Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao


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.


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


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.


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


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. 

Super Eagles captain, John Obi Mikel, said he played Nigeria’s final group game of the World Cup while his father was kidnapped. Mikel said he was told his father had been kidnapped and would be killed if he made any reports, just hours before Nigeria’s defeat to Argentina in St. Petersburg last Tuesday.

‘I played while my father was in the hands of bandits’, Mikel told the Guardian UK. ‘I had to suppress the trauma. I took a call four hours before kick-off to tell me what had happened.’

‘I was emotionally distraught and I had to make the decision about whether I was mentally ready to play. I did not know what to do but, in the end, I knew that I could let 180 million Nigerians down.’

Pa Michael Obi, Mikel’s father, was abducted when travelling along the Makurdi-Enugu Expressway from Jos, and this is the second time he has been victim to kidnappers, the first being in August 2011. The police were able to secure his release after a week, but Mikel said his father is currently receiving emergency treatment in hospital after being tortured.

‘I thank the police authorities for their rescue efforts and the support I’ve received from friends and family members. Unfortunately, my dad is now in hospital receiving emergency treatment as a result of the torture he received during his capture.’

The gift that just keeps on giving, Russia 2018. This World Cup doesn’t even do the unexpected like many, and today it delivered another enthralling, seesaw rollercoaster of a game, perhaps the best of them so far, in Rostov.


Brazil 2-0 Mexico

Mexico had a knack for going out in the last 16, and Brazil had only gone out at this stage once previously (in 1990), and have never lost in the World Cup to a CONCACAF side. But this tournament has been one of shocks and the thoroughly unexpected, and Mexico had already beaten Germany in Russia, so when El Tri began this game in sprightly fashion, another upset looked to be on. But despite their opening 20 minutes of energy and effervescence, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side didn’t really trouble the Brazilian defence, and the men in yellow eventually took control. Chances were few and far-between, though, as the first half petered out to a goalless draw. The second half followed a similar pattern, though Mexico were guilty of spurning a few counter-attacks, every man on the ball on each occasion opting for an ill-advised shot rather than a pass. And they paid for that lack of judgement, as just over five minutes into the half, Brazil went in front, Neymar playing in Willian, and was on hand to tap home the latter’s resulting shot. Now Mexico had to score to prevent yet another last 16 exit, but still they continued to display poor decision-making skills up front, and had Guillermo Ochoa to thank at the other end for keeping them in it, the goalkeeper denying Paulinho and Willian. But Ochoa could do nothing two minutes from time, when Neymar’s effort crept past him was tucked in by Brazilian substitute Roberto Firmino, to seal La Selacao’s place in the last eight.


Brazil: In a World Cup where the big guns have been faltering, Tite’s side didn’t fall victim, and march on to the quarters.

Neymar: Scored one and created the other in Brazil’s win. His play-acting hasn’t gone down one bit, but he’s finally attracting attention with what he does with the ball as well.

Willian: A seemingly turbo-charged second half display from the Chelsea man, who ran the Mexican backline ragged, and set up Brazil’s opener.


Mexico: Another tournament, another exit at the last 16 stage. That fifth World Cup game on foreign still proves elusive to EL Tri.


Belgium 3-2 Japan

Another game that, despite the shocks so far, looked like only going one way. Belgium were one of the favourites for the World Cup, topped their group with a 100% record and were the top scorers with nine goals, while Japan only got to the last 16 by virtue of fair play, and have never gone past this stage. The first period was mostly spent in the Japanese half, Akira Nishino’s side doing well to repel Belgium’s threat with a combination of organisational and compact defending, grit, and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, and at halftime, the score was goalless. But the big jaw-dropper came only three minutes after the restart, Jan Vertonghen failing to cut out a Japanese pass, and that error was punished by a well-taken finish from Genki Haraguchi, to put Japan ahead. Belgium almost bagged an immediate equaliser through Eden Hazard, but his shot hit the post, and no sooner had that happened than Japan struck again, a rasping shot from Takashi Inui finding its way to Thibaut Courtois’ top corner to double the Samurai Blue’s lead, and the upset was well and truly on. Japan had a two-goal lead to protect, and were even threatening to add a third, but Belgium got a lifeline after a header from Vertonghen curled its way into the far corner. The game was well and truly alive, and five minutes later it became 2-2 in Rostov, Hazard’s cross headed home by substitute Marouane Fellaini. Belgium had fought to restore parity, and were far from done, Kawashima had to make a double save to deny Nacer Chadli and Romelu Lukaku. Japan weren’t prepared to sit back either, Nishino threw on Keisuke Honda, who tested Courtois with long-range free-kick, but not before the Belgian goalie had gone down well to prevent an Axel Witsel own goal. Four minutes of added time were given, and three had been played when Japan had a corner. Honda’s take was safely held by Courtois, who set the ball rolling for Kevin de Bruyne. His pass to Thomas Meunier, whose pass was dummied by Lukaku and finished off by Chadli, and Belgium, astonishingly, had stolen victory and broken Japanese hearts.


