The group stage of the World Cup has now drawn to a close and we have identified the 16 countries progressing to the Knockout Rounds. The matches in the first stage were particularly exciting, and all teams ended up scoring at least two goals. The so-called minnows are now a lot more competitive than before and no match can now be considered a walkover, given what we’ve witnessed over the past two weeks.
There was no dearth of drama in the games played yesterday either. I will review the matches of Groups G and H in this article.
Match 5: England vs Belgium
A combined total of 17 changes were made by the two managers in this group deciding game. Perhaps they were more inclined not to win the game, as the runner-up from this group looks to have an easier route to the semi-final. Both teams had chances early on but lacked the clinical finishing which had seen them both score 8 goals in their first two games. Once again, there was a chance of fair play deciding the group winner, as the two teams were tied on all parameters before the same. Belgium took it upon themselves to fall behind in Fair Play, putting in crunching tackles, for which the referee had no option but to show a card. The first half remained goalless but the there was an unlikely goal scored early on in the second. Adnan Janujaz took his chance in the team and grabbed a goal with a wonderful curling effort. Whether it was the best decision to score is a matter of a separate discussion. Michy Batshuayi became an overnight meme with his goal celebration! Rashford a glorious opportunity to equalize but Courtois denied him one-on-one with a fingertip save. Belgium did a couple of late chances, with Mertens’ long range effort well saved by Pickford. Fellaini had another chance with virtually the last kick off the game but he only found the side netting. Belgium top the group, but England will probably be the happier side taking near-future into consideration. It won’t be a walk in the park though.
Final Score: England 0 – 1 Belgium
Match 6: Panama vs Tunisia
Two teams who were already eliminated but would be hoping to go home with some pride restored. To be fair Tunisia gave a good account of themselves, and nearly got a point out of their game against England. Panama were just happy to have got their first ever World Cup goal against the same opponent in their last game. Tunisia made early inroads into their opposition’s box but could not make the breakthrough. They went behind via yet another own goal by an African team, as Jose Luiz Rodriguez’s shot deflected off Meriah and beat the goalkeeper. The Tunisian attacks kept on coming but they had to wait nearly 20 minutes for the equalizer. They had two big opportunities in the mean-time but were denied by some dogged defending and goalkeeping. The goal came when Khazri found an unmarked Ben Youssef at the end of a low cross. The wide-man made no mistake and gave the Tunisians a well-deserved goal. Tunisia had a chance to take the lead just a minute later, but Ben Youssef could not beat the ‘keeper one-on-one. Khazri put his side into the lead 15 minutes later, running onto a Haddadi square ball across the box and tapping into an open net. They deserved to be in front by virtue of their performance. Panama had a chance to equalize very late on, but a good cross from the left managed to just evade three attackers and was only picked up on the other flank. Nothing came of it in the end. That’s how it ended, and Tunisia had finally picked up some points which they thoroughly deserved.
Final Score: Panama 1 – 2 Tunisia
Match 5: Japan vs Poland
Japan needed just a point to progress, irrespective of what happened in the other game. They could progress even with a loss but would need Colombia to lose or to beat Senegal by a good margin. Poland had only pride to play for, having already been eliminated. The teams exchanged attacks in the first half without breaking the deadlock. Grosicki came the closest with a well-positioned header, but Kawashima pulled off a stunning save to deny him. Jan Bednarek piled on the pressure on Japan, scoring from a volleyed effort after a free-kick. Japan needed to score, otherwise their fate was out of their hands. They tried but they seemed to lack the drive which saw them perform so well in their previous matches. Lewandowski nearly put the game to bed in the 74th minute, but his sliced effort went over the bar. He should’ve scored having got goal-side of his marker. Kawashima pulled off another superb save a few minutes later, Makino’s attempted clearance from Grosicki’s cross nearly ended up in his own net if not for his ‘keeper. Poland backed off in the final ten minutes, allowing the game to drift to a 1-0 result. The reason will be clear in the review of the next match…
Final Score: Japan 0 – 1 Poland
Match 6: Senegal vs Colombia
A lot of permutations were possible from different results and score-lines from this game. Whoever won this game would go through, no questions asked. Senegal needed just a point to surely qualify. Colombia needed a point to have a chance of qualifying, and hope that Japan would lose (which they did). Both teams struggled to get a foothold in the match early on, with a lot of mis-passes and fouls dominating proceedings. Colombia had the first real chance after 10 minutes, but Quintero’s free-kick was smartly punched away by N’Diaye. Senegal were awarded a penalty five minutes later but it was overturned after VAR intervened. Davinson Sanchez looked to take the ball first before bringing down Mane, and the former was enough reason for the referee to reverse his decision. Colombia lost James Rodriguez to what looked like an ankle injury mod-way through the half. Senegal looked the more threatening for the rest of the first half, but they couldn’t really test Ospina. Niang picked up a yellow card in the second half which meant he would miss the next game. Off a corner in the 74th minute, and similar to the Poland game, Yerry Mina rose highest at the near post and headed home from close range. Colombia were in dreamland, and were leading the group. Senegal and Japan were locked on points, with Japan already trailing to Poland in the other game. The two teams were tied on points, goal difference, goals scored and had drawn their game. The next factor to decide second place in the group was fair play. Japan were leading this statistic 4 to 6. Senegal were thus going to crash out of the cup unless they scored or Poland scored again against Japan. Poland took it easy for the conclusion of the match, so the Senegalese needed to find a solution themselves. Just a minute after going behind, Niang forced a save from Ospina, but the ball was directly at the Colombian goalkeeper. Ismaila Sa skied a glorious opportunity at the far post, he was unmarked and had enough time to get his shot on target. That would prove to be the last real chance for the African nation, as their challenge petered out. The combination of results in this group meant that Colombia had won the group, and Japan would join them, Senegal’s fate being sealed by Fair Play rules, the first ever instance of a team being eliminated from the World Cup for the same!
Final Score: Senegal 0 – 1 Colombia