Hey everyone. So, Round 1 of the Group Stage has concluded, and what a World Cup this is shaping up to be. There’s been big wins, big upsets, close matches, technological controversy, debatable calls by referees, injuries, and so much emotion. And we’ve only just started Round 2. It’s absolutely mental. So let’s get into a bit of a review of Round 1.
Russia v Saudi Arabia: Host nation Russia made a brilliant start to their World Cup campaign, taking out a 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia. In reality however, it’s not that Russia were amazing, it’s that Saudi Arabia were just really bad. The defence made mistakes that shouldn’t have occurred, and gave Russia too many opportunities to score. Russia deserved this win, well done to them.
Egypt v Uruguay: What a game this was. Egypt, without the talent of their star midfielder Mohamed Salah, played the game of their lives, holding off Uruguay’s star forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Both teams were strong in their defence, especially the Egyptians, however the game could’ve gone either way with both teams becoming sloppy in their attack. Uruguay did well to get the 1-0 win, with a goal right at the end, but Egypt should be commended for a match well played.
Morocco v Iran: This was one that was always going to be close. Iran having never broken out of the group stage, and Morocco playing their first World Cup match in 20 years, this match could have easily ended in a draw. But Morocco made a big mistake, and an own goal off the head of Bouhaddouz in the last minute of the game cost them the match. 1-0 to Iran.
Portugal v Spain: A match that just kept providing goals. Spain scored three pretty great ones, in particular Nacho’s goal in the 58th minute. However, Portugal, with their one man team of Cristiano Ronaldo, managed to keep the score level, as Ronaldo converted from a penalty, scored another, and converted from a free-kick. Neither team could be separated at 3-3.
France v Australia: Everyone expected Australia to be dominated in this game against a world class team worth around 307 million Euro (481.7million AUD). But Australia held their own, and they played probably their best football ever seen in a World Cup. Conceding a penalty from a VAR reviewed decision, a debatable one at that, Australia went 1-0 down, but levelled with a penalty of their own after a handball by Samuel Umtiti. However, a lucky goal off the crossbar that just made it over the line won France the match 2-1. Well done to Australia though on a job well done.
Argentina v Iceland: What a match this was. After Aguero put one in the back of Iceland’s net, the World Cup debutants fought back and levelled the score with a fantastic goal of their own, and held Argentina to a draw, with goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson making the save of his life, denying star player Lionel Messi a penalty. They should be congratulated for a stellar debut performance. 1-1.
Peru v Denmark: It was always going to be a tough start for Peru, having not qualified for a World Cup for 36 years, a long wait for the opportunity to play on the world stage. They played a decent match against the Danes, and they were managing to hold them off, however Denmark were always going to be the team with more experience, and it showed with a goal from Poulsen in the 59th minute, taking out a 1-0 win to go to 2nd place in their group.
Croatia v Nigeria: Croatia were always going to be the better team in this match-up. However, they didn’t necessarily score goals of their own volition, rather making the best of opportunities and mistakes gifted to them by the opposing side. Nigeria gifted Croatia an own goal in the 32nd minute, and then practically gave the game away when they gave away a penalty in the 71st, one which star midfielder Luka Modric converted with ease, giving Croatia a 2-0 win and top spot in the group.
Costa Rica v Serbia: A close match, but one which proved the Serbs to be the better side. Costa Rica did their best to hold off the Serbs, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas performing well between the posts. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the Serbs at bay, with a goal from striker Aleksandar Kolarov proving a winner for the Serbian team, who took the game 1-0.
Germany v Mexico: I think everyone expected reigning champions Germany to get an easy win here. But the Mexicans weren’t going to go down easy, and they fought amazingly, dominating the game, with their counter attacks being something else, the Germans struggling to hold them off. And they got their reward in the 35th minute, with a stellar goal from Lozano putting them ahead of the champions. A clear cut penalty denied in the 69th minute put the crowd on edge, however, the Mexicans took out the match, making it Germany’s first loss in an opening match in 36 years. Mental.
Brazil v Switzerland: A match where the Swiss team seemed to have one objective: whatever you do, don’t let Neymar do anything spectacular. Something they did by constantly fouling him, equaling the record for most fouls on one player, being 10. Brazil played some really top quality football though, and Coutinho put a stunner in the net in the first half. But Switzerland managed to equalise, and despite some bad fouls that pulled three yellows, and a clear cut penalty in which a Swiss defender wrapped his arms around Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus, which was however not called, the match ended in a 1-1 draw.
Sweden v South Korea: One of the tightest matches of the Round. Sweden dominated most of the game, however the Koreans managed to hold them off, with their keeper jumping and diving to make some brilliant saves. However, a decision reviewed by the VAR in the 65th minute gave Sweden a penalty, and Granqvist converted it to score the only goal of the match, getting Sweden an all important 1-0 win.
Belgium v Panama: Not a lot was expected of Panama coming into this their first ever World Cup Group Stage match. And Belgium showed their strength, netting three against the debutants. A match won easily by Belgium, putting Panama in a tough position in the Cup.
Tunisia v England: Coming off the back of a stellar qualifying campaign, England were the favourites going into the match, and they managed to hold off Tunisia, winning 2-1, with Harry Kane proving his worth throughout the match, scoring both goals for the English side.
Colombia v Japan: This was an interesting match. Japan coming in as an Asian team against one from South America, it was so unlikely that Japan would actually manage to hold their opponents off, let alone win the match. After an early penalty from a handball off the hand of Colombian defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez, who was subsequently given the first red card of the tournament, leaving Colombia with just 10 men on the field. But Colombia struck back with a goal from a free kick just making it over the line before the first half was finished. Yet it was not enough, as a header from a Keisuke Honda corner midway through the second half put Japan ahead 2-1, a lead which they held right to the end to be the first Asian team to win a match against a South American one in a World Cup, and causing an upset for the Colombians.
