World Cup Diary Part Two: Late Late Shows and Long Goodbyes.

Throughout  the 2018 World Cup we’ll be keeping a diary of all the activity on and off the pitch, keeping you updated on the VAR and the LOLs, and casting our eye over the contenders and also-rans at every stage. In Part Two, we’re looking at the second week of the competition, which began with a Tottenham Hotspur striker saving England’s blushes…

 

MONDAY 18th JUNE 2018

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With Germany slipping up against Mexico the day before, the two outsiders in Group F met in Nizhny Novgorod, which sounds like the setting for a low-budget sci-fi film, looking to steal a march on the World Cup holders. South Korea were looking for their first World Cup win since their opening game in 2010, while Sweden were just looking for a goal, having gone almost three months, and four games, since finding the net against Chile in a March friendly. The early matches so far in this World Cup have yet to provide much in the way of excitement, and this meeting was no different, as the physically dominant Swede’s used their considerable heft advantage to put pressure on the Koreans’ goal, with ‘keeper Cho Hyun-Woo’s point-blank save from Marcus Berg the only notable moment of a dour first half. Things barely improved in the second half, with the Taegeuk Warriors in particular looking sluggish, with Son Heung-min providing the only outlet going forwards. Given the lack of quality on display, it was fitting that the game was decided by a poorly timed tackle from Kim-Min Woo on Victor Claessen which resulted in a Sweden penalty after referee Joel Aguilar had consulted the VAR. On repeated viewings it looked a clear penalty, which leads one to assume that referees have been instructed to play on until otherwise instructed by the little men in their ears. Former Wigan Athletic centre-back Andreas Granqvist stepped up, looking more than a little like Jorah Mormont as he approaches his dotage, and rolled the ball into the bottom corner to give Sweden the perfect start. If they can nick a point against Germany on matchday two, a big surprise could be in the offing. South Korea, meanwhile, look a shadow of the side that made the round of 16 in 2010.

Panama made their historic bow in the World Cup on Monday afternoon, though they’d possibly have preferred to face a team other than the side ranked third in the world, with a forward line boasting Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. Despite the raft of talent available to Belgium’s manager there are justifiable question marks over Roberto Martinez’s tactical decisions, and a laboured first half in which Belgium pinned Panama back but lacked any kind of incision only furthered doubts over Martinez’s ability to manage such a talented squad of players. Time and time again De Bruyne was forced to drop deep and pick up the ball from his centre-backs, before firing speculative long range passes out to the wings that more often than not failed to reach their targets. Yannick Carrasco, played in a deeper wing-back role, was largely ineffective, while Hazard spent the majority of the opening 45 minutes trying to take the game to Panama by himself, with little joy.

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Fortunately for Martinez, a moment of inspiration was just around the corner, and two minutes into the second half a bleached-blonde Dries Mertens opened the scoring with a sublime looping volley from the edge of the area, and from that point Belgium were cruising. A brace from Romelu Lukaku – the first a glancing header, the second a deft dink over the ‘keeper – added sheen to the scoreline, though in truth Panama were never in danger of taking anything from the match, offering little besides an opportunity for the referee to practice his handwriting, picking up five yellow cards within the hour.

The evening game saw England begin their World Cup campaign against the same side they’d faced in an opening game twenty years earlier, though Tunisia have come a long way since a sunburnt Paul Scholes curled a 25 yarder into the top corner to condemn the North Africans to defeat. That meeting in Marseille in 1998 marked the third World Cup game in a row that Tunisia had failed to win, and by the time they arrived at a mosquito-festooned Volgograd Arena that run had stretched to eleven. A flying start to England suggested that run wasn’t about to end, as a flurry of opportunities in the opening ten minutes was capped off with Harry Kane opening the scoring, converting the rebound from a John Stones header after a spectacular save from Mouez Hassen. Given England’s dominance, Gareth Southgate could have been forgiven for expecting his side to cement the win in the remainder of the first half, but a late amendment to the script saw Kyle Walker pull off the kind of stylish reverse clothesline not seen since Giant Haystacks was on our screens to gift Tunisia a penalty. After an extended delay Ferjani Sassi stepped up to drill the spotkick past the outstretched fingertips of Jordan Henderson, and England’s perfect start began to resemble an anxiety dream. For the first time in this tournament VAR was seriously brought into question as Kane found himself the victim of Tunisia’s own wrestling moves, being bodyslammed to the floor on more than one occasion, but failing to gain the decision from the referee Wilmar Roldan.

