As the first round of group games come to a close, things are looking quite interesting. They kicked off with what was on paper a possible borefest especially with the Russian form going into the finals. Oh how wrong were we all when the hosts pummelled Saudi Arabia. The Middle East state had looked woeful in defence, but nothing could take away some well taken goals. It will be interesting to see if they can replicate the same performance against Uruguay and Egypt in the remaining games.
Uruguay and Egypt met in the other Group A game and the South American side were probably grateful that their North African opponents hadn’t brought on Mo Salah. They made three substitutions but none would include the Liverpool player. The Egyptian coach may have rued that decision as Uruguay stole the points with a 90th minute header.
Group B had seen Portugal and Spain drawn together. It was always going to be a cracking game, but I don’t think many would have foreseen exactly how the game would pan out, especially after the Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked a few days previous. A six goal thriller that included a questionable penalty, a Robert Green World Cup howler award nomination from De Gea and sublime free kick from the man that is Cristiano Ronaldo. The other Group B match saw Iran steal a very late winner in their tie against Morocco. For Iran though I think that will be as good as it gets, the best they could do is get a point against Spain and Portugal and even then that might be pushing it. The Spanish haven’t lost since Euro 2016, but had drawn three of their last five games. Morocco will need a miracle to get anything given that they have already lost. They will though need to at least give themselves hope by improving their shooting.
Group C saw Australia concede the first VAR goal when Josh Ridon’s slide on Griezmann was penalised. The Aussies were level again a few minutes lates when Jedinak converted a penalty, following Umtiti handled Mooy’s free-kick. Australia played well and could consider themselves unlucky when Paul Pogba’s deflected goal narrowly crossed the line. The Australian team had deserved a draw and can take hope from their performance, unlike their cricketing national team. More positive football against Denmark and Peru, the Southern Hemisphere nation could sneak through into the last sixteen.
Group D saw the giants of South America pitted against the minnows of Europe, yes Argentina and Lionel Messi took on the Euro 2016 conquerors of England, Iceland. The Argentinians took the lead and all seemed well, but the lead lasted barely five minutes when Iceland levelled through Finnbogason. Half time came and went and then a foul by Iceland sees them give a penalty away. Who should step up? None other than Lionel Messi, it was surely going to be 2-1, well we would be wrong, Messi saw his penalty saved. To be honest it wasn’t the best penalty taken. Argentina would bombard Iceland with nearly 30 shots and nearly 80% possession. They would fail take advantage and thus fail to win their opening World Cup game for the first time in a decade.
Croatia took on Nigeria in the other group game. There was great hope for the African nation who had released a popular home kit. Unfortunately their performance was less dazzling. Croatia on the other hand saw their midfield combo of Modric and Rakitic running the midfield. Unfortunately there was little elsewhere for Croatia to shout out about as they managed two shots on target, whilst their lacklustre opponents managed the same and they didn’t manage a shot on target until the 59th minute. The group looks like it could possibly see an upset, I guess it could all come down to goal difference if Nigeria end up losing their remaining games and the others finish on the same points. Could it really be a European double coming through this group?
Group E saw Brazil going into this group being odds on favourites with everyone else playing for second. Now though Brazil face Costa Rica knowing that they need to win to avoid an even worse scenario than 2014. For all their shots and possession, the five time champions failed to convert those chances and it would prove costly with the Swiss equalising early in the second half. Brazil had 21 shots with 5 on target whilst the European nation 2 from 5. Given their opening game record, it would seem that the South American side would have landed all three points. Not this time though. They should still progress shouldn’t they? That may all come down to how they play against Serbia and Costa Rica.
Serbia in the other game grabbed the necessary three points against a disappointing Costa Rica. Was hard to believe that the Costa Rica had managed to progress ahead of Italy and England in Brazil, but here we were. A quality free kick from Kolarov was enough to separate the two. They will of course require a strong defence against Brazil and Switzerland, but of course one victory out of the remaining two should be enough for the Balkan nation.
Group F was going to be an interesting one, a group of death. Holders Germany were drawn with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. Germany were of course the nation to beat, but come Sunday afternoon, well things turned out very different. That well known German efficiency seemed to disappear although in the run up to the World Cup, Joachim Low’s team had looked far from Germany like Mexico went at their opponents and made them look average. The CONCACAF nation should have left the Germans in their wake but could only manage the one goal that came in the 35th minute. Germany will need to tighten up at the back, but they face Sweden next and the Swedes will go in with the advantage of needing one win to qualify for the next stage.
The Scandinavian side also managed a single goal win against South Korea. It came via a VAR penalty following a foul on Claesson by Kim Min-Woo. The Swedes did enough although didn’t really have to do much against the disappointing South Korea. It doesn’t look good for the Asian side, whilst Sweden will have high hopes, especially with them minus Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If they can press the Germans on Saturday and cause trouble like the Mexican side did, it is quite possible that the defending champions will go out in the group stage. Given their form before the World Cup, no one would be surprised.
Mexico look odds on favourites to progress from the group. Their performance was something and the 1-0 didn’t reflect how much trouble they caused Germany. South Korea will certainly be no match for the Latin American side and will go into the final game against Sweden needing a point at worst. Should Germany though bounce back and beat Sweden, then it will all be to play for come the final game and who knows what will happen.
Group G saw England kick off in their group. It had felt like a long time, but it was was finally here. Main rivals Belgium had kicked off the group with debutants Panama. It had looked like the Central American side would possibly keep Belgium at bay, especially when the score was 0-0 at half time. That though would change when Dries Merten struck home in the 47th minute. Man Utd striker Romelu Lukaku would later add 2 goals to make the score respectable.
Come the evening it was England kicking off. Could England go one better than Germany, Portugal and Brazil in their respective opening games or would it be business as usual. Well England started well and took the lead after 11 minutes through Harry Kane. The home nation though had plenty of chances to score in a half that saw the Tunisian goalkeeper go off with an injury. Those missed chances looked like they would be punished as the North African side were level through a somewhat soft penalty. The game progressed and it looked like it would head for a draw despite the referee and the VAR failing to notice two of the most deliberately obvious fouls since Harald Schumacher introduced wrestling moves into World Cup football. Justice would be done as like a few other games, there would be a late winner. Harry Kane headed home from Maguire’s flick on.
The group looks like being decided on the final game as England face Belgium which could either see a winner outright or on goal difference.
So Group H, it seemed reasonable to expect Colombia to come out on top but maybe Poland edging Senegal….OH No, that wasn’t going to go to plan. Colombia went down to ten men early and giving them the second fastest red card in World Cup finals history following a handball in the penalty area. Shinji Kagawa stepped up and converted. The Japanese side failed to take their opportunities and saw their lead go when Quintero equalised from a free kick. It looked like honours even but Osako netted Japan’s second and ultimately the winner. They looked good and have every chance now of progressing having won their first win on European soil in World Cup finals.
Poland went into the tournament looking positive but the opening game seemed to go off kilter for them. Defender Kamil Glik had been injured pre game and his replacement may have wished that he hadn’t. Thiago Cionek had a game to forget as he deflected a shot from Everton’s Idrissa Gueye into his own net. Lewandowski, who had been in fine form for his club, seemed to have lost that form on the plane over. Controversy came in the second half when M’Baye Niang recovered quickly from injury to rush on to the pitch and and slot home after beating Szczesny and Bednarek. Their complaints fell on deaf ears but a Senegal win would have been the correct result regardless. Krychowiak headed home in the last ten minutes to give them hope. Senegal’s win broke the African nations run of defeats and look the best hope from Africa to progress through to the knockout stage.
The second round of games, will put eliminate some nations and still answer questions for others.