Throughout the 2018 World Cup we’ll be keeping a diary of all the activity on and off the pitch, keeping you informed on the hoopla and the ballyhoo in Russia, and foolishly writing teams off before watching agog as they recover spectacularly. In Part Three its the final set of group games, as more late drama sees the resurrection of the dirty-faced angels, while the hosts suffer a rude awakening.
MONDAY 25th JUNE 2018
There’s sensation that football fans feel at the beginning of the final set of group games at a World Cup that’s akin to the gnawing hopelessness that appears in the pit of your stomach at around nine o’clock on Christmas morning. After all the hype and excitement, it seems like everything is ending before it even began, and a dark cloud of existential dread casts its merciless shadow over you for the next four years. Thankfully the 2018/19 club season officially got underway this week with Champions League qualifiers, so any impending anxiety about The Football ever ending can be cast aside for another twelve months at least. Plus, we’re only halfway through what’s turning out to be a humdinger of a World Cup. The first two weeks have given us shocks (GERMANY LOSE), surprises (RUSSIA CAPABLE OF HOSTING A TOURNAMENT WITHOUT CAUSING AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT), and moments of unbridled joy (A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL – PANAMA), and yet there’s still some joyless mouthbreathers insisting this is *adopts whiny, nasal voice* the worst world cup ever. Well, having yet to see a goalless draw (and I for once can’t see that changing anytime soon…), and with plenty of drama provided solely by VAR, there’s plenty that disagree with that steaming hot take. And while the final set of group games always throws up a couple of dead rubbers, there’s still wonderful stories and jaw-dropping moments to emerge in every game.
Take Group A for example. With Uruguay and Russia already pencilled in to the last sixteen, the only thing left to play for in the final game was placement, and for Saudi Arabia and Egypt pride was at stake. Since defeat to Russia confirmed their early exit from the competition there have have been rumbles that all is not well in the Egyptian camp, with Mohamed Salah in particular growing tired of being used as a political pawn in his native country. Ahead of their final game, an apparent teamsheet leak showed Salah omitted from the starting line-up, though confirmation followed that he was in fact in the first XI – imagine the Ronaldo debacle from France ’98 but performed by an amateur dramatics society. Joining Salah was goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, becoming, at 45 and 161 days, the oldest player to appear at a World Cup finals.
Meanwhile, in Samara, hosts Russia were given their first big test of the competition as they faced a Uruguay side yet to truly come to life, having limped past Egypt and Saudi Arabia with a pair of 1-0 wins. The introduction of Genoa midfielder Diego Laxalt at left wing-back looked a masterstroke from Oscar Tabarez as Russia struggled to handle Uruguay’s pace down the flanks, and quickly fell two goals behind. Luis Suarez’s clever free-kick, aided by some dunderheaded play from Denis Cheryshev and the immobility of Igor Akinfeev, set the ball rolling for La Celeste, before Laxalt’s long-range effort deflected in off Cheryshev to put Tabarez’s side in control of the group. Igor Smolnikov’s two yellow cards saw the hosts reduced to ten before the break, and facing the distinct possibility of their healthy goal difference accrued in the first two games being wiped out.
Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan was having a busy first half in Volgograd too as, having seen Salah give Egypt the lead with a deft lob and an understated celebration, the official that caused so much controversy by not awarding England two penalties in their meeting with Tunisia then offered Saudi Arabia a route back into the game after Ahmed Fathy was adjudged to have handled in the box. The script, of course, had already been written, and when Fahad Al Muwallad aimed his kick at the bottom left corner, El-Hadary leaped like a (very old) cat to palm the ball onto the crossbar for his defence to clear. A magical moment that lasted all too briefly, as Roldan awarded a second penalty to the Green Falcons in first half stoppage time with the assistance of VAR after a pull from Ali Gabr, and the man named after a particularly unappetising dish cooked by the King of the Gammons, Salman Al Faraj, stepped up to dispatch Saudi Arabia’s first goal of Russia 2018.
With so little at stake it was no surprise to see both games peter out in the second half, though there was time for Edinson Cavani to score his third goal at a World Cup with a scrappy finish from a corner, while Salem Al Dawsari upset the odds with a 95th minute winner to leave Egypt bottom of Group A, and several football writers and pundits red-faced.