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Tunisia, clearly happy with their lot, set out to frustrate their opponents in the second half, and for 45 minutes it worked. Though England were able to cultivate a handful of opportunities, clear-cut chances were at a premium, and substitute keeper Farouk Ben Mustafa was largely left underemployed, facing just one shot on target in regulation time. With Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek providing Southgate’s team with some fresh impetus, a flurry of corners in stoppage time provided England with a late opportunity, and from Kieran Tripper’s kick, Kane was on hand to bury Harry Maguire’s flick on, and instigate the kind of pile-on that had the stuffy suits back home tutting into their Ovaltine. Heartbreak for Tunisia, but a justified result given their refusal to attack in the second half, while England can now book their place in the second round with a win against Panama.

 

TUESDAY 19th JUNE 2018

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Whilst the reaction to England’s last-gasp win back in Blighty became more divisive than that little vote a couple of years ago, with the measured among us satisfied at an expansive performance that yielded three points while Team Piers Morgan frothed at the mouth and pointed to the national team’s narrow victory as yet another sign of the impeding Islamification of the western world, the final group at the 2018 World Cup kicked off in their opening fixtures. In perhaps the most open group of the tournament, one of only two that features four sides from different confederations, Japan were considered rank outsiders to progress into the second round, particularly since their opening game pitted them against Colombia, who impressed four years ago. Thankfully former Aston Villa midfielder Carlos Sanchez always roots for the underdog, and three minutes in he offered the Samurai Blue a helping hand by sticking his arm in the way of Shinji Kagawa’s effort and receiving his marching orders to boot. A man down, and second later a goal down as David Ospina dived out of the way of Kagawa’s penalty, as if facing a spot-kick from a terminally ill child. Even with ten men, though, Colombia looked dangerous, and after recovering from that shocking start Jose Pekermen’s team went in level at the break thanks to Juan Quintero’s clever free-kick. From twenty yards out, the Porto man fired the set-piece underneath the jumping wall, catching Eiji Kawashima cold, as the Japanese ‘keeper could only top the ball once it had crossed the line. Despite the introduction of a half-fit James Rodriguez in the second half, the game looked to be petering out for a draw in the Saransk sun, until Ospina flapped at a Japan corner, and Yuya Osako rose highest to glance a header inside the far post. A nightmare start for the Group H favourites, as Japan put themselves on course to reach the second round for only the third time.

In the other Group H game, Poland were slight favourites to see off Senegal thanks to the presence of Robert Lewandowski in their starting line-up, though the sight of Mame Biram Diouf at the other end of the pitch suggested Aliou Cisse was more than confident of his side getting a result against the Eastern Europeans. Poland offered little going forward in a drab first half which came to life as Thiago Cionek diverted Idrissa Gueye’s effort past his own ‘keeper to give Senegal their first World Cup goal in sixteen years. With Adam Nawalka’s team looking more and more disjointed in the second half, particularly the midfield partnership of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Piotr Zielinski, The Lions of Teranga were hardly required to be at their best to hold onto the lead. Then, on the hour mark, victory was secured in the most bizarre of circumstances. M’Baye Niang, returning to the pitch after treatment, raced onto an appalling fifty yard backpass from Krychowiak, and as the definitely-no-longer-a-liability Wojciech Szczesny raced off his line, the Milan winger sidestepped his challenge to roll the ball into an empty net. There was a late rally from Poland after Krychowiak’s excellent headed goal pulled one back, but Senegal held on to set up a potentially decisive clash with Japan in Yekaterinburg. Group H then, not only the most open and exciting group in the competition, but after videos emerged online of Japan and Senegal fans cleaning up fan-parks after their respective matches, also the most community-minded. Hooray for that.

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With every side now having played once, Tuesday evening’s game took us back to Group A, and gave hosts Russia the chance to all but book their place in the second round, leaving Egypt to start packing for the plane home. Much of the pre-match conversation surrounded the inclusion of Mohamed Salah in the Pharoah’s starting line-up, but Vladimir Putin also caused a stir by inviting yet another craggy-faced has-been out from his grief hole after the appearance of Robbie Williams at the opening ceremony, as Joseph ‘The Seppmeister’ Blatter made his first appearance at a football match since being banned from all footballing activity for eight years in 2015 following his part in the FIFA corruption scandal. Presumably that time warp has been up to its tricks again. On the pitch Russia were expected to have met their match after rolling Saudi Arabia over last week, coming up against a more talented side in Egypt, but in fact the hosts had the best of a quiet first half, with Salah well marshalled by Sergei Ignashevich and Ilya Kutepov.

