News No Clear Favorites To Win World Cup (Sr. Columnist Sushil Thapa Writes..)
Sushil Thapa

The world’s biggest and greatest sporting spectacle,the ongoing World Cup football tournament in Doha, Qatar is inching toward the finish line.

Football enthusiasts across the globe are on the edge of their seats as the competition enters the quarterfinals stage. Excitement is at an all time high.Fans are glued to their TV sets, laptops and live websites not wanting to miss a moment.

Going by the results and performances of teams to this point, it is fair to say that the tournament is wide open. With the stage set for the last eight ,in my opinion, in this topsy-turvy tournament there are no clear favorites to win the most sought after trophy.

I strongly believe any team can win. In retrospect the group stage was full of surprises and upsets.No seeded team escaped unscathed. Although England topped the group with two wins and one draw,they showed vulnerability in their performance. The rest tasted unexpected defeats at the hands of unfancied opponents.Defending champions France went down to Tunisia while Saudi Arabia produced the biggest shock by getting the better of tournament favorites Argentina. Likewise, Cameroon concluded its World Cup campaign on a high note with victory over heavily favored Brazil.

Asian giant Japan took over the dark horse tag from Denmark following their incredible wins against Europe’s powerhouses Germany and Spain. Similarly,in a must win match South Korea bounced back from a shock defeat against Costa Rica to beat Portugal to reach the knockout stage. Morocco was the only team from Africa undefeated.

They topped the group with 2 wins and a draw to qualify for the knockout stage, With two wins and one defeat Senegal finished second behind table toppers the Netherlands. World Cup champions Germany for the second successive time failed to make it to the knockout stage. It was heartbreak for World Cup champions Uruguay as they exited in the round of 32 on goal difference. Belgium, tipped by football experts as one of the strong title contenders, failed to progress beyond the group stage.

The other notable absentees in the round of 16 were Denmark and Mexico. Only Netherlands, England,Croatia and Morocco were unbeaten in the group stage. It was an inspiring and encouraging performance by Asian teams South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran with the exception of hosts Qatar, which lost all three matches. Certainly Asian football is gradually catching up with Europeans and South Americans. Unlike the group stage,the round of 16's only shock result was Morocco’s stunning victory over Spain.Other than that other seeded teams won their matches as predicted. It may be recalled that Australia barely made it to the World Cup.

They had a decent tournament and gave Argentina a run for their money in the knockout stage before going down 1-2. Defending champions France joined Argentina in the quarterfinals after a convincing 3-1 victory over Poland. The French put in a much better performance to dominate the proceedings. French star Kylian Mbappe' lived up to expectations. He has already scored 5 goals and is a strong contender for the golden boot award. England carved out a convincing 3-0 victory over Senegal to set up an intriguing and juicy quarter-final clash against France.

The underrated Netherlands has been the surprise of the tournament.They cut short the United States World Cup journey and advanced to the quarterfinals.They face Argentina for a place in the last four. The Asian challenge ended in contrasting manners with the defeat of Japan and South Korea. Japan stood toe to toe with Croatia throughout the game but lost out in a penalty shootout,the first in the tournament.

South Korea got completely outplayed by a recharged Brazil that controlled the proceedings from start and finish.They lost the match 4-1. The Brazilian attack was boosted by the return of ace striker Neymar who missed two matches because of injury.He converted a spot kick to open his account. Brazil is heavily favored to win the World Cup and clash against Croatia for a place in the last four. Morocco continued its fairy tale run in the competition.They turned in another superb performance putting an end to Spain’s World Cup aspiration.

In a pulsating tiebreaker (second of the tournament) they came up trumps causing the biggest upset of the knockout stage. In the quarter -finals they are pitted against a resurgent Portugal that demolished mediocre Switzerland 6-1. Surprisingly, Ronaldo was not in the playing eleven and came on as a substitute in the 73rd minute. Since the World Cup kicked off the world’s focus has been on Argentine Lionel Messi and Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo amidst the raging debate over who is the best player in the world.

Both are desperate to win their first World Cup, So far Messi has scored three goals. His goal tally could have been 4 had he not squandered the spot kick.He was instrumental in his team's win over Mexico and Poland. On the other hand,Ronaldo has scored once, and he will have to come up with a big performance in upcoming matches to prove his critics wrong.

One of the highlights at the World Cup has been the amount of stoppage time added to games. In addition, there were a number of controversial VAR decisions as well. With the quarter finals pairings completed, the stage is set for high-octane action, drama and suspense.

By Sushil Thapa, Fairfax,VA, USA

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