Play Time is over. This is where the bat meets the ball…
Netherlands 3-1 USA: Your first playoff game is not the best time to start somebody, especially a striker, that has not played all tournament. That’s what US coach Gregg Berhalter did when he brought in his third striker, Jesus Ferreira, to start up top. This basically screamed to everybody, especially their Dutch opponents, that the US still hadn’t found reliable finishing. The Netherlands played with numbers behind the ball, then got out quickly in transition by moving the ball around, moving players into angles and space through diagonal runs, and not playing a straight east-west attack.
In the first nine minutes the US took the game to the Dutch, moving the ball specifically to the left to get their best player, Christian Pulisic, to get the ball into the box. This kept the Dutch from building up an organized attack going forward. But it took only one coordinated buildup, their first one, for the Netherlands to temper the US enthusiasm. In the 10th minute, the Netherlands used good movement to spread the field in attack when right flanker Denzel Dumfries sent a pinpoint cross into the center for front man Memphis Depay, left alone and trailing in late, one-timed it from the center of the box past keeper Matt Turner to the bottom left corner.
A score this early meant the game changed for both sides. A more organized Dutch team out of possession practically dared the US to get in a track meet with them, practically telling them, “You wanna run with us? Bring it!” More possession for the US, but the Dutch didn’t give them the space to get forward. Even though the Dutch weren’t pressing high, when the US did have the space to get into the opposition half, their passing lanes were cut off and they were quickly dispossessed. In the first minute of stoppage time, the Dutch goal was practically a carbon copy of the first: Dumfries with a pinpoint cross just behind the US backline, this time with left wingback Daley Blind trailing in to one-time it out of the reach of Turner.
Dumfries was the player of the game, constantly beating the US defense on the right to provide accurate service into the box. The last half of the game Pulisic was making most of the shots on goal from long range, indicating he had no faith in his “finishers”. The US was quickly getting into the final third from the left side, but they were met with a wall of Dutch defenders that had just as quickly gotten back into the box. Sending players in waves late – and leaving the back woefully open — Haji Wright found himself with a touch just in front of the right corner of the goal that cheekily found its way into the goal in the 76th minute (I really don’t think he meant to do that, that’s just how the ball incidentally bounced).
The Dutch quickly put the kibosh on what had temporarily been US hope. Overcommitting on the right, the US backline left Dumfries totally alone on the left when he snuck into the box and finished a long cross from Daley Blind only five minutes later. The Dutch are hitting on all cylinders now, especially with a backline that is tough to break and clinical attacking and finishing. The USA won the possession battle almost 3-2 and even took more shots 17(8) – 11(6), but they are gone from this tournament because of what has plagued them throughout, their inability to find a consistent finisher up front. – DK
Argentina 2-1 Australia: Too many questions coming into this one for Australia as they are dealing with significant injury issues to some of their starters, so it remains to be seen if they can counter in transition (they will also play for set pieces). Argentina do what they do: exert positional dominance, bring the wingers in and use both ball skills and deft passing to build a rhythm and get the ball up front. It’s a mistake for the Socceroos to stay compact and give up possession to the Albiceleste; their ball skills and attack are way too structured and coordinated to let them have the ball too long.
As is expected, Lionel Messi sits in the space between the midfield and back, runs into a sliver of space, and finishes a zinger through bodies in front in the 35th minute. The Australians had to chase the game and up the tempo going forward thereafter. In response, the Albiceleste pressed higher. A Argentinian press up high in the 57th minute caused a fatal Australian mistake in their own box that Julian Alvarez converted into a goal.