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Fears of the tournament’s first goalless draw were dispelled after ninety seconds of the second half, as Roman Zobnin’s wayward effort at goal was steered on target by Egypt’s unfortunate right-back, as Fathy buckled to give Russia the lead. Rather than rest on their laurels, Russia began to pour forward looking to make the points safe, and when Denis Cheryshev slid Mario Fernandes’ pull-back past Mohamed El-Shenawy, the hosts’ safe passage to the second round looked all but secure. Minutes later two became three, as Artem Dzubya, preferred to star man Fedor Smolov, added to his goal on the opening night with a thundering finish after masterfully controlling a long ball forwards. Game, set and match to Mother Russia, but not until VAR had its moment in the limelight, correctly overrulling a free-kick call from the referee to award Egypt a penalty, which Salah converted to give Hector Cuper’s side the smallest crumb of comfort. The full-time whistle all but ended Egypt’s interest in the 2018 World Cup, though they’ll always wonder how different it might have been had Salah not been injured on the eve of the tournament. Russia, meanwhile, have confounded expectations, and the secret to their success remains a mystery…

 

WEDNESDAY 20th JUNE 2018

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A bad day for Brexiteers everywhere as not one, but TWO of their leading lights were forced to issue reluctant apologies/abysmal excuses for being total weapons online. First Alan ‘Shuggsy’ Sugar posted a photo of the Senegal team lineup claiming he’d seen them selling sunglasses on Marbella beach because he’s a fucking dinosaur who claims to not  understand racism, and then Captain, Leader, Bellend John Terry posted an Instagram story of him watching the Morocco-Portugal game with the caption ‘watching this with no volume’. He went on to explain this was because the, er, remote controlled volume in his house wasn’t working and, er, he absolutely wasn’t making an inflammatory remark about Vicky Sparks’ commentary. You’d think that a man who’s just spent the season literally sending a football club in liquidation would be able to afford a television with its own volume control. Apparently not. Anyway, back to Russia.

It’s fair to say that Saudi Arabia hadn’t enjoyed the best of times in their opening game of the tournament in Moscow, and if the tabloid invented threats of ‘punishment’ from the Saudi government weren’t enough to put them on edge ahead of the meeting with Uruguay, then the plane taking them to Rostov for the game catching fire mid-flight would surely do the job. Thankfully the Saudi team landed safely, though the irony of a side nicknamed the Green Falcons experiences flight problems in a private jet is surely lost on no-one. Before their seemingly inevitable sacrifice at the hands of La Celeste, Group B recommenced at the Luzhniki Stadium with a Cristiano Ronaldo XI looking to dump Herve Renard’s crisp white shirts out of the tournament. Portugal looked to be on easy street after four minutes, as Ronaldo scored his fourth of the tournament with a bullet header from Joao Moutinho’s cross. But then, Morocco grew into the game, with Hakim Ziyech in particular causing the Portuguese full-backs problems. Time and time again Morocco were afforded space down the flanks, but despite an armoury loaded with creativity, there was rarely a player in situ to pull the trigger.

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The pressure from Renard’s team continued in the second half, and it looked as though they’d dragged themsevles level as Younes Belhanda met Ziyech’s cross with a powerful downward header, only to see new Wolves stopper Rui Patricio leap across his goal line and throw out a powerful right hand to propel the ball away from goal. For the final half an hour Morocco were camped in the Portuguese half but found themselves unable to find that killer ball, and as the ref waved away a penalty appeal late on, their fate was sealed. All that was left was the opportunity for Pepe to show himself up, throwing his 6’2” frame to the ground after receiving a hearty slap on the back from Mehdi Benatia, in scenes reminiscent of Rivaldo’s embarrassment in 2002. What a complete tosser.  For Morocco, the next four years will surely be spent developing a striker with the killer instinct. Meanwhile, Portugal can claim to have shaken off their ‘one-man team’ tag – how many world class saves has Ronaldo pulled off lately?

Having survived their avain trauma, Saudi Arabia lined up against Uruguay hoping to avoid further embarrassment, with opposition striker Luis Suarez licking his lips at the prospect of facing a defence so low on confidence. Or at least he would have been if his tongue could reach that far. In the event, an out of sorts Uruguay were only able to breach the Saudi’s brave defence once, with Suarez finding himself in the right place at the right time to tap in after ‘keeper Mohamed Alowais had completely missed a Uruguayan corner. La Celeste march on to Monday’s showdown with Russia for top spot, while Saudi Arabia start shopping around for a flight that can actually get them home.

Fernando Hierro’s second match in charge of Spain took him to Kazan to face an Iran side suffering from that most anxiety-inducing of states – having something to lose. The late winner against Morocco meant that another positive result in the group stage could see them progress to the second round of a World Cup for the first time, and Carlos Queiroz wasn’t about to let that opportunity slip by trying to take the game to Spain. Team Melli were solid, compact and hard to break down in the first half, frustrating the Spanish frontline and even forcing Sergio Ramos to puff his chest out and play a little rough.

