MATCH REVIEWS

GAME 64

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France 4 – 2 Croatia

And so here we are. At the end. All done. Nothing more to see. Move along now. Anyone else feeling a profound sense of loss? Apart from Croatia, obviously, that sort of goes without saying, I'd have thought.

France will think of themselves as worthy winners while Croatia will, no doubt, feel hard done by. The truth, as ever, is to be found somewhere inbetween.

Certainly, Croatia will look back at a soft free kick and a dubious penalty and wonder what might have been. The penalty, in particular, has caused much consternation here at 64 Beautiful Games. I (Barney) have watched the incident five times now, and I genuinely think there was no intent. Simon, on the other hand, is wrong. There can be no such disagreement about Griezmann’s dive however, he was already in freefall by the time contact was made. From that moment on, I was torn. As a neutral with French friends and a passionate dislike of Dejan Lovren, I was keen to see France do well. This, however, skewed things slightly. Griezmann doesn’t quite make it onto my list of World Cup colossal ballbags (Barrios, Neymar, Pepe, Lovren), but a player as good as he is should be better than this.

In many ways, this game was a microcosm of the World Cup in a wider context, which is just as well as it gives me a useful device to talk about both in a concise way that makes me sound cleverer than I am. There were great strikes (how Perisic found the angle to hoof Croatia’s equalizer home I’ll never know) some awful mistakes (if only Mandzukic could have headed home at the other end rather than into his own net) and it was a game about teams rather than individuals. Even Mbappe started slowly, growing as the game progressed.

There were lots of goals and the game certainly seemed to embody the breakneck speed and chaos that has defined this tournament. However, Russia 2018 has been about the unexpected rise of the little guys; about some teams playing above themselves and stopping others hitting the highs they’ve previously reached. There has been, at this World Cup, a leveling of the playing field, and there’s a certain poetry about Russia providing the backdrop to the unfolding of this egalitarian drama.  

Ultimately, and despite the fact that they looked fucking woeful in the group stages, it’s probably right that France were crowned champions. I certainly have no problem with Mbappe’s award for young player of the tournament – that is richly deserved, if only for the Argentina game and THAT back-heel against Belgium. Meanwhile, Modric receiving player of the tournament was, on balance, a good call. Kane gets the Golden Boot and, before anyone starts bleating on about penalties and that one that came off the back of his boot, they were superbly taken penalties, and he’s the second English player ever to do it. Let him enjoy it.

At the end of the game, as the trophies were handed out, there was hardly a dry eye in the house, although that’s mainly because it was pissing down and Putin seemed to have nicked the only umbrella. Russia has come out of this tournament extremely well, it has been well-organised, fans well-received and that speaks volumes about the Russian people, but let us not forget that this one individual, with his face like a perpetually shitting dog, is a weapons-grade bell-end.

But that’s not the note I want to end this on. This is a celebratory ending to a celebratory tournament. It’s been a great World Cup – at times extraordinary even. It’s the first my son will remember and I’ve learnt that the convenient shortcut to conversation with my brother and father that football provided when I was a kid now exists for him. To be fair, he never shuts up anyway, it’s like showing a cabbie another route to a destination he’s already got 500 ways of getting to. 

Sixty four beautiful games, sixty four beautiful images, sixty four variable match reports. It’s been quite the ride. Thank you to all those who hopped on board, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and looking as much as we have creating. Huge thanks to our designer, Simon Wiltshire, without whom etc… and lastly, of course, none of this would have been possible without my brother, Simon Harsent, whose fucking ludicrous idea this was in the first place.

When we were kids, many years ago in a small, Buckinghamshire market town, he convinced me that after you were brutally brought down by a SIGNIFICANTLY older sibling, the resulting penalty should be taken into your own goal. I know, right? Forty years on, the workrate that this project has demanded has, at times, left me feeling almost exactly like that kid again – constantly kicking a ball into my own goal.

But you know what? I’ve never been so happy to concede.

Love you mate.

Barnaby Harsent, 16th July 2018.   

GAME 63

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Belgium 2 – 0 England

To some, this result was all the proof they needed. Sneers smeared across faces, they delighted in telling us that football wasn’t coming home. Laughing at the idea that the nation should have got so excited about a mediocre team getting a relatively easy passage to the semi-finals and then falling once the hurdles got higher.

In doing so, they mistook excitement for hubris and, perhaps more importantly, ‘football’ for ‘the World Cup’. Fair enough – it’s easy to take your eye off the ball when you’re trying that hard to be snide. For those who don’t feel the need to take a pointlessly contrarian stance when faced with anything more enthusiastic than a lethargic sigh, this was the end to a tournament that has brought optimism and hope – even in the losses.

This game didn’t feel like the dead rubber match that it often is, it felt like both teams cared though, clearly, neither would have wished to be there. Belgium were stronger, of course, and England could do with a Hazard of their own to be fair, but there were more sparks of encouragement even as the tournament’s embers lay dying in the grate.

After a lacklustre first half, England came out a different team in the second, like the Croatia match in reverse (but, sadly, without the goals). This was heartening to see, and Dier’s chip could have changed the game had Toby Alderweireld not slid in for a dramatic off-the-line(ish) clearance.

Harry Kane looked knackered, like he was actually wearing golden boots, but Lingard and Rashford ran enough for three. Pickford continued his run of phenomenal saves that will surely see him hold that position for a decade, and Stones and Maguire excelled as they have done all tournament. Trippier was lively and we can only wonder what might have been with Henderson fit – he’s matured into national captain material, marshaling his troops with assurance rather than arrogance.

The stats make for better reading than the scoreline: more possession, more shots on target, fewer fouls, better pass accuracy… but England lacked that killer final pass, that ruthlessness in front of goal.

So yeah, they were beaten by a better team here, but look at the progress from four years ago – from TWO years ago even. This is a vastly different team, with a vastly different outlook – one that’s facing forward at what’s to come, rather than over its shoulder at past glories. They’re not the Golden Generation, but they could enjoy a golden future.

Football has come home, the trophy stays put. For now.

 

GAME 62

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Croatia 2 – 1 England

Dear Mr Southgate,

This is a thank you.

Before this tournament, I’d pretty much given up on internationals. Looking back, I’m not sure why. Some of my favourite memories are of times spent with friends watching England in one game or another – from the tortuous 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Germany on penalties, to the tortuous Euro 96 semi-final defeat at the hands of Germany on penalties. Apologies, I don’t mean to bring up bad memories, but it’s important for context, bear with me. Then, of course, there was the 1998 World Cup second-round exit to Argentina. On penalties. Oh, and the 2006 World Cup (Portugal, penalties) and the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. In fairness, that was different – Italy were the ones to beat us on penalties then.

My interest in the Premier League had started to wane, too. Whether right or wrong, it seemed to me that teams had been bought as rich men’s playthings, while agents and money had replaced loyalty and pride as top-flight football’s main drivers. As a young man, living in London, I was effectively priced out of sharing in the tribalism that had defined my childhood support of an often second-division Chelsea.

When I left London in pursuit of stairs and a spare room, I wanted my kids to feel rooted in the landscape of their new home. I took them to Winch’s Field, the home of Herne Bay FC. It was –and remains – an integral part of our lives. I had started to say, when asked who I supported,  “I’m Chelsea by birth”, like a fucking lapsed Catholic or something. I’d then follow up with, “I don’t really watch the Premier League, I’d rather see a grudge match against Whitstable any day.”

That’s not the case any more. In fairness, I’m not sure it ever was. I think I just found the huge amounts of money flooding the game distasteful in a kind of odd, nebulous way and so stepped away from it. I judged football in a completely different way than I would any other form of entertainment – I held it to a much higher standard.

I’ve now been forced to reassess. I have felt so involved in this tournament, it has taken over. Of course, that’s partly due to my brother’s frankly ludicrous idea that I should write a match report – or at least some words, strung together in an impression of meaningful sentences – for every single game of the tournament, but it’s also down to a young team who played their hearts out for each other. A team who looked like they were having the time of their lives; who played as a unit, with confidence and style. And even when they weren’t getting the rub of the green (Colombia last 20 and first half of extra time, Croatia second half), they were still good to watch, comfortable even, at times. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that watching England. (NB: I don’t count the loss to Belgium and, let’s be honest, neither did you.)

Croatia proved too strong in the end, but your team – our team –  kept on running even when energy levels waned. This team of young, largely untried players, proved to be so much more than the sum of their parts. Back at home, a group of vile, self-interested shitbags sell us off to the highest bidder under the gossamer-thin guise of democracy, blindly negotiating us into an unseen future that their personal fortunes will insulate them from (on the upside, it won’t protect them from hereditary syphilis). Meanwhile, from three and a half thousand miles away, 23 young men managed to do more to unify the country than those wankers ever could. As well as a resounding testament to remote working, it speaks volumes about how much we needed this.

So thank you. Thank you for putting your faith in a young team with bright starts and high heads. Thank you for practicing penalties, for that shootout against Colombia, for expunging the memories of 1990, 1996, 200… oh, look, you get the point.

Thank you for giving that Colombian lad a hug after he missed from the spot. Thank you for speaking thoughfully and eloquently, with grace, intelligence and wit. Thank you for being a stop-gap who now looks a lot like a long-term solution. Thank you for not being Sam Allardyce.

I watched last night's game with my father. It reminded me of afternoons at Stamford Bridge cheering Spackman and Speedie with my dad by my side, my hand in his. My son watched the match with us, first giddy with excitement and then sick with disappointment. He'll get over it, of course. That's the deal isn't it? He was outside earlier, kicking a ball about, practising. It reminded me that I don't really play football with him. I've made a note to change that. 

Thank you, Mr Southgate – and your team – for reigniting my love of the beautiful game.