Belgium: With just over 20 minutes left, they were heading for the exit, and the questions would remain over whether this star-studded squad could be a team after all. But they showed the grit and never-say-die attitude that comes with great teams. Brazil beware.

Roberto Martinez: Will probably never shake off criticism of not been good enough to manage such a talented group of players, but his double substitution when his side were two-down proved to be a masterstroke.


Japan: The most heart-breaking of eliminations that one could suffer. Japan looked to be running away with it at 2-0 up, and even after Belgium levelled, the Asian side still went for it. Played their part in a brilliant game, the sight of some of their players beating the turf in agony will linger in the memory.


Matter of Fact

  • ·       Belgium are the first side since 1970 to win a World Cup knockout game despite going two goals behind, after Germany against England 48 years earlier.
  • ·       Brazil’s two goals against Mexico means they’re now the top scorers in the history of the World Cup, two ahead of Germany with 228 strikes.
  • ·       Mexico’s defeat means they’ve now lost seven successive last 16 ties in the World Cup.

Only two days into the knockout round, and penalties arrived. Football’s tension-inducing and nerve-shredding answer to Russian Roulette was on show on Day 18 of the tournament, and a big name was one of the casualties:


Spain 1-1 Russia

There was a clear favourite here. Spain had underwhelmed a bit in topping their group, but they were still Spain, and from their side of the charts, the path to the final wasn’t as difficult. But first up: Russia. The hosts had achieved minimum expectations in reaching the last 16, and even on their own patch, were clear underdogs, coach Stanislav Cherchesov describing this game as one of life and death. 12 minutes in, it looked like it would be death, as Russia went behind after Sergei Ignashevich diverted Marco Asensio’s cross into his own net. Spain had the early breakthrough, and surely that would set the tone for a rather comfortable win, possession was being dominated as expected, and La Roja were in control. But four minutes before halftime Russia would be handed a lifeline, quite literally, as Gerard Pique handled in the Spanish box. Artem Dzyuba made no mistake from 12 yards, and at the interval, the scores were level. Spain were still expected to dominate, and they did, but to little avail, other than Igor Akinfeev denying Andres Iniesta and Rodrigo Moreno in quick succession, the Russian goalie was barely tested. Onto extra time, and still more Spain possession, little substance; they racked up over a thousand passes in the game, but it amounted to little; which meant we would have penalties. After four successful kicks, Koke stepped up for Spain, and his effort was saved by Akinfeev, before Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev scored for Russia, either side of Sergio Ramos keeping the Spaniards in it. As Iago Aspas came forward for their fifth, he knew he had to score to keep Fernando Hierro’s team alive. He didn’t. Akinfeev saved again. The most astonishing World Cup story was written; Russia would be heading to the last eight, Spain’s road ends here.


Russia: Defended bravely over 120 minutes, showed great resolve to come back after conceding early, and earned their luck on penalties to go through. The last eight beckons, and even a potential last four spot seems very much achievable.

Igor Akinfeev: The Russian skipper became a national delight, after two penalty saves sent his side to the quarter-finals.


Spain: One of the favourites to win the tournament, things got off to a rocky start with the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, and Spain didn’t look to recover from it. The performance had been unconvincing from the group stage, and, despite making pass after pass here, they paid the price for being toothless up front.