Queiroz, who it recently emerged had fortunately escaped decapitation at the hands of big scary tough guy and ITV shill Roy Keane during his time at Manchester United, had clearly instructed his charges to keep things tight for an hour before taking the game to Spain, and ten minutes into the second half it looked for a moment as though Karim Ansarifard had executed the plan perfectly, as his strike rippled the side-netting. Football, though, can be the cruellest mistress, and before Jonathan Pearce had finished celebrating an Iran goal, and incisive ball into Diego Costa from Andres Iniesta ricocheted off Iranian defender Ramin Rezaeian, and trickled into the next off the shin of the Atletico Madrid striker. Some guys have all the luck. Queiroz’s side would not be cowed, however, and eight minutes later it look as though they’d found a way back into the game, as Saeid Ezatolahi dispatched from close range, only for VAR to further hinder its popularity by disallowing the goal for offside. Still, the Middle Eastern side poured forward, staking a claim for a point purely through endeavour, though an actual point might have been on the cards had Mehdi Taremi aimed his header six inches lower after good work from Vahid Amiri. That was Team Melli’s last real chance, though they might have carved an opportunity in stoppage time had Milad Mohammadi not wasted thirty seconds by attempting a somersault throw-in. The berk.

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Spain and Portugal looking good to go through as it stands then, but Iran have showed enough so far to suggest they might be able to pinch a win from the Portugal game. Though how popular that might make Carlos Queiroz in his native country is up for debate. Besides the promising performance, there was another positive to come out of the match for Iran, as women were allowed to watch the match both in the stadium in Kazan, and on a big screen projection back in Tehran for the first time in forty years. That such a ban was ever put in place is ludicrous enough, but progression is progression, and another step towards equality should never be dismissed.

 

THURSDAY 21st JUNE 2018

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Denmark kicked off Thursday’s triple header knowing that a win against Australia would put them in touching distance of a first World Cup knockouts appearance since 2002. Kasper Schmeichel’s forcefield act against Peru meant took the Leicester City ‘keeper’s shutout total to 534 minutes, setting a new record for the Denmark national team and eclipsing the 470 minute record set by father Peter in 1995. Australia, though, weren’t arriving in Samara to play the supporting role in a Danish feel-good hit. A positive performance against France in their opening game should have seen the Socceroos get a surprise point, but for a late own goal from Aziz Behich. Manager Bert van Marwijk will have had plenty of positives to take from that defeat, but knew that anything less than a point against Age Hareide’s team would spell the end of Australia’s tournament. Things looked bleak for the Aussies in the opening stages, as Denmark began the game with the same high tempo that saw Peru catch them cold five days earlier, with Nicolai Jorgensen in particular causing headaches for the forest-green clad backline. It looked as though it might be a comfortable day at the office for the Danes when, in the seventh minute, string-puller Christian Eriksen played a one-two with Jorgensen before lashing a half volley into the top corner, leaving Mat Ryan no chance. The Danish onslaught didn’t materialise after that early goal, however, and van Marwijk’s side steadily grew into the game. Eight minutes before the break, Australia were literally handed a way back into the match as, just like against France, a fairly innocuous free-kick into the box led to a penalty being given for handball, but unlike Samuel Umtiti’s brainfart in that opening game, Yussuf Poulsen can consider himself unlucky to have been penalised – a VAR replay decreeing that the RB Leipzig striker had deliberately blocked Matthew Leckie’s header with his hands, despite being inches away when contact was made. A second penalty concession is as many games from the Dane meant he received his second caution of the tournament, and will miss out on the France game, much to Antoine Griezmann’s disappointment. Mile Jedinak’s beard stepped up to cooly slot the penalty into the same place as his last one, and suddenly it was game on.  A fairly incident free second half saw Australia have the best chances of the game, but poor finishing from Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani meant Denmark escaped with a point.

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That result offered a way back into the tournament for Peru, who’d been so unlucky to lose their opener after Christian Cueva’s penalty miss was followed by a host of spurned chances in Saransk. Against France, talisman Paolo Guerrero was brought into the starting lineup at the expense of fellow veteran Jefferson Farfan, while Didier Deschamps ditched the 4-3-3 formation that had proven so ineffective in Les Bleus opening game, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 and installing Olivier Giroud as a focal point for France’s attack. Once again Peru looked to take the game to the opposition from the off, though the difference in quality between France and Denmark was clear to see, with Ricardo Gareca’s side reduced to long range efforts in the opening stages. Giroud’s inclusion looked to pay dividends early doors as his cushioned header gave Griezmann a sight of goal, but Pedro Gallese was equal to the Atletico Madrid striker’s effort. France eventually found themselves on top, however, and ten minutes before the break Giroud’s deflected effort left the Peruvian backline all ends up, before falling kindly for Kylian Mbappe to tap into an unguarded net. The second half saw Peru run out of steam, though not before Pedro Aquino’s stunning long range effort that bounced off the post to safety. Sadly for Gareca’s team, the damage to their campaign was done in that improvident opening match, though the tournament will be poorer for their absence in the second round. France meanwhile are still unconvincing, but at least they’re getting the job done.

