World Cup Diary Part Four: Mama Said Knock You Out

Throughout  the 2018 World Cup we’ll be keeping a diary of all the activity on and off the pitch, casting our eyes over every game in Russia, and attempting to pin down who on Earth might actually win this thing. In Part Four we’ve reached the second round, but the shocks don’t stop, and nor does the last gasp drama.

 

FRIDAY 29th JUNE 2018

No football. Checked the news, which made me depressed. Completely forgot what life outside a World Cup is like. It’s hell out there. Please, never let this tournament end. Beans on toast for dinner.

 

SATURDAY 30th JUNE 2018

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Like a dog introducing itself to a stranger down the park, we’re at the business end of the competition. With half of those that arrived in Russia just over a fortnight ago already heading home, there remains sixteen teams with a chance of adding their names to the pantheon of football’s legends. Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Sessions. The eight second round games threw up a couple of potential slobberknockers, and none hummed more dings than France v Argentina. Having scraped through their group by the skin of Lionel Messi’s teeth, few gave Argentina much chance against a side that, on paper, possess one of the most fearsome squads in the competition. Unfortunately for Didier Deschamps, football isn’t played on paper, and so far his side have been less ‘va va voom’ and a little more ‘I can’t believe I’ve accidentally put unleaded in AGAIN’. For their first knockout game the former national team captain made a slight tactical tweak – Blaise Matuidi, usually a central midfield enforcer, was hoyed out onto the left wing, presumably to provide extra cover in the face of Argentina’s star man. So it would’ve been with some peturbation that the French coach discovered that Messi Jorge Sampaoli had moved himself Messi into the middle, in a false nine role, with Angel Di Maria and Cristian Pavon providing width.

Luckily France didn’t have to pay too much attention to their opponents frontline in the opening stages, with Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe giving a brittle back four plenty to think about. A foul on Mbappe by the leaden-legged Javier Mascherano in the opening stages leading to Griezmann thwacking a free-kick against the crossbar. With Argentina slowly feeling themselves into the game, a stray ball on the edge of the French penalty area was picked up by Mbappe, and the teenager set off on a spectacular race towards goal, stopped in his tracks by Marcos Rojo after seventy yards and earning a penalty. Griezmann rolled it down the middle, did some kind of youth culture celebration, some old men yelled at some clouds, and a sedate Diego Maradona looked to the heavens. As soon as France took the lead there was a feeling the floodgates might open, though Paul Pogba’s wild free-kick minutes later could only draw looks of disgust from his brothers in the stands, and slowly but surely Sampaoli’s side got a foothold in the game. The Argentinian supporters would have been relieved to reach half-time just one goal down, so when Di Maria shifted the ball onto his right and blasted an effort beyond the reach of Hugo Lloris, their delight and surprise was palpable. From nowhere Argentina were back in it, with the Paris Saint Germain winger offering a reminder of why he was once one the most expensive import to the Premier League.

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France emerged for the second half dazed and confused, unsure of how they hadn’t put the game to bed in the first half, and clearly their minds were elsewhere when Messi picked up the ball on the edge of the box, fired at goal, and watched as Gabriel Mercado’s standing foot deflected it wickedly, leaving Lloris no chance of making a save. From nowhere, Argentina were now in the driving seat for the quarter-final place. Sadly La Albiceleste know the danger of getting used to a good thing, and within ten minutes they’d been pegged back. Left-back Lucas Hernandez rampaged down the wing and lifted the ball across the penalty area, only to see it met by the surprising figure of fellow full-back Benjamin Pavard, who caught the ball with an absolute French kiss of a strike, watching as his volley sailed at top speed past Franco Armani. Suits you, sir. At that point, Argentina heads dropped, and it looked as though only one side would go on to win the game. Seven minutes later, Matuidi saw his shot saved, but Mbappe was on hand to turn in the rebound and put the French back in front. Then, with Argentina desperately throwing bodies forward, a France counter led by Giroud was executed with a scintillating finish from Mbappe, the PSG striker becoming the first teenager to score a brace in a World Cup match since Pele in the 1958 final. Erectile dysfunction awaits. The game then descended into a kicking match, with France happy to stoop to Argentina’s level by sticking the boot in where necessary; Matuidi’s chippiness earning him a booking that rules him out of the quarter final. As if the prior ninety minutes hadn’t been enough, there was still time for some late drama, as Sergio Aguero’s header reduced the deficit to one, and from the kick off Argentina fashioned one final chance, but Messi’s floater glanced across the face of goal as French hearts retreated back down French throats. As soon as the final whistle had sounded, questions regarding Lionel Messi’ future began to circulate, and if it’s symbolism you’re looking for then this could be the moment the baton is passed down to world football’s next superstar. Kylian Mbappe has already won two Ligue 1 titles in his short career, adding a World Cup before his 20th birthday would be some feat. Either way, he’s made his mark on this tournament.

