Jack Hallows talks through all of the action and talking points from the 2018 World Cup group stages second round of fixtures.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the World Cup so far.
What’s usually a very cagey competition has been, for the most part, enjoyable to watch with upsets, goals galore and a lot of late drama.
Without saying too much just yet, let’s get stuck into the second round of fixtures from the group stages.
Group A: Heartbreak for Salah as Egypt crumble
There was a lot of build-up to the 2018 World Cup for Egypt with Mohamed Salah’s season-ruining injury and heroics in qualifying being a pair of particularly juicy talking points.
For all the build-up though, I hate to say that the Pharaohs have been disappointing so far and probably do deserve to be playing no part in the knock out rounds after what we’ve seen from them.
A hard fought performance in Salah’s absence was almost enough to steal a point on the opening day but there was no such steal during their second match of the competition.
The tournament hosts, Russia, were the better team for the entire 90 minutes and while there was an element of fortune involved in one of the European side’s goals, Egypt couldn’t really argue with the result as they slumped to a 3-1 defeat. Salah scored though which was nice.
Elsewhere, Uruguay confirmed their place in the knockout rounds with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia that was decided in the end by a solitary Luis Suarez goal. The South American may be into the next round but it can definitely be argued that it’s more a result of how poor Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been rather than how well they themselves have played.
Group B: Morocco down and out but is there hope for Iran yet?
I actually really feel for Morocco.
The African side will be heading home after their final match against Spain but one can certainly argue they don’t deserve to be.
They were criminally unlucky in their opening fixture to lose 1-0 to Iran, courtesy of a very, very late own goal and it has to be said, while Portugal – well, Cristiano “unfashionable goatee” Ronaldo – beat them courtesy of another 1-0 scoreline, they were arguably the better team.
The Moroccans boast some seriously impressive creative talents in their side, not least Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech but they have lacked a presence up front to capitalise on the chances they’ve created.
Could they restore some pride in their final game against Spain? Honestly, I believe they can.
Spain, like Portugal, recorded their first victory of the tournament with a 1-0 scoreline courtesy of Diego Costa’s second half strike but their opponents – a dogged Iranian side – were good value for money.
Chances were at a premium for the European giants and while the creative duo of Isco and David Silva were predictably incredible once again, Iran certainly weren’t without their opportunities to steal something from the fixture.
Just 90 seconds before Costa would open the scoring, Iran’s number 10 Karim Ansarifard fired one into the side netting – de Gea couldn’t even move. Just minutes later, Afagh then looked to have equalised off a set piece, only for VAR to cruelly but correctly rule him offside and cancel out the goal.
If Iran manage a good result against Portugal and Morocco hold or beat Spain, the knockout rounds could be followed by an incredible narrative. This group is absolutely one to watch when match-day three comes around.
Group C: More controVARsy and France scrape by
Australia kept their hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds of this year’s World Cup with a 1-1 draw with Denmark.
Christian Eriksen had put the Danes 1-0 up with a stunning strike in the first 10 minutes, arriving late to thrash a half volley into the top corner with his left foot after some good work from striker Jørgensen.
Neither side really created too many solid chances in the rest of the first half but there was a certain amount of good fortune and slight controversy half an hour after the opener, as Matt Leckie’s header struck Yussuf Poulsen’s hand in the area.
The handball certainly wasn’t deliberate and the distance between Leckie and the Danish forward meant it was impossible for him to really get out of the way but the arm was up in an unnatural position. No prizes for correctly guessing whether Mile Jedinak scored the penalty.
Elsewhere in Group C, France just about got the job done over Peru as former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud was restored to the starting line up.
French coach Didier Deschamps has been criticised heavily for his perceived lack of tactical ability in recent weeks and his decision to play Blaise Matuidi as a left winger certainly did nothing to refute these accusations.
