What a start to the final round of games as Group A’s highly anticipated Russia v Uruguay turned out to be a storming win for the South American’s. The hosts were in some way playing their hardest opponent and combined with resting a player or two, were seemingly found out. It didn’t help that Igot Smolnikov received his marching orders after his second yellow card after just 36 minutes. Suarez had put his side up after 10 minutes and a Cheryshev own goal made it 2-0 after 23. It was always going to be difficult for the hosts, who of course had already qualified but the 90th minute goal from Cavani, meant they would face the winner of Group B. In the other game, Mo Salah saw his side denied a point after Al Dawsari scored the winning goal in the dying seconds. It meant Egypt were going home with no points having gone in with so much hope. Whether Salah’s pre tournament injury had a psychological effect who knows, but if reports are true, we may have seen the last of the talented star for the last time.
So Group B, was far from over, Iran Spain and Portugal were all still with a chance of getting out the group. Iran just had to beat Portugal, who would miss out whilst Spain would go through with a win or draw. It was a night of VAR controversy in the Portugal game that didn’t see anything much until Ricardo Quaresma put Portugal in front just before half time. Meanwhile in the first half of the other game, Morocco seemed to be really intent on getting a result in their final game albeit too late. Maybe had their shooting on goal been a bit better, they might have been with a chance of progression. Boutaib had put the North African nation in front on the quarter of an hour but didn’t see that lead last as Isco levelled.
Spain looked average and against any other team they might have been really forced to pay. Pique had luck on his side following a rash challenge, where luckily he had got the ball and then a handball. Spain had De Gea to thank on several occasions (something that Man Utd fans will come to recognise)
Second half was when it all got a bit tasty in the Portgual. As it had stood, Portugal were winning the group with Spain second. In the Portugal game Ronaldo was fouled in the area and the referee turned it down only to review it and award the penalty. Up stepped Cristiano Ronaldo, it would surely be 2-0 but the low struck penalty was saved by the keeper. VAR requests were pleaded for and ignored until Ronaldo got caught up with an Iranian and seemed to strike him with a flailing arm. It was a red card review and after another long wait the referee reviewed it. It never really looked like a red and would have been harsh and the ref only produced the yellow card. It was though in the dying minutes that the biggest controversy. Sardaz Azmoun had knocked down the cross from the wing and hit Cedric who went to head the ball only for it to bounce off the arm. It was far from intentional but the referee and the ref turned it down. He did though choose to review it. Surely he would stick to his original decision… well no he actually changed his decision and awarded the penalty. The Portuguese were rightly angry and it could have been even worse had Iran converted their shot on goal. That would have seen Iran go through at Portugal’s expense.
In the other game Morocco took the lead again when El-Nesyri fired home to leave Spain 2-1 down and thus give Portugal the advantage. The late penalty for Iran would change all that and then in the 90th minute Spain thought they had levelled and it was disallowed by the ref who then rightly overturned his decision.
Group C saw three of its nations in with a chance but that ended when Peru grabbed their first win of the competition to beat Australia. In the other game between Denmark and France, it finished 0-0 in what was the first of the tournament and one that saw both teams booed off at full time.
Argentina faced a tricky evening as they Nigeria, it was win or bust for the South Americans as a changed Croatian line up took on Iceland. Croatia had qualified, but Iceland had to win and hope for the best. Argentina took on a Nigeria side that had played well against Iceland.
Argentina got the goal they needed in the 14th minute when Lionel Messi put the ball in the back of the net just as the Barca Messi would. Argentina continued to attack and the Nigerian’s were standing strong keeping everything out. Their resolve paid off as they levelled early in the second half. Mascherano joined the hug and throw an opponent to give away a penalty. Victor Moses stepped up and converted the kick in style. That penalty was sending Argentina home and when the camera panned to Maradona, the disgraced footballer was in tears (oh diddums). That penalty was sending the 2014 finalists on an early trip home. The other game had seen Croatia take the lead, despite the changes, the Balkan nation were still going for the win. Iceland were putting the shots in and came close in the first half and maybe had they scored, it might have changed the game for them. Croatia though got the opener through Milan Bedij early in the second half. The Icelandic nation though weren’t giving up, maybe hoping that they might just somehow make it out the group stages. That hope came when Lovren handled the ball to give a penalty away. Siggurdsson converted.
