Continuing our coverage of the 2018 World Cup, Ryan Oldham breaks down the rest of group play.
While Group A sprung no surprises, Group B was a final matchday whirlwind of emotion as Spain and Portugal scraped through at the expense of Iran and Morocco. Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz channeled his inner Sir Alex Ferguson, giving the referee and VAR (Video Assistant Referee) the hairdryer treatment when his team drew with Portugal on the last day, and Spain limped through quite lethargically considering they were one of the pre-tournament favorites.
The first game of the group between Spain and Portugal promised a lot, finishing 3-3 with a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, cementing his position as the best player in the world (especially considering Lionel Messi’s faltering campaign so far).
Ronaldo has proven that he can do it on both stages, not only for Real Madrid, breaking record after record at club level, but now in a Portugal side that would simply be lost without him. He carried them to a European Championship two years ago, and without him they’d be out of the group stages this time.
Messi simply isn’t the player that Ronaldo is. You have to ask yourself, who would you rather have in your team? Ronaldo can score, create, tracks back on occasion and is a born winner and leader. Messi is captain of Argentina because his last name is Messi, but Ronaldo has earned the captain’s armband at club and national level.
Elsewhere in the group, Iran were the surprise package and were one goal away from knocking Portugal out, only for them to miss a chance in the dying seconds by literally inches. VAR dominated the game, and was unfortunately the talking point afterwards, about whether Ronaldo should have received a red card (as opposed to the yellow he received) for an apparently elbow to the face of Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji.
Ronaldo missed a penalty earlier in the game which would have effectively dumped Iran’s spirits, and Iran scored a penalty after another controversial VAR decision that saw a handball given in the box.
VAR is not the problem here, however. It is the bad judgement of referees on an international scale. VAR is doing exactly what it is set up to do, but for some reason the referee on the pitch still gets the final decision.
Why do we have the VAR room with six men in referee kits watching 18 televisions if we’re not giving them the authority to make the final decision. The decision should be taken away from the referee (who is under an enormous amount of pressure) and given to the head referee in the VAR room. Slowly but surely, football will move toward a rugby style system where the referee is actually respected if this is adopted.
Overall, the VAR system has improved the World Cup considering some of the massive decisions it’s overturned, but it needs work, and the referees on the pitch shouldn’t be making those final decisions.
Group C, unlike Group B, was rather stale in terms of the soccer on display. France topped the group after a quite embarrassing final game against Denmark where the fans turned to booing their own players because of the poor quality of play.
Both teams had more or less qualified to the next round, and with neither wanting to get injured, or risk playing a good team in
the next round, were quite happy to sit back and pass it around the midfield, similar to the Spain vs Portugal game on The Simpsons so many years ago.
Australia were a surprise package for all the wrong reasons. Before the tournament I tipped them to at least get through the group stages, and potentially upset somebody in the second round, but they finished the group in bottom position with only one point (gained against Denmark) to show for it.
Peru gave it their best shot, winning their final game of the group to finish on five points, but a France win against Denmark would have been unlikely to send Peru through anyway, because Peru lost to Denmark earlier in the group stages. Confused yet?
The last game between France and Denmark was the only goalless draw of the tournament, and with the group stages over, it’ll remain the only one.
It is, unfortunately, a part of the game that is hard to remove. France and Denmark both knew they were through, and France had already made a few changes to their side, dropping Paul Pogba who was instrumental in his team’s first two games.
Peru will feel hard done by, but that’s simply the way it goes. We would have seen a much more exciting game had Peru beaten Denmark in the first place, so overall it seems to even out.
France will play Argentina in the next round, which will prove to be a much more exciting game, especially now that everything is on the line.
Group D is one of only three groups where the top team won all three of their games. Croatia topped this group, dealing Argentina an absolute hammering in the shock of the tournament so far.
Argentina did find a way to scrape through, however, with some late heroics from Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo, who got on the end of a wonderful cross to crush Nigeria’s dreams of a spot in the second round.
