Moments That Could Have Changed Football Forever is a detailed study of the ‘what-if’ moments that have shaped football and what the alternative could have been.

The bounce of a ball, an ill-timed injury or a contentious decision are just some of the moments that could have changed football forever. Every fan of every club or country has a ‘what if’ moment that they know could have brought their team glory had things turned out differently. Some of these moments have proved unforgettable, some have become iconic and others have changed the very nature of the game itself.

The knock-on effect of a shot at goal scored or missed can have resounding consequences that are only realised later. This book explores those effects impartially and objectively, through research, context and coaching insight.

Each moment has been chosen to guarantee discussion and debate among fans, who will of course have their own opinions about what would have happened. There are even fantasy match-ups between the great teams of different eras.

(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. June 2023. Hardcover: 320 pages)


Buy the book here: What if?

2022 World Cup – Tuesday 29 November 2022

Group G: Cameroon 3 (1) – (2) 3 Serbia (Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah)

Cameroon scorers: Castelletto (29′), Aboubakar (63′), Choupo-Moting (66′). Serbia scorers: Pavlovic (45’+1’), S Milinkovic-Savic (45’+3’), Mitrovic (53′)


Group H: South Korea 2 (0) – (2) 3 Ghana (Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan)

South Korea scorers: Cho (58′, 61′). Ghana scorers: Salisu (24′), Kudus (34′, 68′)


Group G: Brazil 1 (0) – (0) 0 Switzerland (Stadium 974, Doha)

Brazil scorer: Casemiro (83′)


Group H: Portugal 2 (0) – (0) 0 Uruguay (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail)

Portugal scorer: Bruno Fernandes (54′, 90’+3’ pen)


And so the second round of group games comes to a finale with a bit of a goals flourish as the tables take shape leaving everyone knowing what needs to be done to progress whilst for others its simply means packing their bags.

The opening game of the day saw Serbia take on Cameroon in a game which a draw was not really of much use to either side, given they both lost their first group game. Serbia started brightly and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic was unlucky not to give them the lead when his curling effort struck the post. However, it was the African side who went ahead when a corner eventually found its way to the back post where Castelletto tapped in. It looked like an advantage they would take into the break but two goals in added time from Pavlovic and Milinkovic-Savic meant it was the Serbs who went in 2-1 up.

When Serbia then scored eight minutes into the second half with a simple Mitrovic finish after a slick breakaway move the game looked up for Cameroon. However, just as in the first half there was a quick burst of scoring as goals on 63’ and 66’ brought Cameroon level at 3-3. The first from Aboubakar looked it was offside and the way he cheekily lobbed the ball in and barely celebrated, indicated he felt the same. VAR check ensued and showed it wasn’t – cue Aboubakar’s celebration. Then another breakaway saw Choupo-Moting sweep home and suddenly the African side were in the ascendency. The see-saw match was nearly won late on, as Mitrovic was teed up inside the box, only to see his effort curl wide.

Ghana and South Korea then treated us to another ding-dong encounter. Ghana scored twice in the first half, when South Korea’s ability to defend balls into the box proved their undoing. From a free-kick Salisu eventually slotted home after the ball bounced around in the box and for the second, a deep ball in allowed Kudus to ghost in between the defenders and glance home – kudos indeed (sorry couldn’t resist it!) Whatever was said in the South Korean dressing room did the trick as two towering headers from Cho on 58’ and 61’ had well, turned the game on its head. However, their joy was short-lived as within seven minutes Ghana were in front again. Credit to South Korea as they took the game to Ghana and created a number of chances. At the whistle though Ghana took the points and while they celebrated, South Korea manager Paulo Bento was sent off for arguing with English referee Anthony Taylor for not allowing a corner to be taken even though time was up.

After that the Brazil Switzerland game felt like a bit of anti-climax, with Casemiro’s sweet strike seven minutes from time pretty much the only highlight.

Last up was Portugal and Uruguay in a pretty ordinary game, with two goals from Bruno Fernandes (one a penalty in time added up) taking them through to the last sixteen. The biggest talking point was whether Ronaldo had got his head to the cross-shot that opened the scoring for Portugal. Well, weren’t we all relieved when Adidas who provide the Official World Cup balls (the Al Rihla – the journey) announced that the internal ball sensor had not detected any contact from Ronaldo – I’d have lost sleep over it!

