WORLD CUP DIARY: Achtung‚ Germany‚ the curse of the holders lies in wait
The World Cup is under way and there are two African teams in action on Friday as Egypt and Morocco make their bow.
TimesLIVE brings you a wrap of the news from Tunisia‚ Belgium and the tiny host city of Saransk‚ as well as a statistic to drive fear into Germany in Friday’s World Cup diary.
KHAZRI READY FOR ENGLAND
After the disappointment of missing out on their ‘Lionel Messi’‚ injured striker Youssef Msakni‚ Tunisia do at least have some good news on the injury front ahead of Monday’s World Cup opener against England.
Winger Wahbi Khazri‚ who plays for English side Sunderland but spent last season on loan at Stade Rannes in France‚ is winning his battle to be fit.
“I’m already training with my teammates‚” Khazri told the Sunderland website. “I feel pretty good - I’m happy to go back to work and play.
“I may not be able to play the 90 minutes‚ but what really matters is that I can help the national team.”
The other two sides in the pool are heavyweights Belgium and Panama. Khazri knows that Tunisia face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages‚ but he is ready to fight.
“We are aware that we have a really tough group‚” he said. “We know that the favourites to advance to the second round are Belgium and England‚ but we have a good team which plays well together. Let’s fight for it.”
Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld believes there is no defensive crisis in the team despite the loss of experienced defenders Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen as they prepare to open their World Cup campaign against Panama on Monday.
Belgium are many people’s outside bet with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne‚ Eden Hazard‚ Romelu Lukaku and Thibault Courtois in their squad‚ but coach Roberto Martinez does have some thinking to do when it comes to his defence.
"We will just have to do without them‚" Alderweireld said on Friday. "The guys we had playing in our last games did very well and so we have to have confidence in them."
"And I'm sure a player like [Dedryck] Boyata is going to do well. He plays at Celtic and has enough experience.
"Thomas and Vincent are doing all they can to try and get fit but mentally it is always tough for those who are injured. But if I see how they are working on getting back‚ then I think all will be good."
Ghana coach Stephan Appiah has ignored the potential of the three North African teams at the World Cup and instead believes that fellow West Africans Senegal and Nigeria will go furthest in Russia among the teams from the continent.
“Most of the African countries at the World Cup have got very young squads. And I believe they can surprise many at the tournament‚” Appiah said.
“Nigeria and Senegal are doing well with young players who want to achieve something. They only need the right mentality for the tournament and they can cause a surprise.”
Ghana did not qualify for the finals having been to the last three World Cup finals in 2006‚ 2010 and 2014. Eight years ago in South Africa they came within an Asamoah Gyan penalty against Uruguay of becoming the first African side to reach the semifinals.
SHOWING THE LOVE
Residents of tiny Russian town Saransk‚ the smallest of the World Cup host cities in 2018‚ will be marching to the Mordovia Arena on Saturday … but not in protest.
It is instead a show of how happy they are to have the event in their town‚ where many of the buildings have been refurbished especially to give a good impression‚ and the city is clean as a whistle with no sign of dirt on the streets.
The town has a population of some 307‚000 people and Vladimir Sharapov‚ who will be leading the march and is a local music theatre director‚ told Reuters they are just happy for the attention.
"The main goal of the event is to unite and make friends... just like soccer unites all people‚" he said. "We want to involve the guests in our show. We want them to feel our traditions‚ our culture and we certainly want to see their culture."
There is a warning for defending World Cup champions Germany with the statistic that three of the last four winners of the title have gone out in the first round of the next tournament.
France finished bottom of their pool in 2002 having claimed the trophy in 1998‚ but then champions Brazil did manage to advance past the group stage in 2006. They lost in the quarterfinals to France.
The 2006 champions Italy also finished bottom of their pool in 2010‚ while Spain‚ victors in South Africa eight years ago‚ did not make the knockout stages in 2014.