Thursday 24 November
GROUP F: Morocco 0 (0) – (0) 0 Croatia (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor)
GROUP E: Germany 1 (1) – (0) 2 Japan (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan)
Germany scorer: Gundogan (33′ pen). Japan scorers: Doan (75′), Asano (83′)
GROUP F: Spain 7 (3) – (0) 0 Costa Rica (Al Thumama Stadium, Doha)
Spain scorers: Olmo (11′), Asensio (21′), F Torres (31’pen, 54′), Gavi (74′), Soler (90′), Morata (90’+2)
GROUP E: Belgium 1 (1) – (0) 0 Canada (Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
Belgium scorer: Batshuayi (44′)
Another quartet of games on a day which started with a 0-0 included another major shock, a goal-fest and ended with nearly a second shock of the day.
2018 beaten finalists Croatia were first on Wednesday morning against Morocco and was as the cliché goes a bit of a bore draw. The less sad the better. Thankfully up next was a slow burner which turned into the surprise result of the day as Japan came from behind to beat Germany 2-1. Before kick-off Germany took their positions for the traditional team photo and then the players covered their mouths, with manager Hansi Flick saying it was “to convey the message that FIFA is silencing” teams. An interesting start to proceedings. Germany dominated the first half and got their reward when a penalty from Gundogan just after the half hour mark put them ahead. It was though to be a game of two-halves as Japan got at the Germans time and time again and were rewarded with an equaliser fifteen minutes from time. Then to cap it off, substitute Takuma Asano, who plays for German club VfL Bochum scored seven minutes from time slotting home from an acute angle. Understandably at the whistle the Japanese celebrations were a joy to behold. Is another German wobble on the cards?
Spain then took on Costa Rica in what turned out to be a pasear por el parque. As with the England game earlier in the week its difficult to make too much of the result when a side is hammered 7-0. Of course it’s a confidence booster for a team but can equally give a false impression especially when there are harder challenges to come in the later stages of the competition. The pick of the goals came from Gavi, Spain’s fifth and their last in time added on from Morata.
The day ended with what on paper looked like a no contest, as Belgium ranked number two in the World took on Canada ranked forty-first. The North American side pushed Belgium all the way and had a glorious chance to go ahead in the first half, but Alphonso Davies saw his spot-kick saved by Belgium ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois. They came to rue that miss and the many other chances they created as shortly before the break as Michy Batshuayi finished clinically from a long ball. Canada were the better side throughout as acknowledged by the Belgian manager Roberto Martinez in a post-match interview and in reality deserved at least a point. This could yet turn out to be an interesting group and on this performance Canada will be tough opposition for both Croatia and Morocco.
Group G: Switzerland v Cameroon (Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah)
The opening game of the day sees Switzerland who were winners of UEFA Group C, going unbeaten with five wins and three draws, take on Cameroon who qualified as CAF third round winners. The Swiss are in the finals for the twelfth time reaching the Quarter Finals in 1934, 1938 and in 1954 when they hosted the tournament. Familiar faces within the squad to English fans will be Manuel Akanji (Manchester City), Fabian Schar (Newcastle United), Denis Zakaria (on loan at Chelsea from Juventus), Remo Freuler (Nottingham Forest) and Granit Xhaka (Arsenal). Cameroon are in the finals for the eighth time, with 1990 their further progression to date when they were beaten in the Quarter Finals by England. A couple of players in the English leagues are Swansea City’s Olivier Ntcham and Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo. Their captain is the experienced striker Vincent Aboubakar, and the Les Lions Indomptables (The Indomitable Lions) will need him to be firing if they are to make any impression in this group. Is a 0-0 on the cards?
Group H: Uruguay v South Korea (Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan)
These sides have previously met in the World Cup. First in 1990 in a Group E game where a Daniel Fonseca goal in time added on was enough to see Uruguay progress from the group. Eight years later in South Africa they played each other in the last sixteen with two Luis Suarez goals either side of Lee Chung-yong’s equaliser saw Uruguay through 2-1. Suarez is still with the Uruguayan squad in what will surely be his last hurrah at the World Cup finals. Battling for the scoring spotlight on the day could be Spurs Son Heung-min and Wolves Hwang Hee-chan. Uruguay to make it three wins against the South Korean’s in World Cup finals tournaments.
Group H: Portugal v Ghana (Stadium 974, Doha)
The story that has dominated ahead of this fixture is the ending of the second spell of Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United. It’s been a traumatic time since he gave his explosive interview with Piers Morgan which has resulted in him leaving Old Trafford. You have to ask did he see the open criticism of the management and owners of the club as the best way to get a move away or was this a genuine insight into life under Erik ten Hag and the Glazers. Portuguese fans will hope that it leaves Ronaldo with a clear head for international duty, but there will be the lingering doubts and indeed the impact it may have on the dressing room. Ghana will be hoping to take advantage of any discord that may be lingering within the Portuguese ranks, with Crystal Palace striker Jordan Ayew looking to add to his international tally of 19 goals. An upset could be in the making.
Group G: Brazil v Serbia (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail)
If you talk World Cup’s you talk Brazil, although the five times winners last triumph was twenty years ago. With panto-villain Neymar up front, the born-again Gabriel Jesus and the enigmatic Richarlison, there are undoubtedly goals in the side. They are on a decent inbeaten run coming into these finals and with two great ‘keepers in Alisson (Liverpool) and Ederson (Manchester City) the perceived concern about the weakness of Brazil’s last line of defence is no longer there. They will be a threat. Serbia have their own threat though in Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic who now has 50 goals for his country from seventy six internationals, although there are concerns about a recent injury. Whilst ‘Mitro’ is the only English based player, eleven of the Serbian squad play their trade in Italy. No doubt The Eagles of Serbia will battle hard but expect the class of the boys from Brazil to come through.