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.
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!
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?
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.