This World Cup keeps coming up with the goods. The underdogs continue to hold their own against the favourites, making for spectacular viewing for the neutrals. I’ve held the firm belief for some time now that the gap between teams in international football is shrinking, and so far, there has been ample proof of the same.
In this article, I will review the first set of matches for Groups E and F. I will also preview the Matchday 2 fixtures for Groups A and B, to be played over the next two days. Reviews for final two groups’ Matchday 1 outings will be published tomorrow.
Match 1: Costa Rica vs Serbia
The Costa Ricans were coming into the tournament with decent form. For their opponents, the focus was on the midfield pairing of Matic and more so perhaps on Milinkovic-Savic, to see if they could run the game. The Central Americans started better, with Giancarlo Gonzalez skying an open header from a corner. Serbia’s best chance of the half came from their man of the moment Milinkovic-Savic whose audacious overhead kick was too close to the Costa Rican goalkeeper and was saved. The Serbians were the better team in the first half but had nothing to show for it. The Serbians kept control in the second half but openings were few and far between. They had a glorious opportunity in the 50th minute, as Mitrovic ran free behind their opponents’ defence but couldn’t beat the goalkeeper 1 on 1. It needed a stunning 70th minute free-kick from Alexander Kolarov to break the deadlock and give the Serbs a deserved lead. They had further chances to score but wasted them. It didn’t matter as they ran out winners by the odd goal.
Final Score: Costa Rica 0 – 1 Serbia
Match 2: Brazil vs Switzerland
Brazil started off playing silky smooth football, with their forward line of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho just behind linking up well. Paulinho had the best chance early on but his sliced effort from inside the six yard box was deflected out for a corner by Sommer’s outstretched arm. In the 20th minute, Coutinho picked up a defensive clearance at the edge of the Swiss penalty box and curled in a trademark finish into the far-post, with the goalkeeper having no chance. It was a goal we’ve seen so many times before from the Brazilian ace. Brazil kept control for the rest of the half but Switzerland dogged in their defense, and kept the South Americans out without many problems. In the 50th minute, Steven Zuber got on the end of a Shaqiri corner, and headed past Alisson. There was a push on Miranda just before the header but it was a weak effort from the Brazilian defender to stand his ground. Having said that, in most other occasions, such a push would probably have resulted in a foul against the attacker. Unsurprisingly, Brazil went on the offensive for the rest of the game, but were hugely wasteful in front of goal. The fluidity of the first half was gone. Gabriel Jesus had a match to forget, making no significant contribution up front. The introduction of Firmino livened things up, but it remains a mystery why he was given less than 10 minutes to make an impact. Switzerland, for their part, didn’t just sit back and defend, and tried to make their own counter-attacks. Their pace was a little slow in the build-up which meant the Brazilian defense more often than not got back into position before trouble arose. Neymar headed a late chance straight at Sommer, followed soon after by Firmino, who did the same. Miranda had the best chance to win it late on, his half-volley from 20 yards bouncing just wide of the Swiss goal. That’s how it remained and another tournament favourite had not got the result they were looking for.
Match 1: Germany vs Mexico
The World champions were the favourites to take full points from this game. The Mexicans started the game on the front foot, regularly troubling the German defense with their speed. They exploited the space on both German wings, left by the marauding Kimmich and Plattenhardt. Layun and Lozano were ever-willing runners, with Hernandez doing incredible well in holding up play and distributing to the wide players. The Germans looked rusty, carrying some of the bad form from the pre-tournament friendlies into this game. And their sluggishness was punished just past the half-hour mark. Javier Hernandez set up Lozano on the left, after a neat interchange of passes in midfield, a part of a lightning counter-attack. The 22 year old, dubbed as the next star of his nation, dribbled Ozil with ease, and slot past Neuer at the near-post. It is said the goal caused an earthquake in Mexico City, as the fans celebrated, and one could the joy on the Mexican faces on the field. Toni Kroos hit the bar from a free-kick a few minutes later but there was no way to goal for the Germans in the first half. Unsurprisingly, the Germans came out all guns blazing in the second half. Surprisingly, Mexico too kept up their counter-attacks, getting behind the German defense on a couple of occasions, as the latter pushed bodies forward. With a little more composure, Mexico could easily have been two or three goals up in this match. Germany kept getting closer and closer to scoring themselves but the breakthrough failed to materialize. Kimmich’s acrobatic overhead landed on top of the goal and a late half-volley from substitute Brandt brushed the post and went out. It was not to be for the defending champions as a fourth defending champion in five World Cups suffered defeat in their opening group game. The Mexicans were in tears at the end of the match, highlighting just how important this win was for the country.