Best wishes,

Barney Harsent

GAME 61

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France 1 – 0 Belgium

Good game, good game
Bruce Forsyth

Before we get into the game, it has come to my attention courtesy of reader Dave Marriott that many of our number are watching the games at some ungodly hour, bleary eyed and duvet bound. It is then, for you guys – you heroes – that I bring you a short guide to beer for breakfast – the most important meal of the day.

Coffee stout: a rich caffeine kick to get you out of bed. Not one for the tea drinkers, but pairs well with bacon, sausage and beans.

Bacon porter: With maple syrup, coffee and bacon thrown into the mix, you can even find a porter that’s been aged in bourbon barrels to make those salty top notes really sing. Pairs well with pancakes.

Bagel lager: Doesn’t sound like it should be a thing – is actually a thing though. Bagels, barley and rye malt combining to make a slightly sweet lager with a dark colouring and a hint of cinnamon. Pairs well with another glass of lager.

Hope that was helpful, consider it a public service announcement of sorts.

And so to the game…  

After some very so-so form early in the tournament, France have now found some consistency. That’s a worry for Croatia and England, but they’re still definitely beatable. That’s my line and I’m sticking to it.

So forget Samuel Umtiti beating Marouane Fellaini to Griezmann’s cross to head France’s goal past Courtois. Forget Mbappe’s delightful drag back to Giroud. Forget the discipline and the counter attacking nous. Forget Griezmann, who had possibly his game of the tournament so far, and forget the fact that even Eden Hazard looked knackered by the end.

Belgium threatened occasionally and there were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments late on, but it was going to take more than workrate and running to break France down. With Hazard and De Bruyne fading in the dying embers of the game an equalizer looked unlikely and, one suspects, would simply have postponed the inevitable.

Even the combined will of England and Croatia who surely will have been praying for an energy sapping run of extra time followed by a lackluster series of penalties, couldn’t help Brussels find the muscles.

France will fancy their chances after this, no matter the result tonight.

GAMES 59 & 60

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Sweden 0 – 2 England

It’s hard to describe what a national team doing well in a tournament means –especially when it’s unexpected. Forget the tits mobbing Ikea, or the knuckle-draggers who smashed up an ambulance, that’s just a distraction courtesy of the stupid. These people are arseholes doing what arseholes do and using football and booze as enablers. They are, to be clear, quite exceptional arseholes.

For everyone else who choses to get involved however, there’s a thrilling swell of goodwill building after a semi-final place went from being a possibility to a reality and with relative ease. This World Cup has brought a sense of unity to a country that has been riven in two and, although a temporary measure – like trying to fix the ice shelf with Elastoplast – at least it’s something positive. We’ve waited a while for that.

Now my hangover has subsided, I’m left with memories of a game that will, one way or another, end up being wallpapered over by Wednesday’s fixture. I can remember crying in my friend’s kitchen after 1990’s semi final loss to Germany, but couldn’t tell you where I watched us beat Cameroon 3 – 2.

I hope I do hold on to Saturday's memories no matter what happens in the next game, as the day was full of friends, children, good food, laughter and shouting – lots and lots of shouting. It was an afternoon full of confidence too, unusual when you have the occupational hazard of supporting England.

This team, while not perfect and certainly the underdogs when you consider the strength in depth of Belgium and France and the clinical capabilities of Croatia, play in a way that inspires this confidence. Yes, most of the goals have come from set plays, but does that really matter? A goal from a corner is still a goal, someone won that corner. Does it make any difference that Ashley young put the ball on to Harry Maguire’s head from the flag rather than the flank? 

And actually, open play looked OK against one of the tournament’s toughest back lines. Jordan Henderson’s beautiful lobbed pass to a sadly indecisive Sterling should have led to more and Lingard’s cool, casual chip towards Dele Alli saw his target in so much space that it would have almost been harder for him to miss.

Harry Maguire has been a revelation, as has Trippier, who created so many chances for the team. And although Sweden didn’t trouble England for huge swathes of the game, when they did, it took career-defining saves from Jordan Pickford to secure the tickets to Moscow.

They look decent. They look composed. They look like they’re having fun.

This could be about to get interesting.

 

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Russia 2 – 2 Croatia
           (3 – 4 on penalties)

I was on my feet when Fernandes equalized for Russia to make it 2 – 2 and almost guarantee penalties. “This could be it,” I thought. “Russia in the semi-finals!” I then thought about what sort of odds you would have been able to get at the beginning of the tournament, and made a mental note to look into the possibility of building a functioning time machine.

I’d been drinking, to be fair.

But what followed was, we now know, a penalty shootout with at least two of the most unfathomably awful penalties I have ever seen as Russia's nerve seemed to fall apart like a clown car in a quarry. What Fedor Smolov was thinking I do not know, but whatever it was, he telegraphed it to Danijel Subasic, who saved the weak shot with ease. Then hero turned zero, as Fernandes went low and wide to miss the target completely. The result was inevitable from that point on.

That Russia had taken the lead in this game, was extraordinary enough, Cheryshev scoring from outside the box meaning that he leaves the World Cup with an impressive tally of four goals and at least one nailed-on screamer at that. Twice as many as Neymar. Again, the odds must have been astronomical going in, but then it's been a World Cup of surprises. 

Not tonight however. Croatia didn’t take long to respond and, from that point on, it felt as though they had the upper hand, at least until that late Fernandes goal. At that point it seemed reasonable to assume Russia would have some momentum and, crucially, that Croatia would have to be made of fairly stern stuff to hold their nerve.

It seems they are. Heart-breaking stuff – even for the neutral.

Russia, you were ace. I’m sorry to see you go. With penalties like those, I’d much rather England were playing you.

GAMES 57 & 58

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Uruguay 0 – 2 France

“France were many people’s favourites coming in to this tournament but, in truth, their recent form doesn’t really warrant it.”
Me, June 16

Right, I should probably say that, while I’m happy to highlight me being quite, quite wrong on many things, France were shit at the beginning of this tournament and, despite that, I still thought about sticking a few quid on them. I really wish I had now. Two goals in the back of the onion bag (do you see what we've done there? DO YOU SEE?!) and they are looking quite the picture of composure.

It was a game played in stark contrast to the evening’s fixture – this was about discipline, care and possession. It was also about Cavani, or rather his absence, which proved nothing short of devastating for Uruguay. They missed his touch and his workrate, something highlighted by his understudy, Cristhian Stuani, who played like someone trying their hardest to fuck up a job interview. Suarez however, looked lonely, like a child whose best mate is off school sick, wondering the playground alone, with no one to pass to him. A small stirring of pity for Suarez there – will wonders never cease? Effectively, Cavani’s absence took two players out of the game.

Mbappé’s superhuman speed was less evident than it had been against Argentina, but he had his moments. The opening goal, however, as so many others this World Cup was from a set piece. Griezmann was the architect, his cross perfectly weighted for Varane to head home. One attempt on target, one goal.

Lloris was outstanding at the other end – his wonder save to keep France’s clean sheet was as good as Muslera’s mistake was poor, soft hands gifting France another. But France never really looked in danger. Uruguay, known for their aggressive, battling spirit, looked a different team here. They looked beaten on all fronts and, as time was called and tears flowed, it became clear that the stronger team had won.

 

 

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Brazil 1 – 2 Belgium

Neymar, Neymar,
Don’t dream it’s over

Crowded House

“Don’t underestimate Belgium,” everyone in England said before their last group game, “they’re a decent side. It won’t be easy.” They were decent as well. True it was a game that neither team seemed desperate to win (Rashford almost looked like he’d received orders to miss), but Belgium definitely looked good. Quality players throughout the squad, no question. We all agreed on that.

This good though? Nope, didn’t see that coming.

Kazan stadium saw another giant killing, Brazil’s fate replayed and writ large on the biggest outdoor screen in the world. Of course, while the headlines are about Belgium’s performance, about Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne, it should also be noted that Brazil looked lively themselves. There were shots just missed and some fine goalkeeping from Courtois needed to prevent the South Americans from scoring on several occasions. Most notably in the dying seconds to deny a pretty subdued Neymar the glory he so desperately craves.

By this time, it seemed that Belgium were ready to drop, having given pretty much everything and done so at an incredible pace and mainly on the break. Hazard, in particular, was on incredible form – running, surging, drawing the Brazillians into rash challenges for set pieces. With him and Lukaku going wide, De Bruyne was free to boss the game. His goal, from Lukaku’s pass was extraordinary, this World Cup has had no shortage of superb strikes, but this may well be the best so far, not least due to Lukaku beating Fernandinho and Paulinho in the build up.

Of course, it wasn’t all one-way traffic, it’s just that Brazil looked lacking in the confidence to deal with Hazard and Lukaku driving towards them at speed. There was a decent shout for a penalty that Brazil were denied, and their goal, from Renato Augusto at 76 minutes, was the result of an absolutely exquisite lofted pass from Coutinho – assist of the tournament anyone?

But it was too late to come back by then, legs were tired and Belgium looked equally likely to consolidate their lead… They had done enough and Kazan had claimed another scalp.

 

GAMES 55 & 56

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Sweden 1 – 0 Switzerland

Part of the line being spouted by some that England’s next game will be easy (it won’t) is that Sweden are without the retired Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While he would undoubtedly cause a few problems, let’s not forget that he’s 36 now and although he’s still scoring, it’s in the MLS. Presumably he’s referred to as the “Kickgoal King” or something else equally fucking nauseating.

Apologies, I digress. In fact, I suspect it’ll be Sweden’s defence that proves our undoing if anything does, and Andreas Granqvist in particular. He was absolutely rock solid throughout this game and, while it wasn’t a pretty match by anyone’s standards, Sweden looked good at the back. (I am really regretting having used that flat-pack four gag in the last match report... Hey, I know! Why don’t I set up some kind of rhetorical narrative device so I can mention it in passing and people who didn’t read that report will think I’m hilarious? Yay! Good idea me. Note to self: must write that down in case I forget it.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Granqvist. Solid. Dependable. Actually that’s exactly the word – dependable. Sweden looked like a team who were incredibly well drilled and all doing their bit – even if that ‘bit’ was so utterly devoid of entertainment value that some people on Twitter were calling for both teams to be disqualified and Japan let back in.  Seems a decent enough shout, but I can’t see it getting past those fine upstanding incorruptible sorts at FIFA though, can you?

