I am back in Moscow now ahead of the last 16 of the World Cup after spending Thursday in Kaliningrad for England v Belgium. This small exclave, around 680 miles from the capital, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, has endured a lot of history and a lot of pain over the last 80 years. For a place that held a Prussian and German identity for hundreds of years, it became a hub of the Soviet Union following the Red Army's advance once World War II Allied Forces had bombed it into submission. The ensuing Cold War closed off this city, which became a military base on the Baltic Sea. Since Communism collapsed, it has retained the 'grad' in its name, but it has struggled economically and socially, and is only recently showing signs of life.
I was in Tbilisi in 2003 for Brian Kerr's first competitive game as Republic of Ireland manager, and Georgia back then was an eye opener. It was grey, it was dominated by tower blocks, it was dangerous. The supporters were a law unto themselves. There was an aroma of the Soviet Union about the place. After visiting the Konigsberg Cathedral (below) yesterday, one of the key landmarks of the city, housing the tomb of the great philosopher Immaunel Kant, I wandered around and in ways I felt I was in a bit of a time warp, as Kaliningrad city evoked memories of Tbilisi. The array of tall buildings. The functionality of the shops. The weird dichotomy between this and a brand new football stadium to house England v Belgium. I was glad I flew there and soaked up an historic place, but one gets the sense that Kaliningrad is a world within a world without any gloss or direction, a little forgotten about perhaps.
The hype needed a hose, didn't it? England, already qualified for the last 16, suffered a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in what will go down as one of the forgettable games of what's been a great competition so far. England manager Gareth Southgate made 8 changes and his Belgian counterpart Roberto Martinez made 9, and the consequence was an ordinary match in which we discovered that Belgium's squad players are better than England's.
There was once a time when Adnan Januzaj could have played for England. It didn't work out for the now 23 year old at Manchester United, but the Real Sociedad winger reminded us of his talent with a missile into the top corner in the 51st minute to settle the game. Marcus Rashford (below), didn't take his chance to dislodge Raheem Sterling from the picture ahead of the date with Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday, and maybe only Danny Rose can force his way into the 'first 11' on the left wing. If England lose to Colombia, then Southgate will take a lot of slack for not going for the win in the final Group game. James Rodriguez is a major doubt for the South Americans and that could tip the tie in England and Harry Kane's favour. Kane will be duelling with his Tottenham team mate, Colombia central defender Davinson Sanchez.
On Thursday night, I had seen my tip for the trophy, Brazil, in action against Serbia in Moscow. Goals by Paulinho and Thiago Silva handed the 'Selecao' a 2-0 win. Watching players up close from just above a dug out is a valuable experience, because you see things the television won't portray. Brazil were organised and can only get better. Casemiro is a good shield. Philippe Coutinho laid on a magic ball for the first goal and may be in Golden Ball contention for Player of the Tournament, playing beautifully in a central role behind Gabriel Jesus.
Now to Neymar. Yes, Neymar, the 26 year old Paris Saint Germain star, the most expensive player in the world, who has come under a sunburst spotlight in the media for theatrics rather than technique. I was expecting a narcissistic exhibition, with lashings of selfishness, diving, a peacock strut. It's not what I witnessed. I witnessed a class footballer, one that makes the heart flutter with beautiful touches, acceleration and vision. Neymar played the game as if he was on the Rio beach.
Second chances are now gone, with Mexico a win or go home showdown. I believe the urgency of the knockout stage can sharpen Neymar's focus. I don't believe he will have time for histrionics, for bawling. If he can keep the blinkers on, he is primed to find another gear to inspire Brazil to glory. There was no sulking from the Neymar that I saw. He was encouraging and involved with his team mates. It's just that he's too relaxed and I see the hyperbolic reaction to fouls as a way of placing a question mark in the referee's mind as to whether he is being unfairly targeted by opponents. Neymar will deliver a unicorn moment at this World Cup, mark my words.
Of course Brazil's fans carry the canary colour wherever they go around the world, and I got caught among one of their bands near the Spartak Stadium, prompting a rare impromptu selfie. You only live once.
I need to significantly improve on the art of selfies. I would never do this normally, but this is never going to happen to me again. ðŸ‡§ðŸ‡·âš½ï¸ðŸ¤·â™‚ï¸ pic.twitter.com/e6VDjxJ2Wr
— John Duggan (@JohnDugganSport) June 27, 2018