2022 World Cup – Friday 25 November 2022

Group G: Switzerland 1 (0) – (0) 0 Cameroon (Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah)

Switzerland scorer: Embolo (48′)


Group H: Uruguay 0 (0) – (0) 0 South Korea (Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan)


Group H: Portugal 3 (0) – (0) 2 Ghana (Stadium 974, Doha)

Portugal scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (65′ pen), Félix Sequeira (78′), da Conceicao Leao (80′). Ghana scorer: A Ayew (73′), Bukari (89’minutes)


Group G: Brazil 2 (0) – (0) 0 Serbia (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail)

Brazil scorer: Richarlison (62′, 73′)


Thursday was a drab old day in West Yorkshire, rain, grey sky and a biting wind reminding all that winter has assuredly arrived. And it pretty much felt as if some of that dourness had seeped into the  first two games of the day as the first round of group games played to a conclusion.

Whilst Cameroon had an energy about them in a first half in which they were the better side, genuine chances were at a premium and there was an inevitability about it being goal-less at the break. The deadlock was broken early in the second half as a swift Swiss move saw Cameroon born Breel Embolo sweep his adopted country into the lead. After that, well, Switzerland were more positive, but it fizzled out as quickly as the crowds are want to do at these finals in Qatar. The chant of ‘we can see you sneaking out’ should be changed for Qatar to ‘switch the lights off last one out’ (I know it doesn’t properly scan at all, but you get the picture).

Uruguay v South Korea offered little more. The South American’s hit the woodwork in each half but apart from that it felt as if both sides were satisfied with a point.

Then like the sun breaking through the clouds it all changed as Portugal and Ghana offered up a bit of a belter. Ronaldo seemingly unburdened by his Old Trafford kiss and tell revelations was at the heart of all of Portugal’s best moments, with two decent chances spurned and an effort disallowed for a foul. No goals at the break, but a game nicely simmering under, which exploded into action in the last twenty five minutes. First up Portugal were rather generously awarded a penalty after a foul on the Portugal skipper, who then stepped up to convert and become the first man to score in five World Cup finals – love him or hate him, you can’t keep him out of the headlines. However, the lead was short-lived with poor Portuguese defending allowing Ayew to fire home inside the six-yard box on seventy-three minutes. Ghana though were then hit by two goals and with ten minutes remaining it looked game over as they trailed 3-1. But with just a minute left on the clock back came the Black Stars with a header from Bakari to set up a frantic finish. And it nearly came in the ninth minute of time added on. Costa the Portugal ‘keeper put the ball down to kick it up field, whilst  panto-style (he’s behind you) Inaki Williams waited. Williams dashed forward to get the ball but slipped at the crucial minute and the chance for a dramatic leveller was gone. Breathless stuff!

To round off the day, Brazil took on Serbia. I’m not a great fan of the South American team, but they were good enough to see off a dogged Serbian team, with a double from Richarlison, the second of which, a scissor-kick volley, is an early contender for goal of the tournament.


In a flash we are already at the start of the second round of Group Stage games and depending on results some teams will already be waving mae alsalama to the finals. Here’s todays line-ups.

Group B: Wales v Iran (Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)

After their fine second half performance against the USA, and Iran’s heavy defeat, the Welsh will be in prime position to take three points this morning. I’ll be hoping the Red Dragons do the business, so that the final group game for both the Three Lions and Wales leaves both already through to the knockout stages.


Group A: Qatar v Senegal (Al Thumama Stadium, Doha)

I’m not a vindictive person but simply hoping that Qatar get another good hiding – plain and simple. Nothing else to say.


Group A: Netherlands v Ecuador (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan)

The Dutch already have three points in the bag after a win over Senegal and I expect nothing more than a similar outcome today.


