Jack Hallows analyses all the action and major talking points from the opening round of games at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
I spend the better part of three and a half years saying: “I don’t care for international football,” due to the boring nature of international breaks that disrupt the Premier League season but I just can’t resist a World Cup.
The chance to see football’s best both come together and come up against each other is such a mouth-watering prospect and while to many, international football is arguably less entertaining than club football on a whole, the first round of fixtures from this World Cup has already provided numerous arguments against that sentiment.
Group A: Uninspired Uruguay and a Russian Blitz
I, like most other football fans, was fairly certain that Russia would beat Saudi Arabia but bloody hell… 5-0? I did not expect that!
The hosts made light work of their tournament opener and a combination of some stunning strikes from Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin – how about that free kick honestly – and some poor defending from Saudi Arabia meant the tournament got off to a sparkling start.
The other Group A match, however, was truly a dry affair.
An uninspired Uruguay took it to the wire against Egypt who, despite missing Liverpool’s own Mohamed Salah, put in a truly gutsy performance against their South American opponents.
In truth, it could’ve been a lot worse for Egypt had Luis Suarez had his goalscoring boots on but the poor quality on show from both sides during the encounter may have punters re-evaluating their bets as to who’s going to top this group.
Group B: Heartbreak for Morocco and a Ronaldo Masterclass
For those who don’t know much about Morocco, they actually boast a number of impressive footballers – Hakim Ziyech of Ajax and Medhi Benati representing the major names.
For this reason, it was felt that should they take three points against Iran, they would be more than capable of causing an upset against one of the big boys of Group B. Heartbreak then when a 94th-minute free kick was headed in at the near post for an own goal by Aziz Bouhaddouz.
If Morocco are to continue the fairytale and make it out of the group they have a lot of work to do.
The second Group B match between Spain and Portugal meanwhile was an early contender for game of the tournament – it genuinely had everything.
A Cristiano Ronaldo masterclass, a Nacho Fernandez wonder strike, a David de Gea blunder of seismic proportions and Pepe deciding that throwing himself on the floor was the best way forward, only to see his attempts at deception ignored and Diego Costa leaving the entire Portuguese defence for dead and putting the ball in the back of the net.
The only thing that didn’t come out of the game was a clearer indication of who is likely to top the group. Portugal looked incredibly reliant on Ronaldo – who in truth benefitted himself from a bit of good fortune – while Spain looked scintillating going forward but dreadful every time they had to defend.
Group C: VAR hurts Australia and a Poor Peruvian Penalty
The first round of fixtures from Group C was certainly full of penalty-related action.
France came away slightly undeserved 2-1 winners against Australia thanks to a controversial VAR penalty decision (I personally felt it was the right call) and a deflected Pogba effort but Les Blues certainly didn’t look convincing.
A midfield trio of Pogba, Kante and Tolisso struggled to break down a dogged Australian backline while Ousmane Dembélé, Griezmann and Mbappé looked bereft of ideas up front.
Elsewhere Peru took an early lead in the “worst penalty of the tournament” awards to gift Denmark a 1-0 win thanks to a Yussuf Poulsen winner. Neither side looked particularly impressive however and if Australia play how they did against France, they could just manage to do enough to sneak through.
Group D: Messi misses the mark while Croatia start strong
I personally believe Lionel Messi is one of the – if not the – greatest players to ever play football but Christ his penalties are dreadful sometimes.
With the Argentinians starting to get back on top against a plucky Iceland side, you would expect Messi to truly ‘make sure of it’ from the spot but the Barcelona forward’s effort was tame, to say the least, giving Iceland’s keeper every chance of pulling off a spectacular save. Spoilers: he did.
Iceland’s brilliant run in international tournaments continues and honestly, long may it live on!
Croatia meanwhile put Nigeria to the sword with an efficient performance aided by a superb midfield showing by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
The La Liga pair ran the show in the middle of the park and a Nigerian own goal and a Luka Modric penalty, yes another penalty – there were five awarded across the four games played – was enough to secure them the three points.
Group E: The ‘Kolarov Hammer’ and joyless Brazil
I knew Kolarov could hit a free kick sweetly but wow. No, sorry, WOW.
The former Manchester City man absolutely nailed his set piece against Costa Rica in Serbia’s opening World Cup fixture, completing a stunning trio of free-kicks in the opening days of this competition.
The European side currently sit in top position in the group and even if they are beaten by Brazil, a point against Switzerland could very well be enough to take them through to the knock-outs.
Speaking of Brazil and Switzerland, well in to the Swiss!
Brazil looked amazing going forward it has to be said but their European opponents defended astutely and it took an absolute screamer from ex-Red Philippe Coutinho to break the door down in the first half.
