After 32 games of World Cup football in Russia we are at the half way stage of the tournament, with every team having played two of their three qualifying matches. Already guaranteed through to the next round are Russia, Uruguay, Croatia, England, Belgium, France and possibly Mexico. Definitely going home are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Peru, Costa Rica, South Korea, Tunisia, Panama and Poland. That’s half of the participating teams, so the other 16 have a battle to secure a top two finish in their qualifying tables.
So far there has been no goal-less draws, but almost a third of matches have ended with a solitary goal victory, many of them scored very late in the game. The 32 games produced 85 goals, 13 of them coming from 16 penalties awarded, with VAR responsible for six penalty decisions. Undoubtedly this tournament will see the most penalties ever awarded, and probably as a consequence will directly influence the number of goals scored by the Golden Boot winner.
The host nation Russia got off to a blistering start in Group A with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, opponents who were deemed alongside Russia as the WORST teams in the tournament. Russia followed with a 3-1 win against Egypt securing their place in the next round. ITV pundit Roy Keane was scathing about Russia progressing, although he begrudgingly admitted it was good for the host nation to do well. His attitude disgusted me, considering many of the BIG teams have still yet to really impress.
Group B produced a thrilling 3-3 draw between Portugal & Spain and a surprise 1-0 win for Iran, courtesy of a Morocco own goal. I was pleased for Iran who had doggedly fought to get a point in the game. As a team Iran have not had it easy with political sanctions causing problems with boot supplies, and a ban on replica merchandise sales makes revenue difficult to generate.
Group C with France, Australia, Denmark and Peru have scored the least number of goals with only 7 between them so far. The stand out performance for me has been Jedinak’s two penalties for Australia.
In Group D I felt sorry for Iceland failing to secure victory over Argentina, missing numerous chances to enhance a 1-0 lead before the South Americans equalised. Argentina was well and truly hammered by Croatia 3-0, and must secure a win against Nigeria to have any chance of progressing. The South Americans looked mediocre at best.
Brazil in Group E was held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland before winning 2-0 against Costa Rica. They were lucky, because until 90 minutes it was 0-0 and I so wanted little Costa Rica to secure a point. But then 7 extra minutes were played and the Brazilians finally turned on the style, although Neymar should have been off the pitch. Throughout the game he repeatedly told the referee what he thought about everything, I’d have slapped a yellow on him to shut his mouth. Then he spectacularly went down in the box, the referee awarded a penalty then bravely reversed his decision having consulted VAR. By rights Neymar should have had a booking for simulation, but eventually he did get yellow carded for dissent. So I feel his petulant attitude could have seen him red carded, therefore he wouldn’t have been on the field to score Brazil’s second goal. Far more convincing a victory was Switzerland’s 2-1 result over Serbia.
Mexico beat Germany 1-0 to get Group F off to an interesting start and then secured a 2-1 win over South Korea. With six points Mexico should progress, but it is not a mathematical guarantee yet. Germany v Sweden was an intriguing match with both teams having a sublime and awful half each. In the second half Germany equalised immediately, and for the remainder of the game Sweden had eleven men behind the ball! Giving away a needless free kick in extra time allowed Tony Kroos to score and snatch victory for Germany. The reigning champions until that moment were almost out of the tournament. Heart in mouth stuff!!!
The first game for England against Tunisia in Group G proved that VAR suffers from human error. At least twice England players were literally wrestled to the ground in the box, and nothing was “seen” by VAR or the referee? Thankfully Harry Kane’s header in the dying seconds of the match secured a 2-1 victory. When England faced Panama the wrestling demonstrations in the box were punished by VAR twice, and another four goals were added to the tally from set pieces. A late goal from Panama saw England on exactly the same statistics as Belgium, 8 goals for 2 against with six points each. Both European teams meet in their final group match and a win result would separate the two, otherwise it may go down to “fair play” (least bookings) or a draw out of a pot to place first and second teams. But after two games Group G has the highest goals tally of 20.
A lacklustre Poland in Group H tasted defeat against Senegal and a scintillating Columbia, ensuring an early exit for the group’s only European representative. Columbia in their first match had a man sent off in the third minute for a deliberate handball in the box, so basically played with ten men for over ninety minutes with added time. They did well to equalise before half time, but couldn’t come back a second time after Japan’s Osako scored with a lovely header. So Japan secured an unexpected 2-1 victory and then battled for a hard won 2-2 draw with Senegal, meaning both teams are on four points with identical statistics. Columbia face Senegal and Japan face Poland in the final group matches and all is still to play for, it’s still wide open.
So many times the big teams prove their ability to slug out a match, waiting to pounce on a fleeting opportunity to showcase a bit of genius. Many of them do just enough to get by and no more, and this does not usually make for attractive or thrilling football in my opinion. I’d much rather see teams with perceived less ability, but who show more heart, progress instead. Initially that happens but inevitably the “big guns” grind down the young pretenders. But one day I’d love to see two World Cup finalists who have never reached that stage before. I can but dream.