Group B: England v USA (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor)

I’ll trot out the old fact that England have played USA twice in the World Cup and have yet to beat them. 1950 was the infamous 1-0 loss at the Brazil World Cup for an England side that contained the stars of the day such as Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen and future England manager, Alf Ramsey. Then in 2010 when South Africa hosted the tournament, despite an early Steven Gerrard goal, the USA levelled five minutes before the break when Rob Green had a moment to forget allowing Clint Dempsey’s speculative shot to squirm its way into the goal. I don’t expect another 6-2 result but believe a solid 2-0 for Three Lions is not out of their reach.

GLORY AND DESPAIR: THE WORLD CUP 1930-2018 by Matthew Bazell

Glory and Despair is a pictorial celebration of the World Cup that takes us on a spellbinding journey, from the inaugural tournament in 1930 to the present day.

Using stunning library stock images, the book brings to life the feats of the greatest stars ever to grace the game, including Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore and both Ronaldo’s. This beautiful visual homage covers the great matches, the incredible goals, the controversies, heroes and villains, capturing the most iconic moments in the greatest tournament of any sport.

Glory and Despair is an essential piece of World Cup nostalgia that honours the history of the greatest football show on earth.

(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. September 2022. Hardcover: 224 pages)

Euro ramblings – Third Round Review by Jade Craddock

Twelve games across four frenetic days, 39 goals, three more own goals, more Ronaldo records, eight teams knocked out, sixteen through to the knockout stage – that was the third group stage in summary. And before we move on to the tournament proper, there’s a chance to momentarily catch our collective breaths and look back on the footballing week that was.

Team performances: With games played simultaneously for matters of fairness in the final group stage, it doesn’t make for the best viewing for fans, or at least for those with neither the time or inclination to record games and watch each one, i.e. me. So some big decisions needed to be made – Finland v Belgium or Russia v Denmark, Sweden v Poland or Slovakia v Spain, and at what point to switch over from the England game. Needless to say, there was action that was missed, but, by and large, each of the final group games did its best to satisfy viewers – not least the final day’s offerings, with a record haul of 18 goals scored in a single day across the four matches – if only every matchday was like that? When it comes to best team performances, it’s hard to look past Spain’s 5-0 trouncing of Slovakia, whilst Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands all maintained their unblemished record – Italy’s made all the more impressive by the fact they had eight changes to their usual starting XI and even managed to sub their goalie in the dying minutes and didn’t look for one second diminished. Thank goodness Italy B team didn’t enter as a separate entity. However, my standout team performances of the final round have to go to a couple of sides who came out of the group wilderness to qualify at the last second, notably Switzerland, but, even more impressively, Denmark, who on the back of two weeks of heartache and a tally of zero points pulled through in emphatic, determined fashion in their 4-1 demolition of Russia – let’s be honest, we’re all Danish fans to some degree at the moment.

Individual performances: In terms of individual performances, Xherdan Shaqiri, Luka Modric and Emil Forsberg all made the headlines for impressive outings that largely sealed the fates of their respective teams, but Marco Verratti’s return from a knee injury in Italy’s 1-0 victory over Wales was a masterclass in midfield magnificence. However, whilst Verratti may be the head’s choice, the heart’s choice can only be Bukayo Saka. Starting for the first time in a major tournament, Saka looked completely at home, or rather he looked like he was showing everyone else round his home – right, guys, let me give you a tour, here’s the back door, through you go, Jack, that’s it Raheem, after you – 1-0. Grealish too made an impressive first start in the tournament, but there was no getting away from the overall effect of Saka’s energy, positivity and forward thrust, which gave England added impetus and was just what Southgate ordered. Although Saka’s now given Southgate a new headache in his forward line, as if having to choose between the likes of Sterling and Rashford, Mount and Grealish isn’t enough, Saka made himself the kid you can’t ignore. Mind you, it’s not a bad headache to have – certainly better than the one Danilo must have woken up with after Hugo Lloris’ best Anthony Joshua impersonation.

