Spotkick's FIFA World Cup 2018 Review

Monday, 16 July 2018 11:45

And so the curtain has fallen, the fat lady has sung, the last rites have been read. Forgive the ending cliches, we’re just finding it hard to say goodbye to the 21st World Cup and wondering what to do with ourselves. But with the tournament having reached its conclusion, Messrs Not Moony, Not Wormtail, Not Padfoot, and Definitely Not Prongs, Spotkick’s finest, gave their conclusion on the Mundial.

Player of the Tournament

Ola Fadahunsi: Luka Modric. Nobody comes close. He was phenomenal all through and he's one of the guys that had the most minutes at the World Cup - Modric is a complete work of art.

Trust Inonse: Who else for me than the Golden boy of the tournament - Kylian Mbappe. At 19 his confidence and determination is next to none. I don't think I have seen a better player at his age.

Kunle Ajao: Luka Modric, without a shadow of a doubt. Sometimes he felt like the solo act in this World Cup orchestra. Always a delight to watch on the ball, he even adds superb work rate off it.

Shehu Idris: Unarguably and undisputedly Luka Modric. Prior to this tournament his name wasn't even mistakenly mentioned amongst those worthy of the FIFA the best award but only sprinkle of people will wave his inclusion now. How he managed to lead Croatia into the Final and outshine the glorious Class of '98 with extra ounce of work-rate and non-human voltage of creativity is a paper for another time. FIFA got this call right, Modric was head, shoulders and knee above everybody else in Russia. 

Goal of the tournament 

OF: Ahmed Musa’s second goal against Iceland. That set the entire nation bouncing.

TI: The goal that got me thinking - Benjamin Pavard. Coming to the world cup as a rookie and still had the audacity to speak to the ball to get France their second goal against Argentina . Borrowing the word of Etim Essien- it was a slapping NASA

KA: Benjamin Pavard’s volley against Argentina is the kind of the thing you dream of, but 100 times out of 100, you thump that wide. He didn’t.

SI: Pavard!!! A technique that can make the ball spin and float like a balloon that isn't entralled with the wind, that sort of technique, with the outside of boot. That sort of technique, read me well and loud, is out of this world. If there wasn't a net there, that ball would still be floating happily like a hot air balloon in the sky of Russia. 

Match of the tournament 

OF: Germany vs Mexico.

TI: A match I won't forget in a hurry would be Portugal v Spain. What a thrilling encounter that was, as Cristiano Ronaldo showed the world why he is the present world’s best footballer. It was great watching Spain's champagne football against a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal.

P. S, A match I won't use a nail clipper on my nails for is the France against Denmark's horror.

KA: It was only Day Two when crisis-hit Spain played unconvincing Portugal in Sochi. A six-goal thriller that had everything, a free-kick, a penalty, a goalkeeping howler, a routine goal and a howitzer from a right-back. It set the tone for such an incredible tournament.

SI: Spain vs Portugal. The match, you'll agree with me, came dashing into us really early. We weren't ready for such an action-packed match after the tepid opening day of the tournament. Ronaldo's hattrick. Nacho's sumptuous half-volley. David De Gea's unusual gaffe. Diego Costa and Pepe rekindled old animosity. This match had a healthy bit of everything a match of the tournament should have. 

Best surprise 

OF: England. You might say they played lesser oppositions, but how these set of young guys were able to curtail the pressure always put on the Three Lions prior to every major tournament was a surprise. I give them credit for that.

TI: Best surprise? Which other team comes to mind but the Croatian national team. I bet even the best magic practicing priest never saw a final for the blazers.

KA: It’s easy to say England, and why not, a first semi-final in 28 years for them. But if their journey to the semis was a surprise, their path certainly wasn’t, and they lost the three games where they faced quality opposition. Plus, no one saw Croatia as finalists before the tournament, so it’s them for me.

SI: Croatia of course. They surprised everyone including themselves. That they made it to the final wasn't the actual surprise but the jarring fact that they made it there playing gruesome extra 30 minutes after each of their knockout games and they didn't roll around the pitch in agony of cramps and fatigue is the biggest surprise. If Superman was real, he'll definitely be a Croatian.

Biggest disappointment 

OF: Germany summed up the whole disappointment for me.

TI: it's difficult to look away from Germany and Argentina but permit me to give this plaque to the Spanish national team. Who puts together over a thousand completed passes and still loses? That's ridiculous to say the least.

KA: I’ve watched German teams that have played underwhelming football, until this World Cup I’d never watched a German team that was complacent. It looked like they’d recovered after that late winner against Sweden, it turned out to be a false dawn. Watching Germany crash out of the group stage, it was almost like football broke.

SI: Germany. For the first time since Euro 2004, they crashed out of a major tournament in the group stages. For the first time ever in the history of Die Maanshaft, they bowed out of World Cup in the group stages. For the first time in my life, I saw a German team that's almost always vunerable to opposition breaks. Let me stop my "For the first time" game here. This German side were woeful and should be thankful for the mercy of that early exit.

Verdict on VAR

OF: As much as I loved VAR, I think it's doing more harm than good. Making football so predictable, the penalty given to France was evident, no referee in the world would have given that. To top it all, VAR is taking emotions away from the game; that is bad.

TI: Well! I have never been in support of the VAR and the World Cup test hasn't convinced a strand of my hair that it is needed. It kills the vibe of the game and for the fact that it wholly still depends on the discretion of the referee, in my opinion, it's not a solution if it's not solving the problem in totality.

KA: VAR is meant to correct clear cut errors, which means: (a) If the referee is called to look at it, then it’s supposed to be a clear cut error (Nigeria v Argentina). (b) If it’s a clear cut error, it shouldn’t take four minutes to decide (the final itself). That VAR is ultimately subject to human interpretation means it will be ludicrous in my eyes.