A triple substitution for Australia on 72 minutes signified a desperate last roll of the dice by manager Arnold and they were handed a lifeline when an own goal by Enzo Fernandez halved their deficit 13 minutes from time. Craig Goodwin latched onto a loose ball outside the box and struck a fierce effort first-time, which took a huge deflection off Fernandez, ending up in the goal. In their 2-1 opening group match against Saudi Arabia, when Argentina allowed an early goal, they panicked and came undone. But this time they withstood the predictable Socceroos onslaught. Despite their desire, a comeback didn’t materialize for Australia. – DK
France 3-1 Poland: Les Bleus rolled out their starters this time. Poland made their intentions known by rolling out five advanced midfielders, so they were going to try and keep France back as much as possible. While everybody expects France to dominate this one, Poland still has the best finisher in the world the last two years, poacher Robert Lewandowski, so they are always going to have a chance. Poland was very aggressive high, even pressuring French keeper Hugo Lloris, and challenged France everywhere in their own end. The Poles were always going to surround Kilian Mbappe’ with two or more players on the left, who is so good a gaining separation.
The Polish wingers were putting in low crosses with power, meaning that any redirection by anybody up front was going to leave Lloris unprepared. Poland was better at combination play in the box, keeping France’s backline busy having to clear balls out. France needed to find space inside to get some effective attacking buildup, and they finally found it in the 44th minute when Mbappe’ came inside with the ball and put in a through-ball to a running Olivier Giroud beating the off-side trap for the tap-in. Poland then went to advancing quickly down the wings and pounding it inside. Midway through the second half, France started getting better possession in the middle and center through turnovers and cutting off passing lanes as Poland, having run up and down most of the game, were beginning to show weariness out of possession.
I’m going to make a declarative statement here: KILIAN MBAPPE’ IS THE BEST FUTBOL PLAYER IN THE WORLD! He doubled France’s advantage on 75 minutes with a powerful strike before adding another with a sensational curled finish into the far top right corner — his fifth of the tournament. Poland deciding to play a fast counterattacking game against the fastest player in the world was always going to be risky. Outside of a garbage time penalty by Lewandowski, France’s center back Rafael Varane constantly put a body on him when Lewandowski came inside, never giving his the space to make real contact on service. The ending we all figured would happen. – DK
England 3-0 Senegal: Marcus Rashford went back to the bench (?!) in favor of Bukayo Saka. Senegal was going to do what they always do: Interrupt the England attack in the middle third and pump the ball up into the final third to their two forwards. Similarly, England pressed in the middle third to keep Senegal from making those long passes early. For most of the tournament so far, front man Harry Kane has been pushed outside to keep him from getting on the end of a chance in the box, so he became more of a provider than a finisher.
Senegal looked more dangerous in the final third because they were forcing cheap turnovers deep in England’s end. But all their defensive efforts went for naught in the 38th minute when an anchor man Jordan Henderson unexpectedly came late through the middle on a righteous buildup by Kane and Jude Bellingham on the left to get on the end of Bellingham service to one-time a goal. Getting quickly behind the Senegal defense on the wings and sending a cross with some cheese on it into the middle for a one-time shot seemed to be working for the 3 Lions.
But it was a deadly counter through the middle that doubled England’s lead with an odd-man rush resulting in a Kane goal just before halftime. The wheels came off for Senegal in the 57th minute when England started finding large amounts of space in the opposition half and Saka ran onto service from Phil Foden on the left to score a one-timer just in front of goal. The England win now sets up a delicious quarterfinal between the 3 Lions and the defending champions next Saturday. – DK
Japan 1-1 Croatia (1-3 pen): Japan has had only 34% possession throughout this tournament so far. Their tactical approach is spend the first half staying tactically compact and disciplined, then change to a more direct running approach after that. Croatia got the ball into spaces and made coordinated thrusts into the opposition end. Japan was usually there to cut it off and make runs down the flank (usually the right), then cross it in for somebody to get onto (usually unsuccessfully). That’s because Japan’s early attacks usually involved one or two players quickly getting into the final third but without help trailing in keeping up, allowing Croatia to get numbers behind the ball. But in the 43rd minute, Japan defender Maya Yoshida getting forward in the box on a corner, nodded the ball down for Daizen Maeda to tap in.
It usually takes Croatia time to figure out their opponents, where the space and open lanes are, but once they figure it out, they then start to dominate possession and spend a lot of time in the final third. In the 55th minute, a slow buildup in the Japanese half finished with a Dejan Lovren cross with cheese on it from the right into inverted winger Ivan Peresic, who just had to redirect the ball into the far right end. Wow, those have to be the worst penalty kicks – by Japan – in the history of penalty kicks.