Goals: And, as for goals, well, take your pick from the 39 recorded across the final group games. There was Andreas Christensen’s thunder-blaster against Russia, Luka Modric’s strike of beauty against Scotland, Ferran Torres’ cheeky flick against Slovakia and Xherdan Shaqiri’s curled finished against Turkey. Sadly, Martin Dubravka and Juraj Kucka both made the showreel, but for the wrong reasons – both scoring own goals in Slovakia’s 5-0 defeat to Spain – only the second time that has ever happened in Euros history, the first being in Portugal’s 4-2 loss to Germany – like they, say, you wait ages for a bus and two come along at once, though I suspect Dubravka, Kucka, Dias and Guerreiro could have done without these particular buses. It certainly keeps Own Goals’ tenure at the top of the Golden Boot chart alive and kicking, and whilst Emil Forsberg, Romelu Lukaku and Gini Wijnaldum make up the chasing pack, one man currently leads the way. No prizes for guessing who – Ronaldo, of course. And, on the topic of Ronaldo, it wouldn’t be a week at the Euros without another Ronaldo record. In fact, it’s like a game within a game, as he picks off decades-old records as if they’re fluff. This week’s record included that of becoming top scorer at the Euros and World Cup combined, with his twentieth (and subsequently twenty-first) goals surpassing the nineteen of Miroslav Klose. His second penalty against France also saw his international goals tally reach the hallowed 109 of Ali Daei, needing just one more to become the best international goalscorer of all time. Portugal face a tough test against Belgium next and potentially Italy in the quarterfinals and France in the semi-finals if they are to go all the way and retain their European crowns, but if they’re going to do it, you wouldn’t count against Ronaldo being the man to deliver the goals.

Moment: All players, I imagine, dream of their final international game ending with them sealing a win and lifting a trophy. Sadly, players all too often bow out with a whimper, if they get beyond the subs bench, that is. So, it was poignant to see one man get a deserved farewell, albeit without the goals and the trophy, when North Macedonian captain, talisman and general lynchpin, Goran Pandev brought time on his twenty-year international career against the Netherlands, earning a guard of honour as he was subbed off in the 69th minute. Pandev is the nation’s top scorer and appearance maker. He became the first man to captain his side in a major international tournament at this Euros and the first man to score a goal at a tournament. Aged 37, this was both Pandev’s first and last tournament and whilst three defeats from three may not be the dream ending, leading his nation out in the biggest tournament in Europe isn’t  a bad way to sign off. And who doesn’t love a guard of honour. I may have had something in my eye as I watched on, but it definitely wasn’t a tear.

England: And so to England, and it has to be said on the back of the Scotland game, the mood of the nation had taken a decided turn for the worst, with fans even beginning to worry whether the Three Lions would get out of the group. However, such is the fickle fate of football that even before a ball was kicked in England’s final decisive game against the Czech Republic, they had qualified, thanks to other results. Yet, it was still decisive in determining England’s next opponents and talk prior to the game turned to the question of whether England should go for the win and top the group or play out for a draw and a second-placed finish, on the basis of a possibly easier route to the final. As if football was that easy to determine. With a win clearly all that was in Southgate and his team’s plans, England secured a 1-0 victory, a top-of-the-table finish and a Round of 16 game at Wembley. What was yet to be decided, however, were their opponents. As it stood, going into Group F’s final fixtures, Germany would be England’s nemesis once more, but there were a whole 90 minutes to play in both a Portugal and France and Germany and Hungary game that could reset the whole complexion of the group. In fact, the complexion didn’t change at all, despite at various points in the 90 minutes, England set to face Portugal, France, Portugal again, Hungary, Portugal once more, Germany, Portugal for a fourth time, until eventually an equalising goal from Goretzka brought everything back to where it had been 90 minutes previously. But it was a rollercoaster for those 90 minutes, as England hopes rallied as Hungary secured second-place, dive-bombed on France and, in true English fashion, ended up in the inevitable outcome of facing Germany. It could be worse, but it could be better, and whilst it’s appealing to say Germany aren’t at their best, that in itself is worrying, as they continue to get the job done regardless. And what if we had finished second you ask, well, there would have been the small matter of a game against Spain in Copenhagen, a possible quarterfinal against France in St Petersburg, before a meeting with Belgium, Portugal, Italy or Austria in the semi-final. Definitely a walk in the park then.