SI: Obviously it is here to stay and no amount of campaign launched against it will get it out. Moreover, it had a successful debut in Russia. Except for some little doggedness from referees to overturn their initial wrong decisions, it showed it can make this game a lot cleaner and a little more transparent. However, people still need to get used to this machine. We complain about how long it takes before a decision could be made but does it matter the amount of time for the best decision to be made? Football lover are finicky bunch who scavenge for errors like someone picking beans, VAR won't end football controversies. 

Most excited about

OF: Prior to the tournament, the issue of racism and fans violence seemed inevitable; how Russians were able to nip that all through the Mundial created so much excitement for me.

TI: The unexpectedly peaceful World Cup. Against all odds, Russia hosted one of the best tournaments in recent times.

KA: Watching Belgium’s counter-attacks, particularly against Brazil in the last eight, was a sight to behold.

SI: Kyllian Mbappe. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's era of dominance, either we like to admit it or not, is fast dissolving. Several names of successors have popped up over the years and it looked like these successors will make the claim after the early exit of the aforementioned juggernauts but these guys didn't have the previously thought impact on the tournament. Except Mbappe of course. At 19, with just a season and a half of top-flight club football under his blurily quick feet, he transformed the Mundial into another playground just has he's done with Ligue 1. It looked really easy for 'Donatello’ as his pace fuelled by his youthful exuberance proved harder than Advance Physics test for every defender he faced. His physical precociousness has shrouded his cold-eyed finishing talent. This boy's imminent dominance on football will mirror Messi and Ronaldo's but sadly, his won't have an almost equal rival to battle with.

Least excited about

OF: African countries.

TI: The shambolic performances by the African contingents, it was pitiful to say the least. Although a glimpse of fight came from the West Africans - Nigeria and Senegal- their best could only buy them three matches in Russia.

KA: The constant Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo comparison after each player plays. It’s the World Cup for goodness sake, not El Clasico.

SI: Tiki Taka or Tiki Taxi or Taka Tiki or Kati Kati or which ever name you've given the boring act of caressing the ball endlessly across the pitch without urgency or a sharp edge. It used to be orgasmic when Xavi was still in the Spanish team with his eagle vision but now, it's just excruciating. Iniesta has passed his prime. Isco drives opposition near madness with his dribbles and not his passes. David Silva loses himself and his creativity in the incessant passing drills. Spain should fold up the paper containing the Tiki-Taka blueprints and reach for another approach now. 

Note on Nigeria's World Cup

OF: So many people have been calling for Rohr's head after tournament - different strokes for different folks. In my opinion the Nigerian team to Russia was the best I've seen in recent times.

TI: Although disappointing from a Nigerian perspective, it's definite that this Nigerian team is the best in recent history. Just a little bit of trimming and a little bit of additional quality would make the team a world beater.

KA: Our World Cup may have ended after three games, but their was a sense of what might have been, rather than a sense of disappointment this time. Despite the early exit, there’s more than enough cause for optimism. A fair amount of stability right now will go a long way in helping. Not that we’ll have it.

SI: Although we crashed out in the group stages, it still hasn't stopped us from dreaming about what this band of young talents can achieve if they remain banded together with Gernot Rohr as the sheepherder. Stability is just what this team needs. Stability in players, coaches and administrators but the latter appears like it won't be getting the required stability as some destructive critters are already tilling the ground and unperturbed if the tree tumbles and all the goody birds bound off.

 

 

Published in International Watch

And so, football will not be coming home. After England have sneaked their past Colombia in the last 16, and eased past Sweden in the last eight, the belief was gathering, this might actually be their time. A semi-final exit will still be seen as massively exceeding expectations, and rightly so, but the reality is that they crumble at the first sign of quality opposition.

Not that the inevitable focus on the Three Lions should take the spotlight away from Croatia, who will appear in their first ever tournament final. Coach Zlatko Dalic had told his players to stop living off the golden generation, who, 20 years ago today played their third/fourth place play-off game in the World Cup in France, but the side from 2018 are the ones who go one better.

They didn’t get off to the best start, though, only five minutes had gone when they went behind, Kieran Trippier curling in a delightful free-kick past Danijel Subasic and into the net. Dalic had spoken of his dissatisfaction over Croatia’s first half in the quarter-final against Russia, surely he would have been livid over this. The passes were not coming, the players seemed edgy, and even Luka Modric was unusually quiet, as they went into the break behind. The second period followed an almost similar pattern for the Croats, but this time there were signs of consistent, if not intense, pressure. And it paid off in the 68th minute, Sime Vrsaljko with a cross, and Ivan Perisic, who until that moment was having a rather underwhelming game, got in front of Kyle Walker to stab home an equaliser. England were rattled, and it showed with their passes at the back, and Perisic very nearly added a second, his shot kissing the inside of the base of the post.

And so we’d have extra time, for Croatia, a third in succession, the first side to have that in the World Cup since England themselves in 1990. The extra 30 minutes would have been forgiven for being drab and unexciting, but it wasn’t the case, first John Stones saw his header headed off the line by Vrsaljko, while at the other end Mario Mandzukic was denied by Jordan Pickford. But Mandzukic would have his golden moment in the second half of extra time, as after Perisic’s played him in, the English defence played him on, and his finish was unerring.

Now England had to chase, they were in a position they hadn’t been all-tournament, a position of having to come up with some sort of invention. On came Jamie Vardy, but nothing would happen. Not from the main man Harry Kane, or from the set-pieces with which they’ve been threatening. Croatia would have finished off the game, but Andrej Kramaric shot wide when he had Perisic in space. But they didn’t care about that when the final whistle went. Against all odds, Croatia are World Cup finalists.