Croatia 1-1 Denmark

It was an explosive start in Nizhny Novgorod, as Mathias Jorgensen gave Denmark the lead after just 58 seconds. Their advantage only lasted for double that amount of time, Mario Mandzukic levelling for Croatia, and the score was 1-1 after three minutes and 50 seconds. If it looked like it would set the tone for the rest of the game; it didn’t. The rest of the 90 minutes were rather drab, and so were the first 23 of the extra 30 that followed, until Luka Modric played in Ante Rebic, who rounded Kasper Schmeichel but was fouled by Jorgensen before he could score. A penalty was awarded, which Modric failed to convert, his weak effort held by Schmeichel, much to the approval of his dad in the stands. That meant this game would follow the one earlier in Moscow and go to a shootout. The first two attempts failed, Christian Eriksen denied by Danijel Subasic, then Milan Badelj was foiled by Schmeichel, then four successful kicks followed, one of which was Modric who atoned for his miss. Then Subasic saved from Lasse Schone. Advantage Croatia. Then Schmeichel denied Josip Pivaric. Advantage lost. Then Subasic foiled Nicolai Jorgensen. Match point Croatia. And Ivan Rakitic would make no mistake with his kick, sending the Zlatko Dalic’s team to the last eight.


Croatia: Looked like they were heading for another shattering exit early in a major competition, but luck was on their side and they head to only their second ever quarter-final.

Kasper Schmeichel: His side may have lost eventually, but they wouldn’t even have made it to the shootout were it not for his penalty save, and he did keep them in it for as long as he could with two more. Named Man of the Match afterwards, and deservedly so.

Danijel Subasic: Schmeichel may earn all the plaudits, but the opposing goalkeeper was Croatia’s hero with three saves in the shootout.


Denmark: Made the perfect start in the game, but eventually lost in the shootout, with a number of poorly-taken kicks.


Matter of Fact

  • Sergei Ignashevich is the oldest player to score an own goal in the World Cup, at the age of 38.
  • Spain have never beaten the host nation in a major tournament, with five defeats in five.
  • Danijel Subasic is only the second goalkeeper in World Cup history to save three penalties in a shootout, after Ricardo for Portugal against England in 2006.


Yes, it’s Day 17. Even though the previous day had no World Cup action, we’re choosing to call it a World Cup day. Subject to debate? Probably. But an undisputed fact was that today marked the beginning of knockout action in Russia 2018, and if this sets the standard for the rest, then we’re in for a barnstormer:


France 4-3 Argentina

Never has a meeting between sides like France and Argentina had one side as a clear underdog, but that was the case ahead of this game in Kazan, Argentina had laboured and were lucky to get out of their group, and not many fancied them here. But that last-gasp win over Nigeria might just be the jerk they required in this tournament, and France, despite winning two out of their three group games, hadn’t thrilled anyone either. But Les Bleus flew out of the traps here, or rather Kylian Mbappe did, only 13 minutes had gone when the teenager turned on the afterburners towards the Argentine defence, too much for Marcos Rojo, who brought him down in the box. France had an early penalty, and Antoine Griezmann, who hit the bar from a free-kick earlier, sent Franco Armani the wrong way from 12 yards, his second goal of the tournament- both penalties. France were in control here, Mbappe too quick to handle, while Argentina had most of the possession, but it was mostly pedestrian. But four minutes before halftime, parity was restored, and brilliantly so, Angel Di Maria given too much space by the French, and his shot from over 30 yards out found Hugo Lloris’ top corner. Out of nothing, La Albiceleste were level, and three minutes after the break, they’d go in front, an Argentine free-kick fell the way of Lionel Messi, whose shot was deflected in off his teammate Gabriel Mercado.

Now France were in trouble. One of the favourites to win the World Cup now stared elimination in the France. The criticism towards coach Didier Deschamps wasn’t going to let if it stayed like this, as the French hadn’t quite provided much excitement in this tournament. But that would come just before the hour mark, a Lucas Hernandez cross was deflected towards the path of Benjamin Pavard, and the right-back produced a volley of deluxe class to find the top corner. Both teams had once led, both teams had forced levellers, and the game was all-square once more. But not for long, seven minutes after Mbappe was fed by Olivier Giroud, and his shot was too fast and powerful for Armani’s right hand, to put France ahead. Then four minutes later it was the same combination, Giroud to Mbappe, to the back of the Argentine net, France had a cushion, and surely a winning lead. Sergio Aguero pulled one back for Argentina in the 92nd minute with a header, but it proved academic. Les Bleus were heading for the last eight. Messi and company were home for Buenos Aires.


France: Recovered well in a rollercoaster game, fighting back after initially throwing away a lead. The football is still to totally convince, but this was a step in the right direction.