The tastiest looking fixture of week two kicked off on Thursday night with an ailing Argentina looking to kick-start their tournament against a Croatia team that finds itself trying to win back supporters. Captain Luka Modric’s part in the trial of football agent Zdravko Mamic, in which the Real Madrid man has been accused of providing false testimony, has led to fans abandoning their national team, though cementing their place in the knockout stage could go some way to building bridges. After his penalty miss against Iceland, all eyes were on Lionel Messi and, as the teams lined up for the national anthems and the TV cameras scanned past him, the expectation looked to be weighing heavily on Argentina’s star man. Even worse, manager Jorge Sampaoli arrived looking as though he’d have to nip off at full time in order to start his shift flyering at the local nightclub. A nervous first half from both sides saw Croatia create the best chances, with Willy Caballero forced to pull off a good save from Ivan Perisic’s angled effort, though Marcos Acuna was unfortunate to see a strike rebound off the crossbar. A largely attritional half ended goalless, though we’re contractually obliged to tell you it was an absorbing half of football.

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In a game that desperately needs a goal you’ll usually have to rely on a moment of pure magic or a mistake of catastrophic proportions, and this Argentina side is more than capable of both, so when Caballero attempted to cutely chip a backpass out to the right wing, only to see it bobble up in the air, Ante Rebic was more than happy to rocket the ball first time into the top corner. An outstanding moment of composure from the Croatian forward, who by rights should have been doubled up in laughter at the Chelsea ‘keeper’s incompetence. Once a number two, always a number two. That concession meant Argentina would have to take a more expansive stance to the game, and Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Pavon were soon thrown into the fray. What little balance the Argentinian midfield had possessed up to this point was now decimated, and Sampaoli’s decision to further weaken the most important part of the pitch by introducing a fifth attacking player allowed Croatia to run riot. Everytime an Argentine attack broke down, Croatia were able to break at pace and in numbers, and with ten minutes left Modric was allowed to waltz across the edge of the penalty area before curling an effort into the bottom corner. Ivan Rakitic’s third, in stoppage time, was a mercy killing, as Croatia toyed with Argentina’s broken defence. The full-time whistle brought pained expressions from those clad in blue and white, their side completely outclassed and out thought on the pitch. Ahead of the game, Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic had said this was his side’s easiest game of the group stage – an opinion less hubristic than it first seems – and he was proven entirely correct.

 

FRIDAY 22nd JUNE 2018

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Tipped by many to win the World Cup this year, Brazil’s performance against Switzerland in their opening match had been a disappointment. All fur coat and no knickers as the noodle-haired Neymar failed to light up the tournament, and a battling Swiss side escaped with a point. Surely then, a fixture against a poor Costa Rica in the Saint Petersburg sunshine would provide the perfect opportunity for the Samba Boys to kickstart their campaign. Unsurprisingly Oscar Ramirez set his side up to frustrate Brazil and aimed to use Marcus Urena’s pace on the counter, though in a lacklustre first half the tournament favourites’ frustrations were all self-inflicted. Gabriel Jesus seemingly spent the opening forty-five minutes testing the new approach to offside as, time and time again, he stood a yard ahead of the Costa Rican defence and conceded a free-kick with his team in promising positions. Philippe Coutinho, meanwhile, looked eager to better his stunning goal against Switzerland by shooting on sight, while Willian put in an abysmal shift down the right, showing a lack of ball control by a Brazilian not seen since Ronaldinho talked himself into marrying two women. Neymar, this week sporting a tribute to Justin Timberlake on his head, was largely anonymous.

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In the second half Brazil stepped things up, but now found Keylor Navas in inspired form. Having seen Jesus’s header bounce back off the crossbar, the Costa Rican keeper then pulled off a spectacular one-on-one save from Neymar, before palming Coutinho’s effort away to safety. Having failed to breach the Navas’ goal by fair means, Neymar then took matters into his own hands, attempting to win a penalty with an atrocious bit of playacting, which VAR fortunately spotted, leaving the forward with egg on his face to compliment those frosted tips. With the game ticking into six minutes of stoppage time, it looked like Costa Rica might just have done enough to earn a point, until Coutinho popped up to slide the ball past Navas and win Brazil the game. Thanks to Neymar’s earlier histrionics, there was still time for the PSG man to add gloss to the scoreline with a 97th minute tap in, before sinking to his knees and pretending to cry, for some reason. Better from Brazil, but still a long way from the level they’ll need to hit to win this thing.