 

 

Published in International Watch

Will Modric work-rate Croatia to the final?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018 13:35

By Oluwaseun Aleshinloye

Davor Suker was the hero 20 years ago, scoring six goals the last time The Blazers got to the semi-finals of the World Cup.

Suker’s goal against France in the Semi-Final in 1998 gave the Croatian team hope of reaching their first FIFA World Cup final until a double from unlikely Lilian Thuram sent them to the third Place fixture, where they defeated the Netherlands 2 goals to 1 – thanks to a 35 minutes winner scored by Suker.

Back in 1998, Luka Modric was only 12, with nobody nor him thinking he will be the one to make the Croatians dream again. Though with fierce relationship with his people in recent years, El Pajaro has fondly called by the Spanish media, no doubt will go down as one of the greatest to ever donned The Blazers colours.

No iota of disrespect to the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, who have been phenomena at the Mundial, Modric by miles has stood himself out – with his work rate and resistance spirit the first point of call.

El pajaro has played a total of 485 minutes at the World Cup, covering 50.8km, and a total of 28 midfield recoveries. In addition to that, Modric has scored two goals created 12 chances and has won the Most Valuable Player on three occasions.

A more soothing question will now be: Will a Modric led Blazers stop the Waistcoat inspired Three Lions side from righting their generational wrongs? For the records, Modric is one of those that announced to the whole world that there were so many things wrong with English football.

After an ignominious showdown at the 2006 World Cup, there came a cold rainy Wednesday at the Wembley Stadium in 2007 – a night where Croatia and Modric ended England’s Euro 2008 qualification hopes. Modric on the stage upstage and ran riot on the Three Lions midfield that had the trio of Steven Gerard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry.

Things have taken new shape for English football in the last two years – their U-17 and U-21 both winning the World Cup in the 2016 is an evident to this. With the rollercoaster journey of the Three Lions in Russia coupled with how well their youth teams had faired, there comes rekindled fire all over the British press, reminding everyone where modern football started from.

The talking is on the field - not in the media nor the fans, and the field is where the real champions are made.

After 20 years, The Blazers will once again play in the semis of a World Cup. Suker made the Croatians dream in 1998: Luka Modric will lead them all out in 2018; El Pajaro, did not only give the Croatians a dream but accompanied the dream with hope.

 

 

Published in International Watch

 

60 down. Four to go. The 2018 World Cup has claimed 28 countries, leaving four to slug it out for the ultimate prize of global immortality. Just over a week of World Cup football left, and By July 16 we'll be back to doing...what were we doing before the World Cup began? 

 

Sweden 0-2 England 

It was a case of seeking a spot in the last four after a long time out, Sweden hadn't gotten to the semis in 24 years, England in 28. The first half of the first half was drab, to put it nicely, but the game sprung to life just past the half hour mark, Harry Maguire heading home from Ashley Young's corner after the Swedes defence uncharacteristically left him unmarked in the area. England should have had a second before the break, but some sloppy play by Raheem Sterling meant they'd go into the break with just the one goal lead. That lead was almost cancelled out early in the second period, but Jordan Pickford produced a strong hand to push away Marcus Berg's header. But the Three Lions would get breathing space just over the hour mark, Kieran Trippier finding Jesse Lingard, whose first-time cross was headed in by Dele Alli. Sweden didn't wave the white flag just yet, but the two best chances they fashioned out were repelled by superb saves from Pickford, Berg denied again, but not before his teammate Viktor Claesson had been foiled by the England goalkeeper. Sweden's challenge would eventually peter out, as England reached the semis for the first time since 1990.

Hit...

England: Slowly garnering belief among themselves and their fans as they head for the last four. Football is two games away from potentially coming home. 

Jordan Pickford: The English goalkeeper followed up his penalty heroics against Colombia in the previous round with a series of stops against the Swedes.

Miss...

Sweden: So much had been made of their defensive organisation, but it deserted them in Samara. The biggest potential problem for Janne Andersson's side was whether they could come back from falling behind, and they failed that test.

Marcus Berg: Leaves Russia with over 15 attempts, and not a single goal, despite spearheading the Swedish attack.

 

Russia 2-2 Croatia

Two sides jostling for the tag of unlikely semi-finalist, Russia and Croatia met in Sochi in the last quarter-final game. The hosts' fans were sent into cacophony euphoria when Denis Cheryshev curled in a superb effort into Danijel Subasic's top corner after half an hour. That lead lasted only eight minutes, as Andrej Kramaric headed home Mario Mandzukic's cross to restore parity. The second half produced no goals, although Ivan Perisic hit the post for Croatia and Fyodor Smolov tested Subasic in stoppage time. Extra time came, and midway through the first half of it, Domagoj Vida heading in Luka Modric's corner. Russia were staring at elimination, but snatched a late equaliser through Mario Fernandes, whose glancing header from Alan Dzagoev's free-kick meant we'd be having penalties. Russia took the first kick, and got off to the wrong foot, Smolov denied by Subasic, before Marcelo Brozovic scored to put Croatia ahead. After two kicks each, though, it was 1-1 in the shootout, after Igor Akinfeev denied Mateo Kovacic. But Croatia regained their advantage when Fernandes rolled his kick wide, then after four successful kicks- one of which was a close shave from Modric- Ivan Rakitic had the chance to win it for the Croats. It was just like the Denmark game, and like the Denmark game, Rakitic made no mistake from the spot, sending Croatia into a first World Cup semi-final for 20 years.

Hit...

Croatia: Advanced to a first World Cup semi-final since 1998, and won't be short of confidence over going all the way.

