By Chris O’Reilly
We’re halfway through the championship and only 12 teams remain in the race for the semi-finals in Hamburg and beyond.
The final day of preliminary matches answered a number of important questions, but the odd surprising result has posed even more.
Comparing the level of teams from four very different groups is tricky to do, but I’ve given it a shot, by ranking the top 12 sides based on their performances over the past eight days.
With their squad decimated, they did extremely well to get to the main round – coach Toni Gerona and his men deserve a lot of credit. With matches against injury-stricken opponents and a north African derby on the horizon, Tunisia won’t be going through this main round unnoticed.
This side is building towards a home World Championship in two years’ time and there is a lot to look forward to. David Davis’ men bounced back tremendously from the defeat to Qatar and the performances against Sweden and Hungary prove they belong at this level.
An impressive come-from-behind victory against the Macedonians showed us there is a lot to like about this Iceland team. They switched off on too many occasions throughout the tournament so far and may be exposed in Cologne, but should they pull it together for 60 minutes and Aron Palmarsson is inspired by a return to the LANXESS arena, we could have a surprise or two on our hands.
Impressive wins against Russia and Serbia secured Brazil’s progression from the “group of death” and have made them my top-ranked non-European side. Gutsy performances coupled with a number of classy players makes them a dangerous opponent in the main round, but we have also seen them completely dismantled by Germany.
Taking just one point into the main round will hurt, but they didn’t deserve anything more from that draw against Egypt. Mate Lekai did wonders against Sweden with second and third choice back court players around him. If Mikler can find form in goal and Zsolt Balogh returns fully fit, Hungary will be dangerous in the main round
Jordi Ribera still has a lot to figure out, particularly in the left back position. Wings have been deadly so far, but the matches against Japan and Croatia show that things can go south very easily with this team. It’s not their first rodeo and there is still time to turn things around, but it needs to happen immediately with the clash against France on Saturday a must-win.
Having disposed of underwhelming opponents in the opening four matches, the first real test came on Thursday against Denmark and they did not pass it. The question of the ability of Norway’s goalkeepers and wings to deliver big performances in big games reared its head again against Denmark, while Sagosen cannot afford to have another performance like that if Norway are to stand a chance of reaching the semi-finals.
The co-hosts have performed better than I expected so far and at times have shown they can deliver in all areas of the court. Nevertheless, defense remains they key for Germany and they have the tools to shut down any opposition alongside Andreas Wolff, who has been exceptional in goal. Christian Prokop appears to have full control over his team at this championship and with home advantage Germany can go further.
Despite winning a tough group, this France team has flattered to deceive in the preliminary round. However, they have navigated through these campaigns more than any other team and know when to peak. The additions of Nikola Karabatic and Melvyn Richardson add excitement and potential to a team which can do better.
Perhaps the only surprise group winner and they did it in impressive fashion. The commanding victory over Spain sends a warning sign out to the rest of the competition and the back court of Cindric, Duvnjak, Karacic and Stepancic is as good as anything else this championship has to offer, but can they keep it going.
It wasn’t always as smooth as expected, but Sweden move into the main round with maximum points and plenty of confidence. Counter attacking, individual brilliance and all-star performances from Andreas Palicka have been enough so far, while the team as a whole has a lot more to offer. How they compensate for Jim Gottfidsson’s injury is the big question mark hanging over Sweden now.
Tore through everyone in the preliminary round and passed their first major test against Norway with flying colours. Injuries to Toft (ending his tournament) and Mortensen are cause for concern, but at the moment the likes of Niklas Landin, Rasmus Lauge and Mikkel Hansen make it impossible to look beyond the Danes in first place.