Brazil 4-1 South Korea: Neymar is back from injury, and so is their standard lineup that has him creating just behind the poacher up front. Korea had to get the ball onto the feet of left inverted forward Heong-Min Son, having a so-so tournament so far; their attack goes through him. What has gone practically unnoticed is that Brazil thus far has one of the best defenses in this tournament, with their second team only giving up a scrub time goal in their last group fixture. In less than 13 minutes, however, The Seleção were already taking the steam out of Korea. By the 29th minute, the competitive part of this match was over. It just became a repetitious dance: press, disposess, transition fast, spread it out to the front wingers, send it in, finish, rinse, repeat! It was as clinical a dismantling as it gets. As commentator Stuart Holden puts it, this was filth at the highest level. In the second half, Brazil just mailed it in, still making those counter runs but with less urgency. Sure, Korea put in a goal in the 78th minute, but by then even they knew this was just saving face. -DK
Morocco 0-0 (3-0 pen) Spain: Alvaro Morata scored in every group fixture but did not start in this one. Morocco were going to let the Spanish defenders have the ball, but their goal is to not give them the center, and as soon as Spain got possession, Morocco surround them. Morocco played it very safe, not sending numbers forward in attack. If Spain was going to get forward, they had to send one or two players forward even if it was just as decoys, designed to open up space in the opposition half and find room for attacking buildup through the center.
The longer the game went without Spain scoring, the more uncharacteristically impatient they became, and the more confident Morocco became in the back and going forward. For all their possession Spain created precious few chances, but still more than Morocco, and they were able to find targets in the box that could get onto it and would have been goals but for Morocco cleaning them up. Morocco’s best and most creative player was Hakim Ziyech, who they needed on the pitch but in a match that went into extra time was clearly getting tired with Spain putting constant pressure on him. The match clearly evolved into who would score first because that was probably going to be the winning score (it never came for either side).
Spain has as much futbol talent as any country on the planet, but the heart and refuse-to-lose quality that defined the Golden Generation from 2007-2012 is no longer there, and they have reverted back to what defined them most in the 50 years leading up to their most rewarding years in the early part of this century. – DK
Portugal 6-1 Switzerland: Forward Ronaldo went to the sub’s bench (I’m sure he pouted about it), while one of the best players in the tournament so far, Bruno Fernandes, is back on as the advanced playmaker on the right wing. On paper this looks like a Portugal win, but the Swiss have a nasty habit of grinding out results. Embola up front is having a great tournament, while the creative buildup is always going to come from Granit Xhaka through the middle and Xherdan Shaqiri on the right. (Side Note: I guess the Qataris have lost interest in this tournament, I saw a lot of empty seats).
A lot of familiarity on the field; both times they played this year they were very physical events. For this game the Swiss looked like they were playing with 3 center backs, playing very narrow. I love that both teams are playing with a sense of urgency from the start. Sharpshooter Gonzalo Ramos, in only his fourth start for Portugal and playing in the spot Ronaldo usually occupies, just needed a half yard of space in the box and rockets it and roofs it 17th minute. In the 33rd minute, 39-year-old Pepe timed his run on a corner perfectly and used that bald head to slam home their second goal.
The Swiss opened up the game in the second half, get in behind the backline and make direct quick switches of play. Portugal needed to be patient in their defensive pressure and kill off the game (they are not immune to blowing leads; it’s why they had to go through a playoff in order to get here). Ramos’ second one-timer in the right corner in the 51st minute put the nail in the Swiss coffin. After that, the pounding just became bloody. A deflated and dispirited Switzerland just let Portugal in at will. Portugal go into their quarterfinal match against Morocco hitting on all cylinders right now. -DK
Netherlands 2-0 Qatar: The Dutch were not happy with how they played in their 1-1 draw with Ecuador, so today they were intent on spreading the field wide with Daley Blind and Denzel Dumfries on the wings and starting Memphis Depay up front in a withdrawn false-9. Already eliminated Qatar stayed back and dropped five players back when not in possession even though they continued to play an antiquated W-M formation. Qatar just didn’t get anything going in attack this entire tournament, relying on getting the ball long to their two front men without numbers. Netherland’s superior ball skills left Qatar 6’s & 7’s when the Dutch found space in the center and got in the box, and even though the shots on goal left much to be desired, the Dutch still kept the Qatari defense confused.