Nigeria, similar to Belgium at previous tournaments, will be the ones to watch in the coming years. Victor Moses, their oldest player, is only 27 and surely has another World Cup in him, and this Nigeria team showed serious talent, holding off Argentina for the majority of the game, despite going down early to a wonderful goal by Lionel Messi.
Belgium have finally seemed to hit the heights that are expected of them, and this Nigeria team could easily do the same with the right management and a bit of luck. Their talent isn’t on the same level as the Belgium team on paper, but the team spirit is of the very highest level, and they could easily make a quarter or semifinal in four years’ time.
Iceland won’t be shocking anybody in the second round like they did at the European Championships two years ago, after finishing bottom of the group with just one point. They did shock Argentina, however, coming from behind to draw 1-1 after Lionel Messi missed a penalty. It wasn’t meant to be, though, as the heat seemed to get to the players in the final two games.
Argentina massively underperformed, and will have to improve exponentially if they are to beat France in their second round
game. Messi, as previously discussed, simply isn’t as good as his La Liga counterpart Cristiano Ronaldo, and despite a moment of magic against Nigeria, his group stage can be summed up by the penalty miss against Iceland.
France will be a much bigger test than Croatia was for Argentina, and they’ll have to be at the very top of their game, but anything can happen when Messi is in the team, so I definitely wouldn’t count them out.
Something inside me wants to see Argentina go all the way, because Diego Maradona may just throw himself off the balcony if they go out. “Cocaine is a hell of a drug,” as Rick James said.
Group E was another group that saw the expected winners falter in the first game. Brazil did finish top of the group, despite drawing in their first game with Switzerland. Their second game against Costa Rica was probably the spiciest of the World Cup so far.
Play acting and diving aside, the Brazilians kicked Costa Rica to pieces and vice versa, making the referee’s day quite a hard one. Neymar finally got his goal, but only after coming close around 6000 times. Brazil, like the Argentinians, seems to hit form
just at the right time, and topped the group in front of Switzerland, sending Serbia and Costa Rica home.
In finishing top of the group, Brazil set up a mouthwatering tie against Mexico in the next round, along with France vs Argentina as the two games to watch.
A less-than-excellent Switzerland side will join them in the second round, but that may be as far as they get without a bit of luck and great performances from their best players. They scraped through the group with five points, relying on a tight win on the final matchday against Serbia to set up a tie against a Sweden side full of confidence after finishing top of their own group (but more about that later).
Costa Rica stopped Switzerland from being within a chance to finish top of the group on the final day of fixtures when a 93rd minute own goal secured a 2-2 draw and a point for Costa Rica. Goal difference would have seen Brazil still finish top of the group, but Switzerland would have thought they’d at least won the game after an 88th minute goal by Josip Drmic.
The late own goal guaranteed a point for Costa Rica, their only point of the World Cup, and they were powerless to avoid bottom position in the group, even losing against a disjointed Serbian side on the first day of fixtures for Group E.
A win against Switzerland would have seen them finish third, but with two losses in their first two games, they were already out of the tournament by the time that third game kicked off.
Oh Group F, the kind of group that World Cups are made for. Sweden and Mexico finished in the top two spots of the group respectively, followed by South Korea in third, with Germany finishing last. Yes, you read it correctly, the Germans, current world champions, are out of the World Cup in the first round.
Joachim Low couldn’t scratch and sniff his own arse through this one like at previous tournaments (seriously, look it up).
Germany were completely uninspiring in every game they played. Despite beating Sweden, they still played like a disjointed team, and their game against South Korea was a farce from a German standpoint. South Korea scored two late goals to finish them off, with the Mexican fans waiting to see if they’d qualified for the next round.
Little did they know, their loss to Sweden meant nothing, as Germany threw it all away despite having several clear cut chances to win the game.
South Korea celebrated like they’d won the World Cup when the final whistle sounded, and those players, despite having to go home empty handed, will never forget beating the world champions.
