World Cup diary 2018 – Friday 22 June

Only one place to start really and that is the last game of Thursday’s action, involving Argentina and Croatia at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.

Much has been made in the press of the image of Lionel Messi with his hand pressed against his head as the camera passed down the Argentina team line-up. Was he stressed? Did he have a headache coming on? Could he not face the camera? Was he merely offering a prayer? And this is where the image becomes determined by the outcome of the game. Argentina put in a lacklustre performance, are soundly beaten by Croatia and therefore the automatic assumption of the press is that Messi was stressed, weighed down by the expectation of a nation and once more has to carry the team through another game. For all his quality and records at Barcelona, the World Cup stage has not brought out the best of Messi and it looks like his final fling at becoming a World Cup winner is about to vanish.

With all the attention on how poor Argentina were, the absolute blooper by ‘keeper Willy Caballero (what a wonderful chip to set up the volley) and the lack of impact of Aguero and substitute Higuain made, Croatia haven’t been given the credit they deserved. The volley by Rebic was technically brilliant and Croatia’s second by Modric one of the best goals of the tournament. By the time Rakitic fired in the third in stoppage time, Argentina were a bewildered rabble who could only stop and watch as their humiliation was completed.

However, despite having only a point after two games in Group D, Argentina know that qualification for the knock-out stage can still be achieved. Don’t cry for me Argentina? Well not yet at least.

Elsewhere yesterday, two games in Group C, with Australia up against Denmark and France taking on Peru. Denmark went ahead against the Aussies with a well worked strike from Christian Eriksen, only to be pegged by a dubious penalty for Australia. The Aussies appeal was half hearted as the ball appeared to be headed at the arm of Poulsen, with no intent as far as I could see. For me a case of VAR not working and not making the right decision as the penalty rate continues to rise in the competition.

Finally to France against Peru, where Les Bleu did enough to earn a 1-0 win courtesy of a scrappy goal from Mbappe in the first-half. The French at times showed great flair, but struggled at other times with the physicality of the Peruvians, who huffed and puffed but couldn’t find an equaliser. At least half-time provided a couple of comedy moments, with Patrice Evra’s bow-tie and sweater combo a sight to behold and the fact that his two ex-Manchester United colleagues, Messer’s Giggs and Keane looke so bloody miserable. Do they know they are getting paid to watch football? If Patrice needs fashion tips he should have looked no further than the kit the Peru side wore against France, surely one of the most iconic kits in World Cup history.

Anyway, the weekend approaches and the build-up to England’s game will start to build up, but before that The Three Lions nemesis from Euro 2016, Iceland are in action against Nigeria, completing the second round of games in Group D. Whilst the other two games today see Group E encounters between Brazil and Costa Rica and Switzerland and Serbia. Serbia and Brazil to win? Or is there a banana skin awaiting Neymar?

World Cup diary 2018 – Thursday 21 June

Yesterday saw a Group A fixture between Uruguay and Saudi Arabia and in Group B, Portugal v Morocco and Spain v Iran with all seemingly having come under the influence of the Arsenal coaching manual circa 1980s from George Graham, as all three games ended 1-0, with Uruguay, Portugal and Spain the victors.

Uruguay had a goal after twenty-three minutes from Luis Saurez to seal their victory and send La Celeste into the last 16 along with Russia, whilst Saudi Arabia are eliminated. The meeting of the two teams in the final round of fixtures will determine who tops Group A.

Another big name in Cristiano Ronaldo, scored the only goal after four minutes to put Morocco out of the tournament. Credit to the Portuguese star, who was brave in diving amongst the flying boots of the Moroccan defence to head home and with his fourth goal of the competition, lead the race for the Golden Boot. However, credit to the African side who exposed the weakness of the European Champion’s defence, yet couldn’t find a leveller and have just pride to play for in their final group game.

Finally to Spain, where a fortunate ricochet allowed Diego Costa to put Spain ahead early in the second-half. Iran had what they thought was an equaliser but with the aid of VAR the Ezatolahi effort was ruled out. Despite defeat Iran could still qualify for the knockout phase, but they will need to overcome Portugal in the Mordovia Arena next Monday. If the Iranians don’t get through, they will leave us with one of the comedy moments of the tournament. Into the last minute of normal time, Iran had a throw deep in the Portugal half, where defender Milad Mohammadi decided to opt for a spectacular summersault throw-in. However, the sight of him halting it after the initial roll, was bizarre to say the least.

Let’s hope for a few more goals today as Denmark take on Australia, France play Peru and Argentina take on Croatia and of course moments that bring a smile to the faces of the watching world.

World Cup diary 2018 – Wednesday 20 June

The three games from yesterday continued to defy what many ‘experts’ had predicted pre-tournament. Tuesday opened with Columbia taking on a Japan side that was derided as very ordinary even by its own fans. Yet at the whistle in the Mordovia Arena, it was the Blue Samurai who had put the South American team to the sword. Japan were greatly helped by the third-minute dismissal of Carlos Sanchez for handling Shinji Kagawa’s shot at a goal, with the resultant penalty converted by Kagawa. Columbia though equalised through a low struck free-kick from Juan Quintero. Some parts of the media lauded it as a ‘clever free-kick’ as it passed under the leaping Japanese wall, for me though, ‘keeper Kawashima really should shoulder some of the blame for the goal. However, Japan were not to be denied victory and a header from Yuya Osako seventeen minutes from time, sealed an opening game win in Group H.

