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.
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.
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.
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.