Switzerland kept pushing Brazil however and shouts that the South Americans have a lot of flair but a soft underbelly may have been proven to correct as they were forced to settle for a point after some poor defending allowed Steven Zuber to equalise in the 50th minute.
It’s all to play for in Group G!
Group F: Germany shocked while Sweden march on
If Switzerland’s draw against Brazil wasn’t seen as a shock by some, Germany’s loss to Mexico surely was.
Die Mannschaft hadn’t been in great form coming into the tournament admittedly but this is Germany. They’re a ruthless, well-oiled footballing machine that come tournament time, step up with the utmost efficiency. Maybe not anymore?
Germany weren’t exactly brilliant in their opening World Cup fixture but boy did Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio play a blinder. The Mexican attackers harassed and marked Toni Kroos out of the game and as a result, the former World champions struggled to create too many clear-cut chances with the ones they did create being expertly blocked every time by Guillermo Ochoa – he just loves a World Cup, doesn’t he?!
All it took at the other end of the field was one poor defensive lapse that resulted in Mats Hummels left on his arse and a sumptuous finish from Herving Lozano to give Mexico their lead and with it the three points.
Based on the other game in the group however, I wouldn’t be placing bets on Germany going home just yet.
South Korea’s goalkeeper put in a great shift but other than that, Sweden 1 – 0 South Korea was about as classic an international borefest as they come.
The Koreans looked bereft of any ideas aside from ‘give it to Son and let him run’ while Sweden seemed to get into good positions regularly, only for the likes of Emile Forsberg to fire high and wide every single time.
Mexico truly look good money to top this group while Germany, if they discover even half of their usual efficiency, should join them in the knockouts.
Group G: England get a win as Belgium run riot
If you don’t think Belgium boast one of the most embarrassingly rich forward lines in the entire World Cup, you’re quite simply delusional. Hazard, Mertens, Lukaku all backed up by Kevin De Bruyne… that’s terrifying.
It certainly was for Panama anyway who, despite their best efforts and a solid first 45, were never going to keep the ‘Red Devils’ at bay for an entire 90 minutes.
Dries Mertens opened the scoring with a showing of sublime technique and skill to volley home with the outside of his boot just 90 seconds into the second half. Panama would have a glorious chance just minutes later but a good save by the onrushing Thibaut Courtois meant that the clean sheet stayed intact.
De Bruyne and Lukaku combined to double the lead before Eden Hazard set up the Manchester United striker again to put some gloss on the scoreline.
Elsewhere in Group G England got their campaign underway with a win! Yes, you read that correctly, three points!
A classic bit of centre forward positioning had allowed Harry Kane to open the scoring 13 minutes in and in truth, England spent much of the rest of the half on top. Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli all should’ve done better with the space afforded to them on more than one occasion but it was Tunisia who had the last laugh of the half.
A stray elbow from Kyle Walker allowed Ferjani Sassi to equalise from the spot just before the break and it looked as if England’s belief had possibly been shattered already.
Southgate’s men kept at it in the second half, probing and prodding with no real danger but cometh the hour, cometh the Harry.
As in the first half, Kane benefitted from England’s extra height at set pieces when Harry Maguire diverted a corner into his path and the Spurs striker was never going to miss from six yards out.
I still expect to see Belgium top this group but it is certainly going to be interesting to see whether England keep improving the longer they’re in the tournament.
Group H: Calamitous Colombia and super Senegal
Colombia’s World Cup campaign probably couldn’t have got off to a worse start.
Golden boy James Rodriguez was forced to start from the bench in the South American’s opener against Japan but his absence wasn’t felt anywhere near as much as that of Carlos Sanchez, sent off in the third minute for a deliberate handball inside the area.
Dortmund attacker Shinji Kagawa made no mistake to put the Japanese ahead from the spot and while a goalkeeping blunder allowed Colombia to equalise just before half-time, the Asian side was not to be denied their three points. It would be Yuya Osaka who rose highest to meet a corner in the second period, nodding past David Ospina and sealing the victory.
A perfect start for Japan and a terrible one for Colombia.
Elsewhere in the group, Liverpool forward Sadio Mané captained Senegal to an impressive 2-1 win over Robert Lewandowski’s Poland.
A fortuitous deflection saw Idrissa Gueye open the scoring before Mbiaye Niang made it 2-0 in the second half when a mixture of anticipation and pure dedication saw him beat the Polish keeper to a poor back-pass and slot into an empty net.
Grzegorz Krychowiak pulled one back for Poland late on but it wasn’t enough to deny Senegal who registered the first three points by an African nation in this year’s World Cup.
Goal of the Round: Take your pick from any of the sublime free-kicks scored by Golovin, Ronaldo and Kolarov!
Player of the Round: It has to be Cristiano Ronaldo really, doesn’t it?
Flop of the Round: Does the entire Saudi Arabia defence count?