Speaking of histrionics, the reaction to Argentina’s defeat to Croatia on Thursday night could have had you fooled into thinking that the country itself was about to be plunged into the depths of the ocean. While the schooling dished out by Modric and co was undoubtedly a humbling moment for one of football’s most storied nations, anything but an Iceland win in the Friday afternoon game would leave the fate of Sampaoli’s team in their own hands. A World Cup debut for Nigeria’s sought-after kit was the bright spot in an opening half in which Gernot Rohr may as well have fielded eleven mannequins from the Nike store, such was his side’s ineffectiveness. Zero attempts on goal suggested we wouldn’t be seeing much more of those green and black chevrons beyond next week. The Super Eagles’ campaign had lift off four minutes into the second half, however, as Victor Moses motored down the right hand side, finding Ahmed Musa with a cross, which the Leicester City striker looped into the air before lashing into the back of the net. With their #7 clearly in the mood, Nigeria poured forward looking for a goal to seal the points, and after hitting the cross bar with a curling effort from the edge of the box, Musa then tiptoed his way around the Iceland defence to ram home his second of the game and his fourth in World Cup competiton – the highest of any Nigerian player in the history of the tournament. Iceland were given a late route back into the game as Tyronne Ebuehi brought down Finn Bodvarsson, but Gylfi Sigurdsson’s usually trusty right foot sent the spot kick over the bar. That win for Nigeria makes the final set of games in Group D extremely intriguing, with Iceland knowing nothing less than a win against old foes Croatia will see them thunderclapping all the way home. For Nigeria, a draw against Argentina in their quadrennial meeting may well be enough to see them through. Argentina, meanwhile, will have to win and hope that Croatia can do them a favour. It’s all to play for.

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Serbia would be hoping they could join their Balkan neighbours in the second round with a win against Switzerland in Kaliningrad, having taken a hard-earned three points against Costa Rica. Switzerland arguably found themselves in a better position, with an unexpected point against Brazil meaning victory over Serbia with Costa Rica to come would put them in the driving seat to potentially top the group. The inclusion of proud Kosovans Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka added a political flavour to proceedings, though the occasion wasn’t about to get to Serbia, for whom human battering ram Aleksander Mitrovic began the game champing at the bit. After seeing Yann Sommer save his header in the opening minutes, the Newcastle man gave Switzerland’s keeper far less chance with his next effort, glancing Dusan Tosic’s cross high into the net. The single goal lead at the break never looked like being enough to secure the win for Serbia, and just seven minutes into the second half the Swiss were level. Shaqiri’s effort rebounded off the back of a Serbian defender, and Xhaka, presumbly attempting a hoofed clearance, smashed the ball past a prone Vladimir Stojkovic. Switzerland, having dragged themselves level, began to exert more dominance in the game, but were more than a little fortunate not to concede a penalty when Mitrovic was slammed to the floor by two Swiss defenders in scenes reminiscent of Scotty Too Hotty and Grandmaster Sexay attempting to fell Big Show on Raw is War. The video assistant referee, clearly a fan of the Attitude Era, appears be taking a lenient approach when it comes to wrasslin’ in the box. Either that or Earl Hebner somehow found his way into the VAR Room. Having survived that scare, Switzerland then broke in stoppage time and power cube Shaqiri was given the freedom of Kaliningrad to run clear on goal, before sliding his shot beyond Stojkovic to earn a last gasp win. Vladmir Petkovic’s side now within reach of the second round, leaving a naive Serbia needing to do what no side has since Hungary in 1966 – knock Brazil out of the World Cup group stage.

 

SATURDAY 23rd JUNE 2018

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With France and Brazil so far unconvincing after two games, Belgium had a chance to make their claim as serious contenders for the tournament by making it six points out of six against Tunisia in Moscow. Their job was made considerably easier in the sixth minute when Eden Hazard was felled in the area, and the Chelsea man cooly dispatched the penalty to give the Red Devils an early lead. Much as they did in the opening stages against England, Tunisia looked all at sea, the difference being that Belgium possess more than one natural finisher, though it was the most prolific one that doubled their lead on sixteen minutes, Romelu Lukaku taking Dries Mertens through ball in his stride before lashing home. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Roberto Martinez’s men in the first half, as Tunisia pulled a goal back through Dylan Bronn two minutes later, but on the stroke of half-time a trademark Lukaku dinked finish restored Belgium’s two goal lead. From then on the men from the lowlands never looked in danger of dropping points, and Hazard’s second of the game was followed by a cameo from abysmal shots-to-goals ratio’s Michy Batshuayi who, having smashed an effort against the bar from eight yards out, diverted Kevin De Bruyne’s pass into the bottom corner for Belgium’s fifth. There was still time for Wahbi Khazri to add a second for Tunisia, but the North Africans were never really at the races, and will need more than a couple of surprises to stay in the competition. The manner in which Belgium dominated brought focus on England’s result against Tunisia, but given Nabil Maâloul’s team were forced to come out and play in a bid to get a result, their spoiling tactics from the opening game were never likely to hinder Lukaku and co.