Miss...

Russia: The sun has finally set on the hosts campaign, who responded well to that extra-time setback, only to go out on penalties.

 

Matter of Fact

  • Dele Alli is the youngest English player to score at the World Cup since Michael Owen in 1998.
Published in International Watch

 

And the line up is complete. 16 becomes eight. The first knockout round is done and dusted, and the quarters beckons. Just over a week left, and the World Cup will be over. What to do on July 16th.

 

Sweden 1-0 Switzerland 

It was the clash of unlikely potential quarter-finalists. Sweden hadn't made the last eight since 1994, 40 years before the Swiss' last quarter-final appearance. A cagey game had a breakthrough after the break, through Emil Forsberg. If the expectation was that the goal would liven the game, it didn't quite turn out that way, the Swiss not really the Swedes. An inevitable late push occurred, but, other than with a late header, never really tested Robin Olsen in the Swedish goal. Sweden looked like they had gotten a chance to seal the game when Michael Lang fouled Martin Olsson and a penalty was given. But after consultation with VAR, the referee opted to give a free-kick, though Lang would be sent off. It mattered little, as the final whistle went soon after, sending Sweden through.

Hit... 

Sweden: Booked a spot in the last eight for the first time in 24 years, their organisation never deserting them in a tight affair.

Miss...

Switzerland: Paid the price for an unexciting first half, and have suffered yet another second round exit.

 

Colombia 1-1 England

The first game in England's supposed easy route to the World Cup final, as they went up against Colombia in Moscow. After a quiet first half, England were given a chance to take the lead after Carlos Sanchez sent Harry Kane tumbling. Kane took the resulting penalty and sent David Ospina the wrong way. Colombia had to find an equaliser, but they barely fashioned out a chance, their best opening came when Juan Cuadrado fired a shot over after an error from Kyle Walker. And when Jordan Pickford tipped away Mateus Uribe's shot in stoppage time, it looked like the end of the road for Los Cafeteros. But from Cuadrado's resulting corner, Yerry Mina headed home his third goal of this World Cup, forcing extra time. The additional 30 minutes were with few talking points, Danny Rose flashing a shot wide the biggest flash point, and then we'd have penalties.

After five kicks, it was Colombia 3-2 England, then Jordan Henderson missed to give the South Americans the advantage. But that advantage was lost when Uribe crashed his kick against the post, then, after Kieran Trippier converted his attempt, Pickford denied Carlos Bacca to give England match point. Eric Dier made no mistake, and England have a date with Sweden on Saturday.

Hit...

England: Finally exorcised the ghost of past World Cup shootouts, and have a first quarter-final appearance in 12 years.

Miss... 

Colombia: Passed up their advantage in the shootout to crash out in agonising manner.

 

Matter of Fact

  • This is England's first ever penalty shootout success in the World Cup. 
Published in International Watch

FIFA World Cup 2018: The Final 16

Friday, 29 June 2018 10:59

Uruguay

World Cup so far: It’s been ‘so far, really good’ for Uruguay, especially results-wise, with three wins from three in Group A. Uruguay are the only side in the World Cup that haven’t conceded a goal yet, in fact they haven’t done so in the whole of 2018.

How far can they go: Oscar Tabarez’s side have shown defensively solidity and compactness, and will come up against a side with similar traits in Portugal in the last 16. The belief of going past the last 16 and last eight, especially when their defence has a front two like it does to look up to.

Best player: Uruguay’s biggest selling point at this tournament has been their defence, with a centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, who are the defensive at club level for Atletico Madrid. Gimenez has complemented his defensive solidity with contributions at the other end, bagging that late winner against Egypt.

Russia

World Cup so far: Despite defeat in their final group game against Uruguay, Russia have had a wonderful tournament so far. Ranked lowest of the 32 teams at the start of the World Cup, and tipped by many to go home after three games, the hosts began with a bang, two wins from two- with eight goals scored- sealed them a place in the last 16 with room to spare.

How far can they go: Russia will meet Spain in the next round, but, despite coach Stanislav Cherchesov’s given target of the semis, have surely matched expectations at the very least. Elimination would be by no means disastrous, qualification would spark mayhem.

Best player: No Russian player has caught the eye more than Aleksandr Golovin. The CSKA Moscow midfielder was instrumental in those two wins, playing a role in five of the eight goals scored, and sat out the defeat to Uruguay.

Spain

World Cup so far: On the face of it, finishing top of Group B after the crisis that rocked their camp right before the tournament began would constitute a really good World Cup so far for Spain. But the football hasn’t been as swift, or fluid as expected, it’s come in flashes, but no consistency: of the four six goals they’ve scored, only one was typical La Roja. But it could easily have been worse.

How far can they go: It’s still Spain, so winning the World Cup isn’t out of the question, particularly if they hit stride. Cutting some uncharacteristic errors and sloppiness is key, though.

Best player: After the talk of whether he’d fit into the Spanish style, Diego Costa has offered Spain a secondary outlet in attacking. Without his goals, they’d be back home by now.

Portugal

World Cup so far: So far, so Portugal. The European champions haven’t thrilled anyone so far, but they’ve got the job done, as expected. There were a few scares for La Selaccao, but they’re in the knockout stage.

How far can they go: Portugal are not short of the belief, nor the tactical discipline, to go as far as lifting the trophy on July the 15th. It won’t be pretty, but they know how to make it effective.

Best player: I don’t know, some bloke named Cristiano Ronaldo.

France

World Cup so far: On one hand, top of Group C, two wins from three, no losses and one goal conceded for France. On the other, Les Bleus have scored just three times themselves, and have managed to conjure up the dourest of displays with the most talented of squads. There’s a definite room for improvement.

