Fifty-six Serie A players received the call to postpone their seaside holidays and take part in this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. No squad featured more representation from the peninsula than Poland and Croatia who each sent six players.
As is always the case, it’s been a brilliant ride for some and bitter disappointment for others. The aforementioned Polish stars failed to make good on their ‘seeded’ status bowing out of a winnable Group H with a whimper. The five Argentinians playing in Italy, well, let’s just not, please?
Croatia – like Uruguay, who themselves have five Italy-based participants – on the other hand, have set the tournament aflame stringing together some commanding performances which have rightly seen them earn a spot in the last eight.
Croatia can make a claim for being the tournament’s most cohesive unit up to this point, which is a remarkable feat considering the instability that plagues the nation at the federation level.
The eastern-Europeans bullied a difficult group stage with ease and, despite being pushed to the brink in their Round of 16 encounter with Denmark, did their psyche a world of good to come out of a penalty shoot-out victorious.
Inter Milan’s Ivan Perišić is his country’s most lethal attacking threat. The coveted striker’s contributions in the checkered strip are helped by the fact that he employs a near-identical role for his club side. He is a tireless force on the left wing that can drive toward goal and play provider with equal grace. He showed his class during the 2-1 win against Iceland, rocketing the winning goal past Hannes Halldórsson with authority.
It was in that same encounter where another Serie A mainstay shone bright. It isn’t fair to disregard Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj as a “bench” player given the quality of Croatia’s midfield.
He was superb in his only full match, looking completely on-song in the middle of the park. His stinging shot off the crossbar in the 52nd minute was a preview of his expertly taken goal on the half volley a minute later. Badelj covered 9.8km in the middle third over 96 minutes of play earning him ‘Man of the Match’ recognition and further fuelling long-standing transfer speculations linking him to Milan, Napoli and Zenit St. Petersburg.
Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar (while on two feet) is the sort of stuff Samba dreams are made of. However, it has been in defence where Brazil has been most impressive thus far. In fact, the Seleção have only conceded one goal in their last 10 matches – coming off a Xherdan Shaqiri corner kick in their opener at the Rostov Arena – none from open play in that time. This Tite version of Brazil is well-drilled in the back, with much of it attributed to Inter Milan’s Miranda and Roma’s Alisson Becker.
Miranda marshalled Inter to a 0.78 goals against average this past season and has brought that same leadership to the international scene.
In a recent interview, he referred to this tournament’s version of his national side as being “an Italian style of Brazil team, as we focus on the defensive movements more.”
With game-changing attackers in their arsenal, the squad will take confidence in knowing they won’t need many clear looks on goal to convert. Miranda understands the system as over 50 per cent of his passes meet teammates on the left wing…the same part of the pitch dominated by Neymar and (when fit) Marcelo.
Alisson comes in to his first World Cup in the form of his life. His sparkling campaign as Roma’s no.1 has caught the attention of just about every top club with deep pockets. In a World Cup, the absence of a quality starting goalkeeper can cripple the best of teams. Argentina, albeit awash with problems across the field, suffered greatly without a true leader between the sticks. The same fate contributed in part to Germany’s group stage exit, as an out-of-form Manuel Neuer never looked his old self. Japanese supporters may also feel their good run was cut short thanks to some suspect goalkeeping throughout from Eiji Kawashima.
Alisson gives Brazil the confidence to be, well, Brazil. The flair and panache perennially associated with the South Americans is executed best when confident and Alisson provides the perfect safety net to express themselves. Tougher opposition await, and lots will be made of his abilities in the coming match(es).
- Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio)
- Serbians will be disappointed to exit at the group stage, but they would have loved what they saw from the Lazio midfielder.
- He played with poise and class uncommon for a man of his stature (1.92m/6 ft. 3’).
- Juventus and Manchester United are rumoured to be in prime position for his signature.
- Dries Mertens (Napoli)
- A key piece in the deadly attacking force of Belgium.
- His lovely volley against Panama showed his ability to create a chance out of nothing.
- At 31, this could be his last crack at a major tournament with Belgium.
- Valon Behrami (Udinese)
- His man-marking of Neymar in Switzerland’s opening match was exemplary.
- In all four matches, he hardly put in a foot wrong, doing all the simple things well anchoring a decent Swiss side.
- Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus)
- On the ball, he has been wise beyond his years.
- Featured in every match in a well-organized Uruguay squad.
- Assisted on Cavani’s second goal against Portugal.
- His deep-lying play has helped connect defence to midfield expertly well.