Former Liverpool wing back John Arne Riise is tipping France to lift the 2018 World Cup trophy given their abundance of talent in their squad while he believes that Neymar’s injury problems in the run-up to the tournament could hurt Brazil’s chances of glory in Russia. Interview: Valhmor Camilleri

John Arne Riise has played in some of the world’s top domestic leagues in a career which spanned over 20 years. He reached the highest point in May 2005 when he was part of the Liverpool team that produced an astonishing fightback when coming from 3-0 down to beat Milan in a penalty shoot-out and become European champions for the fifth time in their history.

In 2009, he headed to Italy where he played for three seasons with Francesco Totti’s Roma where he made 133 appearances, scoring nine goals.

With the Norwegian national team, he represented his country in Euro 2000 but an appearance at a World Cup remained a dream as the Nordic country have been missing from FIFA’s elite tournament since France 1998.

“It hurts me a lot that I couldn’t play with the national team in a World Cup,” Riise said.

“You have to be realistic and say we are not good enough and don’t have enough talent in our ranks to qualify for the World Cup.

“Even this time, we were in a group where we should have been able to at least make the play-offs. Germany were the strongest team, no doubt, but I think we should have done better against the likes of Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic.

“Maybe now it’s an opportunity to bring in some young players and hopefully they have the mental strength to go into the pitch and play their best football.

“We have talented players in the U-21 team who are very good but need to make a leap in quality if they are to make their mark in the national team.”

While Norway will be forced to watch proceedings from their homes, there will still be a strong Nordic contingent in Russia with Denmark, Sweden and the surprising Iceland all securing qualifying berths.

“What Iceland have achieved in the last few years has been very impressive,” Riise said.

“Despite being a very small country they have done very well in Euro 2016 where apart from progressing to the knock out stages they eliminated England.

“They kept the momentum going in the World Cup qualifiers as despite being drawn in a tough group they finished top, ahead of stronger teams like Croatia and Ukraine.

“Iceland’s main strength is that they work hard as a team. They have some good individual players but their main weapon is their collectivity.”

Riise said that Sweden have stunned many when they managed to oust Italy for a place in the World Cup but thinks that Denmark will be the team to watch in Russia.

“Sweden have done well without Zlatan as beating a football power like Italy is never easy,” Riise said.

But for me the team to watch from the Nordic area are Denmark. They have a very good coach in Age Hareide and they have a great player in Christian Eriksen

“But for me the team to watch from the Nordic area are Denmark. They have a very good coach in Age Hareide and they have a great player in Christian Eriksen.

“For me Denmark will be the team to watch in the World Cup.”

Being so close to the start of a World Cup, predictions are the order of the day on who could lift the coveted trophy at the end of the July 15 final. Riise believes that France have what it takes to win a second world crown.

“There are many countries who can win the World Cup. You have Germany who always perform in a World Cup while Belgium can always surprise given the number of talented players they have in their squad.

“But personally I think that France are the favourites to win the World Cup. It will not be easy but if Didier Deschamps manages to get the players play as a unit they surely have the quality to return home with the trophy.

John Arne Riise (right) talks with Valletta striker Michale Mifsud. Photo: Matthew MirabelliJohn Arne Riise (right) talks with Valletta striker Michale Mifsud. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

“As regards Brazil, they are always mentioned as challengers with the players they have and their history. However, this time around they are not among my favourites.

“They have not played well in recent months and we have to see in what condition Neymar is in Russia after so many months out injured.”

Riise made no secret of his admiration to Argentine genius Lionel Messi and says that he really hopes he can finally win his first world title in Russia.

“I really hope this is the year Lionel Messi finally wins a World Cup,” he said.

“When you look at the career he has had I think that he really deserves to win this tournament and it would surely crown an extraordinary career.”

Italy will be one of the major absentees in Russia following their stunning elimination in the play-offs.

Riise said that Italy’s capitulation was a clear sign that there is little to separate between the top nations and the other teams.

“I was honestly very surprised to see Italy failing to make the World Cup,” says Riise.

“I played in Italy for more than three years and surely for the Italians seeing their national team failing to make the World Cup was a big tragedy. But that shows you that today football has changed.

“Gone are the days when you would see a country register high-scoring victories as all countries are improving. I’m sad that Italy has failed to make it to the finals but then again they were simply not good enough.”

On the other hand, England have reached Russia with a squad full of young players and while Riise thinks that Gareth Southgate’s men may not have enough to win the title he still thinks they can go deep in the tournament.

“Nobody is expecting anything from England and that could be an advantage for them,” Riise, who was also on the books of Fulham, said.

“Every time a World Cup arrives you hear the England fans say that this will be their year but it never arrives,” added Riise with a smile.

“This time, I’m afraid they will not win the World Cup but still I think they can go on a run. I don’t think England will have a problem to go out of their group and once that is achieved they can easily reach the semi-finals, which compared to the last World Cup and Euro 2016 would be a huge improvement.” 


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