World Cup diary 2018 – Saturday 07 July
France (1) 2 [Varane (40’), Griezmann (61′)
Uruguay (0) 0
First through were the 1998 World Cup winners. Not a classic of a game by any means, but France kept their cool (for the most part) as a niggly Uruguay side tried to disrupt the rhythms of Les Blues. The French scored at the perfect time, just before the break with a cracking header from Varane, but had skipper Lloris to thank for having that advantage at the break as he pulled off a stunning save from Caceres header.
Uruguay did little to create a real chance in the second period and were effectively out after a howler from their ‘keeper Muslera when he tried to punch way a Griezmann shot rather than catch it and all he did was to paddle into his own net. There was also a flashpoint late in the game as Uruguay didn’t take to kindly to some showboating by Mbappe, and the youngster fell to the crowd after minimal contact from a Uruguayan player. Another piece of embarrassing reaction from a player when the physical contact was minimal. For me there should be retrospective action for incidents like this. Uruguay’s miserable day was complete when defender Gimenez spent the last five minutes of the game on the verge of tears. Europe 1, South America 0. Could Belgium do the same later in the evening?
Belgium (2) 2 [Fernandinho (13′ own-goal), De Bruyne (31′)]
Well, well, well.
Europe 2, South America 0.
Belgium were quite simply outstanding as a unit in the first-half – every last one of them and they thoroughly deserved to be ahead at the break. Yes, the Fernandinho own-goal which gave Belgium the lead was fortunate, but they had earned it through a great tactical set-up and which was rewarded by the brilliance of a second goal from Kevin De Bruyne just after the half hour mark.
The system though which demanded a high work rate, took its toll on the Belgium side in the second period as Brazil poured forward. Neymar went down a couple of times in the box, as is his want, and had his claims waived away, but Brazil also has a genuine claim turned down when Vincent Kompany’s appeared to foul Gabriel Jesus, but VAR said no – oh where is the consistency of the system? Finally, the five-times World Champions broke the Belgium line with an Augusto header and it felt as if a Brazilian equaliser would come. However, Belgium battled to the end and in stoppage time, Courtois produces a brilliant finger-tip save to deny Neymar. All that was left was for the Europeans to celebrate and the Brazilians to get the plane home.
What drama awaits today?
England v Sweden: Cosmos Arena, Samara
Two previous meetings in the Finals, the first in 2002, the second in 2006. That first meeting was in Group F, and known as the ‘group of death’ given that England and Sweden were joined by Argentina and Nigeria. It was the opening game for England and Sweden, with a first-half goal from Sol Campbell goal putting the Three Lions ahead only for Niclas Alexandersson to level just before the hour mark. Both teams emerged from the group to the knock-out phase. Four years later the two teams met again, this time in Cologne, in Group B, in the final round of games, England twice were ahead through Joe Cole (34’) and Steven Gerrard (85’), only to be pegged back each time with goals from Marcus Allback (51’) and in stoppage time Henrik Larsson. As in 2002, both sides went through from the group to the last sixteen.
Once more I’ll be calling on the football gods to look kindly on the Three Lions and see them make passage to the Semi-Finals for the first time since 1990. On paper there is no reason that England shouldn’t make it through, but expect a different style of game from Sweden, one devoid of the shocking antics of Colombia. It no doubt will be a nervous and difficult watch, but having broken the penalty hoodoo now, it’s time to throw off the recent record of Quarter-Final exits.
Russia v Croatia: Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
In the guise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there was a World Cup Finals encounter during the 1962 competition in Chile, with the Soviet Union winning 2-0 in a Group 1 game. As Russia and Croatia there have been three meetings, the first in the European Championship Qualifiers in 2006, saw the teams play out a 0-0 in Moscow, with the return game in Zagreb also goalless. Their last meeting was in a friendly in Rostov, with Croatia winning 3-1.
The hosts Russia have exceeded expectations and with a new-found belief are a real threat. Croatia for all their talent limped through their last sixteen tie against Denmark. They are going to have to be at their best if they are to tame the Russian bear, but I’ve a sneaking feeling the hosts are going to get through again.