How far can they go: The expectation is still to be champions come the end of the tournament, and France still have the ability to match that. Improvement is still very much required, or maybe not, sometimes keeping it tight till the end can land the ultimate prize anyway.

Best player: No one has really stood out for Didier Deschamps’ team, although Paul Pogba has played a part in all of their three goals so far.

Denmark

World Cup so far: The second round was the immediate aim for the Danes, and it’s been achieved.

How far can they go: Denmark face Croatia in the last 16, a game they may well considered to be of nigh-equal opponents. The last eight isn’t beyond them.

Best player: Pione Sisto has done his growing reputation no harm so far, but it still has to be Christian Eriksen.

Croatia

World Cup so far: An excellent tournament so far for Croatia, who are one of only three teams to have gone through with a 100% record.

How far can they go: A meeting with Denmark in the next round means a quarter-final place is very much achievable. Problem is Croatia have had wonderful group stages of tournaments in the recent past, only to falter at the first hurdle of knockout football.

Best player: The midfield pair of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have had wonderful tournaments so far, Modric with two goals in as many games.

Argentina

World Cup so far: Close to shambolic, performances have been nowhere near convincing, and they did ride their luck to get past the group stages.

How far can they go: Many back home have declared that their tournament starts now, but performances need a massive upgrade, especially at the back, if they’re to stay in it for long.

Best player: It’s hard to not say Lionel Messi, but Ever Banega’s performances have been more than commendable so far.

Brazil

World Cup so far: There have been a few scares for Brazil, but they reached the last 16 with two wins out of three, topping their first round group for the 10th time in a row, and the surprise early departure of Germany means Tite’s team are the highest-ranked side in the tournament.

How far can they go: Winning the World Cup is as much the expectation from the fans as it is with the players.

Best player: Two goals and one assist in three games makes Philippe Coutinho Brazil’s standout man so far.

Switzerland

World Cup so far: Seven points from three games is no mean feat, and Switzerland, if they needed to, have given evidence to those who doubted why they should be ranked sixth in the world.

How far can they go: They haven’t gotten to the last eight in well over half a century, a meeting with Sweden in the last 16 is one in which they’ll fancy their chances.

Best player: Xherdan Shaqiri is always the go-to man in attack, but a side with such a gameplan as theirs, goalkeeper Yann Sommer is important, and has been showing it with some impressive saves.

Sweden

World Cup so far: Qualifying for the second round was the achievable aim before the tournament began. Topping a group with the world champions, and topping convincingly, almost defies belief.

How far can they go: They face Switzerland in the next round, and are not short of confidence on going beyond that game.

Best player: Andreas Granqvist has kept a cool head in this tournament, both at the back and from the penalty spot.

Mexico

World Cup so far: For the seventh World Cup in a row, Mexico have made the last 16.

How far can they go: El Tri haven’t gone beyond the last 16 in any of the previous six World Cups, and face Brazil in this year’s.

Best player: Guillermo Ochoa continues his wonderful time on the world stage, following up from four years ago.

Belgium

World Cup so far: Three wins out of three, with nine goals scored, Belgium have been arguably the most impressive side so far in this World Cup.

How far can they go: Winning the World Cup is not out of the question, but a potential last-eight meeting with Brazil could be tough. They play Japan on Tuesday in the last 16, though.

Best player: Romelu Lukaku has four goals in two games in this tournament.

England

World Cup so far: Qualified from the group with some comfort, not something common with English sides of recent past, although the selection and display in the final game has left many less than thrilled back home.

How far can they go: The departure of Germany means they probably won’t be knocked out on penalties. A meeting with Colombia on Tuesday will provide its own stern test, but the semi-finals no longer look implausible.

Best player: Harry Kane currently leads the golden boot chart with five goals.

Colombia

World Cup so far: Los Cafeteros started the tournament with a defeat which looked to set the tone for a troubling World Cup, but recovered well to finish top of Group H.

How far can they go: Colombia face England in the last 16, they’ll do so with little fear. The semis doesn’t seem such an outlandish target.

Best player: James Rodriguez has tried to pick up where he left off in Brazil, but, despite his displays so far, has struggled to stay fit. His replacement for the first game, Juan Fernando Quintero, has done himself no harm, and now looks like he can’t be dropped.

Japan

World Cup so far: Perhaps the least fancied side in Group H when the draw was made, Japan started with a win against Colombia, and, despite defeat to Poland in their final group game, have made the next round, by virtue of having less yellow cards than Senegal.

How far can they go: Akira Nishino’s side have never made it past the last 16, and face a tough test in the form of Belgium on Tuesday.

Best player: Takashi Inui and Yuya Osako haven’t done badly in this tournament so far. Keisuke Honda continues to play the role of impact sub very well.

 

Last 16:

June 30- France v Argentina (Kazan)

June 30- Uruguay v Portugal (Sochi)

July 1- Spain v Russia (Moscow)

July 1- Croatia v Denmark (Nizhny Novgorod)

July 2- Brazil v Mexico (Samara)

July 2- Belgium v Japan (Rostov-on-Don)

July 3- Sweden v Switzerland (St. Petersburg)

July 3- Colombia v England (Moscow)

 

Published in International Watch

And like that, the curtain falls on the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. 14 days, 48 games, 22 penalties and 124 goals since after the opening day of the tournament, the contenders have been halved, 16 will play no further part, 16 will battle it out in the knockout rounds for the prize of standing tall in enviable euphoria on July the 15th at the Luzhniki stadium:

 

