World champions Germany’s elimination dominated the narrative in the final round of fixtures in the 2018 World Cup group phase – although there are intriguing tales yet to develop ahead of the last 16.
Russia’s 3-0 Group A dismantling at the hands of Uruguay dampened their spirits somewhat and they will meet Spain in hope, rather than expectation. The 2010 winners have yet to fully convince themselves though and were fortunate to scrape a 2-2 draw with Morocco in their final group encounter, Iago Aspas’ flicked equaliser in stoppage-time initially being given offside before VAR’s intervention.
Portugal progressed along with Spain from Group B after drawing with Iran in a game full of VAR controversy. Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty for Portugal and was shown a yellow card after a lengthy VAR review for a possible red card, all this after veteran Ricardo Quaresma had curled home a fabulous outside-of-the-foot strike on the stroke of half-time. Iran levelled with a late penalty and almost snatched a last-gasp winner which would have seen the European champions knocked out. As it is they will meet Uruguay in what is expected to be a war of attrition between two well-organised sides.
The first goalless draw of the tournament came in Group C when France and Denmark played out a convenient result which saw both progress, at the expense of Australia and Peru, who recorded a 2-0 victory over the Socceroos.
Group D’s winners were Croatia, who will fancy their chances of seeing off Denmark. The dark horses made nine changes but were still too strong for Iceland, who could have progressed but were beaten 2-1. Unconvincing Argentina edged Nigeria by the same scoreline although with Lionel Messi, anything is possible against France. Alas, the South Americans look more likely to concede than Didier Deschamps’ side…
Serbia knew victory over Brazil would have seen them through and the Samba Boys knocked out. There was little danger of that though once Paulinho had opened the scoring in the first half. Thiago Silva’s second-half header completed a 2-0 win and despite rarely dazzling they look the most balanced of all the contenders. In the other Group E fixture Switzerland and Costa Rica shared four goals in a 2-2 draw, the Swiss going through despite conceding in stoppage-time when Bryan Ruiz’s penalty hit the bar and then bounced in off goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s head for an own goal.
Germany’s early exit, at the hands of South Korea meant Mexico and Sweden qualified from Group F but it was the Swedes who topped the group by beating Mexico 3-0, meaning they’ll take on Switzerland while Brazil face Mexico who appear to have lost the momentum gained by their victory over Germany.
Group G’s only concern was who would finish top, and it was Belgium’s ‘B’ side who overcame England’s 1-0 with Tunisia defeating Panama 2-1 in the other game. The English press remained positive post-match, recognising that by finishing second the Three Lions would avoid Brazil should both sides progress to the quarter-finals. Colombia, who topped Group H after overcoming Senegal 1-0, might have a say in that though although an injury to James Rodriguez might hinder their chances. Belgium, who are likely to restore the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard will fancy their chances against Japan, who qualified despite a 1-0 defeat to Poland, played out in farcical circumstances when spells of keep-ball ensured the scoreline remained, with the Japanese eventually going through by recording less bookings than Senegal.
So on we go when the tournament ‘really’ gets going. One prediction from us? Expect penalties…