World Cup diary 2018 – Tuesday 26 June
With the final round of group games starting yesterday, for those with something to play for, the pressure cranked up another notch.
First up were the two games in Group A, with Russia and Uruguay already confirmed as advancing to the knock-out phase and the result all about top spot. In the end the Uruguayans gave the Russian bear a bloody nose as they romped to a 3-0 victory over the host nation. Saurez opened the scoring on ten minutes with a clever low free-kick, with a Cheryshev own-goal after twenty-three minutes doubling the South American’s advantage. Even worse was to follow for Russia when Smolnikov was dismissed for a second yellow card fourteen minutes before the break. All that was left in the second-half was a tap-in for Cavani on the stroke of the full-time whistle to complete the scoring and secure top spot for Uruguay.
In the other group game, it was the battle to avoid finishing bottom, between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt dominated the opening half and went ahead after twenty-two minutes, with Mo Salah latching onto a ball through and lobbing the Saudi ‘keeper Yasser Al-Mosailem. It was Egypt’s first World Cup goal from open play since 1934. Now whilst it as a good finish, the goalkeeper rushing that far out made the choice for the Liverpool striker in terms of what he needed to do. Salah had another great chance when one-on-one with Al-Mosailem, but his dink over the ‘keeper this time drifted wide of the mark. Once again VAR was in the headlines, when with four minutes remaining in the first-half, Saudi Arabia were awarded a penalty for handball against Ahmed Fathi. Now I’ve watched it back and the player has his head turned away and the ball strikes his trailing arm, where is the intent in that? For me, justice was served when Egyptian ‘keeper El Hadary (who at 45 years and 161 days beat the record of Colombia ‘keeper Faryd Mondragon (43 and three days at Brazil 2014) to become the oldest player to take to the field), made a tremendous save from the spot-kick. However, like buses another penalty soon came long as Saudi Arabia were awarded another deep into first-half stoppage time, with Al Faraj slotting home. After the break, El Hadary was the busier of the two ‘keepers, but he could do nothing as in the fifth minute of stoppage time Salem Al Dawsari secured a 2-1 win for Saudi Arabia, to leave Egypt bottom of the group without a single point.
With Group A sorted it was the turn of Group B to reach its conclusion. Here going into the games, involving Iran against Portugal and Spain up against Morocco, all that was certain was that Morocco were out. And both games proved to have high drama and controversy. Iran knew they had to beat Portugal to make the last 16. The European Champions has the better chances in the first-half and scored on the stroke of the break, when a stunning strike from Ricardo Quaresma put them ahead. All the fun though was yet to start. It all began eight minutes into the second-half when after a VAR review Ronaldo who had been fouled, had his spot-kick saved. It gave the game an edge that was lacking in the opening half, and it ramped up controversially ten minutes from time. Ronaldo swung an arm at Morteza Pouraliganji, catching him in the face. Somehow after a lengthy VAR review, the Real Madrid player was only shown a yellow. I have every sympathy for the Iranian coach who said after the game that there was effectively one rule for players like Ronaldo and Messi and another for the rest. The question is though, is it the fault of VAR or the on-field referee? Then with Portugal seemingly on their way through with a 1-0 win, three minutes into time added-on Iran got a penalty after a VAR review. In my view a crazy decision, the Portuguese defender has merely challenged for a header with the ball catching him at close quarters on the arm. He couldn’t have got out of the way or at such close quarters had any intent to handle it. Again, VAR or poor call by the referee? Iran though had one last chance as Mehdi Taremi fire into the side-netting with his effort from inside the penalty box. If he had scored Iran would have been through.
In the other encounter Morocco took the lead after a cool finish from Boutaib following a mix-up on the halfway line by the Spanish just before the quarter of an hour mark. Spain were level just five minutes later though as Andres Iniesta brilliantly set-up Isco to score. Morocco regained the lead nine minutes from time with a stunning header from En-Nesyri, which looked to have secured a 2-1 win for the North Africans. However, it wasn’t to be as Iago Aspas back-heeled home an equaliser in stoppage time for the Spanish. It went to review and in a very tight decision the goal stood. It was cruel on Morocco, but enough for Spain to head Group B, courtesy of goals scored.
It was a day in which VAR did nothing to leave me thinking that it will improve the game. Currently there is no consistency as to the way it is used and for me has highlighted a weakness in the quality of the match officials as much as anything else. Are these really the best referees out there? After what I’ve seen so far, I’m not really sure.
Following the finish of Groups, A and B, it means the following last 16 games have now been confirmed:
June 30 Uruguay v Portugal and July 01 Spain v Russia