Italy and Argentina on course for Qatar contention but concerns for France and Portugal?

By Sports Desk July 13, 2021

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

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    Liverpool have had an underwhelming start to the season and sit ninth in the Premier League following Saturday's 3-3 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion.

    They bounced back in the Champions League on Tuesday, beating Rangers 2-0 at Anfield thanks to Trent Alexander-Arnold's free-kick and Mohamed Salah's penalty.

    Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor pulled off a string of excellent saves to keep the scoreline respectable, with Darwin Nunez frustrated in his search for a first Anfield goal, but the Reds got the job done with a minimum of fuss to claim a second straight win in Group A following their 2-1 defeat of Ajax last month.

    When it was put to him in his post-match news conference if Liverpool had used criticism of their performances as additional motivation, Klopp said with a smile: "I cannot wait for the moment when I can read newspapers again!"

    He continued: "No, I have no clue. The criticism was completely fine. We are not over the moon about our situation, let’s put it like this.

    "We've still been playing some really good games, it's not like [success] was 10 years ago. Champions League nights at Liverpool are always quite enjoyable, usually.

    "I don't think it had too much to do with the situation. I saw tonight a team fully committed, that's what I like about it."

    Captain Jordan Henderson, who started alongside Thiago Alcantara in a two-man midfield as Klopp tweaked his side's formation, told BT Sport: "It can be difficult. You try to not listen to social media especially when you go through a tough period as an individual or a team.

    "You've got to switch off the noise and focus on what you do day-to-day and stay focused on what we're trying to achieve as a team. That's not easy. It can hurt players at times but you've got to try and find a way to use it as fuel and energy on the pitch."

    Alexander-Arnold has been one of the players to face the most scrutiny, but delivered an excellent performance.

    His stunning free-kick seven minutes in opened the scoring and he finished with more touches (96) and more successful passes in the opponent's half (40) than any other player, while he also produced a joint-high four tackles.

    He has now scored more free-kicks (six) than any other Liverpool player since the start of the 2016-17 season, while the England international - who was left out by Gareth Southgate for the Three Lions' final match before the World Cup against Germany - is the first Reds player to net such a goal in the Champions League since Steven Gerrard against Basel in 2014.

    "It's a wonderful goal. What can I say?" Klopp said.

    "He played a good game, defensively especially. It is not that he has had a defensive problem it's that we have had a defensive problem, because our line was not right.

    "If the timing is not right, you open gaps and these gaps are very often on the back of Trent but not because of him, but because of the situation where we put our right-back."

    Henderson added: "You've got to give Trent a license to get forward and produce what he can produce up the pitch. I thought he was good defensively tonight, he did the basics really well. I didn't have to cover too much."

  • 'The gap is obvious' – Van Bronckhorst vows to learn after Liverpool defeat 'The gap is obvious' – Van Bronckhorst vows to learn after Liverpool defeat

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  • Alexander-Arnold offers a reminder of where his qualities lie as Liverpool dispatch Rangers Alexander-Arnold offers a reminder of where his qualities lie as Liverpool dispatch Rangers

    Gary Neville's in-depth analysis of Trent Alexander-Arnold on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football gained plenty of traction.

    It might have been mistaken for criticism, had the former Manchester United defender not put so much onus on making it clear just how highly he rates Liverpool's right-back.

    "No full-back that I've ever seen in this country can do what he can do," said Neville, after animatedly laying out where he believes Alexander-Arnold, who has been questioned amid Liverpool's underwhelming start to the season and was left out of Gareth Southgate's matchday squad for England's Nations League match against Germany last month, can improve.

    "If he can get those consistency elements, we won't just have one of the best attacking right-backs this country has ever produced, we'll have probably the best right-back the world has ever produced, because this is a Cafu," Neville continued. "This is that level of full-back. This is something unbelievably special."

    Special. It's a word used frequently when it comes to youngsters, especially those in England, often propelled to stardom not long after making their first-team debuts, only to be a target of overly harsh criticism if they fail to live up to spectacular heights every time they take to the field. In relation to Alexander-Arnold, however, "special" is a suitable adjective, and he showed why in Tuesday's all-British Champions League clash with Rangers.