In the second game of the day, once again it was the unfancied team that came out on top. None of the African teams at the tournament had so far picked up a point and nobody gave Senegal much of a chance against a Poland side with Robert Lewandowski leading the Poles attack. However, eight minutes before the break, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye fired goal-ward, only for his shot to be deflected in by Polish substitute Thiago Cionek. Poalnd, the seeded team in the group, failed to cope with Senegal’s physicality throughout the game and as such it was no surprise when they scored on the hour mark to double their advantage. It was however, tinged with controversy. After receiving treatment on the sidelines, M’Baye Niang came back on to the field of play and instantly latched onto a Polish backpass, beating Juventus ‘keeper Wojciech Szczesny and Southampton defender Jan Bednarek to the ball, before slotting home into an empty net. Despite the protests of the Eastern European side, the goal stood. With four minutes remaining Grzegorz Krychowiak headed home for Poland, Senagal though held out for a 2-1 win, a victory they deserved.

Whilst the two earlier games saw the last of the first-round fixtures, the closing game on Tuesday night saw the second-round open in Group A with hosts Russia taking on Egypt. Prior to the start of the World Cup, this was a Russian side struggling badly with form and which wasn’t given any chance by its media and fans. However, this was a team rejuvenated by their 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia and they continued to grow into the competition with a 3-1 win over Egypt. Fathi (47′ og), Cheryshev (59′), and Dzyuba (62′) put Russia comfortably ahead just after the hour mark and even a Mo Salah penalty after seventy-three minutes couldn’t dent another moral boosting victory for the Sbornaya. The result all but ensured passage to the knock-out stages for Russia and almost certain exit for Egypt.

World Cup diary 2018 – Tuesday 19 June

Long live King Harry! No, I’m not prompting some massacre of all those in line to the throne of England, but merely praising the performance of Tottenham’s Harry Kane. His two-goal salvo, the first after eleven minutes gave The Three Lions the perfect start in a first-half in which they created enough chances to have put the game beyond Tunisia by half-time. However, as every England fan knows, the national team never does anything easily and after a soft penalty for the African side was converted before the break by Sassi after thirty-five minutes, the game became one of attrition as Tunisia tried to hang on to a point by fair means or foul. Tunisia’s cause was helped by VAR not being used when King Harry was wrestled to the ground rugby-style twice in the penalty box from corners, but England continued to knock at the door and a minute into stoppage time, Kane slipped his marker and headed home to ensure a 2-1 victory as the nation signed in a huge collective relief. A vital win and confidence boost for Gareth Southgate’s young charges.

In the other game in England’s group, Belgium were eventually comfortable 3-0 winners over Panama, but it took until the forty-seventh minute for Mertens to break the deadlock, before a Lukaku brace (69’ and 75’) saw The Red Devils secure the win and top spot in Group G. In the other game of the day in Group F, a rather scrappy game saw Sweden win 1-0 thanks to an Andreas Granqvist just past the hour. It showed that VAR works in that the correction decision was given, but also illustrated how it is messy within football rather than the rugby codes which have natural stop and starts. In this case play had continued with South Korea on the break after Kim Min-woo’s foul on Viktor Claesson, only for the game to be stopped for the review. And after the failings of the use of VAR in the England game, I’m not totally convinced that there is a consistent application of the technology.

World Cup diary 2018 – Friday 15 June

Well it couldn’t have gone much better for the hosts on Opening night with a 5-0 beating of Saudi Arabia. Substitute Cheryshev bagged a brace (43’ and 91’) along with goals from Gazinskiy (12′), (71′) and Golovin (94’) as Russia cruised to three points. There will be sterner tests ahead for Russia than Saudi Arabia who proved to be early contenders of the ‘give the ball away’ competition and defensively looked very, very poor.

Away from the action on the pitch, amongst the most annoying aspects of the game was the horrendous American announcer in the stadium and the banal commentary of ITV’s Glenn Hoddle.

After yesterday’s game, the other two teams in Group A, Egypt and Uruguay, play in the first of three games today starting at the Ekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg, the furthest east of the Finals venues and actually situatetd in the Asian sector of Russia. The stadium has caused quite a stir, as the seats in the two temporary stands behind each goal are located outside the main bowl of the stadium. Having looked at images of it, there is no way I’d feel comfortable sat in what looks like a precarious giant scaffold.

The two teams have met previously in a Friendly International in August 2006 at the Alexandria Stadium, with Uruguay winning 2-0 with a goal from centre-back Diego Godin and an own-goal from Abdelzaher El Saqqa. The expectation is that Uruguay will have too much for Egypt, but the biggest talking point could be around two players who have Liverpool in common – current Kop King Mo Salah, who faces a battle to be fit and ex-Red hero, dentists best-friend and all-round pantomime villain, Luis Suarez. Besides Salah the Egyptians boast a number of players familiar to an English audience with Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi (both WBA), Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), Ramadan Sobhi (Huddersfield Town) and Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal) in their Finals squad. Uruguay to nick the points in a close game.