The climax of Group B offered a little more jeopardy, with Portugal and Iran meeting in what looked like a straight shootout for second place, given the likelihood of Spain seeing off pointless and goalless Morocco. Herve Renard’s side, though, have offered plenty in this World Cup to suggest that they’re capable of mixing it with the best, and Khalid Boutaïb finally ended the Atlas Lions’ drought in the fourteenth minute, further extending David De Gea’s saveless run. Spain poster boy Isco equalised five minutes later, and it looked as though normal order had been restored, but Youssef En-Nesyri’s 81st minute strike put Spanish progress into jeopardy if the result in the other game went against them…
A tense first half in Saransk was heading to a goalless conclusion, with Iran knowing only a win would keep them in the competition but still maintaining their disciplined defensive shape, and then Ricardo Quaresma did what Ricardo Quaresma does best, and opened the game up with a stupendous outside-of-the-boot finish from twenty yards that curled extravagantly into the top corner. Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres then began to lose the plot. His award of a Portuguese penalty in the 53rd minute left Iran manager Carlos Queiroz enraged, though Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t about to stop competing with Lionel Messi, and hit a weak effort that Alireza Beiranvand saved. Then, ten minutes from time, Ronaldo appeared to aim a petulant elbow at an Iranian defender and looked as though he might be given his marching orders, only for Caceres to inexplicably show the Portugal captain a yellow – either he elbowed the defender or he didn’t, so where’s the grey area? There was still time for one more moment of controversy, as Iran were sensationally awarded the softest of penalties after Cedric Soares had headed the ball onto his arm. Karim Ansarifard emphatically dispatched the Paraguayan gift and, with Spain losing another Iranian goal would mean both Portgual and Team Melli would make it through to the second round.
Ironcially it would be the model example of VAR usage that would see Spain top the group, as Iago Aspas’ goal in the dying seconds had been orignally ruled out for offside, but then given after review – a fact that enraged Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat, who offered his views on the technology to the watching world by shouting ‘VAR? It’s BULLSHIT’ down a camera. Perhaps, Nordin, but it’s nowhere near as bullshit as your team’s chance conversion at this tournament. All of which meant that a second Iran goal in Saransk would now see Portugal eliminated, and a minute after that equalising penalty Mehdi Taremi was afforded a golden opportunity, but could only skew his effort into the side-netting, taking Iran top of the group on phantom goals. The final whistle saw Iran’s players collapse to the floor, but both they and Morocco can be extremely proud of their efforts in this competiton. Neither were given much chance of progressing, but both gave Portugal and Spain a scare, and will see their performance as a sign of serious progress. Meanwhile in media offices across the world, the foaming fury surrounding VAR went into overdrive.
TUESDAY 26th JUNE 2018
With the first couple of second round fixtures sharpied onto the wall chart, attention turned to the curious case of Group C, where the best team had already been eliminated. True, Peru don’t possess a superstar like Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba or Christian Eriksen (and if they did they wouldn’t have been heading home so early), but the joyful abandon in their style of play, those iconic sash kits, and the vibrancy of their following has made them one of the most watchable sides in this tournament. Their curtain call in Russia was against an Australia side that knew anything but a win would see them follow Peru into the departure lounge, regardless of the result between France and Denmark. It’s a shame, then, that Bert van Marwijk’s team left their worst perfomance for last, as Peru approached the game as if it were the final, starting on the front-foot and taking it to the opposition. Those Peruvian fans that had spent life-savings and travelled thousands of miles to support their team were finally rewarded in the eighteenth minute, and how. Paolo Guerrero, who in a touching pre-match moment had embraced Aussie captain Mile Jedinak for his part in reinstating the Flamengo forward at the tournament, drifted a ball across the penalty area, and Watford’s Andre Carillo arrived to drill a volley into the bottom corner and send the red and white corner into raptures. At the same time in Moscow, nothing was happening between Denmark and France.