It WAS a dull game though. One of the worst of the tournament so far. Penalties might have livened it up, it’s certainly worked for other last-16 games but, to be honest, it would have meant enduring another 30 minutes, so it’s probably for the best that Emil Forsberg’s speculative shot took a wicked deflection and went in. Beware though… dull doesn’t mean rubbish. Dull can win stuff, just look at the scoreline.

 

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Colombia 1 -1 England
               (3-4 on penalties)

 

Just a minute to hold on. Just one minute. Do that and you’re in the quarter finals of the World Cup. Against Sweden. God… could a semi-final really be on the ca…

Oh. They’ve equalized.

The sucker punch was felt not just by the players on the pitch, but by an entire nation, and it’s hard to comprehend the impact it will have had on England. Colombia equalised. From a set piece. In injury time.

In truth, England had looked in some trouble towards the end of the second half. Colombia had switched things around and crosses were flying in… there was a real sense of foreboding. It was a marked change from the first half, during which England had looked pacy and the distribution from Trippier dangerous.

The fact that England’s goal came from the penalty spot spoke volumes about the way Colombia decided to play, everything they did seemed aimed at sapping the game of pace and fluidity. They were cynically complaining every decision, feigning injury, scuffing the penalty spot and seemingly hell-bent on creating a sense of bad blood through violence. Wilmar Barrios, in particular, was lucky to stay on the pitch. The referee’s yellow card after his clear headbutt on Jordan Henderson was nothing more than a cop-out – either he did nothing wrong or it’s a straight red. Yellow wasn’t an option. The players’ calls for the ref to consult VAR fell on deaf ears, which I can understand, but why the VAR control room didn’t have anything to say on the matter remains a mystery. The salt in wounds moment was when Barrios shook hands with officials at half-time. I am normally a placid and good-natured man, prone to tears rather than aggression, but I have never wanted to slap someone so hard in all my days.

Anyway, Kane’s goal from the spot means that he’s the first England player to score in six consecutive games since Alfred the Great fought the Vikings and brought England together (more of that on Saturday). No, of course not! Actually, it’s since 1939 but, I’m sure we can all agree, that’s still a very, very long time. 

Colombia’s goal, when it came, was from their man-mountain defender Yerry Mina, who used height, power and a perfectly placed header to get the ball past Pickford, who stood no chance and, in any case, was later to make amends with a spectacular penalty save.

And speaking of penalties… Jordan Henderson didn’t miss, it was a great save. Mateus Uribe’s was a miss, however and, along with Jordan Pickford’s strong hand and Dier’s nerve, saw the unthinkable finally happen. England, through on penalties. After than, much is a blur. Shock most likely, followed by an endorphin chaser.

One last thing, while I remember. I’d never realised quite how much the Colombia coach José Pékerman looks like Roger Waters until tonight. Southgate, on the other hand, is more James Blunt. I'll take that tbh – Waters has always struck me as a bit of a dick.

GAMES 53 & 54

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Brazil 2 – 0 Mexico

“There’s no point playing for second place.” “You’ve got to be able to beat anyone in a World Cup.” “It sends the wrong message.” “You want to foster a winning mentality.”

All of these things may well be true but, as an England fan, I’m pretty bloody happy that we won’t meet Brazil on any possible route to the final. And for those of you who think that England’s World Cup fixture list is more likely to read: Colombia, Hotel Reception, BA Cabin Crew and then customs, London Heathrow, I say, “Maybe, but you do what you can, no?" As the saying goes, “Fail to prepare, get booted out by Russia on penalties.”

Anyway, the point that I’m getting to (albeit by a VERY circuitous route) is that Brazil look to be getting stronger and stronger as the tournament progresses.

Neymar is still problematic. He is in incredible player, and proved it beyond doubt here – with his goal and assist, but as Miguel Layún retrieved the ball from him ball as he lay by the side of the pitch, the Brazilian’s reaction – like he was vying for a BAFTA in a harrowing play about a WW1 field hospital that had run out of anaesthetic, whisky or, indeed, patience with childish, cheating twats – marked him out as a horrible example of a human. Solipsistic and snide. 

As for the rest, they played with an accomplished sangfroid that oozed class. They are a team growing into the tournament with assurance and confidence. In the interest of balance, it’s worth remembering that Mexico had a very good first half, and although Neymar linked up with Coutinho to apply pressure on the break, the first half ended goalless.

But, without wanting to fall headlong into a cavernous cliché, it was a game of two halves. Mexico waned and the Brazillians waxed, with a wonderful one-two between Neymar and Willian that was, astonishingly, initiated by the former.

It was a move that gave a hint of the teamwork that could see Brazil take this World Cup. Neymar might be a very naughty boy, but his team are very, very good. 

 

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Belgium 3 – 2 Japan

Serious question: Is this the best World Cup you’ve ever seen?

Without wanting to go overboard (Heaven forbid) I really think that it might be the best I’ve watched in all of my 46 years (what’s that? Oh, thank you, too kind… well, I do a bit of pilates now and then, but mainly it’s just down to a regular regime of gin and sandwiches)…

Partly it’s the giant-killing, the small teams delivering unexpected knockout blows. Partly it’s the flurry of late goals. VAR has been an exciting, if not always correctly deployed, addition, and then there are games like this. Where you just can’t take your eyes off the screen.

I’d like to get something out of the way early on… while people are licking their lips at the prospect of Brazil v Belgium, can we all just recognise how incredibly good Japan were? They may have come into this game as clear underdogs, but they fired two great goals past Courtois within the space of four minutes (Takashi Inui’s strike is another contender for “Bloody Hell!” of the tournament).  

Belgium, two goals down, 20 minutes to play. What followed seemed like a blizzard of football, before Vertonghen’s looped header somehow found its way into the net. It was a cruel fluke if you were Japanese, the rub of the green if you were Belgian. The next header was far more purposeful, Fellaini evening out the scores after Hazard’s cross… and then something rather wonderful – though costly – happened. Instead of resting up and playing for penalties, Japan went all-out to win the thing. Of course, leaving themselves light at the back proved costly, Nacer Chadli scoring for Belgium with practically the last kick of the game, but it spoke volumes about the purpose, drive, commitment and spirit of a team who few fancied going into this game.

Well done Belgium, we applaud the comeback.

Japan, we salute you. Yoku yatta!

 

GAMES 51 & 52

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Russia 1 – 1 Spain
           3 – 4 (on penalties)



England have long been defined as a team who choke when it comes to penalties. They have form, to be fair, but like the kid at school who once sharted in double physics, it’s just one part of a much wider story. It is however, a part that can come to define someone for years. Then, one day, the classroom is alive with talk… There was a party at the weekend at Jemma Lewis’ cousin’s house and David Patterson wanked off her dog! Now it is someone else’s turn to be defined by a single, horrible moment.

And that’s how I shall always see Spain’s penalty shoot-out – a teenager drunkenly giving a handjob to a dog – and, in doing so, taking up the mantel of penalty chokers par excellence. It’s actually the third (out of four) World Cup penalty shoot outs they’ve lost (the others being Belgium in 1986 and South Korea in 2012), so they’ve got form as well. Koke’s pen was poor, the save on Iago Aspas’ effort looked freakish, but the question has to be, “How on EARTH did it ever get to this stage in the first place?”

Spain are an objectively better team – you only have to look at the game statistics to see the gulf and while I don’t want to just repeat stuff you can find elsewhere, it is worth bearing in mind the following… Russia enjoyed just 27% possession and had three shots (all off target) to Spain’s 25 (15 on-, 10 off-target). In fact the only meaningful area in which they led this game was fouls, picking up 17 to Spain’s four.

Spain paid a heavy price for not finding a way to convert their fluid passing game into a win. Costa seemed absent for long periods of the game and Russia played like a team who knew penalties were their best route. Can’t blame them for that – it’s not pretty to watch, but you play to your strengths, right? Perhaps Spain were too complacent. Perhaps they should have picked up the pace earlier, before a seed of panic had been sown, before the possibility of spot kicks deciding the biggest World Cup upset so far had become an approaching reality. Perhaps if Pique had kept his arm down, perhaps if possession had been accompanied by more ideas, perhaps if Koke had hit the sort of penalty he’s capable of… Perhaps.

But you know what? Russia won it. That should be the headline. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament confounded expectations – the media’s and those of their own fans – to end up at the quarter-finals. It’s a fairy tale. Not a particularly magical one to watch, but a fairy tale nonetheless.


 

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Croatia 1 – 1 Denmark
             3 – 2 (on penalties)

From one of the worst games to watch as a neutral, to another of the worst games to watch as a neutral. After the spectacle of the previous day’s play, it’s almost like these World Cup ties are being grouped by theme. Today was dull, ditchwater drab – the penalty shoot-outs by far the best bit. I’d have rather done my tax return for 120 minutes and turned on at the end.

I know there are many who will disagree with me, but I failed to see the drama in the Modric/Eriksen battle. One of them played really well (Modric), one was largely subdued, both missed a penalty. Undoubtedly, the first half was more exciting with Modric supplying some great passes and his teammates keeping up a lively pace, but that tailed off considerably as the match wore on. Whether fatigue, playing safe for fear of conceding or just an off night, it was not what anyone was expecting from one of the strongest teams in the group stages.

