No team has made it to halfway without looking vulnerable

No team has made it to the midway without looking vulnerable and lacking for at least parts of a game, sometimes an entire one. All the leading contenders have had a wobble
No team has made it to halfway without looking vulnerable

VULNERABLE: France line up before their group game against Tunisia. Pic: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

It was no longer Thursday night but now Friday morning. Twenty past midnight and the deafening volume of the BeIn Sports feed — Richard Keys, Andy Gray, Joe Cole and Jermaine Jones trying to digest what the hell had just happened — was finally turned down.

Rushing in to fill the airspace in place of the punditry came samba beats with carnival dancers in full regalia appearing out of nowhere. Brazil’s players would not be getting an early night.

Of all the corners of Doha to take in Thursday night’s breathless culmination of Group E, the Westin Hotel and Spa was one of our better choices. There was beer for a start. It was cold and plentiful and cost a fortune but no matter. The sprawling Mix terrace bar has two huge screens set up at 90-degree angles to one another and in that three-and-a-half-minute spell when Japan and Costa Rica were suddenly both progressing and sending Spain and Germany home, the place was electrified.

No one was sitting, nor drinking. Pulled pork sandwiches sat untouched on plates now too. Patrons weren’t even speaking either. There was just a sustained stunned shrieking as everyone swivelled their necks to the left and right to mostly keep track of what was happening in each game…but also to avoid their heads spinning off altogether.

When all was done, the Spanish had in fact survived but Germany hadn’t. The heroic Japanese had topped the group and significantly reshuffled the bracket for the knockout stages. Out came the samba dancers because, in truth, there was no way to properly digest it all in the darkness of night.

Through it all, all of this final group game chaos with Germany following Belgium home in the space of a couple of hours, tucked behind the curtained windows of one of the towers which overlooks the Mix, were Tite and the Brazil squad. The Westin is their base camp for this World Cup and as the true peak now comes fully in to view, the fact that they were the ones resting and quiet should be foreboding for the other 15 survivors.

Conflicting off the field, Qatar 2022 has been confounding on it. We’re now at the halfway point but halfway to where? It’s unclear, perhaps as unclear as any World Cup has been at this point since 2006. No team has made it to the midway without looking vulnerable and lacking for at least parts of a game, sometimes an entire one. All of the leading contenders have had a wobble. Brazil had been the exception until Friday's loss to Cameroon.

Which, bearing in mind that Tite lost both his talisman and his first-choice option in the area of the pitch where he is thinnest, is all the more impressive. They haven’t blown the doors off because they haven’t needed to. They’ve been patient and then clinical in just a moment or two, finishing the group stages with a loss against Cameroon as he shuffled his options and found room for rest.

The biggest question is still the one that emerged on their opening night — can Neymar’s ankle possibly recover in time for him to be a factor?

We’d walked hurriedly towards the entrance to the Westin, with the Group E deciders having already kicked off. There was, of course, no need to hurry as the drama was delayed until the moment of maximum impact. But near the front gates there were three Brazilian news camera crews. Their camp chairs, blankets and snacks told you this was a lengthy stakeout with all cameras trained on the hotel doors. Brazilian news networks have a breathless, tabloid telly edge and getting a shot of the idol hobbling or walking freely would be ratings gold.

It’s wrong to say that Brazil don’t need him. For all his many character flaws, Neymar remains an exquisite creative talent, still their best game breaker. So they do need him — and yet could do it without him. Against Serbia they showed they can win dirty, with none of their attackers shining.

As the last 16 bracket gradually filled out and the paths beyond it looked a little less hazy, the most mouth-watering prospect pre-tournament remains not just alive but, thanks to Japan, now most likely: a semi-final meeting of Brazil and Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on December 13th. Lionel Scaloni’s team have also found a way to win without their heartbeat and have both momentum and crucially a feel-good factor as they face the prospect of beating Australia and the winners of Netherlands and USA to secure that all-South American showdown. It’s very doable.

The strongest of the European teams still standing — France, England and Spain — are together with Portugal in the lower half but Morocco have been one of the tournament’s most consistently impressive teams and carry a huge wave of support on the streets of Doha. The Souk Wakif and Corniche heaved with Moroccan jerseys and flags on Friday morning and the merch sellers at the market will do a brisk trade between now and Tuesday as the Arab world unites behind its last remaining team. Japan had already given Luis Enrique plenty to think about, not least how Unai Simon is his best option between the posts. Morocco will give him a whole lot more.

European faces and voices have been in the minority around here from the very start and will be harder found now. None of which is a bad thing. Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Poland looked like teams who never wanted to be here. Poland, somehow, still are.

France coped so admirably with their injury epidemic until Didier Deschamps dug too deep into the deck. But they remain the most complete starting XI in the lower half and have the tournament’s best attacking unit. A France-Brazil final looks most likely but the last fortnight has laughed at likelihoods.

Silence and sleep eventually came for the guests of the Westin once the Mix closed its doors around 2am. Perhaps the Brazilians snoozed through it all. There’s little time to rest now.

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