Five minutes after half time Australia’s fate was sealed as Guerrero finally got his World Cup goal, twisting smartly to turn in by the penalty spot. Peru’s performances across the three games finally getting their just deserts, and hopefully this won’t be the last time we see them at a major tournament for another 36 years – there’s plenty of young talent in this squad, and with a match-fit and firing striker they could be a side to fear in future. Over in Moscow, nothing was happening between Denmark and France. Literally nothing. The first goalless draw of the tournament eliciting boos from the assembled 78,000 crowd, as a mutually beneficial borefest took both sides through.
In another excellent slice of serendipitous scheduling the Tuesday evening games promised lashings of drama, with three sides in Group D still in with a chance of joining Croatia in the last sixteen. Iceland knew nothing less than a win against the group leaders would do, while Nigeria could secure their passage by beating Argentina, and potentially still make it through with a draw. The outlook was bleak for the two-time winners, with murmurs behind the scenes suggesting that coach Jorge Sampaoli had all but been sacked after that 3-0 humbling by Croatia, with a players committee now taking charge of team selection and tactics. In the cauldronlike atmosphere of the Krestovsky Stadium, with Diego Maradona watching on like a deity on a bender, Lionel Messi finally made his mark on this World Cup, taking Ever Banega’s inch perfect pass down on his thigh, delicately teeing himself up for the shot and then rocketing a finish into the top corner. Advantage Argentina.
After Messi’s half-time team talk in the tunnel, La Albiceleste returned for the second-half knowing that, as things stood, they’d scraped out of the group. Six minutes after the break, however, and that now familiar sinking feeling set in as Javier Mascherano – whose fading talents seem to have deserted him completely in the last fortnight – was penalised for holding Leon Balogun at a corner and, after some violent protestations from the Argentinian players, Victor Moses stepped up to dispatch the penalty, level the scores and, as thing stood, send Nigeria through at Argentina’s expense. Milan Badelj’s close-range finish for Croatia in Rostov minutes later looked to spell the end for Iceland, and with Argentina beginning to run out of ideas, it looked as though the Super Eagles had done enough to squeeze into second place. With Sampaoli on the touchline looking like a spare dick at an orgy and Mascherano charging round the pitch pissing blood from his forehead, Argentina’s meltdown button had well and truly been pressed, and could have gone into overdrive had Marcos Rojo been penalised for an accidental handball that required a VAR check. News of an Iceland equaliser, from a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty, emerged from the other game, meaning there were still three teams in this scrap, but like Argentina they would need a second goal to have any chance of progressing. Then, out of nowhere, Gabriel Mercado’s cross found an unmarked Rojo, and the centre-back sent a blistering volley into the bottom corner to send Argentina wild. Maradona, looking worse for wear in the stands, aimed a couple of middle fingers to the Nigerian fans, and like a bolt from the blue his country had once again risen. A 90th minute winner from Ivan Perisic, scored on the counter as Iceland pushed for a winner, wiped out any chance of there being a sting in the tail for Messi and co, and the final whistle sparked a carnival of celebration. Somehow, someway, just as they always seemed to do, Argentina had done it, and Messi’s World Cup dream was still alive. Their meeting with France, the first game of the second round, promises to be a spectacle.
WEDNESDAY 26th JUNE 2018
The first couple of days in the final matchweek had seen plenty of drama in the evening fixtures, but relative serenity during the afternoon – something that looked unlikely to change as Group F reconvened. Germany looked to have recovered from that surprise defeat against Mexico in their opening game after Toni Kroos’ late winner sank Sweden on matchday two, leaving Die Mannschaft just needing to beat the pointless South Korea to progress. Mexico and Sweden meanwhile met in Yekaterinburg in what looked like a straight shootout to join the Germans in the second round. A tense first half saw the Swedes have the better of the play, with Juan Carlos Osorio’s team looking ill at ease with Janne Andersson’s slightly more agricultural style of play. At half-time, though, the Mexicans topped the group, and Germany had yet to score.