Euro Ramblings – Euros Greatest of All Time by Jade Craddock

Messi or Ronaldo? Ronaldo or Messi? Forget nature v nurture, leave v remain, Corrie v EastEnders, the most hotly contested question of our day and age comes down to the choice between a footballer from Argentina and one from Portugal (who said that society hasn’t progressed?). And it is a question that can divide opinion even among the most united in all other opinions. Messi devotees will point to his superior assists, his dribbling, his team play and his greater individual awards, whilst Ronaldo supporters will cite his club goals, his success in multiple leagues, his incredible athleticism and a superior international record. And whilst debates over who is better are likely to continue for as long as these two keep going – or one of them retires – Ronaldo has ensured his status as ‘greatest of all time’ in Euros history, with a host of records tumbling in his first outing in Euro 2020. Sorry, Messi, this is one arena in which you can’t compete with Ronaldo, in fact no one can.

Most appearances – As Ronaldo led his Portugal side out on Tuesday evening against Hungary, it was his 22nd appearance in the tournament proper. He already held the record, ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger (18) and Gianluigi Buffon (17), but with a possible further 6 games ahead, Ronaldo could extend his advantage and reach some 28 appearances by the tournament’s end. Whether or not, Portugal qualify from the group, should Ronaldo feature in the two remaining group-stage games, he will also surpass Gianluigi Buffon’s record of 58 appearances, which includes qualifying, with Ronaldo currently sitting on 57.

Most tournaments played – Euro 2020 marks Ronaldo’s fifth – yes, fifth – finals campaign. Whilst a host of players, from Lothar Matthaus to Peter Schmeichel to Olof Mellberg, have racked up an impressive four campaigns, Ronaldo is the only man in history to achieve a breathtaking five campaigns, spanning some sixteen years, with his first appearance in Portugal 2004 aged 19. Now 36, Ronaldo will have to wait another three years until the next Euros in Germany 2024, which may be a bit of a stretch for a then 39-year-old Ronaldo, but I wouldn’t entirely count against it – after all, he hasn’t yet got the oldest player records.

First player to score at five consecutive Euros – When Ronaldo stepped up to slot home a penalty in the 87th minute in the match against Hungary, he became the first player to score at five consecutive Euros. No other player has scored at more than three consecutive Euros, with Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry amongst those holding that honour, whilst a host of players, including Dennis Bergkamp and Roman Pavlyuchenko, have scored at two. Having first scored against Greece in Euro 2004, Ronaldo also charted the longest gap between first and last Euros goals of some 17 years, which he may extend if he adds any more to his name this tournament.

All-time top scorer at the Euros – I must admit to some surprise that the goalscoring record for the Euros previously stood at 9, held by Michel Platini. Ronaldo obviously shared my surprise and sought to boost that number to a healthier total by bagging a brace, and in doing so catapulting himself to the top of another chart and putting some daylight between himself and his competitors. Now on 11 goals, you wouldn’t bet against that number rising, though Portugal perhaps don’t have the easiest of matches coming up to get out of the group. And despite scoring 11 goals, Ronaldo has only netted against five different opponents (Greece, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Hungary and Wales), so he’ll have to break that if he’s to improve his tally against France and Germany. Incidentally, in terms of most goals including qualifying, no guesses for who claims that record – Ronaldo holds some 27-goal advantage over his nearest rival, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so I suspect this one may stand the test of time, as perhaps will his record as Portugal’s top goalscorer, where he sits almost 60 goals ahead of Pauleta (and some 40 caps ahead of Joao Moutinho).

Most tournaments with at least one goal/most tournaments with at least two goals – Whilst Ronaldo’s first goal secured him the record of being the player to score at least one goal in the most tournaments (5), his second goal added the complimentary record of scoring two goals at the most tournaments (4). Ronaldo also holds the record for scoring at least three goals at most tournaments (2), and another goal at Euro 2020 would cement that record still further.

Most minutes played – Going into the tournament, Ronaldo sat top of minutes played, ahead of Gianluigi Buffon, who notched 1620 minutes in Euros final campaigns. Another 90 minutes for the Portuguese talisman saw his figures jump to some 1880 plus minutes, which equates to over 31 hours’ playing time! Ronaldo could rack up a possible further 540 minutes should Portugal go all the way, which would take his tally over 2400 minutes – or 40 hours! I feel like taking a rest just contemplating that figure.