Kylian Mbappe: The best player on the pitch by a mile, and don’t be surprised if that was the distance he ran. His pace and trickery too much for the Argentine defence, winning the penalty for the opener, and scoring a second-half brace that killed off the opposition. Showed what the fuss is all about, and there could hardly be a better mode of announcing yourself on the world stage if a Public Address System yelled your profile out loud.

Benjamin Pavard: The technique for his 57th minute leveller for Les Bleus was golden.


Argentina: It’s rare that a team scores three goals in a World Cup knockout game and still get knocked out, it’s even rarer that a side gets three goals, and were still lucky not to lose heavily. For the umpteenth time, Argentina were at sixes and sevens, especially at the back. The gameplan didn’t work, the point of starting with a false nine is irrelevant if you use direct wingers who keep putting crosses into the box. They should have gone home earlier, they have now.


Uruguay 2-1 Portugal

The game of tactics in Sochi. Two sides who are known for defensive solidity and collective compactness met in the second knockout game. It was expected to be a close contest, with chances few and far between, but only seven minutes had gone when Uruguay struck first, Edinson Cavani sending a long ball towards Luis Suarez, whose terrific cross was headed home by the former. Uruguay hadn’t conceded a goal in 2018, but that would have to change if Portugal were going to make the last eight, but every time they ventured forward, they found blue bodies between them and the goal, and at the break they were frustratingly a goal behind. But Fernando Santos’ men upped the tempo at the start of the second period, and 10 minutes in, from a short corner and a Raphael Guerreiro cross, Pepe headed home their equaliser. Parity was restored, but it was short-lived, Pepe turning from saviour to culprit after his poor header down let to the ball at the feet of Nahitan Nandez, who laid off for Cavani to produce a wonderful finish. Portugal took 48 minutes to find their equaliser, they took seven to concede after levelling the scores. Now they had to score again, but it didn’t look like it would come. On came Ricardo Quaresma and Andre Silva, but no sign of a rescue, the closest they came was when Bernardo Silva lifted one over after an error from Fernando Muslera. Cristiano Ronaldo was booked for dissent in stoppage time, while at the other end Cristian Rodriguez almost added a third for La Celeste. But it mattered little in the end, as Uruguay held on for their second quarter-final appearance in the past three World Cups. Portugal haven’t gone beyond the last 16 since 2006.


Uruguay: Demonstrated their collective doggedness once more, and closed out the win that gives them a last-eight meeting with France.

Edinson Cavani: While others hit the limelight, Cavani continues to be effective, for both club and country. In a game billed by many as ‘Ronaldo v Suarez’ it was the Paris Saint-Germain forward who stepped, with a match-winning brace- not bad for a supposed ‘big-game bottler’. Uruguay will hope the injury that sent him out of this game early doesn’t rule him out of the quarters.


Portugal: Had more shots in this game than any of their three previously, but their wastefulness cost them. Credit to Uruguay’s defence, but up front Portugal didn’t cover himself in glory. As Ronaldo went quiet, the rest failed to step up, as always.


Matter of Fact

  • Kylian Mbappe is the first teenage to score twice in a World Cup game since 1958, after a certain Pele.
  • Pepe’s goal for Portugal was the first Uruguay have conceded since October 2017.
  • France have never lost a last-16 game in the World Cup.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


When Football365’s Daniel Storey wrote about England’s first game of this World Cup against Tunisia, and implied that if one doesn’t get that country feeling when one’s nation plays, then there’s something wrong, I met that with a bit of scepticism. You can watch the World Cup without holding an ounce of support for your country, I believed, and as a Nigerian, an ounce of support for the national side is more than enough recipe for heartbreak.

Storey may be English, and they may have had their fair share of tournament disappointments, but at least they have the consolation of reminding the world that they won the World Cup long before the big bang. Nigerians don’t have that same luxury on the big stage, from open goal misses that denied us a spot in the last 16, to amateurish lapses in concentration that cost us a spot in the quarter-finals, it’s always been ‘outlandishly get your hopes up and see it realistically get shot down’ when the Super Eagles took the world stage. Hence, my scepticism, or rather cynicism, towards Nigeria at the global tournaments.