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After an afternoon of beautiful football with a little bite, the Saturday evening tie offered the potential of some bitey football with a little beauty. Uruguay v Portugal was built up as a battle of the shithouses, with Luis Suarez and Diego Godin facing off against Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe. Words like ‘cagey’, ‘attritional’, and ‘tense’ were tossed about like mate tea leaves, but it was a moment of jaw-dropping skill that supplied the first talking point of the game. Edinson Cavani picked up the ball on the right, produced a raking crossfield pass to strike partner Suarez, and made a dash for goal. Uruguay’s talisman then cut inside, took one look up and lifted an inch perfect ball into the path of Cavani, whose unorthodox finish provided the first stunning goal scored by someone’s face. That early concession woke Portugal up, and for the remainder of the first half they had the best of the play, knocking the ball around in front of the Uruguayan defence without causing too much bother for Fernando Muslera. The defensive shape of Godin, Jose Giminez, Martin Caceres and relative newcomer Diego Laxalt was a joy to behold – leaving the Ronaldo Express parked at traffic lights for 45 minutes.

With renewed purpose the European Champions emerged for the second half and immediately looked to put pressure on those creaking bones in the Uruguayan defence. Goncalo Guedes and Bernado Silva began to find a little more room on the flanks, and from the latter’s corner Portugal found themselves level. A lapse of concentration from La Celeste, allowing Pepe to ghost in behind Ronaldo, gave the Besiktas defender time and space to plant a header beyond Muslera, breaching Uruguay’s defence for the first time in six games. With Fernando Santos’ team in the ascendancy, the chances of Ronaldo going further in the competition than Messi began to increase, because that’s something actual people care about, and the South Americans found themselves pinned back into their own penalty area for a spell after the equaliser. Then, from nowhere, Uruguay broke upfield, Rodrigo Bentancur rolled the ball into the path of Cavani, and the lanky haired marksman curled an exquisite effort beyond Rui Patricio to restore their lead. There were definite question marks over Patricio’s positioning, with Cavani allowed to pick his spot, but nothing should be taken away from another delightful goal. Once again Portgual were spurred into action, and some uncharacteristic fumbling from Muslera almost let The Navigators back in, only for Bernado Silva to blaze his chance over the bar. As the minutes ticked away, Portugal attacks became more and more desperate, but such was the discipline of Uruguay’s back line they were never really afforded another clear cut chance. Ronaldo and Messi out on the same day, and with 39% possession and three shots on target, international football might have found the new kings of efficiency in Uruguay. The sight of Cavani breaking down injured was a slight blot on the copybook, but worth it to see Ronaldo’s desperation to get on with the game by hurrying his opposite number off the pitch as quickly as possible. Social media applauded his sportsmanship afterwards, but you get the feeling he’d have booted Cavani off the pitch if he though he’d get away with it.

Uruguay vs France in the quarter finals – the unstoppable force vs the immovable object, and the potential for an absolute classic. 0-0 AET (2-1 on pens).

 

SUNDAY 1st JULY

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After the drama and tension of two too-close-to-call games the day before, Sunday’s line-up looked altogether more straightforward. Hosts Russia, having already surprised everyone by getting to the knockouts, took on a Spanish side who, in the face of pre-tournament upheaval, had navigated the group stage relatively comfortably. Having seen his charges roundly trounced by Uruguay in their last game, Russia manager and part-time circus strongman Stanislav Cherchesov opted for a back five, looking to frustrate Diego Costa and co in the hope of nicking a goal or taking the game to penalties. That plan worked until the 11th minute when, having wrestled Sergio Ramos to the floor at a corner, Sergei Ignashevish inadvertently backheeled the ball past his own goalkeeper to give Spain the lead. The Spanish then enjoyed the best of the play for the remainder of the first half, without ever picking out Diego Costa with a killer ball. The casual attitude of Fernando Hierro’s team was punished two minutes before half-time as Gerard Pique stuck a hand out to block a Russian effort at goal and concede a penalty. Artem Dzubya stepped up and buried the spot kick past De Gea to bring Russia level.