    Work to do...

    Before the game, the 23-year-old – nurtured under Jurgen Klopp since making his debut in October 2016 – had created 467 chances, provided 60 assists and scored 14 goals in all competitions. The numbers, as Neville said, are "absolutely obscene".

    Of course, it is not Alexander-Arnold's attacking that has ever been cast into doubt, but his work going the other way. Indeed, with Southgate a more conservative and, arguably, pragmatic, manager than Klopp, it is perhaps no real surprise why many see Alexander-Arnold's defending as the factor holding him back on the international stage.

    Alexander-Arnold hardly helped his cause when the Premier League returned following the international break. He was arguably at least partly at fault for two of Leandro Trossard's three goals in Liverpool's 3-3 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.

    It is hard to argue a case, too, for his defending when stacked up against his competitors (primarily Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James) for a place in England's side. 

    He had been dribbled past on 218 occasions in his 236 Liverpool games before the Rangers fixture, a figure way clear of Trippier's 157, for example. 

    Prior to Tuesday's game, Alexander-Arnold's duel success rate (47.3) failed to match the other three, who vary between 56.4 (James) and 58.8 (Trippier). He does boast a better tackle success percentage of 60.6, though it only ranks third out of the four (above Trippier).

    But Alexander-Arnold, it must be remembered, has played a pivotal role in a side that has won every trophy available to them over the course of Klopp's tenure, as well as reaching two Champions League finals they lost.

    Liverpool did not get where they are by leaking goals, and Alexander-Arnold has helped the Reds to 80 clean sheets (following Tuesday's match), a figure bettered only by Walker (91) since the youngster made his senior debut.

    Unique selling point...

    Perhaps, though, there is simply too much scrutiny on the defensive side of his game after all? Perhaps, despite Neville's warning of a "juncture" in Alexander-Arnold's career, it is time to simply enjoy the player he is, not what he should be or could be, especially when he is so far from what would be considered peak age.

    It was Alexander-Arnold who, after an early barrage from the hosts at Anfield following a raucous welcome for two of Britain's biggest clubs, delivered a moment of quality few other players – never mind defenders, albeit Trippier is no stranger to a fine free-kick – are capable of on such a reliable basis.

    When he stepped up to take a free-kick, just under 25 yards out from Rangers' goal, in the seventh minute, there was an air of expectation. Seconds later, the ball was nestling right in the left-hand corner, giving Allan McGregor – who went on to keep the scoreline respectable for the visitors – no chance. 

    Curling in a sublime strike, his sixth direct free-kick goal for Liverpool, more than any other player in the Reds squad since the start of the 2016-17 season, might not answer questions about his defending, but was a timely reminder of the talent at Alexander-Arnold's disposal. It was his second Champions League goal, his first at Anfield in almost five years.

    He was a menace throughout a first half Liverpool dominated with ease, teeing up a chance for Virgil van Dijk to head in a second with a sumptuous inswinging corner in the 28th minute and keeping fellow Liverpool academy graduate Ryan Kent quiet.

    One loose pass into midfield did see him exposed just after the half-hour, though Rangers never looked likely to punish the mistake.

    Seven minutes into the second half, Alexander-Arnold was on hand to recover a loose ball and feed Jordan Henderson, whose raking pass found Luis Diaz. The Colombian was bundled over in the box and Mohamed Salah made no mistake from the penalty spot. Game over, with Alexander-Arnold having played his part in both goals.

    Liverpool could have made it more comfortable, Darwin Nunez particularly unfortunate, but bar a late run from Junior Fashion Sakala, Alexander-Arnold was not tested.

    Alexander-Arnold finished with the most touches (96), a game-high 40 passes in the opposition half and joint-most tackles (four). A stoppage-time booking before he made way to a standing ovation from the Liverpool faithful was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless copybook.

    He might not be perfect, and will face harder opponents than Rangers, especially when Liverpool visit the Etihad Stadium later this month, but is exceptional at what he excels at.

    That, surely, is enough for now.

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