The penalty looked horrifically cynical at first, Ante Rebic through on goal brought down by Mathias Jørgensen with Kasper Schmeichel caught in no man’s land. On second viewing, it was right that Jørgensen stayed on the pitch – it was a genuine, if risky, attempt to get the ball, but certainly less risky than doing nothing. Modric stepped up and didn’t have the look of a man bathed in the glow of confidence, he looked like a man drenched in the sweat of fear. It was both a poor penalty and a good save, and there were loads more of those to come as the clock ticked down to the now seemingly inevitable conclusion. Penalty shootout.

Modric made amends, Eriksen made a mess, shooting straight at Danijel Subasic. Sadly, this was to set the tone for the Danes and, while Schmeichel made two more good saves, Subasic was able to do enough to allow Rakitic the opportunity to win it.

So, Russia face Croatia. Croatia will, of course, fancy their chances. In a World Cup like this, however, you’d imagine that Russia will too.

GAMES 49 & 50

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France 4 – 3 Argentina

Don’t cry 4-3 Argentina
Everyone on Twitter, yesterday

It’s quite normal for the knockout games to mark a notable step-up of pace, but Kylian Mbappe took this to a whole new level. The French teenager made parts of this game look like an athletics meeting, opening up space with a powerful turn of speed that made the Argentinian team seem to be standing still.

And from standing starts to outstanding stats: he’s the first teenager to score more than once in a tournament since Michael Owen in 1998; the first teenager to score two goals in the same game since Pele in 1958; the quickest player of the tournament so far… Mbappe was clocked going at 38km/h against the Argentinian defence. The fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, runs at 44.7km/h. Just let that sink in for a moment.

While a touch can buy Messi the split second he needs to slink past a player, he’s conjuring something, creating space. Mbappe, meanwhile, performs a disappearing act. He’s simply not where the defence, or the audience, expects him to be, having received the ball, knocked it on and sprinted past before we can process the images.

After the astonishing, breakneck turn of pace that led to France’s penalty and first goal, things, one felt, could have been fairly straightforward. However, though a vastly improved French performance since their turgid tramp through the groups, they sat back for a while and allowed Argentina a way in – a worry they’ll need to address in the quarter finals. Indeed, while they were busy looking out for Messi, they would have been much better off trying to work out how to solve a problem like Di Maria, whose goal must be a contender for best of the tournament.

Argentina’s second was less clear-cut, Messi’s turning strike from just inside the area taking a deflection on its way to the back of the net. Although Argentina were ahead, it never really felt it would stay that way. And, of course, it didn’t. Another wonder strike, this time from Benjamin Pavard carved through the defence, hit the net and quite possibly punched a hole in the fabric of space time – which would account for the lost moments between the entire TV-watching world seeing the strike and collectively mouthing, “Jesus Christ!” If he’d been as reliable in his day job as full-back, this would have been a much clearer rout.  

Mbappe’s superb brace, scored within four minutes, seemed to wrap things up eloquently enough – Messi knocked out by the player most likely to take his mantel as France showed they can carve teams apart with a speed and efficiency normally reserved for military rebukes. However, Aguero’s (very) late goal gave a glimmer of hope that kept things alive til the last. In the end, the referee’s whistle signalled Argentina’s exit – the right result all told – but I do hope Maradona sticks around for a while, especially now he seems to have gone all Celebrity Love Island on us with his public displays of affection. 

 

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Uruguay 2 – 1 Portugal

Following the best game of the tournament so far, what could Uruguay and Portugal bring to the table? The answer came in the form of Suarez and Cavani, whose pairing, as early on as seven minutes, resulted in an audacious, pitch-wide one-two and a goal that, while lacking the direct, jackhammer booted delivery of many we saw yesterday was, perhaps, better than any of them.

Cavani, in particular, gave a performance that was as much rooted in heart and workrate as it was clever timing and goals. The people at EA Sports were clearly watching, as his rating in the FIFA World Cup video game has just soared to 92 overnight. His second, the winner, was also beautifully taken, a ball rolled out to him which he struck on the very edge of the box, shaping his body perfectly to steer it past the hapless keeper.

It is worth mentioning that this was the only shot they had on target in the whole of the second half – a period of play that saw their possession dip to just 30%. One shot, one goal. It felt a little like an assassination.

Given Uruguay’s reputation for being a team not afraid to let the opposition “know they’re there”, this was a surprisingly well-mannered affair. This seemed to reach peak, “wait, WHAT?” as Ronaldo helped an injured Cavani off the pitch. I think it sensible to remember, before applauding this beautiful and touching moment, that Ronaldo was probably just keeping any potential time wasting to a minimum.

Cavani’s injury presents a potential problem for Uruguay going forward (pun intended). His frustrated tears at the end of the game suggested that it could be touch and go for a quarter-final appearance.

As for Portugal, well… on the occasions they did manage to best line holders Godin and Jose Gimenez, they were punished by profligacy. Pepe’s header may have seen them draw level, but as the camera focused on his little, pinched face, the overweening contortions and smug glints of a spoilt child, I remembered his dive against Morocco. I remembered that moment and I thought to myself, “Christ I hope they fucking lose”.

GAMES 45, 46, 47 & 48

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The end of the group stages is something we felt we should celebrate in a special way. With the kind of refinement that a landmark like this deserves.

Welcome, dear reader, to our World Cup haikus!




Senegal 0-1 Columbia




Columbia score
No clean sheets for Senegal
Africa’s last hope

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

Japan 0-1 Poland




Is this the World Cup?
It doesn’t look like fair play
When one team won’t try

 

 

 

 

 

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England 0-1 Belgium




A goal for Brussels
England cross, but do not win
A bit like Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

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Panama 1-2 Tunisia




Playing just for pride
Both wanted their World Cup win
Khazri shone – hats off

 

 

 

 

 

GAMES 41, 42, 43 & 44

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South Korea 2-0 Germany

"Listen, don't mention the VAR! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it."
Basil Fawlty

  • This is a Löw – and a Korea Löw at that, one where everything went South. Germany’s loss is also eerily predictable if you look at the past history of the competition. 1998: France win, 2002: France out in the groups. 2006: Italy win, 2010: Italy out in the groups. 2010: Spain win, 2014: Spain out in the groups. 2014 Germany win, 2018: you see? There’s a certain persuasive symmetry to it, you have to agree. 
     
  • It’s actually worse than that when we look at the fine print. Germany didn’t just not win, they lost. The game, the group, the whole kit and caboodle – goal difference placing them below Korea because goal difference.  It’s really no more than they deserve, Germany have been woeful at this World Cup. Maradona’s lanyard has been more adaptable, serving at least two functions by the look of it. Meanwhile, most of the German team seemed to struggle to remember why they were in Russia in the first place.  
     
  • Now, while historical German forays into Russia provided, if nothing else, a stark reminder as to the importance of wrapping up warm and conserving energy, that’s no excuse for the astonishing lack of commitment and drive they showed, not just in this game, but throughout the tournament. Did you see the Korean team after the game? They’d run themselves to the point where they didn’t know where their feet ended and the blisters began. That’s what proper commitment looks like, and they were already out!
     
  • Meanwhile, after Sweden had to endure taunting from the German bench after the late and (now) utterly meaningless win in their earlier tie, this result isn’t so much opening the door to schadenfreude, it’s welcoming it in, sticking dinner on, giving it the keys to your house and then moving back in with your mum.
     
  • Fifth point, (because this game UTTERLY deserves it). South Korea were great. They ran, chased, passed, bossed and wanted so much more than their opponents and the decision on their first goal was the best vindication of VAR that we’ve seen all tournament. A crucial – and correct – decision that neither linesman nor referee could have seen clearly, and one where the wrong call could easily have changed the whole group.

VAR! Dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, What is it good for? Mexicans mainly…

 

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Mexico 0-3 Sweden

  • Hindsight means that we all know that this result meant nothing but, going in to this tie, the sight of Mexican fans holding South Korea flags seemed almost an ironic gesture – a knowing wink from people who knew that they needed a win to be sure. As safety nets go, it’s like jumping from a fourth-floor window onto a warm Peshwari naan.
     
  • Sweden meanwhile, played like a team possessed. I can’t help but think that Toni Kroos’ goal and the resulting showboating spurred Ikea FC on to produce a performance that was all about grit, determination and some really good football. Let’s not forget that Mexico are a decent side and yet Sweden produced a win that defined ‘emphatic’ in much the same way that Donald Trump defines ‘acquired situational narcissism’.
     
  • Although there were occasional hints that a Mexico revival may be on the cards, in truth today was all about Sweden and Mexico’s inability to deal with them. As the game wore on and it became increasingly likely that the result of a match nearly 1,000km away was going to seal Mexico’s fate, the tension was almost to much to bear for the neutral. It’s no surprise that there were tears once the reality sank in – South Korea had played for pride and done so brilliantly – their win was also Mexico’s.
     
  • Nothing to do with the game as such, but consider this… If Sweden were to meet Denmark, the graphic at the top left of the screen would read SWE – DEN. As well as this, the unseen letters would read DEN – MARK. Pointless, but possibly a pub quiz question of the future, so I’d commit it to memory if I were you.

 

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Serbia 0-2 Brazil

  • Brazil turned it on at just the right time and all of a sudden you could almost hear the other teams in a moment of sudden realization, going, “Oh fuck, yeah, we forgot… those guys!” Not that it was a great performance by any means, but it was certainly enough. There were some moments of lovely skill and beautifully close control (Neymar’s turned up at last and Paulinho was outstanding). However, as well as reminding everyone what they’re capable of, this also showed that they remain eminently beatable.
     
  • And, as if to prove a point, Serbia enjoyed a good spell themselves. It may only have been 20 minutes, but their shots on target and ability to upset the Brazillian back line will be something that Tite will want to iron out before the next game – they may be emerging as favourites, but that’s largely to do with Germany going out and France going shit. The truth is, they still look shaky and there are plenty of teams left who can exploit that.
     