From that point on, the genial hosts were clearly playing for penalties, while their guests were happy to pass the ball sideways across the midfield and go absolutely nowhere. The longer Spain kept possession the smaller the threat on the Russian goal seemed, and in the second half Hierro’s team came nowhere near edging ahead in the contest. Extra time brought much of the same, with Spain happy to knock the ball around and Russia happy to collapse with cramp every five minutes. A game for the neutral this was not, but a game for those in search of a genuine shock would have spent sixty seconds covering their faces with hands as Ramos fell to the floor under Ignashevish’s challenge, but on this occasion, with the most powerful man in the world watching, the referee avoided awarding a spot-kick. That eventuality arrived as the game came down to a shootout, and surprisingly Russia demonstrated the advanced concentration that performance enhancing drugs affords, netting each of their penalties, while Koke and Iago Aspas missed theirs – much to the bizarre joy of Diego Costa, who spent the pre-amble of the shootout telling anyone who would listen that the chosen takers would miss.

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The identity of Russia’s next victims was decided in Niznhy Novgorod, as the standout team of the tournament so far, Croatia, met Denmark – the neutral’s heel based on a group stage which saw them scrape past the colourful Peruvians. Expectations of a drab affair were shattered within sixty seconds, when Matias Jorgensen capitalised on some sleepy Croatian defending from a long throw, and watching as Danijel Subašić fumbled his toe poke into the net. Fortunately for the Monaco ‘keeper, the Danish defence and also just woken up, and three minutes later Andreas Christensen had the ball walloped into his face, and fall at the feet of Mario Mandzukic six yards out to turn home. Immediately Croatia were in the driving seat, and some smart and fearless goalkeeping from Kasper Schmeichel kept the scores level when Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic all had efforts at goal in the space of ten seconds. The Croatian dominance continued into the second half, but it wasn’t until late in extra time that it looked like paying off, as Modric’s through-ball found Ante Rebic steaming in on goal, rounding Schmeichel and being unceremoniously dumped on his arse by Jorgensen. While it denied a certain goal, surely world class midfielder Luka Modric would bury the resulting penalty to all but send the Danes out? Er, no actually. The Real Madrid string-puller rolled a meek effort towards the bottom corner which Schmeichel saved with ease, and thankfully the world wasn’t denied the penalty shootout it deserved.

And what a shootout. Every now and then the World Cup throws up examples of professional footballers at the peak of their ability proving their incompetence, and for Denmark especially, their time had come. As soon as Christian Eriksen had the first penalty of the shootout saved, it became obvious that it wasn’t to be for the Danes, despite Schmeichel saving Croatia’s first kick, and Simon Kjaer’s absolute ripsnorter of a penalty aside, Age Hareide’s boys seemed desperate to give Subasic a helping hand. Lasse Schöne and Nicolai Jorgensen both provided terrible penalties, and despite Schmeichel’s heroics, it was Croatia that progressed.

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Another side tipped by us to go out at the Group Stage, Croatia spent the first fortnight of this tournament looking like the best team in it, but a pedestrian showing against a poor Denmark side has the dark horse brigade scratching their heads. If they’re to best a revitalised Russia, they’ll have to up their game considerably.

 

MONDAY 2nd JULY 2018

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Some teams head into the World Cup wanting to win the trophy, others arrive just hoping to win a game. Mexico sit somewhere in between as, after exiting at the second round stage in the last six tournament, this time they just wanted a fifth game. Having beaten Germany and South Korea, the prospects of Mexico making a quarter final started to look good. Then they absolutely shat the bed against Sweden, finished second in the group and ended up facing Brazil. Fate is a fickle mistress.

Then again, Brazil aren’t all that, are they? Some average performances have been ignored thanks to the senseless play-acting of their talisman, and several of their big names have yet to click into gear in this tournament. If you check Gabriel Jesus’ Wikipedia page, you’ll see his place of birth listed as Sao Paulo, but if you check his  birth certificate you’ll see it’s actually Offside. Willian, too, has come in for criticism, while Neymar himself is yet to live up to his billing – rainbow flicks are all well and good in stoppage time against the weaker teams with the game wrapped up, but they don’t win World Cups. With all this in mind, Mexico’s appetite in the opening stages suggested there was a whiff of an upset in the air. Carlos Vela in particular found plenty of joy down the left against Fagner, though Hirving Lozano spent large parts of the first half playing as though he were in his back garden, charging at defenders, ignoring opportunities to pass, and wellying it at goal whenever possible. Needless to say, the half ended goalless.