Five minutes into the second half, however, cat and pigeons aligned. Viktor Claesson’s ball across the Mexico penalty area found Ludwig Augustinsson, and the Werder Bremen full-back volleyed the ball past Guillermo Ochoa to take Sweden top of the group, and leave Mexico’s place in the tournament in serious jeopardy. Any hopes of a Mexico comeback were quickly extinguished as Andreas Granqvist buried his second penalty of the competition after Hector Moreno had slid through the legs of Marcus Berg. Out of nowhere, Sweden were now popping the ball around the pitch and exuding confidence, while Mexico disappeared into themselves, now resigned to relying on the fragile South Korea to keep out the World Cup holders in the other game. In Kazan, Germany were heading out thanks to a deadly cocktail of striker profligacy and goalkeeping inspiration. Cho Hyun-woo, the Taeguek Warriors standout performer in Russia and perhaps the best goalkeeper in the group stages, was once again pulling off montage-worthy saves, denying Leon Goretzka from close range, and seeing Timo Werner blast a volley wide from ten yards out. With twenty minutes to go, Germany were camped in the South Korea half, but still couldn’t find a way through. Meanwhile Edson Alvarez’s comedic own goal had all but confirmed Sweden’s passage in the last sixteen – but provided Cho could keep up his heroics, Mexico would be joining them and, sensationally Germany would be out.
Still Joachim Low’s team poured forward, but all the cliches were evading the holders. There was no brutal efficiency. No clinical finishing. No nerves of steel. Germany were panicking, and in the 87th minute Mats Hummels bounced Joshua Kimmich’s cross off his shoulder and wide. Nothing was falling for the four-time world champions. Then South Korea get a corner, it’s worked into the box, there’s a scramble of legs and the ball falls to Kim Young-gwon and time seems to slow, and Germany look confused, and the world finds it difficult to believe what its seeing, and Kim Young-gwon fires a shot at goal, and Manuel Neuer desperately stretches to reach it and Kim Young-gwon scores! The Guangzhou Evergrande defender wheels away in celebration but the linesman has his flag up for offside. A reprieve for Germany? Just a stay of execution as, having checked the replay, referee Mark Geiger awarded the goal. South Korea take the lead, in the 91st minute. Germany need two to avoid the ignominy of their first ever group stage exit, and their first elimination at this stage of the tournament for eighty years. Desperate times call for desperate measures and Neuer, playing less a sweeper keeper and more a box-to-box midfielder now, forays up field, gets caught in possession, and Ju Se-jong hoofs the ball upfield, towards the unguarded German goal, where Son Heung-min taps in to confirm the inconceivable. Germany out of the World Cup. In the groups. The fourth holders in the last five tournaments to fall at the first hurdle. Incredible.
At the start of the day bookies were offering odds of 50/1 for both Germany and Brazil to be eliminated at the group stage, and with a tricky looking fixture against Serbia, there were no guarantees that the Selecao would be taking their place in the last sixteen. Having stumbled against Switzerland, it took two stoppage time goals against Costa Rica to kick-start the Brazilian campaign, and the prospect of taking on a physical Serbian team – who had to win in order to progress – won’t have filled Tite and his team with confidence. In Nizhny Novgorod, Switzerland were aiming to top the group with a healthy win against a so-far goalless Costa Rica, and Blerim Džemaili’s header just past the half hour mark put them on their way. Minutes later, a delightful floated through ball from Brazil’s star man of the tournament Philippe Coutinho found a clever run from Barcelona team-mate Paulinho, and the former Spurs flop finished with aplomb to put the favourites on easy street. Kendall Waston’s second-half equaliser for Costa Rica made things ever-so-slightly less comfortable for the Swiss, but after sustaining a five minute period of sustained pressure from Serbia, during which Aleksander Mitrovic missed a golden opportunity to equalise, Thiago Silva headed Neymar’s corner home to wrap up the points and sent the Serbs packing. Džemaili’s second goal of the night looked to have earned Switzerland a win against Costa Rica late on, but the Central Americans were awarded a penalty in added time, which Bryan Ruiz smashed off the post, only for the ball to bounce in off Swiss ‘keeper Yann Sommer. A straightforward evening of action after a remarkable afternoon, with Brazil looking good to go deep in the tournament, despite having yet to hit their best form.