So to Argentina v Nigeria in St. Petersburg. Argentina’s World Cup hanging a by the tiniest of threads, a win was a must, while Nigeria simply needed a point for qualification into the knockout phase. Even against my country, it was hard not to root for Lionel Messi, one of the finest players to have ever graced the game surely deserved more, after coming out of retirement to haul his team to the World Cup, than a tame exit in the first round. If I had any allegiance towards anyone before that game, there it laid, or so I thought. Then on to the actual watching of the game, seeing the turnout on the streets, social media and basically everywhere else in support of the Eagles, then Storey’s saying started to make sense. This country has its problems, from the ludicrous government’s lax attitude towards the well-being of its people, to its emphasis on placing more importance on trivial issues, and what not; but all those would have to wait. This was about us against Argentina, about finally getting them back for every time they’ve made us sullen in previous World Cups, four times we’d met previously in this competition, four times they’d beaten us; surely the gods of football owed us one. We were due our pound of flesh. And from then on, from the turnout of Nigerians prepared to see us advance to the next phase, to the noise they made, I stopped thinking, and started feeling.

I didn’t know when I felt glum after Lionel Messi scored, the man I supposedly wanted to root for, I didn’t know when I yelled at Kelechi Iheanacho for ruining a Nigerian counter-attack until I did, didn’t know when I yelled at the screen in frustration after Marcos Rojo’s alleged handball wasn’t penalised until someone beckoned on me to calm down, didn’t know when I had my heart in my mouth when Gonzalo Higuain skied one over our bar from close range; and I certainly didn’t expect to slump in anguish after Rojo bagged that late Argentine winner. I saw friends who were passionate about football, friends who weren’t really passionate, and friends who hardly took interest in the game, all go through the rollercoaster of emotion, uncontained euphoria when Victor Moses equalised, and utter dejection when Rojo scored- heads in hands, faces covered by shirts. This was football. This was the World Cup.

Despite our enormous differences- political, social, sexual, religious, economic- here the goal was common, to will Nigeria into the next round. The same silence of despair after Messi put us behind, the same joyous cheer after we equalised, and the same hate we bore when they snatched qualification from our grasp. Messi is the one of the world’s greatest ever players, we’ll accept that in a few days’ time. Here, though, he was nothing more than the little man who aided in stealing our dreams once again, one who we now hope will face a humiliating exit against France in the next round, just to quell our angst. The sense of injustice- whether valid or not- was collective, as was the wonder over what might have been, what should have been. In those moments, we had everything in common, nothing apart, the sense of togetherness was laudable.

It’s the hope that kills us, but at least it brings us together first.





W..wh..What. Wait, what! The World Cup in Russia has been throwing its fair share of drama and shocks, but it might be hard for it, or even any other World Cup, to match the jaw-dropper on the 14th day of the 21st tournament:

Germany 0-2 South Korea

Mexico 0-3 Sweden

It was crunch time in Group F, as the log before its final round of matches read: Mexico- 6, Germany- 3, Sweden- 3, South Korea- 0. And with Mexico and Sweden meeting in Yekaterinburg, there was the possibility of three sides getting stuck on six points. The other tied scenario, although less likely, could see three sides finish with three points, but that relied on- among other things- South Korea beating Germany, a nigh-on implausible occurrence. Germany had stuttered in this tournament, losing their opening game against the Mexicans, but ground out a late winner in Game Two against Sweden, surely the only question here was whether Die Mannschaft could finish top. But at halftime in their game in Kazan, it was goalless, same as the Mexico-Sweden clash, then the log read: Mexico- 7, Germany- 4, Sweden- 4, South Korea- 1. By the start of the second half, though, Sweden took the lead, and leapfrogged Germany into second place, meaning Germany now had to score. The second period was only seven minutes old, so no need to panic just yet, but Jogi Low’s men were finding Korean goalkeeper Cho Hyun-Woo a hard nut to crack, who pulled off a superb save to deny Leon Goretzka not long after the break. From seven minutes old, the second half got to 10, then 20, then Sweden doubled their lead over Mexico, Andreas Granqvist slotting home his second penalty of the tournament. Now, Sweden were top of Group F, a German goal would send Mexico out, but try as they may, a German goal wouldn’t come, Low threw on Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller and Julian Brandt, still nothing, Mats Hummels missed from close range, plus South Korea were actually finding some room on the counter, and just needed to get it right. With less than 10 minutes to go, Sweden were three up, their fate sealed, they would be in the last 16. Now it was between Germany and Mexico, one goal in Kazan was all the world champions needed. But when that goal came, to their horror, it came in favour of the Koreans, in stoppage time, Yong Gwon-Kim’s effort initially disallowed for offside, then awarded after VAR consultation. Now German nerves which had turned to anxiety, then to fear, now became full-blown terror, they had to score twice in three stoppage minutes. Manuel Neuer left his post in the German goal, offering an extra body at the attacking end, and paid the price, as a long ball from Ju Se-Jong fell to South Korea captain Son Heung-Min, and when he raced clear towards an unguarded net, Germany’s race had been run. Astonishingly, on a day they were tipped to finish top of the group, they finished bottom. The world champions, who hadn’t failed to make it to the last eight of the World Cup since 1978, will play no further part in this World Cup, after just three games.