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Six minutes after a break in which the world began to wonder if it might see another big name heading out of the tournament, normal service was resumed. A move that was born in Paris but made in Chelsea, as a lovely one two between Willian and Neymar completely outfoxed the Mexican defence, and the winger’s ball across goal left Neymar with a simple tap in for his second of the tournament. That high-pitched noise you could hear after the goal was Mexico very very slowly deflating, as the weight of history crashed down onto their shoulders. For Rafa Marquez, playing in his fifth finals, it was an all too familiar scene. Alisson was at least tested in the second half, Vela bringing a smart save from the Brazilian keeper with a long ranger, but any notion of fight had been sucked out of Juan Carlos Osorio’s side. In stoppage time their fate was sealed, as Neymar laid it on a plate for Roberto Firmino, and the sinking feeling of ’94, ’98, ’02, ’06, ’10, and ’14 returned. Mexico out in the second round, again. For Brazil, a businesslike victory. Functional and efficient, if not particularly exciting. Now is the time to find top gear.

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Belgium met Japan in Rostov to play for the priviledge to face the tournament favourites in the quarter-finals, after Adnan Januzaj’s winner against England had seen Belgium top Group G, simultaneously enraging his manager and further enhancing his role in the squad as whipping boy. Familiar faces returned to the Belgian starting line up, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne all restored to the starting eleven, while Japan were keen to prove a point after the adverse reaction to their spoiling tactics against Poland in the final group game – apparently knocking the ball around the back and playing for a 1-0 defeat isn’t really cricket, or football for that matter. The choice of the Senegalese Malang Diedhiou as referee added even further delicious subtext. An open first half failed to produce any goals, but not for the want of either side trying – Lukaku’s fluffed effort prevented him from making ground on Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot, while a butterfingers moment for Thibaut Courtois just before the break left Belgian hearts in mouths, presumably getting covered in chips, mayonnaise and incredibly strong beer.

It was a game that definitely had goals in it, but even the most optimistic onlooker couldn’t have predicted what the second half had in store. Three minutes after the break, Genki Hariguchi found a yard of space in the penalty area, and arrowed an effort into the far corner. One in the eye for the ‘Japan are the weakest team in the second round’ brigade, and yet another sensational shock in this most surprising of World Cups. Straight from the kick-off, Belgium almost equalised, as Hazard bent an effort onto the post, with the relieved Eiji Kawashima beaten all ends up. Three minutes later, Japan had a second, and a beauty at that. Takashi Inui, the Samurai Blue’s most impressive performer in Russia, picked up the ball thirty yards out, drove and goal, and curled a stunning effort into the bottom corner. Heaven for Japan, Hell for the Red Devils. Belgium, visibly shaken. The Japanese now desperate to kill the game, swarming Roberto Martinez’s defence, who had Courtois to thank for keeping them in the game when it looked as though Yuya Osako was about to add a third. Martinez, with his game plan in tatters, threw Marouane Fellaini into the game. Because when all else fails, a massive bloke putting it about a bit is a failsafe plan. With a little over twenty minutes to play, Belgium were given a bizarre lifeline, as Jan Vertonghen’s looping header from the left-hand side of the area returned from orbit to drop beyond Kawashima’s reach and into the net.  Five minutes later they were level, and Plan Z had paid off. Hazard twisted and turned to manufacture some room for a cross, and, in a scene reminiscent of Godzilla, Fellaini barged his way into the penalty area to head in the equaliser.

Japan, understandably, crestfallen. Belgium now had a spring in their step, and looked dangerous every time they came forward. Kawashima, rocked by his error that led to Belgium’s first, was now unconvincingly repelling shots from all sides, Vertonghen and substitute Nacer Chadli both testing the Metz man, until, in a brief moment of respite Japan won a corner. It was at this point Akira Nishino and his team were consumed by the Gambler’s Fallacy. Having held a two-goal lead and now facing extra-time, the instinct was to go for the win. Japan loaded up the penalty area and tossed the corner into the box. Completely forgetting they were the underdog. Completely forgetting their defensive responsibilities. Completely forgetting that they could regroup and look for the win in extra time. Completely forgetting that penalties offered a viable route to the quarter finals. Completely forgetting that they had already proven themselves heroic by taking the game to Belgium. And completely collapsing as Courtois plucked the ball out of the air and immediately set De Bruyne on his way. His beetroot complexion carving through the pitch, eating up the ground, and Japan backing off further and further. De Bruyne laid the ball out to Thomas Meunier, his first time cross was brilliantly dummied by Lukaku, and Chadli arrived to break Japanese hearts. 3-2 Belgium. The first team to come back from two down in a World Cup knockout match since West Germany in 1970. An astonishing game of football, setting up a mouthwatering meeting with Brazil. Unlike tonight, Martinez won’t be afforded second chances by Tite.

