World Cup 2018: Final Power Rankings
So that was the 2018 World Cup.
One of the very best in recent history, crowned by an epic final between France and Croatia. A period of introspection surely now follows, with millions of football fans the world over working out what to do with themselves now that it's over.
For one last time, we've ranked the 32 competing nations on strength, their challenge for the trophy and how heavily they impressed. There are natural segmentations to the order—for example, those who went out in the groups are all ranked between 17th and 32nd, and those who lost in the round of 16 can be found between ninth and 16th.
32-31: Panama, Egypt
Panama's aims heading into the World Cup will have been extremely modest: Hear their national anthem finally played at the finals, score a goal, make a nation proud. They may have lost every game, but they did achieve all three of those goals.
Even with Mohamed Salah at half-speed, few—if any—expected Egypt to lay an egg in Group A. Losing to Saudi Arabia in the final minute of their last game summed up the mess their tournament turned out to be.
30-26: Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iceland, Poland
30. Costa Rica
Costa Rica defended bravely and extracted good form from goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but with a complete lack of cutting edge present at the other end, they were never going to be able to go blow-for-blow with Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.
29. Saudi Arabia
Little was expected of Saudi Arabia at these finals—particularly after their harrowing opening display against Russia—but things improved notably from that point on. They played well in defeat to Uruguay and squeezed a last-gasp, deserved win out of Egypt.
Tunisia were an interesting watch because they did things differently. Most sides facing the talent gap they did shrink into their shells and play it safe, yet the Eagles of Carthage played full-throttle, attacking football and left gaps for opponents to take advantage of.
They were deservedly beaten by England and Belgium but did scoop a victory against Panama in Game 3.
Iceland's campaign felt similar to Costa Rica's. They defended manfully and put their bodies on the line, but a lack of striking talent places a natural handbrake on how far they can go. With opponents wised up to what they could do (thanks to Euro 2016), their limits were shown clearly.
How can a campaign that started with such a commanding qualifying run go as badly as Poland's did in the finals? The performances they served up, considering the quality at Adam Nawalka's disposal, were almost beyond belief.
25-21: Australia, Morocco, Germany, Nigeria, Peru
Australia were a lot better than many expected. Emergency coach Bert van Marwijk installed a framework and solidity to their play that made them competitive in every group game.
Their downfall was goalscoring; the only two they managed were from the spot. The likes of Andrew Nabbout and Robbie Kruse worked hard in open play but fell short on the quality yardstick.
Morocco were an absolute delight to watch and probably deserved more than the solitary point they managed. They pressed, they passed well, they dribbled aggressively, and they entertained us all.
If only every major chance hadn't fallen to centre-back Medhi Benatia.
It's getting very easy to believe there is in fact a curse at play in the World Cup finals. Germany became the third straight nation to follow up winning the tournament with exiting at the group stage next time around, with Spain and Italy having blazed the trail before them.
They looked an absolute mess strategically, heaping pressure on the centre-backs in a quite remorseless way, and were punished accordingly.
Nigeria's opening performance was a real shocker, but a formation change for Game 2 brought about a much better performance and a victory.
They needed only a draw against Argentina in the third game to progress and couldn't manage it, but it's clear there's plenty to build on and work with moving forward in this Super Eagles team.
Like Morocco, Peru picked up plenty of casual fans over the course of the group stage thanks to their exhilarating, attacking style.
They were unfortunate to lose their opening game against Denmark, a result that all but eliminated them, but they kept their heads high and their eyes focused, scoring in and winning Game 3 to the delight of a stadium packed full of White and Red supporters.
20-16: South Korea, Iran, Serbia, Senegal, Argentina
20. South Korea
Doomed before a ball was kicked, South Korea did well to nearly emerge from a horrible group with three points. Of all teams, Germany were the one who surrendered them.
Three star performers emerged—one predictable (Son Heung-min), the others not so much (Kim Young-gwon and Jo Hyeon-woo).
Drawn into a horror group of their own, including Spain, Portugal and many peoples' dark-horse pick in Morocco, Iran did stupendously well to grab four points.
Carlos Queiroz's tactical moves were clever, stymieing Morocco and nearly embarrassing Portugal, and the team battled impressively in a narrow defeat to Spain.
It's fair to say we expected more of Serbia, who carried an in-form striker (Aleksandar Mitrovic), a genuine difference-maker (Sergej Milinkovic-Savic) and a robust back six into the tournament.
The key game was always going to be against Switzerland, and losing that in the final minutes essentially knocked them out in Game 2. We only saw one good game from Milinkovic-Savic, and Mitrovic missed an awful lot of chances.
The first side ever to be knocked out of the World Cup on fair play points. Remember Senegal, as they're an answer to a quiz question coming your way soon.
What happened to them did feel harsh, particularly given the sporadic brilliance of their play, but when you contrive to drop points in the way they did, elimination is tough to stave off.
Things went about as badly as could be expected for Argentina.
They were always likely to emerge from the group—the star quality on show meant at least that much could be expected—but they're too dysfunctional a side to cope with good, organised opponents. France showed them the door in some style.
15-11: Japan, Portugal, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland
Japan became many supporters' second team. They played good, fast, technical football with smiles on their faces, and Takashi Inui and Gaku Shibasaki stood out in midfield for all the right reasons.
They almost pulled off what would have been one of the shocks of the tournament but surrendered a two-goal lead to Belgium. Considering the cloudy circumstances that accompanied their arrival in Russia (they sacked their manager in April), you can't sniff at what the Samurai Blue achieved.
