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.
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?”
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.