The world cup in Russia enters its latter stages and after 48 group games that have produced a total of 122 goals, there have been almost everything to talk about; from the Champions’ curse to the brilliance of individual players and national teams, the fellowship of devout fans, the elimination of a team based off fair play and the ever present video assistant referee amongst others, the world cup has not been short of talking points.
After round three of group games we take a look at some of the highlights and the match-up for the remainder of teams vying for glory at the FIFA world cup.
The Champions’ Curse
In the last three world cup tournaments and four of the last five, the defending champions have failed to defend their title eventually bowing out in the group stages. It happened with the French team in Korea/Japan 2002, Italy suffered similar fate at the 2010 world cup in South Africa before Spain in Brazil 2014 and now Germany here in Russia.
The German national team were tipped favorites to retain the world cup title by pundits, bookmakers and myself included but their title defence started on a negative note. In a pulsating encounter, the Germans lost to a Chucky Lozano goal against Mexico after dominating proceedings for most of the match. The second group game against Sweden saw the Germans fight from a one goal deficit to secure all three points thanks to a brilliant last minute free kick conjured by Marco Reus and goalscorer Toni Kroos.
Going into the decider against already eliminated South Korea, the Germans’ hopes hinged on defeating South Korea – which they were tipped to pull out and hoping for a draw in the other game between Mexico and Sweden or a win for either side that would give them a better goal differential to go through. However, South Korea had other plans as they were not going to leave Russia without a point of their own; eventually getting three.
The first of the two goals for South Korea came after Son’s corner kick caused a scramble in the box resulting in Toni Kroos nutmegging his own man to send Kim Young-Gwon one on one against Manuel Never where only one winner emerged. The Germans desperate to secure a win with couple of minutes left on the clock camped the Koreans in their own half before Manuel Neuer who had not being at his usual best in this tournament lost the ball to allow Ju Se-jong send Heung Min Son through on goal with a long ball having only to slot the ball into the empty net.
Video Assistant Referee has been called into action in almost every game in the world cup and in round three of the group games it was no different. While it has not won everyone’s heart, observers have scored the technology high for its involvement and accuracy and with the exception of one or two incorrect calls, VAR has been spot on with most of its decisions. It’s worth noting that the final decision lies with the centre referee so for incidents that look very similar, the referees involved might make different calls depending on their discretion.
That was the case in the games between Portugal and Iran and Nigeria against Argentina. Iran were awarded a penalty for a Cedric Soares unintentional handball after the ball struck his arm off a Sardar Azmoun header. The referee reviewed the incident but stuck with his penalty decision allowing Iran to draw level. In a similar incident with little disparity Nigeria were denied a second penalty after the ball came off Marcos Rojo’s head onto his arm and after calls for video replay, the referee decided to check for himself sticking with his initial decision not to award a penalty after. In a turn of events, Marcos Rojo would go on to strike the match winner to seal the Albiceleste’s passage to the round of 16.
Of both decisions, the penalty awarded to Iran was incorrect while Cuneyt Cakir’s decision not to award a penalty to the Super Eagles was right.
No African Representative in Knockout Stages
For the first time in 36 years since the 1982 world cup in Spain, no African team makes it beyond the group stages; this makes for grim reading. Egypt had been absent from the world cup for 18 years but their return to the best sporting event on earth did not start well neither did it end the way they would have wanted.
The Egyptians might have been unlucky in their games after playing resolutely but the North African side failed to pick up a point from three games whilst scoring twice, a record they share with debutants Panama. Another North African side, Morocco were underdogs going into this world cup in a Group that featured 2010 winners Spain, European Champions, Portugal and Iran. Undone by a last minute own-goal in the first game and a Cristiano Ronaldo header in the second, the Atlas Lions held Spain to secure a point in the final game; things would have been different had they taken their chances in the first two games.
Nigeria were drawn alongside Croatia, quadrennial rivals, Argentina and debutants Iceland in what was tagged the ‘Group of Death’ by many. The Super Eagles might have been unimpressive in their first game against Croatia losing to an own-goal and a Luka Modric penalty but the second game against Iceland featured a switch to a 3-5-2 formation and lineup changes that produced a deserved win courtesy Ahmed Musa’s second half heroics.
In the decider against Argentina, the Super Eagles were up against a team that wanted the win as much as they did and it really told in the thrilling encounter. A Marcos Rojo winner in the 86th minute killed the hope of over 150 million Nigerians and the rest of Africa as it was enough to get the Argentine’s through to the next round at the expense of the Super Eagles who were arguably Africa’s second best side in the world cup.
Tunisia like Morocco were placed in a group where qualification to the Round of 16 would have been deemed a surprise although a welcome one especially here in Africa. The Carthage Eagles lost narrowly to an England side inspired by Harry Kane’s brace before the free-scoring Belgium put five past them in a seven-goal thriller. In the last game against Panama with nothing at stake, the North African side came from a goal down to secure their only points in the tournament after playing impressive football.
Senegal who were Africa’s best at this world cup stood a real chance of making it past the group stage but it was not to be and by the meanest of qualification rules. Senegal created an unwanted record becoming the first team in world cup history to be eliminated on account of fair play, amassing a total of six yellow cards as against Japan’s four. Both teams finished with the same number of points, goals scored and goals conceded and their 2-2 draw meant head-to-head would not separate both sides thus disciplinary records had to be the tiebreaker. The Teranga Lions would be left with a bitter pill to swallow after a showing that deserved a place in the knockout stages.