  • At the other end of the pitch, Neymar didn’t get the goal that he seemed to be desperately looking for, but he did provide the corner for Silva’s header. Silva has said that the move was something they’d worked on in training, and this may go someway to countering worries that Neymar has, at times, looked pretty isolated during this tournament. Of course it could just be that they have a much more balanced team than in 2014 and rely less on one player. As we said though, there’s still a lot of work to do…
     
  • … particularly when your goalkeeper looks quite as unsteady as Alisson. Thought by many to be the best in the world, he didn’t even look the best on the pitch during this game.

 

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Switzerland 2-2 Costa Rica

  • Everyone’s a winner! OK, so they’re not, that’s only infant school sports days and Ponzi schemes, but with their brace against the Swiss, the last team to score in the World Cup finally broke their duck. Which was nice. They still didn’t win any of their matches though, which is less nice.
     
  • Another dramatic, late goal flurry, an absolute mainstay of the group stages at this World Cup, saw Switzerland go ahead for the second time in the 88th minute, before an injury time penalty miss for Costa Rica ended up ricocheting off the crossbar, on to Yann Sommer’s back and then into the goal. Not sure quite how that works, but they all count!
     
  • To finish, consider this (via Four Four Two deputy editor James Maw): We now have a World Cup where one of Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Senegal, Japan or Colombia will be in the World Cup semi-finals. The total number of World Cup semi-finals these teams have played between them in the last 50 years? Three.

 

GAMES 37, 38, 39 & 40

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Australia 0-2 Peru

  • And so we wave goodbye to the Socceroos. It was a Herculean ask for them to qualify but, after the France game, it seemed to be a genuine possibility. However – and it’s a big however – while their organization and discipline has been much better than expected, they’ve got very little up front. “We got a lot of compliments for the way we play, only you don’t win games with compliments,” said coach Bert van Marwijk. It’s impossible to read that and not feel a little sad.
     
  • It’s absolutely right though. Goals, that’s what you need. And so it wasn’t a huge surprise when plucky Peru stepped up to bag a brace. The first came via the Home Counties – sort of – as Watford winger André Carrillo volleyed into the Australian net. It was a finish that highlighted the quality that Peru can produce – however it was also shot through with a vague sense of regret. Too little, too late.
     
  • Guerrero, whose doping ban was lifted so he could compete at the World Cup (as mentioned in their first game report), got the second in fine style which I guess kind of vindicated the lengths that people went to in order to make sure he was on the pitch.  At 34, he’s unlikely to get another chance, especially if Peru wait another 36 years to qualify for one.
     
  • There was something to celebrate however (not for Australia, obviously, it was just tragedy and heartbreak in that camp) as Peru celebrated their first World Cup win since 1978 when they beat Iran 4-1 in Argentina. Those were the days, 38 games in a tournament back then… that seems more, oh, I don’t know… manageable?

 

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Denmark 0-0 France

  • The first nil-nil draw of the tournament and every bit as bad as that sounds. Quite possibly the worst game of the tournament. The first point is really just to say that I’m going to struggle to find four points to make without losing the will to live. Literally the most interesting thing about it was this goalless farce at least had the good grace to wait 36 comparatively decent games before turning up to the party in a French strip and absolutely nothing else.
     
  • Didier Deschamps’ tactics may have been hard to watch, but France top the group and remain unbeaten. I haven’t been counting the number of minutes they’ve looked any good at all, but I’m guessing it’s fewer than 20 – and all of them against Peru.
     
  • Watching a team like France play such a wilfully boring game was like going to a Neil Young concert only to find out that he’s showcasing a brand new album of Coldplay cover versions. 
     
  • Denmark will face Croatia, while France will line up against Argentina. In any other World Cup, this second tie would be a phenomenal prospect, but bearing in mind today’s events, I imagine most people will be tuning in for a chance to see Maradona and the effects of the sleeping pills and wine, or whatever euphemism the Argentinian camp is using these days.
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Nigeria 1-2 Argentina

  • Speaking of Maradona… we heard he'd had to be seen by a doctor after the game and wish him well. We hope that whatever ailed him last night (be it the aforementioned white wine and sleeping pills or, as is heavily rumoured, heroic amounts of bugle) has cleared up. I would also just like to point out that the “finger of God” incident (as we’re now calling it) where Maradona flipped the bird to Nigeria fans at the end of the game didn’t look like the actions of a man on soporifics. Quite the opposite in fact. I mean Jesus! I’ve gone from a standing start to overarching anxiety just thinking about the state of him – imagine what it must be like to actually be Maradona.
     
  • Nigeria will feel pretty hard done by, and it’s hard to argue with them, but even with their so-so form so far and rumours of in-camp discord you can’t discount Argentina. They have arguably the best player in the world, capable of turning matches around with a single pass.
     
  • Which, in a way, he did. Apparently Banega’s inclusion in Argentina’s starting line-up was at Messi’s request. His perfect lofted pass into the path of Messi for the first goal was vindication enough of the decision and, one suspects, will do much to paper over any unsightly cracks in morale… for now at least.
     
  • After Chelsea’s Victor Moses kept a cool head at the penalty spot, things were looking pretty grim for Argentina. Grimmer than they had for a while. Really grim. On top of this, Nigeria did a lot right and looked like they would hold on. However, World Cup 2018 is, as discussed before, the tournament of the late goal – step forward Marcos Rojo with a sweetly taken strike that broke thousands of hearts, including, we feared for a bit, Maradona’s. And that’s very much where we came in…

 

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Iceland 1-2 Croatia

  • With all the drama and incident happening in Saint Petersberg, it was understandable that this tie, though no less important to the group standings, would be slightly forgotten. Context is everything however, and the Rostov Stadium, we thought, could be the place where Iceland, the smallest country competing at the World Cup finals, could make history. Iceland, whose European Championship run, a run that included a win against England and saw them progress to the quarter-finals, brought a genuine sense of giant-killing magic to the game, could go through at the expense of both Nigeria and Argentina.
     
  • This sense was amplified still further after Gylfi Sigurdsson scored an equalising penalty late on, and the news of Marcos Rojo’s strike in Saint Petersberg started to come in. Iceland needed another, it was hearts in mouths, it was hope upon hope, it was daring to dream.
     
  • And then, in the 90th minute Perisic scored. Great goal, job done, see you later. Iceland out with no time to come back. If I were still a headline writer, I’d say something like: “Iceland frozen out by a cool Croatian performance”. But I’m not, so I wont.
     
  • Without wanting to damn with faint praise, Iceland gave it a good go and, like Australia, the team will surely take some pride in their achievements. Ultimately, however, Croatia had more firepower and Iceland, like Australia, had almost none. It puts me in mind of Aristotle, the Father of Western Philosophy, who famously said: “You can’t bring a peashooter to a gunfight, lads, or you’ll get properly fucking tucked up.”

GAMES 33, 34, 35 & 36

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Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt

Back to the four games a day stuff and, crucially, games that are on two at a time, just to make my job more difficult… So, we’re reverting to our previous four-game format, with four(ish) points per game. Points that made us go, “Hmmmm…”

  • So Saudi finally win a game and Egypt take over the mantle of most disappointing team so far.  Lest we forget though, 2018 was only the third time Egypt had qualified for the World Cup, and although they did so on the back of a runners-up place in the Africa Cup of Nations it still seemed a tough ask. In fact, given Egypt’s singularly unimpressive World Cup history, England fans have some serious competition in the bid for the “most unreasonably high-expectations of your team” award.
     
  • Mo Salah’s got his goal, unbelievably Egypt’s first World Cup goal from open play in 84 years yet his celebration looked like the stunned silence of a man who’s just seen his dog get run over. Amid rumours of a falling out with the Egypt FA, Mo Salah is reportedly considering retiring from international football. Although that’s a bit like a man crawling from the wreckage of a crashed car and claiming that he’s “done with driving”.
     
  • At 45, Essam El-Hadary is, rather depressingly still a year younger than me. That’s not the headline however (it’s not all about me you know). He is the oldest player in these World Cup finals  – or any other. A phenomenal penalty save was to be his brightest moment, but Saudi scored more which, as the rules of football so clearly dictate, means that they won.
     
  • And what is it with this tournament and late goals? Even accounting for VAR leading to a lot of extra time added on (we’ll come to VAR, don’t you worry), this match saw both Saudi goals come deep in stoppage time (45+5 and 90+5). I have no idea why this might be, but it certainly sweetened a second half that was, until the goal, about as much fun as shaving your own bunion with an angle grinder. 
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Uruguay 3-0 Russia

  • Uruguay came good, just as the honeymoon ended for the home nation. It almost seems that, if you were to plot the shift on a graph, you’d cause some sort of fracture in the fabric of space-time. Or just draw a cross. One of those two though – for sure
     
  • Having said that… take a look at the group table and you’ll see that, despite some poor individual performances in the opening two games, Uruguay have quietly got on with winning everything and not conceding a single goal (the last time any team did that was Argentina in 1998 fact fans). Could they be a proper contender?
     
  • Meanwhile, the other side to the argument is that Russia basically came up against a decent team. They’re through though, a fact slightly skewed by the fact that they’ll meet Spain next. Time could be up for the Russian revolution, this could be the end of the line… However, that’s still pretty good for a nation who were written off before the tournament even began.
     
  • Suarez and Cavani both ended up on the scoresheet which could add a bit of much-needed confidence before going in to face Portugal who, although likely to concede with a defence as old as Methuselah, are equally likely to be much more ruthless with their chances.

 

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Iran 1-1 Portugal

How VAR is too VAR? Sorry, I’ll stop the VAR puns soon – just not quite yet.