The magic of the World Cup was in full swing after the game, as it wouldn’t really be a World Cup without a massive upset such as that one. The drama of the Mexican fans waiting to hear whether they were through was amazing, and the squad thought they’d been knocked out too, despite their fans singing as the news started to come through about Germany’s loss.
Mexico will face Brazil in the next round, and a win would see them face the winner of Belgium and Japan.
Sweden, as previously mentioned, will face Switzerland in the next round, with an excellent chance to make the Quarter Finals, where they will face the winners of Colombia and England.
Germany will face nobody in the next round, and something about that just feels right.
Group G was definitely where this writer’s eyes were firmly placed through the tournament so far. I went on a trip home to England for 10 days, and had the joy of watching England absolutely ruin Panama 6-1. On the plane home I watched England beat Tunisia 2-1 (they have live TV on planes now, who knew?). I was not able to watch the Belgium vs England game, however, but by all accounts it was nothing special!
Belgium did beat England 1-0, however, and judging by the highlights of the game, England were poor and seemed to actually
want to finish second in the group.
Belgium won all three of their group games, finally showing the potential that had been teased at the last World Cup. Initial discomfort surrounding Roberto Martinez’s squad selection was quickly rebuffed as Belgium opened the tournament with a 3-0 win over Panama.
Things didn’t get much better for Panama, losing 6-1 to England as previously mentioned, and then losing 2-1 to Tunisia on the final day. They’re just one of two teams to finish on zero points after all three group stage games.
England were lucky not to have been nursing a couple serious injuries after their win over Panama, with the Panamanian players seemingly circling Jesse Lingard out as their target throughout the game. Lingard will likely have been using a lot of ice and muscle rub when back at the team hotel.
Harry Kane currently sits atop the golden boot rankings with five goals, with Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku not too far behind.
Kane, captaining England for the first time in a major tournament, didn’t let the pressure get to him, and joined Cristiano Ronaldo as another player to score a hat-trick at the World Cup this year.
England will play Colombia in the next round, with Belgium playing Japan in what, on paper, look like two mouthwatering affairs!
Group H produced probably the biggest heartbreak of the tournament so far, seeing Senegal sent home despite finishing on the same points and goal difference to Japan. The reason? They had poorer discipline than the Japanese.
The dancing Senegalese marched in to the tournament, winning their first game against a fractured Poland side that ended up finishing bottom of the group. A loss to Colombia in the final game didn’t exactly help things for Senegal, but there aren’t many worse ways to find out you’re going home than because you’d received more yellow cards than another team.
Colombia got off to a rocky start, but James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao hit form at the right time, and played a poor Poland side in the second game, winning that game 3-0.
A concern for Colombia is James Rodriguez, who will be having an MRI scan on his thigh in anticipation for the second round game against England. Colombia’s odds dramatically decrease without him in the side, so they’ll be doing all they can to make sure he’s ready. The risk being, if they force him in to the side (Mo Salah), it could have an adverse effect on his teammates.
Japan may well be hoping they finished top of the group, surely wanting to avoid the rampant Belgium side in the next round, but they’re a team that has been rewarded for playing some pretty boring and route one soccer, so to see them out of the tournament at the hands of Belgium is extremely likely, and probably for the best.
Japan have always rubbed me the wrong way with their style of play, and it’s a massive shame that they’re making their way through at the expense of the Senegalese. The Senegalese will, however, have very fond memories of the World Cup, and I think myself and all the viewers of the World Cup this year will remember their huge smiles and their excellent dance moves. Hopefully they make it next time!
In the next installment of this World Cup Recap for the Next Ten Words, I’ll be breaking down the first Round of 16 games between France and Argentina, and Uruguay and Portugal. In the meantime, stay hydrated, Summer is hot and beer is in good supply!
Ryan Oldham is a Manchester native and a lifelong supporter of Manchester United. He knows far more about International Football than you do, and therefore was selected to write a weekly update on the most popular sports tournament in the world. Contact him at email@example.com
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