Colombia 1-0 Senegal

Japan 0-1 Poland

It was going to go down to the wire in Group H, with Senegal and Japan on four points, and Colombia just one behind- Poland had already been eliminated. Colombia knew a win against the Senegalese in Samara would take them to the next round, a draw enough should Japan lose, while Senegal would book their place in the last 16 with a draw, a defeat would suffice should Japan lose by a heavier scoreline. Japan themselves would go through with a point against already-eliminated Poland in Volgograd, but the first half of both games ended goalless, the biggest highlight in the Japan-Poland game was an Eiji Kawashima save from Piotr Zielinski, while in Samara it was the initial award of a penalty to Senegal early on, rightly overturned by VAR. The second period followed a similar pattern, and as it stood, Senegal and Japan were going through, with Colombia following Poland home, then the changes. First, Jan Bednarek headed Poland in front against Japan, putting the Samurai Warriors in third spot in the group, then Colombia took the lead in Volgograd via the head of Yerry Mina. In a few minutes, Senegal had gone from top of Group H when Poland scored, to third when they themselves conceded. Aliou Cisse’s side were level with Japan on points, goal difference, goals scored and the head-to-head record, but stood in third place by virtue of receiving more yellow cards. They needed a goal, but couldn’t quite trouble David Ospina, pouring forward in numbers, but with little end product. Japan, meanwhile, sat back and defended their one-goal deficit against the Poles, knowing it was enough to send them through. And that proved to be the case, as Senegal bowed out of the competition, with Poland, while Colombia finished top and will face England in Moscow on Tuesday. Japan have a date with Belgium in Rostov-on-Don a day earlier.

Hit…

Colombia: Looked in trouble after that defeat in their opening match, but have recovered really well, and sealed a deserved top spot in Group H. Los Cafeteros will not be short of confidence over equalling 2014’s last-eight achievement.

Yerry Mina: Two goals in two World Cup games, the Barcelona man’s record of five goals in 14 appearances for Colombia is not bad for a defender.

Japan: Coach Akira Nishino took a big risk in making six changes, and the team took an even bigger one in sitting back when one down, as a result of the game elsewhere, but in the end both paid off. Impressed no one with their rather unsporting tactic late one, but they ultimately achieved their aim of qualification.

VAR: Continues to divide opinion, and with good reason, but its call to help the referee overturn the decision to initially give Senegal a penalty was one of the reasons it was adopted, making the right call on a decision that would have been contentious in the past.

Miss…

Senegal: Arguably the least talked about of the African sides to come to this World Cup, the Teranga Lions were the most impressive. Their solidity and resolve was inspiring, and they’ll be heartbroken to exit the World Cup on a technicality.

James Rodriguez: Four years ago on this day, he produced that superb volley against Uruguay in Brazil, leading Colombia to the quarter finals and impressing Real Madrid alongside. This time, he lasted half an hour on the pitch in Samara, before being taken off injured, his disappointment hard to not notice.

 

Belgium 1-0 England

Tunisia 2-1 Panama

It was dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s in Group G’s final round of games, Tunisia and Panama meeting in Saransk to decide who’d finish bottom, while England and Belgium met in Kaliningrad in a more relevant decider over who’d top the group. Panama struck first, and had a halftime lead over Tunisia, Jose Rodriguez’s shot deflecting in off Yassine Meriah, while the England-Belgium game had a 45 minutes to forget, in a game where both managers rang the changes, England goalie Jordan Pickford providing the highlights with his save from Youri Tieleman’s shot and his gaffe that nearly gifted Belgium an opener afterwards. The second period took just six minutes to provide some overdue excitement, Belgium taking the lead with a delightful curling effort from Adnan Januzaj. As Januzaj was giving Belgium their lead, Tunisia were erasing Panama’s in Saransk, through Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Tunisia completed the turnabout through Wahbi Khazri 15 minutes later, to leave the World Cup with a win, while the game Kaliningrad had just Januzaj’s goal in it.

Hit…

Belgium: One of only three teams in this tournament to qualify with a 100% record in the group stage, and the only side to do it in both this and the previous World Cup four years earlier.

Tunisia: Bowed out of the tournament with a victory, their first in the World Cup for 40 years.

Miss…

England: A bad day at the office for the largely second-string side, most of whom didn’t give Gareth Southgate reason to be selected for the last 16 game on Monday.

 

Matter of Fact

  • This World Cup has seen 124 goals in the group stage, an average of 2.5 per game.
  • This is the first World Cup which England have gone through its group stage without a single clean sheet.
  • For the first time since 1982, no African has made it past the group phase.
  • This is also the first time a team has been eliminated from the World Cup via fair play.
  • The group stage of this World Cup saw 22 penalties awarded, no other World Cup in its entirety has had as much.
  • With the group stage over, and breaks now coming in, there’ll be no World Cup games tomorrow. What to do. What to do…

 

Last 16 Line up

Uruguay v Portugal

Spain v Russia

France v Argentina

Croatia v Denmark

Brazil v Mexico

Sweden v Switzerland

Belgium v Japan

Colombia v England

Published in International Watch

And that concludes the second round of matches. Two games apiece for every team now, 32 played overall. The herd is getting thinned, the arena of battle has already claimed a few victims; six already have passage to the next round, eight can't go any further than this stage, which means the final round of group games is a case 18 sides jostling for 12 spots:

 

England 6-1 Panama

A win for England, and they'd be in the next round. In none of the past two World Cups have the Three Lions won their opening two games, or any of them, in fact, but they began with victory over Tunisia in Volgograd. And here in Nizhny Novgorod they got off to the perfect start, John Stones heading them in front after just six minutes. One became two soon after, Harry Kane tucking home a penalty with aplomb, after a foul on Jesse Lingard. Lingard himself added a third, with a curling effort, before Stones made it four following a well-worked free-kick routine five minutes before halftime. Kane added another, again from 12 yards, before halftime, then he sealed his hatrick just after the break. Panama would get on the scoresheet though, Felipe Baloy grabbing a consolation, cue euphoria from the fans of CONCACAF side following their first ever World Cup goal. Victory has England safely to the next round, and the result means they're level on points, goal difference, and goals scored with Belgium in Group G.

