So that’s that. The final round of group games were completed yesterday and the final sixteen teams are now all known.
The action began in Group H, and with Poland already out, it was left to Colombia, Japan and Senegal for fight for the top-two spots. It was to prove a controversial afternoon as with Colombia ahead 1-0 against Sengal through Mina (74′) and Japan losing 1-0 to Poland through a Bednarek (59′) goal, the Japanese knew that if the scores remained the same that was enough to send them through. With Senegal and Japan having the same points and goals scored it came down to the number of bookings. It produced a final ten minutes of the game that caused such outcry in 1982 between Austria and West Germany when they effectively played-out time without any intend of going forward, that FIFA made final round games kick-off at the same time. The reaction some 36 years later is no less vociferous, but let’s consider a couple of things. Firstly, Japan did nothing wrong, what they did was within the laws of the competition and whilst some might argue it’s not in the spirit of the game, they were perfectly within their rights to finish the game as they did. Secondly, it was a risky strategy from Japan, as Senegal only needed to equalise and the Blue Samurai would have been eliminated. Something for FIFA to ponder once this World Cup finishes.
That just left Group G to be completed with England and Belgium competing for top-spot and Tunisia and Panama vying to avoid finishing bottom. Tunisia won the game 2-1 thanks to a second-half strike from Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri, condemning Panama to the bottom slot in the group. In the battle at the top, both sides rested players with England making eight changes and Belgium nine, so it was no surprise that it felt a somewhat disjointed game, that was ultimately won by a superb Adnan Januzaj strike six minutes into the second-half. Much of the debate wasn’t around the game itself, but which looked a better route to progression, which to me is all pretty academic if you don’t win your last sixteen game.
It left the final pairings as follows:
July 02 Belgium v Japan July 03 Colombia v England.
Today there are no games with the knockout phase beginning on Saturday with two Europe v South America clashes as France play Argentina in Kazan and later in the day, Uruguay play Portugal in Sochi. Both very difficult to call. Like the teams I’m resting for today and will pick up with previews tomorrow.
Yesterday I asked the footballing gods for a calm afternoon watching England and boy did they deliver. Yes, of course Panama were a limited side and their antics in the first-half were nothing short of embarrassing at times. However, you can only beat what is in front of you and there have been too many occasions down the years when the Three Lions have struggled to overcome stubborn opposition. England blazed their way to a 5-0 half-time lead thanks to a John Stones brace (8′ and 40’), a pair of Harry Kane penalties (22′ and 45’+1) and a sublime strike from Jesse Lingard (36′), with their set-pieces causing havoc for the Panama defence on every occasion. Understandably the second-half was a quieter affair, with Panama thankfully leaving their rough-house tactics in the changing room. Still there was enough time for captain Kane to claim a hat-trick and a consolation for Panama from a smart Defoy finish. Qualification sorted and the Belgium game becomes merely a top-spot battle.
Elsewhere in Group H, Poland were surprisingly dispatched 3-0 by Colombia, meaning the European team were out. With Japan and Senegal playing out a 2-2 draw, it means that the two teams going through won’t be sorted until the final round of games. One talking point for me though and highlighted in the Japan game, was the continuing modern trend for goalkeepers to punch the ball rather than catch it, for both crosses and increasingly shots. Take Senegal’s opening goal – Kawashima the Japanese ‘keeper, attempted to punch away a shot that was perfectly catchable and in doing so knocked it against Sadio Mane and it rebounded in for a goal – totally avoidable. Is it that modern day balls move so much that ‘keepers can’t trust the flight so feel punching it away is the best option, or is it a modern coaching fad that will pass? It will be interesting to monitor the men better between the sticks in the rest of the tournament.
Okay, okay…I should be reflecting on how Germany got themselves out of a hole by beating Sweden with ten-men with a last gasp fabulous free-kick, in only a way that Die Mannschaft seem to be able to do. And yes I probably should be talking about how Belgium looked frighteningly good in their demolition of Tunisia 5-2 or how Mexico took a giant stride towards progression to the last 16 with a 2-1 victory over South Korea.
However, the truth is that I simply can’t…I’m just too nervous. It’s that horrible gut wrenching feeling that comes with watching England when it comes around to tournament time. It’s strange but having watched Fulham secure a return to the Premier League at Wembley against Aston Villa, there was a strange calm about the game, despite having only a slender 1-0 advantage and having to play out the final twenty minutes with ten-men. It is just never the same with England.
The curious think is that it seems to have got worse as I’ve got older. Watching the 1982 tournament in Spain was enjoyable yet ultimately disappointing, but by 1986 and Mexico the dread had kicked in and so all subsequent competitions whether the European Championship or the World Cup have become increasingly tortuous. It possibly has a great deal to do with the way the Three Lions get themselves knocked out whether it be a contentious decision, penalties or just being plain awful.
Oh that today the team strolls to a 3-0 half-time lead over Panama and comfortably sees out the second-half. However, the reality is that it just transfers the feeling to the next game and the inevitability of an exit in the way only England can manage to do.
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.