and another had one of the best seats in the house – seems as good a time as any to take a look back.
That’s enough preamble. As you’ve got a fair bit of verbiage to tackle below, let’s run through the 2018 World Cup exploits of the Barça contingent:
Samuel Umtiti’s World Cup got off to a lackluster start, with the gifting of an almost-immediate equalizing penalty to an outmatched but spirited Australia, via an inexplicable flailing arm. That France somewhat fortunately won that opening match, and proceeded to trot to the Cup, facing little actual peril along the way, that blunder has been rendered a footnote, a comical misstep on an otherwise glorious journey.
It does also help that, in the games that followed, Umtiti and Raphaël Varane linked up and presented their rather compelling cases as world football’s two best defenders. During that stretch, France blanked four of its next five opponents (with a seven-goal fever dream against Argentina mixed in for kicks), with Umtiti also contributing the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Belgium that secured France’s place in the Final.
Umtiti, World Cup winner’s medal around his neck, returns to the Blaugrana as not only the lynchpin of the back line, but the most important player on the squad, non-Messi Division.
Ousmane Dembélé, meanwhile, didn’t figure very prominently into Didier Deschamps’s plan, logging 165 minutes in four appearances – two as a starter, another two as a late substitute – and registering neither a goal nor an assist.
On the significantly brighter side, however, he returns with a World Cup winner’s medal, and some firsthand observations of what it takes for supreme talent to fulfill its promise.
Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
With the exceptions of midfield partner Luka Modric and France’s all-universe prodigy Kylian Mbappe, it’s tough to think of many (if any) players that, in both a personal and team context, have had a better past five weeks than Ivan Rakitić. Entering the tournament, one could (and some did!) say that “From the middle of the pitch forward, Croatia can hang with anyone in the world, both in terms of talent and top-end experience. These guys will not be overawed by the grand stage…”
Even having said that, even the most bullish forecasts for Croatia (and I was pretty high on them) were for, what, a hard-fought quarterfinal exit? MAYBE a semi?
Along with Modric, Rakitić, was vital in powering Croatia to a shot at the ultimate prize. Every bit as importantly, at no point in the tournament could one accuse Rakitić of going missing. In attack, he played further up the pitch than he does with Barça, facilitating via calm distribution as well as by dribbling into opposing defenses. On the other side of the ball, he was a fully committed and willing defender – for more than 90 minutes per game (638 in 7 games). Not too shabby for world football’s leader in games played (71!) in the 336 days between the Supercopa de España (August 13, 2017) and the World Cup Final.
There’s no skirting the fact that the 2018 World Cup was a massive disappointment for Brazil. Sure, this was a definite upgrade over the manner in which they departed four years ago, but given the absurd stockpile of talent at their disposal and the overwhelming desire to make amends for 2014, a quarterfinal exit is a far, far cry from what was expected of the Seleçao.
Barcelona sent two Brazilians to the World Cup, but welcomes just one of them back. Paulinho, after contributing to a domestic double in Spain and netting his first World Cup goal while in Russia, has rejoined Guangzhou Evergrande, the Chinese club from which he was signed by Barcelona a year ago. It’s been an eventful summer for Little Paul.
Despite the same disappointing end, Philippe Coutinho spent the World Cup solidifying his status as one of the premier attacking players on the planet. That he did not come cheap is well documented – I, for one, absolutely thought the price was too high. However, having watched him transition smoothly into Barcelona’s squad in the second half of last season and now enter a World Cup as a presumptive high-profile backup singer for Neymar, only to emerge as Brazil’s best player, his place in the top tier, not to mention his future as Barcelona attacking fulcrum (again, non-Messi Division) are secure.
Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Uruguay might (probably wouldn’t, but might) have grinded into the semifinals had Edinson Cavani not gotten hurt. Regardless, it’s tough to see their showing Russia as anything less than meeting, if not slightly exceeding, expectations.
For Luis Suárez personally, it was a low-key excellent World Cup. That’s perhaps a strange assessment considering Luisito reached the 100-appearance milestone, added another pair of goals to his career tally (he’s netted 53 in 103 international matches, and 7 in 15 World Cup outings), and, as he does, worked tirelessly in the heart of attack en route to the quarterfinals. But, hey, after the hand ball of 2010 and unabashedly biting another man in 2014, a bit of Twitterati-enraging flopping and play-acting absolutely passes for flying under the radar.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
More comprehensive thoughts on Leo will require their own space, and are forthcoming.