THURSDAY 27th JUNE 2018
The final four games of the group stage kicked off on Thursday afternoon, with three sides in Group H still in with a chance of progressing. Colombia’s campaign was put on the skids after three minutes of their opening match against Japan, as Carlos Sanchez was sent off for a deliberate handball and Shinji Kagawa put the Samurai Blue on their way to a 2-1 win, but Sunday’s demolition of Poland hinted that there’s plenty of beans left in The Coffee Growers yet. Their meeting with Senegal in Samara came down to the simple fact that whoever won would automatically progress, but a whole host of permutations meant the result between Japan and Poland could be decisive. With both sides looking to take the initiative, it looked as though Senegal might strike the first blow when Davinson Sanchez was penalised for a suspected trip on Sadio Mane in the box. Thankfully, the video assistant referee was on hand to clear up and confusion, with replays showing that Sanchez had in fact pulled off an excellent tackle, and Senegal’s joy was short-lived. Over in Volgograd, an incident-free half was played out, with Poland playing for pride and Japan looking decidedly disinterested.
The outlook changed dramatically just before the hour mark when Southampton defender Jan Bednarek volleyed Poland into the lead, meaning Japan would either have to go in search of a goal or hope for a breakthrough in Samara. Echoes of Radamel Falcao charging around the pitch in Lima and informing every player on the pitch that a draw would take both Peru and Colombia to the World Cup back in November sprang to mind, but on this occasion Jose Pekerman’s team weren’t about to rest on their laurels, and Yerry Mina’s header fifteen minutes from time sent Colombia top of the group, leaving Japan and Senegal level on points, goal difference and goals scored, but with the likelihood that the African side would be eliminated on Fair Play points. With the news of Mina’s goal filtering through to Volgograd, the 42,000 strong crowd were treated to the bizarre spectacle of Nishino introducing Makoto Hasebe, a defensive midfielder, in order to cling on to the 1-0 defeat that would send them through. The game then lurched from oddity to farce as Japan rolled the ball around their own half to prevent any opportunity of receiving further bookings that would see Senegal leapfrog them. Meanwhile, Aliou Cisse’s team were throwing the kitchen sink at David Ospina’s goal, but were unable to find the target. The final whistle marked a moment of history, as Senegal became the first team knocked out of a World Cup on yellow cards – the two bookings picked up in stoppage time against Japan proving costly. It also meant that, for the first time since 1982, there would be no African representation in a World Cup knockout stage.
All the talk surrounding the denouement of Group G centred on whether England or Belgium should play to finish second in the group, thereby finding themselves in the ‘easier’ side of the draw. The debate between ‘momentum’ and ‘higher chance of progression’ was somewhat tempered by the news that Colombia had topped Group H, and would be laying in wait for the runner-up in Moscow on Tuesday. England boss Gareth Southgate had insisted that he wouldn’t go out looking to lose the game, while his opposite number Roberto Martinez all but fucked the whole caper off, referring to the game as a ‘celebration’, and suggesting that he’d essentially be fielding a second string side. When the teams were announced it was clear that Southgate too was keen to “get some minutes” into the legs of his fringe players, as England themselves made eight changes to the side that beat Panama. What followed was barely an exhibition match, as neither side looked interested in winning the game. Two first-half Belgian bookings meant that the chances of England finishing second on fair play were slim-to-none, but Adnan Januzaj did Southgate a favour six minutes into the second half, as he stepped inside Danny Rose before arcing an effort over Jordan Pickford to win the game for Belgium. Judging by Martinez’s reaction to the goal, it wasn’t entirely well received on the Red Devils bench. Still, for such an unforgettable game it did produce one of the moments of the tournament – Michy Bastshuayi belting the ball off the post and into his own face in celebration of the goal. The kind of moment that makes you pine for the days of Vine.
In the other Group G game, Panama were given another moment to savour as Yassine Meriah, with his name like a Geordie enquiring about the whereabouts of her favourite Venzuelan-American Diva, put through his own net to give the Canalmen a lead against Tunisia, before second half goals from Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Wahbi Khazri earned the North Africans their first World Cup win since 1978. Panama do at least go home with the Fair Play wooden spoon, having picked up a staggering eleven yellow cards in three games. Brutal.
That’s the group stage done with then, and after a few accusations of this being the worst World Cup EVER, its so far offered enough thrills, spills, shocks and stunners to rank up there with some of the best tournaments we’ve seen. Now the serious business starts – it’s Sweden’s to lose, surely?