Most victories by a player at the Euros – With 83 minutes on the clock, Andreas Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas may have been thinking their record for most victories in the Euros was intact, but whilst Raphael Guerreiro rocked the boat as he put Portugal ahead, Ronaldo’s brace well and truly sank it. All three players had notched up some 11 victories in their Euros careers, but Ronaldo once more took the record outright after the 3-0 triumph over Hungary. Again, matches against France and Germany may not make this an easy record to progress for Ronaldo, but he won’t be resting on his laurels.

With at least two games in which Ronaldo will most likely feature, it’s possible for the records to keep on tumbling, and one that’s been in everyone’s sights (including surely Ronaldo’s) in recent years has been Ali Daei’s international goalscoring record of 109 goals. Now sitting on 106, Ronaldo could feasibly add this to his record haul, but, again, given the games that lie ahead, it won’t be easy – but then scoring 106 goals isn’t easy in itself and if there is one man/machine that can do it, it’s surely Europe’s G.O.A.T. Ronaldo also currently sits two behind Karel Poborsky on most assists in the Euros with 6 and one behind Zidane et al for most penalties scored – a hugely feasible 2, whilst Ronaldo would need to feature in every game through to the semi-finals to surpass Sergio Ramos as the most capped European international. Whilst there’s not much you’d put past this superhuman, Jude Bellingham and Johan Vonlanthen can breathe a sigh of relief that their youngest player records are secure and Michel Platini’s record of 9 goals in a single tournament will need a gargantuan effort even from Ronaldo. But if Ronaldo wants to add another record to his haul, how about fastest goal? I’ll be setting my stopwatch for 66 seconds when Portugal take on Germany on Saturday and I wouldn’t bet against him. Who knows, maybe even Messi will be watching on to see what other records his rival sets.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 6

Group E: Hungary (0) 0 – 3 (0) Portugal

Goal-scorers: Guerreiro (84′), Ronaldo (87’ pen, 90+2’)

Puskas Arena, Budapest

Well as the clock wound and six minutes on the clock I was thinking that my pre-match prediction of a draw was looking pretty good. Portugal had been the better side and throw in a Ronaldo sitter of a miss before the break and you thought Hungary had earned a bit of luck to grab a point. And then it all changed. Eighty-fourth minute. A deflected ball into the box and Guerreiro’s less that convincing shot also took a deflection to wrongfoot ‘keeper Gulacasi and the ball bobbled in. 1-0 Portugal. Three minutes later Rafa Silva bursts into the box  he is fouled by Willi Orban – penalty Portugal, Ronaldo steps up, thank you very much. 2-0 Portugal. Then for good measure in time added on, some magic from the Portuguese skipper, a lovely set of wall-passes, and Ronaldo dummies Gulacasi and slots home. From nowhere the reigning champions win 3-0. Love him or hate him, Ronaldo is one of the world’s best players of all time and the goals in this game made him the European Championship Finals leading scorer. His penalty took him to 10 goals equal with Platini and his 11th puts him clear. Who would bet against Ronaldo scoring even more before the competition ends?


Group E: France (0) 1 – 0 (0) Germany

Goal-scorer: Hummels (20’og)

Allianz Arena, Munich

Not sure why but found the game all a bit comedic. Whether it be the Greenpeace protestor who dropped into the stadium or Antonio Rudiger’s nuzzle into the back of Paul Pogba and subsequent grab of the Frenchman’s moobs, to the own-goal from Hummels who wonderfully shinned it into the top corner. There were also two goals to France which were chalked off by VAR in the second-half and then seemingly every effort on goal by Germany kicked into the ground in some form of weird skill competition. Germany weren’t though laughing at the whistle and have Portugal and Ronaldo next up. This is one interesting group.


So we hit the start of the Second round of group fixtures. Back to three games today.