Round of 16: 32 Came, 16 Remain
Thirty-one teams came into the world cup on the back of continental qualification, Russia qualifying automatically being the hosts. Fourteen European teams, five teams each from South America, Asia, Africa and three from North America make up the participants for the FIFA world cup and after three weeks of action, that number has been cut by half. There have been surprises with certain teams not getting beyond the group stages while some have shown brilliance and resolute character to top their groups.
What matters is the 16 national teams remaining will continue to compete for the coveted trophy which means more drama, more intrigue, more goals, more VAR decisions and more fun for you and me.
Uruguay vs Portugal
Uruguay come into the round of 16 top of group A after consecutive wins against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Barcelona forward Luis Suarez is the country’s highest scoring player in Russia with 2goals and with strike partner Edison Cavani forming a lethal partnership, both will prove pivotal against Portugal. European champions, Portugal finished second of group B despite the four goal heroics of superstar forward and captain Cristiano Ronaldo. Moving on from the last minute scare against Iran, Fernando Santos’ men will hope their star forward can reproduce the goods against Uruguay.
The match will be hosted in the Fisht Olympic stadium, Sochi at 7pm Nigerian time under the watchful eyes of Mexican referee Cesar Arturo Ramos.
France vs Argentina
Les Blues might have amassed 7 points in the first round at the world cup but it came from largely unconvincing performances even with the talent at their disposal which is why their tie against Argentina is very tricky. Didier Deschamps men might have talent scattered across the pitch but they have only flattered to impress going through to the knockout stages. Saturday’s opponent Argentina are no better despite the presence of Lionel Messi in the side. A Marcos Rojo winner against Nigeria was only their third goal in the tournament despite the attacking talent available to Jorge Sampaoli; Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and a Paulo Dybala on the sidelines.
Saturday’s match will kick off by 3pm Nigerian time at the Kazan Arena, Kazan where Iranian official Alireza Faghani will control match proceedings.
Spain vs Russia
The La Furia Roja will be glad they finished top of group B as they prepare to face hosts Russia in the knockout stages having scored more goals than second placed Portugal. Host country Russia are no pushovers having started the tournament in blistering form but La Furia Roja would rather play Russia than Uruguay who will square up against Portugal on Saturday.
While Spain will be tipped by most to overcome Sunday’s opposition, Russia might just have a surprise awaiting the whole world backed by home support and the incredible form of youngsters Golovin and Denis Cheryshev. Either way, it promises to be a thrilling encounter on the 1st of July at the Luzhniki stadium.
Croatia vs Denmark
Arguably the most impressive side going into the knockout stages considering initial expectations, Croatia will take on group C runner-ups Denmark in what will be a pulsating encounter. The Croats dispatched all opposition on their way to the round of 16 including 2014 runner-up Argentina making them the only team to secure all possible points in the group stages alongside Uruguay and Belgium.
Denmark, inspired by Tottenham maestro Christian Eriksen enter the round of 16 after a win and two draws from their group games; one of those draws coming in the last game against France. On their day, the Danes could prove a handful for any side especially when Christian Eriksen is at the best. On the 1st of July at the Nizhny Novgorod stadium, who emerges top?
Brazil vs Mexico
Mexico will be looking to break the curse of the fifth game when they come up against Brazil while Tite’s men will be looking to put the embarrassing 7-1 loss suffered on home ground against Germany in the 2014 world cup behind them especially with Germany already out of the tournament. Brazil might not have been as fluid as they were during the qualifiers and friendlies but the side has shown signs of better things to come.
I might be wrong in the end but I expect a match full of surprises, probably with Mexico sealing passage to the quarter finals. The match will be hosted in the Cosmos Arena, Samara on the 2nd of July.
Belgium vs Japan
This encounter might look straightforward on paper with a win for Belgium most likely to be the pick. It’s no surprise though, the Red Devils finished on top of their group scoring 9 goals and conceding just two in the process in contrast to Japan’s 4 goals for and against. The Samurai blue find themselves in the knockout stages thanks to a better disciplinary record that meant Senegal went home in their stead.
Next Monday, 2nd of July, Japan face the uphill task of containing the attacking threat of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin DeBruyne and Dries Mertens at the Rostov Arena.
Sweden vs Switzerland
Sweden versus Switzerland pitches first from group F against the runner-up of group E. Sweden qualified after a 3-0 win over Mexico avoiding a potential round of 16 clash against Brazil. Switzerland with a lot of experience in international competitions made it through to the round of 16 finishing behind Brazil and will look to better last world cup’s round of 16 finish going into the game against Sweden.
The Krestovsky stadium in Saint Petersburg will play host to the clash between both sides on the 3rd of July.
Colombia vs England
There will be exciting matches in the round of 16 and Colombia versus England promises to be one of them. The Three Lions look to put the woes of past international tournaments behind them with a new look squad filled with youth and a youthful manager in Gareth Southgate. Colombia recovered from a loss against Japan to win three points each from their games against Poland and Senegal thanks in large part to the influence of James Rodriguez. The Colombian talisman is a doubt for the clash against England and the South American side might have to do with what they have against an hungry England national team.
The match will be held at Otkritie Arena in Moscow on 3rd July.
That’s a wrap up on this recap.