Hit...

Harry Kane: No player had scored successive World Cup braces since Diego Maradona in 1986, then Romelu Lukaku did it. It took Kane 24 hours to follow suit, and the England captain is now top scorer at the World Cup. His hatrick also means he's the first Englishman to bag a treble since Gary Lineker in, you guessed it, 1986.

England: Through to the next round with room to spare, something they haven't done in World Cups for a while. Despite the undoubted lack of quality of the opposition, the result will give Gareth Southgate's side confidence going into the knockout phase, and of course get knocked out by Germany.

Felipe Baloy: Panama may lost so emphatically, but for the skipper, it was an occasion his grandkids will tell their grandkids, as he became the first Panamanian to score on the world stage.

 

Senegal 2-2 Japan

The clash of both sides who won their opening games, a win here and a path to the last 16 becomes clearer. Senegal took only seven minutes to strike first, Eiji Kawashima's poor punch from Youssuf Sabaly rebounding in off Sadio Mane. Japan found an equaliser through Takashi Inui, who then hit the crossbar after halftime. Senegal looked to have bagged the decisive goal when 19-year-old Moussa Wague put them back in front, but an equaliser by Keisuke Honda, 12 minutes from time, ensured a share of the spoils.

Hit...

Moussa Wague: The teenager has had an impressive start to the World Cup, and scored his first ever international goal for the Teranga Lions.

Keisuke Honda: Continues to step up for the Samurai Blues, creating the winner against Colombia and salvaging a point here.

Miss...

Eiji Kawashima: The Japanese goalie had another moment to forgot, his unconvincing punch led to Japan conceding the opener, following up with sluggishness in conceding in the open knockout game.

 

Poland 0-3 Colombia

It was loser-goes-home in Kazan, as Colombia and Poland squared up. Los Cafeteros took the lead midway through the first half, Yerry Mina heading in James Rodriguez's cross. Radamel Falcao added a second for Colombia, from a delightful Juan Quintero pass, before Juan Cuadrado, from another James assist, scored a third. Colombia have their fate in their hands ahead of their final group game with Senegal on Thursday, while Poland are out.

Hit...

James Rodriguez: The Bayern Munich man showed why he's still Colombia’s talisman, with two delightful assists and an all-round display as Los Cafeteros got their World Cup back on track.

Juan Quintero: After starring in Colombia’s first game, Quintero didn't disappoint on day two either, another top notch performance capped off with an assist for Colombia’s second goal.

Radamel Falcao: The Colombian captain missed the 2014 World Cup through injury, and didn't do quite well against Japan in his side's first game. So picture his delight when he got on the scoresheet here in Kazan, his first ever World Cup goal.

Miss...

Poland: Adam Nawalka’s side came into this tournament with a lot of promise and expectations, but are out with a whimper after just two games. Like in their defeat to Senegal, they looked toothless up front, and never really looked like scoring.

 

Matter of fact

  • Keisuke Honda is the first Japanese player to score in three different World Cups.
  • This World Cup still awaits its first goalless game.
Published in International Watch

It's coming thick and fast isn't it, penalties at this World Cup. Two today, which means the five-day and 14-game old World Cup has witnessed seven spotkicks already. Fingers point to VAR, who review almost any form of contact in the box these days. The video technology has neither quelled the debate over the validity and controversy of decisions, nor the skepticism over its use. Maybe its calls are right, maybe not. Either way, that's not the only point of note today:

Good Day For...

Harry Kane: Whenever he captains, he scores. But none has come on a bigger stage than this, his brace giving England a win in their opening World Cup game for the first time since 2006. The clock ticked 91 minutes in Volgograd when Kane was in the right place at the right time to head home the Three Lions' winner. He keeps coming good for club and country.

Belgium: On evidence of the first half, it looked like this would be another game where the underdogs nick something, Belgium had dominated the opening 45 but couldn't find a way through, and frustration was starting to creep in. But once the floodgates opened up at the start of the second period, Belgium, getting room to relax, took charge and coasted home. At the start of a World Cup in which the big guns have failed to deliver so far, beginning with a win is a big plus for the Red Devils.

Sweden: A win in their first World Cup game in 12 years. It may have come via a penalty, but it was well-deserved, and could, just about should, easily have been more. Which brings us to...

...Hyun-Woo Cho: Kept South Korea in the match against Sweden arguably longer than they deserved with a few good saves.

Dries Mertens: The goal you don't see coming in. Almost disrespectful in its occasion, to calm Belgium at such a crucial time in the game.

Romelu Lukaku: Perhaps the man everyone now wants to have a wonderful World Cup, the forward hit a brace, a well-taken brace too, in Belgium's opening day stroll. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more International goals in the past three years.

VAR (at first): The decision to review and award Sweden a penalty for the foul on Victor Claesson was spot on, making a case for the technology, even though cynics (i.e me) may choose to focus more on how the officials initially missed the foul.

Ferjani Sassi: His 35th minute penalty against England made him the first African player to find the net in this World Cup.

 

Bad Day For...

South Korea: Entered this tournament with skepticism and little expectations, and, on evidence of this, will go home in next to no time. The Koreans looked lacklustre, and had their goalie to thank for losing by just the one goal. This is what Shin Tae-Yong didn't want the Swedish spies to see?

Panama: Was it really a bad day? No one is thrilled to lose, but being in the World Cup is just about victory enough for the maiden minnows.