Final Score: Germany 0 – 1 Mexico
Match 2: Sweden vs South Korea
Perhaps the weirdest build-up to a World Cup match ever. The South Koreans accused Sweden of spying on their training, and the latter accepted and apologized for the same. The weirdness was brought by the Korean manager when he said that they had switched the players’ training kits to confuse the Swedes, as he believes that ’Westerners’ are unable to distinguish between Asian faces!
The match was stop-and-go from the beginning, with neither side able to get the offensive. Sweden had a glorious opportunity saved by the Korean goalkeeper on the 20 minute mark, Cho Hyun-Woo keeping out Berg’s shot from six yards. Ten minutes later, and more desperate defending kept Berg out once again. The swedes were very much with the upper hand. Korea’s had to wait till the start of the second half for their first real chance, Koo heading wide from 10 yards. After a couple of more attempts, Sweden finally got the breakthrough in the form a penalty decision, once again with the help of VAR. Kim Min Woo brought down Claesson with a mistimed challenge. Captain Andreas Granqvist stepped up and converted from the spot. Sweden kept control of the match after this with South Korea getting one chance with nearly the last kick of the game. Hwang headed wide from a central position, which would’ve beaten the keeper had it been on target. Sweden joined Mexico at the top of the group.
Final Score: Sweden 1 – 0 South Korea
Match 3: Russia vs Egypt
The hosts come into this match on a high, having registered a five goal victory in their opening. Egypt, on the other hand, will be looking to recover from the late defeat by Uruguay. The latter’s talisman, Mohamed Salah looks likely to start this game, and that could prove to be the catalyst they need. However, the hosts will have the full backing of the home support and it remains to be seen if their opponents can overcome that hurdle. The tournament has been hoping to see a fit and firing Salah, who’s coming off a dream season with Liverpool. Just how fit is he remains a question, and you can be sure the Russians will be looking to exploit the chinks in his armour. Or the hosts, Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev were the stars in the last match and should be influential once again. If Salah does play, I can see Egypt scoring and holding the Russians to a draw, and that’s the result I’m going with in this match.
Prediction: Russia 1 – 1 Egypt
Match 4: Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia
The Saudis were woeful in their first match, looking both mentally and physically tired. The Uruguayans and especially their forward line of Suarez and Cavani will be licking their in anticipation of coming up against that defense. I can’t see beyond a Uruguay win for this match, them being far superior in every department. If the performances are repeated from the respective first outings, Saudi Arabia will be in trouble of facing another humiliation.
Prediction: Uruguay 3 – 0 Saudi Arabia
Match 3: Portugal vs Morocco
Morocco were unfortunate to end up on the losing side in their first match, that too via a 95th winner, that too by way of an own goal! They were the better team throughout. With their next two matches against Portugal and Spain, their World Cup looks to be an uphill struggle now. Portugal should have enough fire-power to do the business in this match, and with Cristiano Ronaldo in red hot form, they could once again come up with multiple goals. Morocco will need to be extremely solid as a unit and hope to catch out Portugal’s defensive weaknesses, which do exist and Spain showed that they can be exploited. However, even if they concede, which I don’t think they will, Portugal should outscore their opponents easily and secure the win.
Prediction: Portugal 2 – 0 Morocco
Match 4: Iran vs Spain
Spain were undone by the master-class from Portugal’s stalwart Ronaldo, and perhaps just about deserved the win in their opening game. The midfield trio of Iniesta, Silva and Isco were at their fluid best throughout. Diego Costa has shown good form too, scoring two goals. I fear for Iran in this match, especially with the way they played in their first game. Spain should roll them aside and continue their juggernaut. There is a possibility of silly score-line in this game but the Spanish might make that much of an effort. A no-contest for me.
Prediction: Iran 0 – 3 Spain