Aside from Ronaldo, the biggest stars are hardly shining bright
Friday, June 22, 2018 – Print Edition, Page B13

SARANSK, RUSSIA -- With nagging injuries, heavy marking from opponents and some simply uninspired play, the top stars of the 2018 World Cup have struggled to deliver on the great expectations they carried into the tournament, with one prominent Portuguese exception.

Aside from Cristiano Ronaldo, who has all four of Portugal's goals in its two games, many of the biggest names are off to a shaky start.

No one has had rougher treatment from the opposition than the world's priciest player, Neymar. In Brazil's opening 1-1 draw with Switzerland, the 26-year-old was fouled 10 times, the most on a single player in a single match since the 1998 World Cup, when England's Alan Shearer took 11 challenges against Tunisia.

Over all, Switzerland fouled Brazil 19 times, with little intervention from the referee, and it worked - especially on Neymar.

Brazilians suggested their opponents were too violent; Swiss midfielder Gelson Fernandes thinks Neymar has another problem.

"He just falls too much," Fernandes said after the game. "Out of these 10, only seven or eight were fouls. We have to stop their star, and he is the star."

Neymar felt the effects of the Swiss strategy long after Sunday's match ended, limping out of training Tuesday as he continues to recover from a foot injury picked up before the tournament.

He practised Wednesday and was confirmed as a starter for the Costa Rica match on Friday.

Superstar Lionel Messi did face heavy marking too, but he also had two uninspired performances for Argentina, which is now in danger of an early exit after a 3-0 loss to Croatia on Thursday.

Throughout the matches against Iceland and Croatia, disciplined defenders and midfielders stopped Messi from making his famous runs and getting one-onone chances. Against Iceland, Messi saw his penalty-spot kick saved by goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, and the game ended 1-1.

Against Croatia, he crumbled with the rest of the team, which now desperately needs to beat Nigeria in the last round of group stage to have a chance of advancing to the next phase.

"Messi is human," Aguero said after the Iceland match. "Sometimes, things happen for a reason.

We need to be with him. This was a bad day, but he can decide a match at any given moment.

Hope he is better against Croatia."

Croatia was taking note.

"You can't stop him with one player, you have to defend like a team. You saw that with Iceland," Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said ahead of the Argentina clash on Thursday.

Striker Mohamed Salah set a Premier League scoring record for Liverpool and held all the hopes for a deep run by Egypt in its return to the World Cup, until he injured his shoulder playing for Liverpool in the Champions League final in a clash with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, of Spain.

Salah sat out the opening 1-0 loss to Uruguay in Yekaterinburg, with coach Hector Cuper hoping to have him fit for Egypt's second match, against Russia.

He made his World Cup debut in St. Petersburg and scored from the penalty spot, but only after the hosts led by three goals. His mobility was clearly affected, he barely touched the ball in the first half and he avoided contact with Russian defenders during the entire game. The result is that Egypt was eliminated with one match left to play.

Ronaldo isn't entirely alone in starting strong. Diego Costa has three of Spain's four goals, Harry Kane has both of England's, and Luka Modric scored one goal and set up the other in Croatia's 2-0 win over Nigeria.

There's time for others to turn things around. Kylian Mbappé, a 19-year-old striker, managed just one chance in France's 2-1 win over Australia in Kazan, but scored on Thursday against Peru.

His famous runs and dribbles, however, were blocked by Australia's physical game.

It's early, and the tournament has seen plenty of stellar play from lesser-known players, but many of the star scorers have work to do.

Associated Graphic

Egypt's Mohamed Salah prays after scoring from the penalty spot against Russia on Tuesday. His team is already eliminated with a game to play.


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