In the interest of not mailing in my duty here and simply glossing over the GoAT, however, let’s run through a couple of things:
· The penalty kick against Iceland. AARRGGGHH! That damned penalty against Iceland. Let’s remember, once again: this Argentina side was talented, but deeply flawed, and was realistically never going to win the World Cup. That being said, one can’t help but wonder how subsequent performances would have been impacted had they escaped that opener with three points, rather than a disappointing draw.
Messi was never not going to take that pen, but, even in the moment I couldn’t resist thinking “give it to Agüero!” Alas, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Leo – not the surest of propositions from the spot… Sigh.. In the immediate aftermath of the game, I stumbled upon a feeling that I’d never previously known existed: annoyance with Lionel Messi. Not because I felt that he’d failed, or that he owed me or anyone else a damn thing, but because he’d provided hot take traffickers – the Alexi Lalas’s of the world – with yet more to bray about. Leo! Please! Why couldn’t you just put their bullshit to bed?!
Make no mistake, however, even if he buries that kick, only the narrative surrounding his tournament changes – the end result for Argentina likely does not.
· Over the course of four games, Messi conjured up a masterpiece of timing and precision (with his weaker foot) against Nigeria and assisted on two of Argentina’s three goals in that bonkers Round-of-16 shootout against France, all while garnering a seldom-seen level of attention from opposing defenses. Leo Messi did NOT disappoint at this World Cup. Argentina’s shortcomings are not to be placed at his doorstep.
· Lionel Messi entered the World Cup as probably the greatest footballer of ever. Lionel Messi is still probably the greatest footballer of ever. Nothing that happened in June will change that.
Yerry Mina (Colombia)
On the heels of a very rough start to his Barcelona career, Mina excelled in Russia for a Colombia team whose World Cup was cruelly cut short by an injury to James Rodriguez, and a penalty shootout loss to England. ENGLAND! On penalties!!
It had appeared that Barcelona would spend the summer desperately trying to recoup any value for Mina, either via loan or outright sale. Mina, whose Camp Nou exit seemed a formality prior to the World Cup, has made the most of the past few weeks, netting three goals in four games and rebuilding both his confidence and market value. These days, he’s a highly intriguing prospect, both for Barcelona, as well as to a variety of teams around Europe.
As previously noted, a necessary decluttering of the central defense will come down to deciding between Mina and Thomas Vermaelen. That Mina is nearly a decade younger, and one of just two right-footed center-backs on the roster should make the decision a no-brainer. However, if Yerry is sincerely seeking an environment with “less pressure” than he faces at Barcelona, it may be prudent to question whether he will ever reach peak form with the club.
Thomas Vermaelen (Belgium) – For a man that Belgium fans had frankly hoped to see as little of as possible, the World Cup played out about as well as could have been expected – a couple of substitute appearances, a starting nod against England in the group stage finale that no one wanted to win, and a third-place medal. His most important minutes came in the quarterfinal against Brazil, when he was subbed on for the final eight-plus-stoppage-time, and helped Belgium to hold off the Seleçao, and usher the favorites out of the tournament.
Well, that certainly didn’t go as planned!
As it turns out, dismissing your coach literally on the eve of a major tournament could prove detrimental to your chances in said tournament. Beyond the obvious disorientation brought about by Julen Lopetegui’s firing, La Roja struggled stylistically, often maintaining possession for possession’s sake, with precious little cutting edge. With the exception of the middle hour of their opener again Portugal, it’s difficult to recall a prolonged period during which Spain didn’t just hold the ball, but genuinely controlled the game.
As far as the Barça guys are concerned, 2018 Gerard Pique, sadly, had 2014 Iker Casillas’s World Cup, while Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were essentially “meh, fine”. Andrés Iniesta, meanwhile, played well, but was unable to comprehensively dominate games as he’s so often done in the past, and wasn’t aided by standout performances by any other members of the Spanish attack. It was, generally, not the best.
So much for “one last job”, huh?
Marc-André ter Stegen’s (Germany) – In theory, Germany got more or less what they’d hoped for from the goalkeeper position – Manuel Neuer showed up, fairly healthy, and though he was decidedly not at his position-redefining apex, played acceptably, allowing just a goal a game (let’s exclude his stoppage-time excursion into midfield that gifted South Korea a second goal), with Marc-André ter Stegen’s contribution in Russia limited to “hilariously overqualified cheerleader.”
Yep, everything went down exactly as planned. Nothing to see here!