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Mexico were hoping they could put one foot in the second round with a win against a South Korea side that offered little in their opening game against Sweden, though much-maligned coach Juan Carlos Osorio might have woken up in a cold sweat on the eve of the game and realised that, having spent six months preparing for the game against Germany, his side were now ill-equipped to deal with the Taeguek Warriors. Thankfully in this World Cup there’s always a penalty around the corner, and once again South Korea provided as Jang Hyun-soo handled Andres Guardardo’s cross, and Carlos Vela stepped up to convert the 14th penalty of Russia 2018 – surpassing the 13 spot-kicks awarded throughout the whole of Brazil 2014. With South Korea failing to exert any kind of pressure on the Mexican backline, there was plenty of opportunity for goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo to further enhance his reputaton, pulling off a spectacular save from Guardardo in the second half. Minutes later, however, Javier Hernandez wrapped up the points for El Tri, finishing off from a trademark Mexican counter attacker spearheaded by Hirving Lozano. Son Heung-min did finally give the South Korea supporters something to cheer in stoppage time with a delightful long range finish, but even in other results go their way, it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing any more of the 2002 semi-finalists after the final group games.

The gargantuan game on Saturday night brought the distinct possibility of the world witnessing something which hadn’t occured since 1938 – no, not a fascist leader throwing his toys out of the pram, that’s a daily occurence in 2018, but Germany being eliminated in the first round of a World Cup. The defeat to Mexico in their opening game had left the holders with, perhaps not a mountain to climb but certainly a hill with a tricky incline, and having seen Sweden stoutly shut-out Italy to make it to the tournament, the chances of another bus parking job seemed likely. Die Mannschaft did at least start the game on the front foot, peppering Robin Olsen’s goal in the opening stages, but when Marcus Berg ran clean through on goal and had his heels clipped by Jerome Boateng, it looked light the German nightmare may be about to become a reality. Remarkably, though, the referee didn’t award Sweden the penalty they so clearly deserved, and Boateng escaped a certain red card. For the second time in twenty-four hours, the validity of VAR was brought into question. With Germany visibly rattled, Sweden took the opportunity to get in behind once again, and this time made no mistake as the usually scoresheet-averse Ola Toivenon lobbed the onrushing Manuel Neuer to give Janne Andersson’s side a scandalous lead. Germany almost got themselves back into the game as Olsen pulled off an acrobatic save from Ilkay Gundogan, though at the the other end Neuer was forced into a full-length stretch to keep Berg from doubling the Swedes’ lead. At the half-time whistle, Germany were staring down the barrel of elimination, and Jogi Low was running out of orifices to pick at.

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In true German style, however, the fun wasn’t allowed to last for long, and three minutes into the second half Timo Werner’s cross was bundled in by Marco Reus, and suddenly the four time champions’ tournament hopes were given new life. The pressure on the Swedish goal then ramped up considerably, but just as they had at the San Siro in November, Sweden’s backline stood firm, limiting Germany to long range efforts which Olsen comfortably dealt with. Then, with less than ten minutes to go, Boateng clattered into Berg and received his marching orders for a second yellow card – suddenly Germany weren’t so comfortable. Despite having the man advantage, Sweden were unable to stem the tide of white shirts swarming towards their goal, but when Julian Brandt smashed an effort against the post in the second minute of stoppage time, it looked as though any hope of three points for Low and co. had been extinguished. And then? A lazy, laboured and most of all late challenge from substitute Jimmy Durmaz on the left hand side of the penalty area in the 95th minute gave Germany one last chance to throw a ball into the box, but then that wouldn’t be the most efficient route to goal would it? Instead, Toni Kroos rolled the ball to Reus, the Dortmund man killed it, and Kroos followed up with a whipped effort that curled round Sweden’s innefective two-man wall, over the despairing reach of Olsen, and into the top corner to send Germany wild, perhaps changing the outlook of their tournament completely. Bloody typical.

