GAMES 2, 3 & 4


Egypt 0-1 Uruguay

And so to the Ekaterinburg stadium for the second Group A match. While we're here, let us just take a moment to consider the unusual architectural fix to ensure that FIFA’s minimum seat quotas are met without breaking the bank. Two ‘outside’ stands face the pitch like colossal armchairs dragged up close for a better view of the greatest show on Earth. It’s an amazing example of need firing ingenuit… Hang on a minute! Slap my tits and call me Mildred! The ground’s only half full! Did they stick so many people on the football equivalent of “Henman Hill” that they ran out of people to go in the actual stadium? I know it’s Egypt v Uruguay, but could they literally not GIVE the tickets away?

And while we’re at it, can we just all take a minute to just admit that this ground looks like exactly what it is – the result of a jobbing builder with his eye on the clock taking cash up front and leaving early to finish an extension for his brother-in-law’s sister. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of visionary design thinking, but my preferred means of "bringing the outside inside" is the bi-fold door.

Anyway, going in to this, it all looked fairly straightforward: Egypt without a win in six, Uruguay with three straight wins and three clean sheets. All the talk was of birthday boy Mo Salah and whether he would feature, and the firing power of Suarez and Cavani. Egypt will have, rightly, been worried about the attacking form of Suarez in particular – you only have to look at the stats: odds of being killed by a shark in the ocean: 1 in 3.7million. Odds of being bitten by Suarez in a competitive football match: 1 in 2,000.

As it turned out, Egypt did well and spent a good deal of the match comfortably on top. A mixture of sharp, tight play from them and some woefully inept last-third nonsense from Uruguay conspired to confounded expectations – up to a point, but we'll get to that. Suarez was on particularly poor form and the expression on his face seemed so suggest that he knew it. A great chance poorly missed and a free-kick wasted summed up his first-half perfectly.

By half-time, it was looking like an Egypt win wasn’t out of the question. Hamed, in particular, had done a great job of holding the midfield together and they looked to be playing exactly the kind of intelligent, incisive, space-making passing game that Saudi Arabia didn’t.

The second half saw changes, however. Hamed went off injured, replaced by Wigan’s Morsy. As time passed, Uruguay got progressively stronger and Egypt, it seemed, more tired. Cavani, in particular, grew into the game and had it not been for the superb display by Egypt goalkeeper Elshenawy, could have doubled the scoreline at least.

In the end, of course, Egypt were unable to hold out. Heartbreak came late in the game, dressed in white and with a number 2 on its back, as Jose Gimenez scored a magnificent header that saw the whole of Uruguay breath a sigh of relief – none more so than Suarez who, let’s not forget, was absolutely and objectively AWFUL.

Again, it was a game that left us with questions. Well, one question really, but it’s one that should be repeated, again and again, at volume and into the face of Héctor Cúper: If Mo Salah was fit enough to be on the bench, why in the name of Pele wasn’t he on the pitch with 10 minutes to go? If ever there was a need for him, it was today.



Morocco 0-1 Iran

Well, we all know what the headline is here, but let’s just take a moment to reflect. Morocco hadn’t conceded a single goal in qualifying. Not one. Now, the finals are a quite different bag of balls, and clearly that run was going to end at some point, but were Iran really the team to break the streak? A team whose political isolation is such that even their sanctions having sanctions? A team so cut-off that Nike were forced to withdraw supply of their boots, while screaming, “Don’t do it”?

As the game kicked off, it looked like Morocco’s form was set to continue. They pressurised and pushed. Belhanda looked lively, as did Benatia, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time until their efforts bore fruit. Meanwhile, on the touchline, their coach, Hervé Renard (played here with delightful insouciance by Hugh Jackman) looked like a man who had little to worry about. Any concerns about his best side could be answered equally well by the words ‘left’ or ‘right’ – AMARITE LADIES?

Ahem… anyway, as the game wore on, there were scrambles, scraps and a general dip in both quality and interest. Morocco’s main problem was converting chances into goals, and Iran had their fair share of that as well, with both Ansarifard and Azmoun failing to exploit good opportunities. It was, eventually, down to a substitute to make the difference – and in the worst way possible. Bouhaddouz who came on in the 77th minute managed to connect perfectly with Ehsan Haji Safi's free-kick, putting the ball firmly in his own net with a beautifully executed diving header. In the 95th minute. It was all over bar the… oh, hang on, no. It was just all over.

It was an own goal that has, effectively, put Morocco out of the World Cup. But let's be honest, with these two teams still to play Portugal and Spain, they’re both out aren’t they? This was only ever a tie played for pride, a stocking-filler undercard to the main event, and Morocco can hold their heads up high. It is, after all, preferable to sticking them on a dangerously inswinging cross inside your own area. 



Portugal 3-3 Spain

And then the bigger boys turned up…

It’s fair to say that times have been fairly turbulent of late for the Iberian neighbours. Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked just two days before the finals kicked off for failing to mention he was heading to Real Madrid after the World Cup. The first that the Spanish camp knew about his new job was a hurried phone call from Madrid five minutes before they made the news public. The sacking has been criticised by some as “excessively harsh” but, by missing out on a disappointingly sparse whip-round, a hastily signed card and a poorly researched farewell speech from Janet in HR, Lopetegui got off lightly.

Meanwhile, four of the Portuguese squad are currently free agents, having torn up their contracts after a training ground attack by fans in May following Sporting Lisbon’s failure to gain a Champions League spot. And all that’s before we get to the little matter of Ronaldo being accused of defrauding the tax man.

And a potential rap sheet surely isn’t the only thing on Ronaldo’s mind. He wants to win this competition and time’s running out for the man who has everything except a World Cup winner’s medal, a decent brass bust of himself, or any humility whatsoever.

The game itself was extraordinary, zig-zagging and jackknifing as advantage went one way then the other. Ronaldo’s early penalty, following Nacho’s clumsy, but slight, challenge, was cancelled out by a moment of sublime skill by Costa. His movement and strength will have left every Chelsea fan watching with their head in their hands wondering why Conte froze him out.

Spain, who had been looking slightly dulled until then, came alive. Neat, short passes and long, long periods of possession that spoke of patience and maturity; changes of pace that were almost musical in their execution – crescendos breaking down into subtle, calm codas, before building back up.

They looked vulnerable on the break, mind.

There were mistakes on both sides, of course. De Gea’s fumble, to allow Ronaldo his second, was uncharacteristic and very poor, and the Portuguese defence weren’t blameless for Costa’s second equaliser as Busquets headed the ball into the path of his oncoming teammate.

However, Nacho’s redemptive strike, low and hard and perfectly placed, appeared to stop time as it took all the words out of everyone’s mouth and replaced them with just one: “fuuuuuuuuuuck!”

At 3-2 and with their passing game now drifting into the sublime Spain must have thought it was in the bag, their minds turning, not unreasonably, to thoughts of a safe three points against Iran next Wednesday before a meaningless romp with Morocco the following Monday.

What they clearly weren't thinking about was the danger of giving a needless free kick in a dangerous position in the 88th minute. It was, of course, Ronaldo (50% intense focus, 30% pure determination, 20% Adam’s apple) who stepped up to deliver as perfect a set-piece as we’re likely to see. The result was a 51st hat-trick for both him and the World Cup finals.

And after all that, Iran top the group. It’s a funny old game…