GAMES 15, 16 & 17


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?


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.


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…