SUNDAY 24th JUNE 2018

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A traditional Sunday roast with a difference kicked off proceedings for the final day of the second matchweek, with Belgium having set down a marker against Tunisia twenty-four hours earlier, England knew that a healthy winning margin, and perhaps more importantly a convincing performance, against minnows Panama would be required in order to stake their claim for the top spot in Group G. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was brought in for the injured Dele Alli after his impressive cameo against Tunisia, but the opening moments suggested Gareth Southgate’s men might be in for a bruising enounter, with Jesse Lingard the recipient of a stray elbow to the schnoz in the second minute that brought no censure for Panama’s Dario Gomez. English tension dissipated in the eighth minute when, from yet another Kieran Trippier corner, John Stones was left unmarked to power in a header and give England an early lead. From then on, Panama were the architects of their own downfall, as twenty minutes in Lingard was felled by Fidel Escobar, and Harry Kane stepped up to smash a pinpoint penalty into the top corner. By now England were playing with freedom and fluidity, and added a third ten minutes before the break, after Lingard played a slick one-two with Raheem Sterling before arcing a shot from the edge of the box in off the bar. Four minutes later it was four, as Stones jumped on a rebound to head in his second of the game, and take himself level with Alan Shearer and above Wayne Rooney for goals scored at a World Cup finals. There was still time for Panama to concede another penalty, this time for wrestling at a corner (oh you’ve changed you tune, VAR), which Kane once again dispatched with aplomb. England 5-0 up at half-time, already breaking their record for goals in a World Cup game.

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Understandably the pace and urgency from the Three Lions dropped in the second half, though Kane was still able to expertly stand in the way of Loftus-Cheek’s effort, deflecting it past Jaime Penedo to complete his hat-trick, England’s first since 1986, before making way for Jamie Vardy. Felipe Baloy managed to pull one back for Panama to score their first ever goal at a World Cup finals and send their supporters into a frenzy. It’s easy to forget how much even being at the tournament means to some of those nations that aren’t blessed with a conveyor belt of footballing talent, and the broad grin on the face of Panama manager Hernán Darío Gómez as he saluted the goal will remain one of the enduring images of the tournament. Sometimes its not the winning that counts. England then, through to the second round, with a showdown against Belgium on Thursday to decide who tops the group. Arguably Group G’s winners will fall into the ‘harder’ part of the draw, but on the evidence so far a game against Brazil or Germany might not be the end of the road.

Group H, touted pre-tournament as the most intriguing group, further enhanced by the so-called ‘weaker’ sides both taking three points in the opening games, rounded off the week’s action, with Japan and Senegal meeting in the afternoon match and looking to grasp the initiative in the group. The Samurai Blue had surprised many with their performance against Colombia, albeit against ten men, but knew Senegal would provide a different proposition all together. That proved the case as, after a strong start, the Africans took an eleventh minute lead thanks to the unfortunate Kawashima. Youssef Sabaly’s effort on goal was punched away by the Japanese ‘keeper, only to see the ball bounce off the attendant Sadio Mane and into the net. Rather than crumble, Japan regroup and grew into the game, and ten minutes before the break winger Takashi Inui curled a delightful effort into the bottom corner to bring the scores level. A frantic, free-flowing game which saw Senegal have the best of the play looked as though it might be settled by Moussa Wague’s 70th minute goal, as the 19 year old right back appeared at the back post to finish off a sweeping Senegalese move, only for veteran Keisuke Honda to pop up eight minutes later and tap home after a mistake by Khadim N’Diaye. Honours even after a thrilling game, with both sides needing just a draw for their final matches in order to progress.

Two sides who’ve escaped much of the tournament criticism thanks to their ailing rivals met at the Kazan Arena looking to kick-start their tournaments. Poland put in a dispiriting performance against Senegal in their opener, offering little coherence in midfield and even less threat up front, while the third minute expulsion of Carlos Sanchez put Colombia on the back-foot immediately against Japan. A scrappy first half hardly befitting of two sides with such skill at their disposal was lit up in the 40th minutes, as a well worked Colombian move resulted in Yerry Mina nodding in James Rodriguez’s cross. That goal opened the game up, with Poland now facing elimination unless they could find a second-half goal or two, and their suicidal disregard for defence played right into the hands of Jose Pekerman’s side. It took until the 70th minute for Colombian to get their second, but it arrived from an incisive counter attack that split Poland open, as Juan Quintero’s through ball allowed Radamel Falcao to stream through on goal and stroke the ball beyond Wojciech Szczesny and into the far corner. A lovely moment for the Monaco striker, who cruelly missed out on the 2014 World Cup through injury. With game and set already in the bag, Colombia sealed the match just five minutes later as Poland’s high line was made to pay thanks to a delicious ball from Rodriguez that landed in the stride of Juan Cuadrado, and the former Chelsea man slotted home to put the cherry on Colombia’s cake. Poland possessed all the vitality of one of their famous dumplings, and justifiably have been sent packing from the tournament at the first opportunity. The showdown between Colombia and Senegal on Thursday looks to be unmissable.

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Exactly half-way through the World Cup then, with 32 games already played. After a mini-slump in the middle of week two, a weekend of late drama and a metric fuck-ton of goals has breathed new life into Russia 2018. The nine teams already headed for the departure lounge will be joined by seven more come Friday morning, with plenty of scope for some shocking exits. Cue Andrea Bocelli…

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