TUESDAY 3rd JULY 2018

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Logic dictates that at European hosted World Cups, the European guests will generally prosper, though try telling that to Germany. Which is why you end up with second round games like Sweden v Switzerland – two very functional sides, but neither one the kind of sweepstake pick that elicits more than a “well that was a waste of a quid” by way of reaction. Sweden’s run to this stage has, in its own way, been impressive. Finishing above an admittedly poor Netherlands in qualifying, then stifling Italy in the play-offs, Janne Andersson’s compact defence and set-piece reliant attack managed to finish top of a group that contained serious World Cup pedigree, all framed around that heartbreaking last gasp defeat to the now deposed holders. Switzerland meanwhile raised eyebrows with their battling draw against Brazil, and earned plaudits for the win against a naive Serbia. The 2-2 draw with Costa Rica? A good old fashioned final group game ding dong. Passage to the quarter finals would rely on which side of the bed Xherdan Shaqiri got out of on the morning of the match, or quite possibly whether they could convert more penalties than their opponents.

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After three days of football in which stupendous matches have been settled by wondergoals, and fingernails have been shredded by tension, we were due a dud game, and this one was awful. In the first half the Swedes appeared to be holding their own ‘miss of the tournament’ competition, in which Marcus Berg will feature heavily, whilst simultaneously refusing to offer a sniff to the Swiss. When a goal did finally come, it was befitting of the match. Emil Forsberg took a shot from the edge of the area, Manuel Akanji stuck his leg out, Yann Sommer was left wrongfooted, and the ball bounced in to send Sweden to their first World Cup quarter final since 1994. There was time for a lesser-spotted red card, as Michael Lang bundled Martin Olsson over with the full-back clean through, though the original reward of a penalty was overturned after a VAR review. Sweden have one thing going for them, and that’s being difficult to beat. Should a certain team lacking in hubris expect those clad in yellow and blue to roll over on Saturday, they’re very much mistaken.

And so then, to England. Perhaps the only nation in the world to spend weeks handwringing over enthusiasm for its football team, yet right to be sensibly cautious about plotting its way to the final. In the face of adversity, Colombia still progressed to the knockouts as group winners, and even without their best player in James Rodriguez, they still possessed enough talent to cause a green side problems. It was Southgate’s lads who shaded the first half, and it was a first half with plenty of shade. Harry Kane’s header over the bar aside, goalmouth action was at a premium, but Wilmar Barrios’ headbutt on Jordan Henderson cranked the heat in the match up a notch. The Liverpool captain’s reaction was hardly befitting, but Zinedine Zidane would be the first to say ‘that’s a red’. As it was, American referee Mark Geiger produced just a yellow, and Colombia smelled fear.

Ten minutes into the second half, and old faithful did the job for England. At a corner, Kane lost his man, and before he could reach the ball was sent tumbling by Carlos Sanchez climbing on his back, the former Aston Villa man taking ‘jockeying for position’ quite literally. The five minute delay caused by Colombian’s surrounding the referee and getting in Kane’s face was an unedifying spectacle, but bonus shithousery points for Johan Mojica, who gave the penalty spot a good old scuff before Kane placed the ball. Undeterred, England’s main man went straight down the middle to open the scoring. Very little football was played over the following half an hour, with both teams fashioning half chances but more interested in a kicking contest – the South Americans won that at a canter 23-13. Still, England were relatively comfortable, and looked set to book their place in the quarters. Then Mateus Uribe caught the ball with an audacious volley from 35 yards, forcing Jordan Pickford into a wondersave, and from the resulting corner Yerry Mina headed in his third of the tournament. Just as the script had said all along, this was going the full distance.

Extra time was flatter than the lager down your local, with Colombia shading it and England providing shade – Harry Maguire’s dive and Henderson’s snide kick on Radamel Falcao straight from Jose Pekerman’s playbook. And so, of course, it came down to penalties. As it always does with England. Falcao, then Kane; Juan Cuadrado, then Marcus Rashford; all four successful, with Luis Muriel’s calm slot making it five. Then up stepped Henderson, looking like a man who’s already planning his earnest post-match apologies, hits it at a good height for the keeper, and David Ospina (yes, that one) saves, and the all-too-familiar disappointment throws its blanket over a nation. Until Uribe smashes his kick against the bar, and Kieran Trippier equalises, and Jordan Pickford, relegated fourteen months prior to the tournament, pulls off a superb one handed save from Carlos Bacca, and Eric Dier steps up and scuffs his kick into the bottom corner. And England win a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time ever. And they’re in the quarter finals.

24 down, 8 to go.

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