A solitary goal from man-of-the-moment Kylian Mbappé was enough for the French to take the three points, guaranteeing their spot in the knockout rounds but Les Blues certainly haven’t looked worth their six points in the competition so far and will have to improve to progress as deep as they’d like.
Group D: Argentina mess up as Musa sets Nigeria alight
How good do Croatia look?!
I mean seriously! Argentina were very, very poor against the European side but not enough has been made of just how good Zlatko Dalić’s unit have been playing.
The midfield unit of Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić have been superb at setting tempo and dictating games while the work of Marcelo Brozović hasn’t been appreciated enough.
The Croatian’s look like a proper unit who are playing for each other and for their fans and personally, if they keep this up, I’d love to see them progress a long way into the tournament. Shout out to Reds centre back Dejan Lovren as well by the way who has looked in imperious form for his national side.
Argentina on the other hand… yikes.
The South Americans look bereft of ideas when Lionel Messi isn’t weaving and waving his way past eleven men and finding the top corner and if stories of player mutiny against Jorge Sampaoli are true, then this could get even uglier, even quicker.
In the other Group D match Ahmed Musa sparked Nigeria’s campaign to life with a superb performance. The former Leicester man scored a brace in his side’s 2-0 win over Iceland and almost had a hat-trick only to be denied by the crossbar.
Iceland weren’t without their chances though, the best of which came 10 minutes from time when Finnbogason went down in the box. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the one player in that Iceland squad you’d back to bury a penalty every time but he sent his spot kick flying over the cross-bar.
Iceland have it all to do against Croatia in the final round if they are to secure qualification to the knockouts while Nigeria will just need to hold Argentina to a draw. This group is one to watch out for on the final match-day!
Group E: Late goals and controVARsy aplenty
They got the win in the end but I’m still not 100% convinced Brazil have found their best starting line-up.
Tite’s men looked sluggish and fairly uncreative during the first 45 minutes against a dogged Costa Rica side who, while not boasting huge amounts of threat of their own, looked determined to cause as much of a struggle as possible for their South American opponents.
If the first half was like watching paint dry, the second half was thoroughly entertaining.
Brazil proceeded to pepper the Costa Rican goal with Gabriel Jesus coming close via a header that cannoned back off the cross bar, Philippe Coutinho seeing a driven effort cleared off the line and Keylor Navas making a brilliant reaction save to deny Neymar at close range.
There was even time for more controVARsy late on as Neymar was seemingly pulled down in the box and awarded a spot kick with the scores still level at 0-0. The referee checked VAR after protests from the Costa Ricans only to see that the PSG winger had theatrically ‘made a meal’ of the ‘challenge’ and thrown himself onto the ground.
While the Brazilian’s were denied an opener in that instance, they eventually broke down the doors after the introduction of Roberto Firmino. Firmino rose high at the back stick to nod a cross into Coutinho’s path and the Barcelona man made no mistake. From that point on it was game over and Brazil even found enough time to grab a second.
There was even more late drama in the second game from Group E as Switzerland beat Serbia 2-1 with practically the final kick of the game.
Aleksander Mitrovic put Serbia ahead five minutes into the match but the Swiss launched a second half fightback of epic proportions to ensure they didn’t leave empty handed.
Granit Xhaka hammered an absolute belter into the far corner from range barely five minutes into the second half before Xherdan Shaqiri was set through on goal in the 90th minute, poking the ball past Serbian keeper Stojković and sealing all three points.
Once again though, the giant talking point cloud of VAR loomed large over this fixture with pundits and fans questioning the decision not to check the software when Aleksander Mitrovic was pulled to the ground by two Swiss players in the second half. The challenge certainly looked a penalty and if it had been scored, it may just have changed the outcome drastically.
Group F: Mexico all but through as Germany get up and running
I feel for South Korea. They haven’t exactly played poorly over the course of their two World Cup games so far but their over-reliance on Tottenham Hotspur forward Heung-Min Son has absolutely killed their chances of success at this tournament.