Tunisia: On the cusp of an invaluable point against England, only to concede so late, Nabil Maaloul's face afterwards said it all. The wait for an African side to grab a point in this World Cup continues.

VAR (afterwards): How did it not catch Harry Kane being wrestled to the ground jujitsu-style?

And some 'anonymous' others: Who were only minutes away from an opportunity to blame Raheem Sterling for England not beating Tunisia. Damn you, Harry.

 

Results

South Korea 0-1 Sweden

Belgium 3-0 Panama

Tunisia 1-2 England

Published in International Watch

FIFA World Cup 2018 Preview: Group G

Thursday, 07 June 2018 09:27

 

Belgium

Glass half-empty: Given the poisoned chalice of the tag ‘golden generation’, Belgium are under quite an enormous amount of pressure to deliver at a major tournament. Questions have already been put forward over tactics and squad harmony in general.

Glass half-full: Belgium have a talented squad, most of whom come into the tournament on the back of terrific form, and as Brazil showed in 2002, sometimes a collection of individuals is enough for the big prize.

How they qualified: Belgium topped Group H of UEFA qualifying.

Last voyage: The Red Devils were knocked out of the previous World Cup in last eight, by Argentina.

Best adventure: Belgium got as far as the semis in 1986, before been knocked by, yes, Argentina.

Coach: Appointed after Euro 2016, Roberto Martinez will see that tournament as the benchmark, given a quarter-final exit was deemed as a failure for his predecessor Marc Wilmots. Known for his time in the Premier League with Everton and Wigan, the former FA Cup winner has a degree in Physiotherapy.

Expectations: Winning the World Cup is by no means unrealistic, getting to the semis is surely the minimum.

 

England

Glass half-empty: In the past four couple of tournaments, no matter how low the bar has been set, England have managed to go under it. No strangers to impeccable qualifying campaigns, then shambolic tournaments, the Three Lions might get cold feet again on the big stage.

Glass half-full: There’s a- please whisper it- little sense of optimism with England ahead of Russia. The players look like they’re finally not terrified of having their ball at their feet, and there are no overblown expectations. Also, Harry Kane is unlikely to take corners this time.

How they qualified: England eased to qualification in Group F of UEFA qualifying.

Last voyage: England failed to win a game in 2014, going out after three.

Best adventure: As they are always quick to remind us, England won the World Cup as hosts in 1966.

Coach: Not afraid to make big calls, Gareth Southgate has impressed many since taking the job in 2016. The former England centre-back and Under 21 coach won the League Cup as a player with Middlesbrough, and co-wrote ‘Woody and Nord: A football friendship’ with ex-teammate Andy Woodman.

Expectations: (Don’t) Go out on penalties. Skipper Kane has said the side are going to Russia to win the tournament, the last eight should be the minimum.

 

Tunisia

Glass half-empty: Tunisia are by no means the most experienced side at this tournament, have been handed a tough group, and will be without creative go-to man Youssef Msakni. The lack of substantial squad depth is a concern as well. And then there’s their record of seven defeats in 12 World Cup games.

Glass half-full: The Carthage Eagles showed their resolve in an unbeaten qualifying campaign, and are under no pressure to deliver. Plus Wahbi Khazri, off the back of an impressive season at Rennes, could well soften the blow of losing Msakni.

How they qualified: Tunisia finished ahead of DR Congo in Group A of CAF qualifying.

Last voyage: Tunisia were last at the global stage in 2006, exiting at the group stage after amassing a solitary point in Germany.

Best adventure: They’ve never made it past the group phase in any of their four previous attempts.

Coach: Nabil Maaloul replaced Henri Kasperczak after the Nations Cup in 2017, and built on his predecessor’s two opening wins in qualifying. Tunisia’s youngest player at the 1988 Olympics and assistant to Roger Lemerre in the country’s 2004 Nations Cup success on home soil, he won a treble with ES Tunis in 2011.

Expectations: Getting past their group seems like a tough ask, as qualifying itself was a major success. A positive showing and perhaps a win would do nicely.

 

Panama

Glass half-empty: Panama are novices on the world stage, possess an ageing squad, and their joint-second top scorer in qualifying was own-goal, with two. They were just about the side everyone else wanted in the draw.

Glass half-full: Panama have an experienced manager in Hernan Dario Gomez, who has coached in previous World Cups, and are under no pressure to succeed. Plus, every World Cup has a surprise result in it, and they’re in a group with England, so…

How they qualified: After coming close to qualifying for Brazil 2014, Los Canaleros beat Costa Rica in October to pip Honduras and USA to third spot in CONCACAF’s final round of qualifying.

Last voyage: Panama have never been at a World Cup tournament before, which…

Best adventure: …makes this part moot.

Coach: Hernan Dario Gomez is no newbie on the World stage, having been here with three different teams previously, although he suffered group stage exits in all of them. The 62-year-old was appointed in 2014, three years after resigning from Colombia’s national side after attacking a woman in August of 2011.

Expectations: Getting to Russia is already an enormous achievement for Panama, whose fans might just be here to enjoy the ride.

 

Flashback: England and Belgium have previously met twice in the World Cup, a 4-4 draw in 1954, and an extra-time win for England in the second round in 1990. Both sides have also met Tunisia on the global stage before, England winning 2-0 in 1998, while Belgium drew with the Tunisians four years later.

 

Fixtures

June 18- Belgium v Panama (Sochi)

June 18- England v Tunisia (Volgograd)

June 23- Belgium v Tunisia (Moscow)

June 24- England v Panama (Nizhny Novgorod)

June 28- England v Belgium (Kaliningrad)

June 28- Panama v Tunisia (Saransk)

 

Published in International Watch

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