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 – 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!