Just like against Sweden last week, the Asian side defended doggedly to keep the scoreline down against Mexico but there was only so much they could do.
A 25th minute penalty was converted coolly by Carlos Vela and as with against Germany, Mexico made the most of a single breakaway as their opening fixture hero Lozano slipped through former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Javier Hernandez who was never going to miss from close range.
Son pulled one back in the final minute with an absolute thunderbolt of a strike but it was always going to be a case of too little, too late.
Meanwhile, Germany still don’t look brilliant do they?
Die Mannschaft ultimately got the win but it was anything but straight forward for the reigning champions with Sweden going ahead on the half hour mark through Ola Toivonen and it looked as if a repeat of the German’s opening fixture against Mexico was on the cards.
It has to be said, while Germany would launch a comeback, it was less to do with their quality and more to do with Sweden’s poor game management that brought it about.
Marco Reus scored the equaliser three minutes into the second half, latching onto to a loose ball in the area to tap home from close range. Seeing the Dortmund man finally celebrate at an international tournament was a welcome sight for football fans who have followed his career over the last few years.
Despite this, the only real thing of note Germany did right until the last was centre half Jerome Boateng getting himself sent off.
All a quality side needs is one half chance however and Germany proved that in some style.
What a goal by Toni Kroos.
Group G: Belgium batter Tunisia as England turn on the style
This group was probably always going to be between Belgium and England for top spot but god did they showcase the gap in quality with Tunisia and Panama in some style on match-day two!
It started with Belgium’s 5-2 demolition job of Tunisia with a goal from Eden Hazard and two from Romelu Lukaku giving Martinez’s side a 3-1 lead at half time. Hazard doubled his tally five minutes into the second half before Michy Batshuayi put some extra gloss on the scoreline after missing three or four huge chances prior to finally getting his well deserved goal.
Belgium’s defence in truth looked fairly average when pressured and while Tunisia were unable to really get at their European opponents for sustained periods of time, they still managed to expose their soft underbelly by putting two goals past them.
Their attack is genuinely frightening though.
Elsewhere, a John Stones double, a Harry Kane hat-trick and a Jesse Lingard screamer saw England belt Panama 6-1 in one of their biggest World Cup victories ever.
England were the beneficiary of good refereeing, horrendous defending and a little slice of lucky (Harry Kane’s hat-trick goal was hilarious) but I felt going forward they looked genuinely impressive. They’ve not played anyone of top quality yet but you can only beat what’s in front of you and when they come up against Belgium on Thursday we’re going to get a much better idea of what they’re about.
Group H: Senegal stumble but Poland fall
We have our next team going home and it is… Poland.
It comes as a surprise that the Polish have gone out with such a whimper really. They may not boast the best overall squad at the tournament but when you’ve got players such as Robert Lewandowski, Piotr Zielinski and Krychowiak you expect better than a 2-1 loss and a 3-0 thumping.
Columbia on the other hand were much better than in their opening day loss to Japan with the return of James Rodriguez to the starting line-up providing a welcome boost.
Yerry Mina of Barcelona opened the scoring five minutes before half time, rising high above the rest to nod home a set piece before Radamel Falcao doubled the lead with a tidy finish on 70 minutes. The three points were sealed five minutes later when James Rodriguez set Juan Cuadrado through on goal with a stunning pass and the Juventus man simply couldn’t miss.
Sadio Mané got his World Cup account up and running with a fortuitous goal against Japan, putting Senegal 1-0 up against their Asian opponents.
Japan however were not going to be beaten so easily and an equaliser came 20 minutes later through a tidy Inui finish. Moussa Wague put Senegal back ahead in the second half, the 19-year old scoring a goal worthy of sealing the three points but Keisuke Honda ensured that Japan would be taking an equal share after some dreadful goalkeeping and defending from Senegal.
It’s now a three way race for qualification to the knockouts in Group H with Senegal and Japan on four points and Columbia hot on their heels with three.