Poland v Senegal: What a match this was. African nation Senegal were not at all seen as going to be able to edge European nation Poland. But after an own goal from Poland’s Cionek, and a follow up goal in the second half from Niang, Poland were at a loss to keep Senegal at bay, only scoring one goal, coming from Krychowiak in the 86th minute, but it was already too little too late. Senegal became the first African nation to win a match at the 2018 World Cup, 2-1, causing one of the major upsets of the tournament, and their coach Aliou Cisse, the youngest at the World Cup being 42 years of age, ecstatic.
Highlight Of The Round: There were two highlights for me this Round. First, Iceland’s spectacular World Cup debut. Their goal, Hans Halldorsson’s brilliant penalty save, denying Lionel Messi from the spot, and the way in which they managed to hold their own against one of the top teams in the world. Second, Mexico’s major upset defeating the reining Champions Germany in their greatest ever World Cup match. Watching them win it was purely a thrill. Well done to them. *Just going to add a third highlight, that being Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse’s celebration after the team’s second and winning goal of the game. With his dreadlocks and cool sense of style, he is being called the coolest man at the World Cup. What a guy.
Bittersweet Moment Of The Week: In a match that Egypt played so well defensively, holding back Uruguay’s impressive forward line, it was overall bittersweet. When Giménez put one in the back of the net in the 89th minute, the looks on the Egyptians’ faces was one of heartbreak, especially for Mohamed Salah, who had been smiling and laughing on the bench for much of the game, watching his team play so well. It was particularly disheartening for him considering he appeared ready to play and wanted to be brought on, but was left off the whole match.
Biggest Upsets: This World Cup is proving to be one of many many upsets. The major upsets of the first Round of the Group Stage came against all the big name teams. Spain and Portugal couldn’t break a deadlock. World Cup debutants Iceland held world number 5 team Argentina to a draw. Switzerland managed to stave off Brazil and force a draw against them. Asian nation Japan fought off South American nation Colombia in a 2-1 win. Poland were left stunned by Senegal in a 2-1 win for the Africans. And, in the biggest upset of the Round, Mexico dominated Germany to take out a 1-0 win against the current reigning World Champions. This World Cup is probably the most unpredictable one we’ve seen yet.
Controversy: We all knew that this World Cup was going to be different, the biggest change being the addition of new technology in the form of the Video Assistant Referee, commonly known as the VAR. And it was only a matter of time before it started to cause controversy in what is the biggest sporting event in the world. There have already been a number of calls made that have been a result of VAR reviews, with some decisions being questionable. There have also been situations in which the VAR isn’t used, but really should have been. For example, when Gabriel Jesus was brought down in the box by a Swiss player, and when Javier Hernandez was brought down in the box against Germany in the 69th minute. The VAR should have been used to review both of these situations, and a penalty call should have been made. The penalty call for France against Australia, when Australian defender Josh Risdon made a tackle just inside the box was also debatable, with different angles showing whether or not he touched the ball. The other thing to takeaway from this Round was the standard of refereeing. Some players got away with some bad tackles this Round, while other lighter tackles were punished. In particular of note were the bad tackles made on Brazil’s Neymar, with Behrami and Granit Xhaka getting away with some fairly dirty play, Xhaka going straight for Neymar and pulling on his shirt to bring him down when he had a chance to get forward and potentially set up or score a goal, an offence that was given nothing more than a warning. Some players even got two warnings. Also, a Colombian player, Carlos Sanchez, was given the first red card of the tournament after a hand ball in the box, whereas French defender Samuel Umtiti did not receive a punishment for the same offence, with only a penalty being given. Not sure if all the referees are on par in terms of punishment and judging tackles made throughout their matches.
Noticeable Statistic: You’ll notice that many of the best teams in this tournament, the best teams in the world, which are the teams you’d expect to get wins and take the three points that come with a win, are all sitting on one point or less. Portugal, Spain, Argentina and Brazil are all sitting on 1 point each after being held to draws by their opponents (where Spain and Portugal played against each other), and Germany, the reigning, defending Champions of the World Cup, are sitting on 0, after failing to gain even one point from their opening match against Mexico. Interesting to see this occur in the first Round of the Group Stage. And it’ll be even more interesting to see if this continues to occur throughout the next two Rounds of the Group Stage.
Do or Die: Going into Round 2, there are a number of teams who are facing the prospect of being knocked out of the tournament. The teams which must not lose their games include: Egypt and Saudi Arabia from Group A, Australia and Peru from Group C, Germany and South Korea from Group F, Tunisia and Panama from Group G, and Colombia and Poland from Group H. Losing their matches this week may prove to put them out of the tournament in the Group Stage.
What To Expect From Round 2: Going into Round 2, I’d expect many more upsets, and the potential for some teams to secure their places in the Round of 16 early. Don’t always expect the top teams to perform well just because they’re ranked highly. And expect more from Iceland. They seem like a team that could really make something out of this opportunity and take it as far as possible. And I wouldn’t doubt them actually winning a match against Nigeria or Croatia for that matter. I’d also keep an eye on Australia. They look like they are doing everything they can this year to get to the Round of 16, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to just get out of their Group and through to the next Round, potentially getting wins against Denmark and Peru. Overall, expect the unexpected, and be prepared for anything to happen.
Note: Most of this article was written before Egypt played Russia early this morning. With Egypt’s loss, they will be knocked out of the tournament if Uruguay win or draw their match against Saudi Arabia tonight, which is likely.