The opener in the Krestovsky Stadium sees Russia with home advantage over Finland and hoping to get their first points on the board after their 3-0 loss to Belgium. The Finns won in Denmark 1-0, and it will be interesting to see how they approach this game. Do they look to take a point or go all out for a win, knowing that group favourites Belgium await them in their final fixture. Historically these neighbours have a troubled past, with Russia invading Finland during the Second World War so there could be a bit of spice in the encounter. In football terms, Russia hold the upper hand winning all four games between the countries. I thought Finland would be the weak link in this group but could instead turn out to be one of the surprise packages. I’ll stick my neck out and sat Finland to nick another 1-0 win.

Game two of the day sees Wales play Turkey in Baku, with the media suggesting this will be like a ‘home’ game for the Turks with a large following attending. Wales have that point from the encounter with the Swiss, whilst Turkey lost 3-0 in the opening game of the competition 3-0. I felt the Welsh looked tired for large parts of the match with Switzerland and worry that if they got behind today they could struggle. However, the Red Dragons are not a side to roll-over, and I think this one could end as a draw. Don’t expect a 6-4 game that occurred when these teams last met in a World Cup Qualifier!

Wednesday closes in Rome with Switzerland travelling to take on Italy who were quietly impressive in their win over Turkey. On that basis and the evidence of the Swiss in their draw with Wales, I can’t see anything other than an Italy win.

World Cup diary 2018 – Sunday 01 July

France (4) – (3) Argentina

Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow…just didn’t see such a dramatic game coming. There was me saying yesterday it would be a cagey affair! France got on top early on with Griezmann hitting the bar from a free-kick and it wasn’t long before they struck first. The teenager Mbappe, who was to outshine Messi on the day, broke from midfield before being hauled down and Griezmann did the rest from the spot to give the French the lead on thirteen minutes. It looked like an advantage Les Bleus would take into the break, only for Di Maria to level with a stunning strike just four minutes before the break. Then within three minutes of the restart, Argentina were ahead with Mercado deflecting in Messi’s attempt on goal. The game though was turned on it head in a ten-minute spell just before the hour mark, as Pavard levelled for France and Mbappe struck twice to leave Argentina stunned and 4-2 behind. It was a mountain too big for the South Americans to climb, despite an Aguero header in stoppage time. France into the Quarter-Finals and maybe the last sight of Messi in a World Cup tournament.

Uruguay (2) – (1) Portugal

Another game where my predictive skills went awry, after I tipped Portugal to win this encounter. As with the game earlier in the day, the big name on display, in this case Ronaldo, had to exit the stadium at the hands of another player claiming a brace. As in the France/Argentina fixture, there was an early goal, with Cavani powering in a header after only seven minutes. Suarez was unlucky with one of his low driven free-kicks and Ronaldo had one attempt of his own which the wall-blocked, but was more noticeable for the way he ludicrously hitched up his shorts before taking. Portugal did level though ten minutes into the break when an unmarked Pepe headed home. Suarez though was at his bullish best for Uruguay and in a competition which has produced some wonderful goals, another came along on sixty-two minutes, when the Barcelona striker played in Cavani for his second as he majestically curled home the winner. Like Messi, was this the final exit from a World Cup for Ronaldo?

And so to today’s offerings:

Russia v Spain

These two have never met in a World Cup Finals action, but have played against each other as recently as November last year in Saint Petersburg, when the game finished 3-3. Of their six encounters, Spain have won four, with the other two fixtures drawn.

Logic says that Spain will prove too strong, but as hosts Russia have home advantage and this may work in their favour if they go ahead and get the vociferous support behind them.  The big question is how the team react after the 3-0 beating in their final group game against Uruguay.

Croatia v Denmark

Whilst not having played each other in the Finals, these sides met in the Qualification Group stages for the 1998 World Cup. The first fixture in Croatia ended 1-1. In the return fixture in Copenhagen, the Danes romped to a 3-1 win. Denmark topped the group on 17 points, automatically qualifying, whilst Croatia were runners-up on 15 points and had to go into the Play-offs, seeing off Ukraine over two-legs to qualify for France ’98.

Denmark have only scored two goals and conceded just one in their Russia 2018 campaign and are a hard-nut to crack, whilst Croatia scored seven and conceded just a single goal. On stats alone you have to fancy Croatia.

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

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.