  • For the neutral, VAR is VERY exciting. The delays, the build-ups, the referee bottling a clear red card despite having watched it replayed from eight angles on six screens… it’s all edge-of-the-seat stuff. Given the current trajectory of breaks in the games, it’ll be adverts and cheerleaders before the year’s out. To be fair, 64 Beautiful Games has been consistent on this (I think) in saying that VAR is only as good as the referee implementing it – it’s a tool. In this case, the referee implementing it was a tool and that, in essence, was the problem. Step forward Enrique Cáceres. Having missed Quaresma’s ludicrous knee to Mohammadi’s balls and failed to show Ronaldo a red for an elbow to the face, he then awarded a bogus penalty to Iran. The players could smell his fear like shit on a barbecue. 
     
  • As a result, Portugal now have a more difficult passage, facing a Uruguay side in the next round who could just be coming good at the right time. If Pepe or Quaresma are on the pitch, I’ll be cheering on Suarez and hoping that he’s really hungry. In an attempt at balance, I will say that Quaresma’s goal was very good, and I usually don’t have a problem separating artist from the art, owning, as I do, the complete Woody Allen collection, a host of Gary Glitter 45s and a couple of Hitler’s later watercolours.
     
  • This tie contained the kind of bad blood and mean spirit we were hoping to see between Iran and the USA, before the latter failed to qualify. Still not to worry, there’ll almost certainly be a chance to see these political grudges played out in a larger arena with a mild rebuke, an escalation of political tensions, and a stand-off that will, ultimately, lead to the start of near-certain Armageddon.
     
  • To be fair, for a team whose strengths lie in defence, Iran did OK in a must-win tie.  They may have been lucky to get the penalty, but Portugal could easily have ended the game with nine men on the pitch, none of them Ronaldo, and that would have provided a very different – and much less imposing – obstacle for Team Melli.

 

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Spain 2-2 Morocco

  • A punishing day’s play ended with an extraordinary result. Morocco took the lead through a catastrophic (and uncharacteristic) error by Iniesta in a game where Spain showed themselves to be not quite the defensive unit we had imagined. Certainly Russia will be feeling a lot more positive about their chances, though, as an Englishman, I'd urge caution about putting too much faith in a team who have enjoyed a surprisingly bright start...
     
  • Iniesta made up for his previous error with a beautiful lay back to Isco, who equalised, at which point the smart money was on Spain pulling themselves together and producing the sort of play we all know them to be capable of and tying up the match.
     
  • But no. Spain were nothing if not consistent and continued to be roundly poor in defence. A throw-in that went over the heads of a too-high back line left them horribly exposed and, much like the bit in Back to the Future 2 where Biff Tannen is President of the USA, it was a horrible portent of what was to come…
     
  • Youssef En-Nesyri’s towering header was a very good indicator of why the World Cup will be a poorer tournament for Morocco not being in it. Spain were poor, to be fair, but Morocco still gave them a better test than anyone else – and I absolutely include Portugal in that. I am genuinely sad to see them go. Still, the back-heel to equalise was sublime. Less of the naïve defending and more of that please, lads.

 

 

GAMES 30, 31 & 32

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England 6-1 Panama

"Ooh-oh, We're halfway there
Ooh-OH, Livin' on a prayer
"
Jon Bon Jovi

"Halfway there?
Oh Christ…
"
Barnaby Harsent

Yes, I KNOW this report's been a long time coming. You’re not the first to wonder, “When are these bloody reports landing?” You know what though? A result like that takes a while to process. Seriously. Thirty years of hurt doesn’t even come close and, while football may not exactly be coming home, it’s certainly browsing the Ryanair website for cheap deals.

Yes, I know it was only Panama… yes I KNOW Belgium did Tunisia 5-2 (I only wrote about it the other day) but still… 5-0 at half time. Do you know the last time England did that in a major tournament? No, no you don’t BECAUSE IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

Going into the match, you’d have thought – as an England fan – that being able to begin a second half in that degree of comfort was as likely as Gary Glitter being given a grant to launch a pre-school community care project. Only five teams have ever EVER scored five goals in the first half of a World Cup match; Harry Kane is only the third English player to have scored a hat-trick at the World Cup (Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker being the others); and, get this… John Stones has scored more World Cup goals than Wayne Rooney and is equal with Alessandro Del Piero. I know, right? Shit. The. Bed.

In truth, the performance wasn’t that different from the Tunisia game. The movement was the same, but we… sorry, England, got the decisions they were denied before. Set pieces were key, as was they efficiency of Harry Kane – five shots on target, five goals.

However: liars, damned liars, statisticians. It’s a saying that might just be worth considering.

A look at the stats show that England enjoyed a pass completion rate of over 90%… a look at the stats also tell us that we drew the second half and, crucially that Panama are objectively shit. We’re through, and we’ll enjoy it, but quarter-final heartbreak is still a very real possibility. The difference is that watching this England team play doesn’t feel like you’re on the edge of an anxiety attack the whole time. There’s a confidence, a bravado… the chutzpah of youth possibly, whatever, I like it and I’m intending to feed off it for as long as I possibly can.

 

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Japan 2-2 Senegal

Yeah – decent game. Exciting. Really good. Surprisingly good actually, wasn’t it? Oh fuck it… Can I be honest? I caught the goals as they happened and was really intending to give it my all but, dear reader, I was, I admit… a bit pissed by this stage.

Most of the game I was trying to funnel coffee into my mouth with the same rabid abandon that a duck who has given its life to the cause of foie gras accepts grain into its gullet. Now, while my liver may be in slightly better condition (slightly) I have to admit that I was really in no condition to anything other than fall over. Hugely unprofessional, I know, but you’ll notice the lack of a paywall so, you know, it’s really very much my call.

In any case, a draw sees the group remain alive, so I’ll be able to redeem myself later in the week – should I survive the whole ‘two games at a time nonsense’ that I’m about to be subjected to.

Sorry, I shouldn’t do this in public… it’s not you, it’s me.

 

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Colombia 3-0 Poland

Four coffees in and it’s a much brighter start for the younger Harsent brother… news that I'm sure we can all get behind.

This was a game notable for the fact that Colombia actually bothered to get off the bus (metaphorically speaking), which was nice. Three good goals, Falcao led well and got his first goal, while Cuadrado and Mina also ended up on the scoresheet with decent strikes and looked very much to be the players we’d expected going in. Without wanting to labour a point and seem overly myopic, they could be England’s opponents in the next round and. On this performance, I’m not sure I’d fancy that much – they can certainly play. They have gone from looking precarious, to appearing dangerous – attacking with precision and clear-cut passing..

Poland on the other hand, have been a massive disappointment in this tournament.  Perhaps it was the tactics (it was) perhaps it was the fact they’d been bested by a better team (yep, that too)… whichever, the Polish camp can’t have been a comfortable place to be last night.

Given their pre-tournament record, which isn’t at all shabby, itt’s almost like they’ve overtaken England in the ‘most unreasonably high-expectations of your team’ stakes. Although… well… yes… let’s just see about that, shall we?

 

GAMES 27, 28 & 29

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Belgium 5-2 Tunisia

Alarm bells for England as Belgium put five past Tunisia? Or is there more to this story than the scoreline? Well, there’s the other half of the scoreline for a start. Tunisia scored twice and made Belgium look vulnerable on both wings despite playing, for the most part, appallingly. That may seem harsh, but it really isn’t – they looked a very different team from the far more organised outfit that tried to wrestle a result from England in their opening tie.

Eden Hazard and Lukaku got two apiece, against a defence who lacked discipline and energy. They were outstripped for pace and effort and seemed to be intent on giving Belgium as much time as they wanted on the ball. “No mate, go ahead,” they seemed to say, “we’ll just follow your lead.”

This leads us to another conclusion, which could stop premature panic in the England camp: despite a huge number of shots on target, Belgium only scored five. They could, and probably should, have had 10.

And while Lukaku (now tying with Ronaldo in the Golden Boot stakes) is clearly a threat, the Manchester United striker is a danger that the England defence will be more than used to facing. That may sound like the desperate hope of an England fan, but if you don't hold on to unreasonably high hopes, you end up with absolutely nothing to shatter.  

 

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South Korea 1-2 Mexico

Mexico must have fancied their chances going into this tie, having beaten Germany in their first game and then seen South Korea fail to get a single shot on target against Sweden. As it was, their feeling proved to be right. A late consolation goal in the dying moments of the game from Tottenham’s Son Heung-min wasn’t enough to stop what, to many would have seemed an inevitable result after a goal in each half (Vela’s penalty and Hernadez’s 50th international strike respectively).  

Probably most notable (other than the goals) were the 24 (or so) fouls committed by South Korea which caused Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio to complain. It also took the tally of fouls by the team in total this final to 46. They lead the field in this respect but sadly, it’s the only table they’re likely to top in a very long time.

 

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Germany 2-1 Sweden

A great escape for Germany. A superb Toni Kroos goal saw them come from behind in a World cup match for only the second time ever. The first time was also against Sweden – for whom there can be little consolation after a solid performance and the nearly realised belief that they could have four points from their first two games. As it stands, they need both a result against Mexico (tricky) and South Korea to do them a solid against Germany (hmmmm) for them to progress. Even if we were betting people, we wouldn’t take a chance on them.

The delicate balance shifted on one goal, 20 seconds from time as a 10-man Germany desperately tried to avoid a draw that would have been a catastrophic result for their World Cup campaign. As it was, it seems that the winner, does indeed, take it all.

While Germany may have had three times as much possession and twice as many shots, they found themselves 1-0 down and as mired in performance problems as a middle-aged man going through a crisis.  That they waited so long increased not just the drama, but also the sense of relief, both for the team and the nation.

The difficulties are still there, and there’s a lot of work to do if Germany are going to stand any chance of defending their status as champions. But, for now, arguments about tactics, age and temperament can be put to one side for a moment and replaced with endless re-runs of what could easily be the most important German goal of the tournament.

