The tournament keeps springing up surprising results as we complete the first week. I’ll cover the big game played a couple of days ago along with yesterday’s matches from Groups D and E. I will wrap up this article with a preview of Group G.
Match 3: Argentina vs Croatia
Croatia started off brightly, with Perisic forcing a smart low save from Caballero in the 5th minute. Argentina had a couple of glorious within the first half hour though. Aguero goal-bound shot was blocked by Lovren in the 13th minute. Just at the half hour mark, Subasic was woefully out of position as the ball fell to Enzo Perez after Lovren blocked the cross across the goal. The Argentina midfielder could only find the side netting with an open goal in front of him. A couple of minutes later, Mandzukic headed wide at the far post, with no defender close to him. Only getting it on target would surely have been a goal because of his proximity to Caballero. The second started off slow. A seemingly innocuous back-pass to Caballero saw the goalkeeper present a gift to the Croatians as his sliced shot was volleyed in superbly by Rebic. The winger was perhaps lucky to still be on the pitch after a high tackle in the first half, but his finish could only be admired. Argentina made Subasic work ten minutes later, but somehow the goalkeeper and defenders combined to scramble the ball out for a corner. In the 80th minute, Modric received a pass from Brozovic, and from around 25 yards out, launched an unstoppable waist-high drive that nestle into the corner of the net. Nothing Caballero could do about that, it was a stroke of genius from one the best midfielders in the world. Rakitic hit the bar from a free-kick five minutes later. By now, the Argentines were down and out. Croatia walked to a third goal in injury time, Rakitic finding the goal this time, as the Argentine defenders stopped and kept asking for off-side instead of trying to get a tackle in. That’s how it ended. Croatia put in the most assured performance of the World Cup so, not allowing their opponents to settle at all in the second half and coming away with a deserved victory. They were helped by the opposition tactics no doubt, one wonders why players like Banega, Dybala, Di Maria, Higuain, Lo Celso and Pavon were kept on the bench for the majority of the match.
Final Score: Argentina 0 – 3 Croatia
Match 4: Nigeria vs Iceland
A match that had huge implications for the future of the group and for the Argentinians. Iceland were favourites to get a result after their display against Argentina. Nigeria looked a bit out of sorts against Croatia and needed an improvement to get something out of this one. The first half was uneventful, with Iceland’s couple of chances in the opening minutes the highlight of the half. Nigeria came out flying in the second half and put the pressure on their opponents. The first goal was a thing of beauty as Ahmed Musa plucked a Victor Moses out of thin air while off the ground and rifled in the half volley. He hit the bar with a curling effort in the 74th minute with the goalkeeper beaten. Musa grabbed a deserved second goal just a minute later, picking up the ball on the left wing, getting past one defender, rounding the goalkeeper and leaving the two defenders on the line to score. Iceland did not know what had just hit and looked uncharacteristically out of their depth on this stage. Iceland were awarded a penalty with five minutes to go, again after consultation with VAR. Sigurdsson stepped and put his effort over the bar! That’s how it ended and the fight for second place in this group is wide open now, giving a lifeline to Argentina in the process.
Final Score: Nigeria 2 – 0 Iceland
Match 3: Brazil vs Costa Rica
Brazil were not at their fluent best in their first game and would be looking to avoid an Argentina like situation in this game. Costa Rica would surely set up to frustrate the South Americans, and look to steal a point and keep themselves in the competition. However, it was the Costa Ricans who looked the more incisive in the first half with some attempts on goal. Brazil’s two best chances of the half fell to Marcelo, with both shots coming from outside the box. Gabriel Jesus did put the ball in the net but it was ruled out correctly for offside. Jesus hit the bar in the opening minutes of the second half with a header. The follow up shot came from Coutinho from the edge of the box, but it was straight at Navas who kicked it away. The Brazilian onslaught continued but a combination of bad finishes and Keylor Navas’s brilliance kept them at bay. For the first time in this World Cup, VAR was used to rule out a penalty awarded to Brazil, with the cameras picking up that no contact was made as Neymar went to ground. Finally, in the 91st minute, Costa Rica’s defence was penetrated as Coutinho ran onto a Firmino header diverted by Jesus and scored his second goal in as many games. Neymar showboated from a corner in the final minute of injury time, before finishing off the next attack with a goal, and Brazil’s second. There would be no slip from this South American team as the now took control of the group. This meant that Costa Rica were now eliminated irres
Final Score: Brazil 2 – 0 Costa Rica
Match 4: Serbia vs Switzerland
Serbia started off the better team, with two chances for Mitrovic inside the first five minutes. The first header was saved by Sommer but the Swiss goalkeeper had no response for the second. It took half an hour for Switzerland to have their first opening but Stojkovic parried wide Dzemaili’s close range. Serbia nearly got the second, as a corner late in the first half found it’s through the crowd to a Matic at the far post, but he couldn’t react in time to convert. Switzerland’s change in approach in the second half was visible. In the 52nd minute, Shaqiri’s blocked shot became a loose ball just outside the Serbian penalty area, which Granit Xhaka ran onto a launched an unstoppable shot into the far corner. This was one the goals of the tournament so far, from the much maligned midfielder. Shaqiri hit the post from an unlikely angle on the left wing a few minutes later. Switzerland were fully in control now. Their increased influence were awarded right at the end, as Shaqiri ran onto and through ball from Gavronovic and scored to give Switzerland the win. This was the perfect example of a match of two halves. Serbia felt hard-done by the result, especially after replays clearly showed Mitrovic being wrestled by two defenders earlier on in the game. VAR was not used on this occasion, and a certain penalty was not awarded. The Swiss now are front-runners for qualifying from this group, with Costa Rica as their last game, with the latter already eliminated.
Final Score: Serbia 1 – 2 Switzerland
Match 3: Belgium vs Tunisia
Belgium ran out comfortable winner against minnows Panama in their first match and should not be too troubled by Tunisia in this one. The latter were undone by a late England winner in their first game. You can be sure that the North Africans will set up in the same way in this match. However, the Belgians should have enough to get the better of this game. There is a chance of this turning into an exercise of attack versus defence and that is why I’m predicting a narrow win for the Europeans, without being too troubled though.
Prediction: Belgium 1 – 0 Tunisia
Match 4: England vs Panama
England should’ve too much quality in this game as Panama just don’t look prepared for this level of competition. The English have taken the pressure off themselves with the late win against Tunisia. They are expected to line-up with a different team for this one, as there was a couple of knocks in the last game. There has been controversy in the build-up with the English team being leaked by their own press yesterday. Seriously, you can’t make these things up!
Prediction: England 2 – 0 Panama