831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning.
England vs Senegal (Round of 16)
12.30 am (Monday), Al Bayt Stadium
Oh, that hubris!
England are a team of talented, charming young men who are easy to like. However, it’s the noise around them that invariably triggers schadenfreude. On this occasion, ahead of their Round-of-16 match against Senegal, Gary Lineker is the guilty party.
On Friday, he was quoted as saying that Gareth Southgate should ‘rest’ right-back Kyle Walker against Senegal for Sunday’s World Cup Round-of-16 match so that he is fresh to take on Kylian Mbappe and France in the quarterfinal.
“Kyle Walker should not be in England’s team to play Senegal, and I will tell you exactly why. We, England, cannot afford for Walker to get injured in that match. Because he is just about the only full-back on the planet who can compete with Kylian Mbappe,” Lineker told the BBC.
“Mbappe is the French team. Why would you take the risk of him (Walker) getting injured, particularly in that position? I don’t want to sound arrogant and that we are taking Senegal for granted, but why risk Walker?”
The moment Lineker added a ‘but’ in that sentence, everything else he added lost relevance. He would even quote tweet the BBC article on his views with: “No Brainer”.
Lineker, of course, isn’t the only one. Gary Neville told Sky Sports: “It looks like a collision course waiting to happen, doesn’t it? Mbappe versus Walker.” His former Manchester United and England defensive partner Rio Ferdinand said on his YouTube channel: “For me, Kyle Walker is the only defender on the planet right now that will stand there and go to Mbappe: ‘Right, 1-v-1, let’s have a race’.”
For Lineker, Neville and Ferdinand to already start talking about Mbappe and France is an insult to Senegal. It might be true that without Sadio Mane, they aren’t the same force. They were dealt with another blow when defender Cheikhou Kouyaté picked up an injury in the first match and midfielder Idrissa Gueye has received two yellow cards, which means he’ll be suspended for the England clash.
Yet, England should know better than to underestimate the African champions for the simple reason that a lot of them play professionally in England. Chelsea star Kalidou Koulibaly showed how dangerous he is with his winner against Ecuador. His Chelsea teammate Edouard Mendy has showcased why he is regarded as a world-class goalkeeper.
Ismaila Sarr, who plays for Watford, can tear apart defences with his blistering pace. And there is Pape Matar Sarr, the Tottenham benchwarmer who’d hope to show his quality if given a chance by Aliou Cisse.
For Cisse, the challenge will be to rejig his midfield – with Gueye gone – for a crucial tie. And that’s an area where the match could be decided, given how robust England’s midfield looked against Wales with Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice.
Yet, Senegal are no Wales and even though England haven’t lost to an African opponent in their 20 encounters, it’ll be foolhardy for them to assume the Round-of-16 match will be a cakewalk and already start looking at a potential quarterfinal against France.
Will Poland make an effort to play ball?
France vs Poland (Round of 16), 8.30 pm, Al Thumama Stadium
The world champions, meanwhile, will be taking on Poland and one will hope the Poles will be interested in playing some football this time because, against Argentina, they certainly were not in the mood.
Poland, for most parts of the match, had all 11 players parked in their own half, let Argentina hog all the possession and looked determined to not lose by a heavy margin, which would affect their progression to the last 16.
The ultra-defensive approach works for Poland because, in Wojciech Szczesny, they have a world-class goalkeeper who is in red-hot form, having made 18 saves in the three group stage matches apart from stopping two penalties including one from Lionel Messi. This time, their resolve will be tested by Kylian Mbappe.
Poland will be happy to sit back, absorb all the pressure and frustrate France. One can only hope they’ll be able to use Robert Lewandowski in the way he should be – that is to attack; not defend deep in his own half.