GAMES 24, 25 & 26

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Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica

Winding down to the end of the week? Not likely! Three more games and no let up. As a result, and in order to keep things fresh, for you, dear reader, we’re tweaking the format a tad. The world is abuzz with World Cup opinion and broad-based reviews are everywhere from the minute-by-minute reports on news sites (which always seems to me a little like watching the game with people you don’t know without the bonus of actually being in a pub), to previews of the next day’s matches that, like a primitive seabird hunt, leave no tern unstoned.

So, we’re going to concentrate on one player per match for the next few days. Taking it back to basics, stripping away needless ephemera like context and facts and see if we can grow something new and vibrant in the oft-ploughed fields of football opinion…

So, Neymar (whose name is always, in my head, said in the sing-sing tones of the Sega audio ident) had an odd kind of game, didn’t he? We’ll start off by considering the final shot of him, drained, emotional and sobbing at this win. It looked like the game had taken everything it could have from him and left him a husk. To the list of Ali after rope-a-doping George Foreman, and McEnroe after finally beating his nemesis, Bjorn Borg in a legendary Wimbledon final we can now add Neymar after an injury-time win against Costa Rica in an inconsequential first round match. 

Perhaps he was full of nervous anxiety about how people will look on him after his blatant dive and subsequent hissy fit at the penalty decision being (correctly) overturned. Maybe it’s embarrassment at the memory of shouting, “Don’t touch me!” at the referee, who showed amazing restraint at not sending the petulant Brazilian off the pitch. Could it have been regret at not putting his head down and getting on with it instead of flouncing around like a hormone-addled teenager rendered functionally useless through a combination of surging testosterone and staggering ennui? I’m in no place to judge, but I suspect humility isn’t in his immediate skillset.

Thankfully Coutinho looked played like an end-of-level boss. Man of the match.

 

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Nigeria 2-0 Iceland

Ahmed Musa may well be the best footballer to further Argentina’s hopes in these World Cup finals, as his brace did more to buoy the nation’s hopes than any member of their national team has done. The celebrations in Lagos will, one suspects, have been echoed in Argentina. I can only hope that Maradona, a man who constantly looks like he has the density a dying star managed to keep from imploding. Especially as he seems to be suffering terribly from the tell-tale signs of hayfever at the moment: rubbing his eyes; sniffing; rubbing his nose… Jesus, just looking at him makes me think I’m having a heart attack.

Anyway… Ahmed Musa. He managed to embed two fantastic goals into a performance that was almost a necessity after a well below-par game for the team against Croatia. To be fair, that performance was condensed into the second half and Iceland – all organisation, reason and thought – didn’t have enough to respond. They’d done well in the first half, creating a few chances, but over time, they seemed to melt in the heat.

Enter Musa, whose form for Leicester City could be kindly referred to as “absolutely fucking awful”, but who seemed here to be a player reborn, all flat-out speed and tight skill. He’s answered a few questions with his beautiful touch that controlled Victor Moses' cross, and the head-spinning dribble before his second. He’s also posed one which, I can only imagine will be being echoed by Leicester fans up and down the country (though mainly, let’s be honest, in Leicester) “how soon can we get him back off loan from CSKA Moscow?” 

 

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Serbia 1-2 Switzerland

I know I am on tonight
My hips don't lie and I am starting to feel it's right

Shakira, Hips Don’t Lie

Here at Stoke I can not exert too much influence,
simply because there is a lack of quality around me.

Shaqiri, Stoke City FC

Look at those quotes. Go on, look at them. They’re brimming with honesty: Shakira with her candid pelvis, and Shaqiri with a brutal takedown of his teammates’ ability. Having said that, bearing in mind his performance today, he may well have a point.  

To some, he’s the Power Cube, to others, the Magic Dwarf – rude, but hey, people are fucking awful. To still more he’s a player who doesn’t always pull his weight. Here, however, he was the best player on the pitch, rising above the ‘special’ attention from the Serbian fans singled him out for his Kosovan/Albanian roots . He – and Granit Xhaka – responded in the best possible way – with goals and a politically charged post-match celebration that has been praised and decried in equal measure depending on where in the world you happen to be.

Switzerland had been roundly outplayed in the first half, but things shifted in the second, Shaqiri hitting the post following Xhaka’s impressive equalizer before finding the net himself to seal the victory. There was, however, a determination that many of the flair teams have been sadly lacking, and Shaqiri was right at the heart of it.

Things were, admittedly heavily marred with the worst decision of the tournament by VAR (written down that is a much less successful pun than when I say it in my head). The foul on Mitrovic by two Swiss defenders made Harry Kane’s treatment from Tunisia look like a chummy cuddle. It was definitely a pen and, once again, heightens the calls for VAR to be used much more consistently.

Clearly, VAR has a long, long way to run.

I KNOW! BUT IT BLOODY WORKS, DOESN'T IT?

See you tomorrow. 

GAMES 21, 22 & 23

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Australia 1-1 Denmark

Or:

We need to talk about VAR

Indulge me, for a moment. Imagine an alternative universe, one devoid of reasoned debate, where every call, every disagreement was argued from a deep, emotional pull that sat outside of a rational self. It’s hard, I know, but try.

This is a universe so plagued by argument that we would look at it when at our very worst, and still fell compelled to say, “Whoa, let’s all be a little bit more fucking Vulcan about shit, yeah?”

Now, imagine that, within that universe, they thought of a way to navigate some of those decisions. “We know” they said, “we’ll record EVERYTHING, show it to a panel of faceless experts with absolutely no public accountability in a bunker and then go with whatever they say.” “Oh, of COURSE!” I can hear you cry. “That would be absolutely FINE. Why would anyone have an issue with THAT?”

There are problems, of course, with ceding control of a sporting event to anyone but a referee, but I can see the argument for doing so. It’s all about the implementation though, isn’t it? Going in to this tournament, I felt positive: “VAR” I thought, “could be the key to effectively cutting down on diving and off-the-ball nonsense.”

However, Pepe’s cynical play acting histrionics go unpunished, Tunisia’s rugby tackling of England players is glossed over and a clear ball-to-hand incident is ruled as a penalty, overturning the referee’s decision. So, not only is VAR woefully myopic when it comes to implementation, it’s actually putting mistakes into the game. That can’t be right, surely?

Rugby adapted well, the Television Match Official besting VAR not just on Acronym use, but also how it’s integrated into the game. I know fuck all about it to be fair, an aversion to Top Gear and boot-cut denim means that I don’t often mix with the crowds at Twickenham, but I’m reliably informed by a Facebook pal that screens  around the ground show exactly the replays that the TMO sees and the technology is only used when the referee calls for it.

In an age where there are increasing calls for transparency and accountability, it feels like VAR is tethering football to the past, not propelling it into the future.

Having said that, I have to confess that, although I thought it was as much a penalty as I am a principal ballerina, I’m pleased that Australia got something out of the game. They deserved it I thought, I like Mile Jedinak and Daniel Arzani looked bright when he came on. Nineteen years old… Jesus.

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France 1-0 Peru

Or:

A Grim Fairy Tale

One morning, a woman sent her young son to market, in order to sell some of the vegetables she had been growing in the garden of her modest shack. It was the pair’s only source of income and she was insistent that he should not accept a penny less than she had told him they were worth.

On the way, the child met an old man who said to him, “I’ve worked on markets my whole life, I can help you get a much better price for those vegetables. All I ask is that we split the difference.”

The boy looked warily on the stranger. He did not know whether to trust the man, but noticed that he was dressed well, with nice shoes and a timepiece hanging from the pocket of an old, but well-made waistcoat.

“Nah,” said the boy, before kicking the man squarely in the balls, nicking his watch and shoes and running back home to show his mother the haul.

The end.

Yes, youth triumphed over an ageing Peru squad as Kylian Mbeppe became the youngest player to score in a World Cup. France appeared to have settled down a bit since their opening draw, and Giroud, Pogba and co. set about redressing the balance for the big guns in these finals.

It’s a real shame for Peru, who go into their last group game with nothing to play for but pride, but, apart from Pedro Aquino’s long-range belter, which cracked against the post, they rarely troubled Hugo Lloris – whose 100th cap was a reasonably uneventful one.

 

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Argentina 0-3 Croatia

Or: 

Keeping a Messi House in Order

They say, “a team that plays together, stays together…” although they also say, “Ne'er cast a clout till May be out”, so it’s entirely possibly that ‘they’ are, in fact, full of shit. But consider this. Ronaldo comes on the pitch for Portgual and rallies his teammates. They feed off him, and he benefits from a team who want to do well for him. It’s a symbiotic relationship that I can’t quite find the right metaphor to illustrate. I was going to use those birds who clean a crocodile’s teeth, but that really doesn’t seem to carry the point adequately to be honest, but hey – we all know what I’m getting at, right?

Messi, on the other hand, can’t even be bothered to turn up to a team barbecue after a disappointing 1-1 draw. Using that as a baseline, he’s going to be like Lord Lucan after this performance (by which I mean go into hiding, not brutally murder the family nanny – he’s not a monster, just a very sulky millionaire).

The result was a poor performance in a match against a Croatian side who seemed to have found the form of their lives. Caballero's awful blunder allowed Rebic to fire past him, while Luka Modric’s wonderful strike left his opponents, and the crowd, open-mouthed. Ivan Rakitic sealed the deal late on, but Argentina were never really in it. Messi cut a lone figure, neither leader nor inspiration. He had just six touches in the last 15 minutes – exactly the time you would have expected there to be a flurry of activity and last-ditch heroics. Instead there was just dejection, resignation and a head dipped so low it looked like he was checking himself for B.O.

Argentina’s fate is now out of their hands. Even a win against Nigeria (which is no way a bolted on certainty) could still see them out, depending on Iceland’s result today (Friday).