From a team-wide perspective, Portugal's performances weren't good. Cristiano Ronaldo dragged them through the thriller with Spain, and in the next three games only William Carvalho and Pepe impressed regularly.
An inability to construct passing moves and poor form from the likes of Raphael Guerreiro and Bernardo Silva contributed to a round-of-16 exit.
For Denmark to progress any further than they did—the round of 16—they needed Christian Eriksen to have a world-class game in every game. A solid defence can only get you so far if your offensive output is lacking; they only scored three goals in four games, not one of them coming from a striker.
Those suggesting Julen Lopetegui's departure the day before the tournament began would not impact Spain, that they were simply a self-aware, footballing machine, were proved wrong. Stand-in coach Fernando Hierro looked lost on the touchline as his side passed itself to death then lost on penalties to Russia.
Switzerland emerged as a side who had the mettle and the qualities to upset good sides, but when tasked with playing against teams they were supposed to beat, to dominate, they came up short.
Their elimination at the hands of Sweden came as a surprise to many, but they displayed their limitations in possession and in attack.
Colombia's World Cup was pure chaos. From the very start (Carlos Sanchez's red card three minutes into the game versus Japan) to the foul-athon they made their round-of-16 tie with England, things never seemed fully in control.
James Rodriguez's injury affected their tournament heavily, and they genuinely did well to earn victories in the group. Jose Pekerman's weird substitutions hindered them to an extent, as did his approach.
Despite reaching the knockout stage in difficult circumstances, this is probably a tournament to forget for Los Cafeteros.
Perhaps Mexico's World Cup peaked aggressively early then slid the wrong way.
It started with an epic victory over Germany, continued with a solid win over South Korea, but then it went spectacularly wrong in Game 3.
The near-inexplicable 3-0 loss to Sweden threw them off the rails, and there was little faith the course would be righted in the round of 16 against Brazil. It's a shame they fell apart; they were one of the very best sides to watch.
Sweden's goalscoring record heading into the World Cup wasn't good, and the feeling was they might struggle to clamber out of a difficult group.
That feeling was compounded by their late loss to Germany in Game 2, which drew Die Mannschaft level with them on three points with very different final games on the cards.
But a spectacular three-goal showing against Mexico, out of the blue, paved the path to the knockouts, and a solid performance against Switzerland led them to the quarter-finals.
It's more than most Swedes expected, and certain players—Ludwig Augustinsson and Andreas Granqvist in particular—were among the very best in their positions across the tournament.
Russia did far, far better than anyone expected them to in this World Cup.
Before the tournament, many tipped them for a group-stage exit—a rare phenomenon for a host—but they scooped six points, progressed to the knockouts and even shocked Spain in the round of 16.
Mario Fernandes, Ilya Kutepov, Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Golovin, Denis Cheryshev, Artem Dzyuba...there were quality performers in every area of the pitch.
Uruguay ran out of steam. As strong as they are, every game feels like a struggle, a fight, and without Edinson Cavani they simply didn't have enough to beat France in the quarter-finals.
It was an important tournament for La Celeste's "new generation." The old warhorses were ditched, allowing Diego Laxalt, Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Bentancur to come in, shine and point the way forward.
Brazil may have gone out earlier than anticipated, but pleasingly, the fine lines in football have been recognised on this occasion.
Their elimination at the hands of Belgium was quite unlucky, and the job Tite has done in getting the Selecao to the position they're in—strongest side in CONMEBOL, playing well and (largely) getting the best from their finest players—has been recognised.
Ronaldo is among a cast of people calling for him to keep his job and continue this project, per Globo (h/t Goal).
The post-mortem on England's seven-game campaign has been conducted by many, with each coming to slightly different conclusions.
Accusations they didn't beat a strong team are balanced by those pointing to the players Gareth Southgate is working with.
Everyone agrees England overachieved, perhaps got a bit lucky, but while football didn't come home—it came fourth—this campaign did wonders with regard to reconnecting a nation with its team.
You can't help but feel that if Belgium had lost to England in their final group game, thus gaining access to the easier side of the draw, they'd have qualified for the World Cup final. Then, who knows? We might be talking about the Red Devils as world champions.
They proved they're a level or two above England in the third-place playoff, taking an early lead and sealing the result late on after defending against a period of pressure. Eden Hazard rounded off a sparkling tournament in style, scoring the second.
The win secured Belgium's best-ever showing at a World Cup finals.
That Croatia did superbly to get to the final, and that they played superbly despite losing, are points that will be lost on the players and manager right now. It'll take a while to get over the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle, but in time, they'll look back on their venture with pride.
They won the midfield battle against France, forcing N'Golo Kante into his worst game in years, and stressed both sides of the France formation. They hustled and harried—Ivan Perisic led a committed, high-energy performance—but couldn't find the golden touch often enough.
It was a tournament that delighted and excited but ended in tears. It feels a little harsh on Croatia, but they just didn't have enough in the tank for one final win.
They didn't play particularly well in the final. They made errors. Their best player had a shocker. Their goalkeeper produced a howler of epic proportions.
But they found a way to win. France are world champions.
Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe scored stunning goals, Antoine Griezmann worked his socks off and excelled from set pieces, and the defenders kept on working to stymie Croatia's attacking threat.
Over the course of the tournament, France have felt like the strongest side, the probable winners. It panned out that way, though the road was far, far rockier than anticipated.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.