It was now game on could Croatia stand fast or would Iceland overcome. In the Argentina game, time was running out, Nigeria were heading through but 4 minutes from time that all changed as Marcus Rojo volleyed home to break Nigerian hearts. For Iceland hope was back on. Another goal from the team that beat England, would see them grab second ahead of Argentina. Those hopes were crushed in the 90th minute when Peresic struck home and Croatia were finishing with 100% record and three group wins for the first time. The whistle went at the Argentina game and we were treated to scenes of pathetic moronic behaviour by Maradona. It’s no wonder people dislike him an Argentina.
The holders Germany went into the game against South Korea knowing that they had to win irrespective of the Mexico v Sweden game as anything less would enable the Scandinavian side to take second place. Germany would even qualify regardless if they beat South Korea by two or more goals. Mexico faced Sweden knowing a win would secure them a place in the next round, but defeat could possibly send them on an early flight back.
Germany surely wouldn’t struggle against South Korea, but they did as they failed to convert their chances along with some key defending from the Koreans. Neither side could break the deadlock, but with Mexico and Sweden also deadlocked, it was still advantage Germany. Sweden though could consider themselves unlucky to not have a penalty following a Hernandez own goal.
It was advantage Sweden in the 50th minute when Augustinsson volleyed home. Having been denied at the end of their game against Germany, they weren’t going to be denied twice. Just past the hour, it was 2-0 with a Granqvist penalty. Mexico were now at risk of elimination with the other game still goalless and a threat from Germany. Mexico looked far from the side that had played in the opening game where they had taken Germany apart. Things got worse for the Latin American side as they went 3-0 down when Alvarez put the ball in his own net.
All eyes were now on the Germany game and for all their shots, they couldn’t convert. Time was running out and it was now in injury time. For Germany it was about to be their worst nightmare. The last time they had gone out in the group stage was in 1938, now they could add 2018. Kim Young-Gwon struck home off a corner which at first was ruled out for off side. VAR though showed it to be not offside. For Manuel Neuer, who hadn’t played much before the tournament, he probably wish he hadn’t been picked. He spilled the ball but luckily recovered. That was that for him though as time ran out Germany searched for an equaliser, Neuer, went forward but left himself stranded as Ju- Se-Jong launched the ball finding Son Heung-Min who put the ball in the back of the net.
It was hard to believe that the Germans were going out, not only having won in Rio but hammered Brazil 7-1.
Brazil went into the group knowing that a win would send them into the group stages. Serbia only needed to win but failed to take the opportunities that would be presented to them. The South American’s though took those chances with Paulinho netting in the first half and Thiago Silva in the second half to steer them to top spot.
Switzerland who looked like possibly missing out before the late winner, knew that a draw for them would take them through to their third finals in four attempts. Having been unlucky to concede two late goals in injury time against Brazil, Costa Rica were hoping to go out with some pride. They had a number of chances and could consider themselves unlucky not to put one or two past the Swiss, so when the European nation broke the deadlock, it seemed that it would be game over especially with the Swiss dominating the possession although if it was game over, Joel Campbell had no intention of giving up. Costa Rica would pull level through Kendall Waston when he headed home a Campbell corner. The Swiss looked like taking all three points when Drmic struck in the 88th minute, but Costa Rica were awarded a penalty only to see the decision overturned for offside. Los Ticos did get a penalty in injury time and not overturned. Bryan Ruiz though struck the crossbar bouncing out to ricochet off the back of Yann Sommer’s head. It was only a point in the end, but the Swiss were through setting up a tie with Sweden.
Colombia came through their group with a second half goal that was enough to beat Senegal, who looked initially to be the only African nation to get to the knock out stages and the 2-2 draw against Japan would prove costly. This was because Poland’s 1-0 win over a disappointing Japan put them level on points and identical records and that meant one thing, the disciplinary record. Yes the yellow cards added up and Japan had 4 to Senegal’s 6.
England and Belgium faced off knowing who their opponents would be at the end of the game. Southgate and Martinez made changes and in turn made for an average game. The deadlock was broken early into the second half as Januzaj’s bending shot beat Pickford The Three Lions had their chances and Rashford should have put his chance away. It didn’t seem to bother England although chances remained few and far between. The whistle went and it was over. Belgium would now face Japan on Monday whilst England would have an extra day facing Colombia.
The group stages now over and now the Last 16 is about to kick off. The big games are here and it will be no second chances.