Sweden: Showed immense recovery to bounce back from that crushing defeat to Germany, and eventually top Group F.

Mexico: Lost heavily on the day, but other results means El Tri’s love affair with the last 16 continues.

South Korea: Finished with a spark. The win over Germany was not enough for their own unlikely scenario, but it’s a happy way to exit the tournament.

Cho Hyun-Woo: The South Korean withstood everything that the Germans threw at him, and will surely have a few scouts turning their heads. Amazing to think he played no part in the side’s qualifiers.


Germany: No fluidity or comfort in the entire tournament, but when they beat Sweden with that dramatic late goal, they showed their undoubted resolve. Who would have thought they’d screw it up so badly in the end, as for the first time since 1938, they’ve fallen at the first round; and given that the 1938 tournament had just one game guaranteed, it’s the first ever time they’ve been eliminated at the group stage of the World Cup. The sense that all was not well in the German camp never departed them in this tournament, and it’s no exaggeration to say they deserved to finish bottom. We’ve seen German teams without sufficient quality, we’ve seen German teams without flair. Not many thought we’d see a German team without attitude and that will to win. Were they complacent? They looked it.


Serbia 0-2 Brazil

Switzerland 2-2 Costa Rica

After blowing their chance to secure qualification in their second game, and dropping to third in Group E, Serbia sought retribution, as they met Brazil in Moscow. A win would keep them in the World Cup, a draw might be enough, though unlikely, while a defeat would spell the end for Mladen Krstajic’s team. Brazil, meanwhile, needed a point to secure progress to the next round, same as Switzerland, who were up against already-eliminated. It was the Swiss who scored first of the four teams, via Blerim Dzemaili, before Brazil took the lead against Serbia through Paulinho. That was how it stood at the break, Brazil and Switzerland on seven points, with Brazil top on goal difference. One more goal for Switzerland, and they would go top, but Vladimir Petkovic’s side were pegged back by Costa Rica, Kendall Waston bringing Los Ticos level. A draw still the nature of the sides going through wouldn’t change, so Serbia needed to score twice nevertheless, but they conceded a second, Thiago Silva heading in a Neymar corner midway through the second period. Two nil it finished in favour of Brazil, while the Swiss shared the spoils with Costa Rica, after a late Josip Drmic goal was cancelled out by a Yann Sommer own goal, as both sides head for the next round.


Switzerland: Have now reached the second round in three of their past four World Cups.


Serbia: They were always going to be in trouble the moment they didn’t close out their lead against the Swiss in their second game, and now a campaign that began so promisingly ends rather prematurely.

Matter of Fact

  • The past three holders of the World Cup have gone out in the group stages. If this run continues, so Nigeria out of the 2030 World Cup in the first round?
  • Philippe Coutinho is the first Brazilian player since Pele to have two goals and one assist in his first three World Cup games. (What; we said ‘matter of fact’, not ‘matter of consistently interesting fact’)
  • Jesus Gallardo’s booking for Mexico against Sweden is the fastest ever in World Cup history, after just 13 seconds.


There's only so many times one can say 'football, bloody hell', yet there's almost no time it's not appropriate. The curiosity, confusion and chaos that comes with the game almost unrivalled, and Russia 2018 continues to throw a fair bit of chaos in our faces.


Uruguay 3-0 Russia

With qualification assured from both sides, it was a meeting in Samara to decide who would decide Group A between Uruguay and the hosts. There was going to be a fair changes to the sides, having one eye on the last 16 already, Russia resting star man Aleksandr Golovin, while Uruguay did without Jose Maria Gimenez. But there was no rest for the powerful front two of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and it was the former who struck first, deceiving Igor Akinfeev with a free-kick early on to put Uruguay in front. La Celeste doubled their lead not long after, Diego Laxalt's shot deflecting in off Denis Cheryshev, then Russia compounded their first half woes when Igor Smolnikov got sent off. Uruguay had never won all of their three World Cup group games since 1954, but Cavani would seal victory here which would assure a 100% group record.