GAMES 18, 19 & 20

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Portugal 1-0 Morocco 

Imagine an am dram group in a small, provincial Welsh town. Month in, month out, they turn up and give their all to so-so performances of Shakespeare comedies and Jesus Christ Superstar. Actually, that's unfair… occasionally they’re good – really good – but, as time wears on, Trevor and George are reduced to playing roles better suited to men of half their age, while Sue struggles to set the stage alight as she once did. Then, one day, their free bar policy encourages former alumni Richard Burton to sign back up. The group raises its game but, ultimately, it’s all about him. His highs drown out their lows, his successes buoy their failures. Of course as time goes on, every performance becomes a highwire act – everyone wondering what will happen once the free bar runs out, what they’ll do when Burton has drunk his fill.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Portugal 2018 – the Ronaldo show.

As for Morocco… coming into the finals, you wouldn’t have ruled them out of getting past the groups, but, after their 1-0 loss to Iran, no one would have bet on them making the knockouts, surely?

In fact, it was a brisk start from the north African nation, lively and determined. However, with the same relentless predictability that drives death, taxes and the shrieking hysteria of twats, it was Portugal who opened the scoring – a mixture of poor defensive positioning and commitment opening up a Ronaldo-shaped hole in the Moroccan back line.

Moroccan midfielder Amrabat looked like he’s just parked his bike outside and sprinted to the pitch. It was, in fact, to protect his head after the injury he sustained in the Iran tie. Whether it was the initial knock that did the damage, or the relentless face slapping from his own corner to rouse him afterwards is unclear at this stage. More news on that as it comes in.

Despite their early lead, Portugal still looked as vulnerable at the back as a 1970s Top of the Pops audience, a fact not helped by Guerreiro handing out out free kicks like skittles at a toddler’s birthday party.

Sadly, Morocco just couldn’t find the net, which is a shame. They deserved more. Particularly as Pepe should have had the book, fists and possibly bottles thrown at him after his ludicrous play acting following a tap on the shoulder. His ridiculous facial contortions the very picture of 'winning ugly'.

I’m calling it now though – there won’t be a winner’s medal for Ronaldo, he just doesn’t have the team to back him.

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Uruguay 1-0 Saudi Arabia

Russia put five past Saudi, so Uruguay should end up demolishing them, no? Two coaches down over the World Cup preparations, the general consensus is that Saudi Arabia will need a secret weapon to progress past the group stages of the competition. Currently, however, the country seems to be focussing most of its secret weapons on Yemen, so there’s not a lot of ammo left.

Suarez got the first goal, in an attempt, I’m assuming, to prove me wrong on everything I’ve ever said on this website, but still, they flattered to deceive. Even allowing for a settling in period, the lack of clinical finishing cost them dear. Saudi were well organised, to be fair – but the game was the equivalent of watching someone taking a Ford Focus estate for a test-drive on the M25 at rush hour: something workmanlike being reduced to less than it’s capable of by little more than roadworks and barriers. 

A tedious grinding out of the result after Suarez’s poacher’s goal has meant the following: Egypt, a team who promised so much, but were felled by their star player’s injury are definitely out: and we can expect more of this joyless, draining and utterly dull play in the knockout stages. Well done everyone. Whoop and, indeed, whoop!

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Iran 0–1 Spain

Any regular readers of this website will be aware that I favour Spain so far. Yes, they conceded three goals against Portugal, but one was a penalty (and softish), there was a disputed free-kick, and the other a freakish goalkeeping error. See? There I go again, making excuses for Costa and co – I just can’t help myself!

Meanwhile, Iran benefitted from an own goal against Morocco, but would they get the luck of the draw tonight? Could they get that crucial rub of the green that would see them go top of the group and joyfully tear popular opinion and expectation into celebratory confetti?

No.

Despite an incredibly impressive defensive record (22 games without defeat and 18 of those with a clean sheet), it was their turn to be victims of an unexpected strike – defender Hosseini, the ball and Diego Costa’s knee teaming up to provide a goal that was end-of-the-rainbow lucky, although the Spanish striker’s tight turn round the defence beforehand deserved something.

And then no luck turned to bad luck for Iran. The side netting illusion saw the The Lions of Persia celebrate until Carlos Queiroz and the sideliners (my favourite Northern Soul band) realised that the ball hadn’t gone in, and an offside decision saw further goal celebrations stopped in their tracks – and late enough for it to feel quite uncomfortable.

The statistics suggest that this was an easier ride than it was for Spain, who enjoyed a massive 78% possession and had five shots on target to Iran’s none. Iran would have led in the somersault throw-in stakes, but Mohammadi couldn’t – or wouldn’t – release the ball as they surged to try to get a late equaliser. It’s unclear whether he mistimed the throw or simply thought better of it, but I’m waiting for the move to feature in over-the-top goal celebrations some point soon.

Sadly, on the basis of tonight’s performance, that goal is unlikely to come from Iran.

GAMES 15, 16 & 17

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Colombia 1–2 Japan

“Not me,” says my daughter, face smeared with chocolate as I ask her why there’s a confectionary wrapper stuffed inexpertly down the back of the sofa. I let it go for a moment, turning away briefly before snapping my head back round to see if I can catch a vague smirk – anything that will give her away. I mean, obviously apart from the dark brown smear across her mouth currently making her look like a sepia clown – in many ways the very saddest of clowns.

“What?” She protests again, this time with a smartly impressive sense of outrage. A beat while I consider the options. She definitely ate the chocolate – and just before dinner, too. She’d been told not to, so she knows it was verboten, but she’s now in a position where I have to call her out, not just as a candy thief, but as a liar as well. She’s convincing, despite the evidence. It’s almost as if she believes her own lie. She doesn’t, obviously, it’s simply the last-ditch pleading of someone who’s just realised the far-reaching impact of the impulsive decision they’ve just made.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a bit like Carlos Sanchez, isn’t it? A moment of madness, a clear and obvious handball in the penalty area for literally the whole world to see, before the shock, the realization and the denial set in. Straight red. No arguments.

Eventually, of course, he had to leave the pitch, but not before we got the impression that he felt genuinely hard done by. That feeling would have been compounded by the ease with which Shinji Kagawa tucked away the resulting penalty. It was a devastating blow for Colombia and one from which they never really recovered, despite a well-worked and stunningly inventive free kick from Juan Quintero that went under the Japanese wall and then over the line.

This time it was the turn of Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima to protest the decision in spite of the obvious facts. He came off his goal line and wagging his finger and shaking his head like a desperately inept magician trying to misdirect the audience and manage attention away from the facts.

The second half saw Colombia tire without one of their key players, while Japan’s increasing domination was rewarded by a 73rd-minute goal for Yuya Osako. The result was a shock, but then the World Cup has been dominated by odd results, narrow margins and inexplicably muted performances from some of the bigger teams. Maybe Poland could restore a sense of normality against Senegal?

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Poland 1-2 Senegal

GERMANY: “Our performance was definitely the biggest shock of the tournament so far”
POLAND: “Hold my pint.”

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot more to say about the game that isn’t contained in those two sentences. Poland came into this World Cup ranked 8th in the world, and the big question has to be, “why?” Forget this performance for a moment and consider the following statistic: Poland haven’t kept a World Cup clean sheet since 1986. Eighth. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, those ranking positions are an utter work of fiction – you may as well consult a horoscope to get a feel for form.

Poland’s horoscope, presumably, would have said something along the lines of: “Quirky, determined, logical and freedom-loving, your ruling planets are Saturn and Uranus. A tall, dark stranger will make you look awful. Avoid green.”

Two dreadful defensive errors, including Krychowiak’s appalingly judged lobbed back pass back to Szczesny from way out. It was an odd decision, and the resulting ball looked more like incisive attacking play that a defensive measure. Szczesny and Bednarek couldn’t work out whose ball it was, but Niang seemed to have a fair idea and nipped in to score into an empty net. This put Senegal 2-0 up after an earlier mix-up led to an own goal.

Grzegorz Krychowiak got one back with a marvellous header but it was too little, too late to make any real impact on a game where the scoreline flattered both teams. Poland v Colombia on Sunday should be interesting – the two group favourites battling it out for survival.

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Russia 3-1 Egypt

It seems that, like baba ganoush, poutine and Mark Wahlberg's career, Russia might actually be better than they at first looked. Taken on its own, their 5-0 result against Saudia Arabia could have seemed a blip, albeit a positive one, for the home nation: a home crowd; the thrill of the opening game; an opposition who possessed all the breaking strain of a warm Kit Kat… however, after this tie, against a previously fancied Egypt side who were in a must-win situation, we might have to accept that we're witnessing another Russian revolution.

Eight goals in two games. Eight goals. Two games. There’s no parallel universe in which that sounds anything but extraordinary for the lowest ranked and least fancied team in the whole of the tournament. It is, to pull a random example from the annals of contemporary culture, exactly like when Plain Jane Superbrain took her glasses off in Neighbours and ended up getting off with Guy Pearce.

Russia have been clinical in front of goal, with a shots on target to goals ratio that Raheem Sterling would do well to study, and now there’s just Uruguay left to face. All bets are off (although let’s be honest, the South Americans should offer a harder test than Russia have faced so far even if Suarez is, as we discussed the other day, demonstrably and critically below par).

So, Russia are all but through to the last 16 while Egypt will need a miracle to save them. Mo Salah, on whom so many hopes rested, looked unlikely to provide any against Russia where, despite a well-taken penalty that saw him become the third Egyptian player to score for Egypt at the World Cup (I know, it doesn’t sound right does it?), he seemed below par. Despite Egyptian claims, there have to be doubts as to whether he’s over that injury.

As for Russia, two second-half strikes within four minutes, following Ahmed Fathy’s own goal gave them what was to be an unassailable lead. It is testament to the team that they kept attacking, although, to be fair, Russia have past form on aggressively pushing forward – just ask Crimea and Ukraine.

So the first round of group games finished without a goalless draw and the second started in much the same spirit. Five own goals so far. Let’s see if we can equal the World Cup record of six in a tournament tomorrow…