The second and third games of Friday see Group B get underway with Morocco against Iran at the St Petersburg Stadium followed by the European giants of Spain and Portugal as the Fisht Stadium. Morocco and Iran met in the LG Cup in 2002 in a game which ended 1-1 with Iran winning 4-3 on penalties in Tabriz. In the Iranian squad is a player with recent game-time in England, that being their captain Ashkan Dejagah who played for Fulham in the Premier League and last season spent time on loan at Nottingham Forest. Morocco have their own English connection with Romain Saiss, who was part of the Wolves team that took the SkyBet Championship title in 2017/18. Could be the tournament’s first draw.

Friday finishes with the Iberian clash of Spain and Portugal. These European heavyweights last met in a World Cup in 2010 when they played each other in the last sixteen. Spain made it to the Quarter-Finals 1-0 courtesy of a David Villa goal on sixty-three minutes with Rui Costa sent-off for Portugal. The Spanish made the headlines before a ball had even been kicked in this World Cup with the removal of their manager and the test will be to see if this has any impact on this talented squad. Star-studded line-ups on both sides, but could end in the second draw of the day.

World Cup diary 2018 – Thursday 14 June

Today will see the tournament start, but for many fans in England and beyond thoughts will have been dominated by the release of the Premier League fixtures this morning. You have to ask though, did it really need to be today to coincide with the start of the World Cup? The answer to me at least, is that the Premier League wanted maximum exposure and feels rather like a spoilt child looking for attention by jumping up and down shouting, “I’m here, I’m here”.

However, the reality is that the Premier League has a huge influence and a number of the players taking part over the next month in Russia will have in the back of their mind the hope of a life-changing move to the richest League in the world following a fine showing in the World Cup. Players stock could rise and fall and as an example Newcastle United will monitor closely the form of Serbian striker, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who fired Fulham to promotion. How much will he cost Fulham or indeed another club if he continues his fine form of 2018?

As it is the opening day, here’s a summary of the first games since the 1966 World Cup:

1966       England 0-0 Uruguay

1970       Mexico 0-0 Soviet Union

1974       Brazil 0-0 Yugoslavia

1978       West Germany 0-0 Poland

1982       Argentina 0-1 Belgium

1986       Italy 1-1 Bulgaria

1990       Argentina 0-1 Cameroon

1994       Germany 1-0 Bolivia

1998       Brazil 2-1 Scotland

2002       France 0-1 Senegal

2006       Germany 4-2 Costa Rica

2010       South Africa 1-1 Mexico

2014       Brazil 3-1 Croatia


Hard to imagine tonight’s game will be anything other than cagey. Avoiding defeat in your opening fixture is always high on the priority list and Russia have the added pressure as hosts. Opening games are full of banana skins as Argentina and France will testify. However, for me Russia to get the three points in an uninspiring ninety-minutes.

Let battle commence!

World Cup diary 2018 – Introduction

Here we are again…another World Cup…the 21st staging and the first to be held in Eastern Europe.

Am I excited? To be honest, not really. I’ve never known a build-up to a Finals that has been so quiet. Is it the influence of the Premier League and the Champions League, in that they are now such global events? Or is it that there isn’t the same hype from the English press and fans alike?

In all fairness, it probably is a bit of both. Perhaps though once the Opening Ceremony is over, Robbie Williams et al, and Russia and Saudi Arabia get onto the pitch and get the first ninety-minutes out of the way I may feel differently.

And that is part of the problem, because invariably until the action starts at the Luzhniki Stadium, the focus tends to be on the external factors around the tournament. In the case of Russia 2018, this has been the old problems of racism, homophobia and hooliganism.

It was of course mightily depressing to read that Tottenham and England defender Danny Rose has told his family to stay away from Russia for fear of the treatment they may receive and of his father responding that it saddened him that because of the threat of racism in the country he may never get to see him son play live in the Finals.

The reality is that nobody can predict whether there will be huge issues until the tournament gets underway.

Changing track though and to the opening game on Thursday in Moscow, which sees hosts Russia in Group A action against Saudi Arabia, who qualified via the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). These two teams have never met before, and it will be interesting to see how Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana deals with the pressure of a packed stadium dominated by home fans. Result-wise I can’t see anything other than a win for Russia to kick-start the tournament.

Finally though, on the last day before the football actually starts, there were two big World Cup stories. The first saw FIFA award the 2026 World Cup to a combined bid that will see the games played across the USA, Canada and Mexico and the second saw Spain sack head coach Julen Lopetegui after he was named the new Real Madrid boss, just two days before their opening World Cup match with Portugal. Taking over will be Fernando Hierro, an ex-Spanish international who most recently was the Sporting Director of the national team, with a playing career that included a spell in 2004/05 at Bolton Wanderers. With their opener against Iberian neighbours Portugal, it could be some baptism for the new manager.

Seems like the drama has started before a ball has even been kicked!