Edinson Cavani: After knocking on the door so many times, the PSG man finally got his first goal of this World Cup. It was the first time he's scored in a World Cup game which Uruguay ended up winning.

Uruguay: A 100% record out of Group A, Oscar Tabarez's resolute and hard-to-breakdown side will fancy their chances of going far in this tournament.


Russia: A bad day at the office for the hosts, who would have been glad this game didn't have qualification riding on it.


Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt

If the Uruguay-Russia game was the battle for top spot, then the clash between Egypt and Saudi Arabia was the battle to not finish bottom. Egypt went in front inevitably through Mohammed Salah, with an impudent chip, before Salah himself was guilty of missing a gilt-edged chance moments after opening the scoring. Saudi Arabia were given a chance to level before halftime with a penalty following a handball by Ahmed Fathi, but Fahad Al-Muwallad saw his shot tipped to the bar by Hossam El-Hadary. The Saudis were given another penalty soon after, this time following a foul by Ahmed Hegazi, and this time it was converted, via the boot of Salman Al-Faraj. Chances were few and far between after the break, but an uneventful second half was settled in stoppage time by Salem Al-Dowsari, to hand Saudi Arabia the spoils and consign Egypt to the foot of Group A.


Saudi Arabia: Juan Antonio Pizzi's side grabbed their first win in the World Cup since 1994, after 12 previous failed attempts.

Hossam El-Hadary: His side may have lost, but, after setting a new age record at the World Cup, the goalkeeper did well to save Saudi Arabia's first penalty.


Egypt: Still await a World Cup win, and here were robbed of even a point with that late goal, capping off a disappointing tournament.


Spain 2-2 Morocco

A point would do for Spain as they went up against Morocco in Kaliningrad, but they fell behind early, a mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos let in Khalid Boutaib, who made no mistake when one-on-one with David de Gea. Boutaib did miss a one-on-one with De Gea afterwards, but not before Spain equalised after some delightful build-up play was finished off by Isco. Morocco weren't letting up though, Nordin Amrabat crashing he bar with a thunderous effort, before substitute Youssef En-Nesiry headed the Atlas Lions back in front. Spain levelled again, though, Iago Aspas with a lovely back-heeled finish that was initially disallowed for offside, then given after the referee consulted with VAR.


Khalid Boutaib: Scored Morocco's first goal on the World Cup since 1998.


Spain: One of World Cup favourites laboured to a point here, finding Morocco hard to breakdown and offering little assurances in their own defence.


Iran 1-1 Portugal

Portugal were in pole position for qualification as they squared up with Iran in Saransk, a point would be enough, while Iran would go through with a win. As expected, Iran were compact at the back, as Portugal created little, but a moment of brilliance from Ricardo Quaresma and the outside of his right boot gave La Selaccao the lead at halftime. Portugal were given a penalty early in the second half, after VAR consultation, but Cristiano Ronaldo fluffed his lines, his effort from 12 yards saved by Ali Beirenvand. VAR consultation came into play once again, reviewing what looked like a possible red card for Ronaldo, but the verdict was yellow, then the technology was consulted for a possible Iranian penalty, which was given. Karim Ansarifard converted, and Iran were within one goal of the next round. But it wouldn't come, the closest they came was Sardar Azmoun hitting the side-netting. The final whistle went and the reaction of the Iran players, from tears of despair to beating the turf in agony, highlighted how close Carlos Queiroz's team came.


Iran: Their World Cup road may have ended, but they did themselves no harm reputation-wise. Queiroz had stated before the game that they didn't want to be glorious failures, but they have reason to be proud of their showing.

Ricardo Quaresma: Came up with his own contender for goal of the tournament with his trademark outside of the foot finish.


Matter of fact

  • Hossam El-Hadary became the oldest player to appear in the World Cup, at the age of 45, surpassing Colombian Faryd Mondragon's record of 43, set in the previous tournament.
  • Uruguay haven't conceded a goal in 2018.
  • Mohammed Salah's opener for Egypt was the first time the Pharaohs have ever taken the lead in World Cup history.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo is the first Portuguese player to miss a penalty in the World Cup (excluding shootouts), after seven successful takes before.

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