Dispossessing the Qataris was easy for the Dutch, who never gave them room to breathe and kept them pinned in their own half. Needless to say, the Dutch had an almost 2-1 advantage in possession. Central attacking midfielder Davy Klaassen played an inviting ball into the path of the wonderkid Cody Gakpo and he received it at pace, slicing through the heart of the defense before dispatching a well-placed shot in the 26th minute, three goals in three World Cup matches.
After halftime, more than half the Qatari “fans” had left, leaving me with the belief that these folks aren’t really fans. Four minutes into the second half the Dutch struck again as a cross from Klaassen made its way to Depay and the Qatari defense was caught ball-watching as his shot was saved, allowing withdrawn midfielder Frenkie de Jong to bundle it into the net. The rest of the game was elementary, with the Dutch substituting for players who hadn’t played yet, slowing things down to kill time with benign possession, and flooding the center and back when Qatar got up front with long passes and no support.
Qatar will go back to the role of tournament hosts and plotting the future of the game in their country after registering the worst record of any host nation in World Cup history. Group A winners The Netherlands awaits the second place finisher in Group B. – DK
Ecuador 1-2 Senegal: Ecuador only needed a draw to advance to the next round, while Senegal needed a win. Ecuador went for it from the start, getting forward in numbers, going long, and getting a lot of crosses in the box. No matter how their national side does on the pitch, the Senegalese fans are going to party and have a good time. It is actually part of Senegal’s plan to not have possession long; they want to get their opponents on their back heels quickly in a more “shock and awe” approach, attacking suddenly, as opposed to a more tactical attacking buildup. This leaves their opponents having to react rather than defend proactively, and leaves the message to Ecuador that you have to be aware of them at all times and not get lulled to sleep.
A 3-2 possession advantage for Ecuador yet them getting outshot 14-9 kinda says this perfectly, but despite this disparity Senegal pushed the game, making Ecuador look slow by comparison. The decisive moment in the first half came late when Ismaila Sarr was ploughed into by Ecuador defender Piero Hincapie and picked himself up to convert the spot-kick. The flow of the game changed in the second period as it was Senegal who were happy to sit back and a desperate Ecuador pressed for the equalizer. It arrived midway through the half when Felix Torres flicked on a corner and Moises Caicedo was unmarked as the back post to provide a simple finish (poor defending from Senegal in the box). Now it was Senegal that had to chase the game. The sizeable Ecuador contingent erupted in celebration, but that was halted barely three minutes later when Senegal struck again. The South American side failed to clear a corner and the ball fell kindly for Koulibaly to volley into the net from six yards.
Set pieces are what changed the complexion of this game. A tournament that started so promisingly for Ecuador came crashing down around them these last four days. Meanwhile Senegal likely get England in four days in the next round. – DK
Iran 0-1 USA: Iran coach Carlos Quieroz flooded the midfield with five players, looking to take control of the possession and center of the pitch. Iran didn’t press high but they did surround the ball as soon as the ball was brought up to the half-touch line. Decent attacking build-up by Iran but the service into the box was lacking. Quick one-touch passing by the USA, shifting players from wide to center back out to wide, and because they possessed the ball well in the center, fullbacks Sergino Dest and Anthony Robinson were playing very high and making runs into the opposition half.
Patience was the key for the USA; when they allowed for play to develop, they were able to put numbers into the final third. The best chances for the USA were from wide and is moving the ball quickly, not allowing Iran to shift their defense and get pressure. What the USA was waiting for was for someone to get on the end of service in the box. It finally happened in the 38th minute: Christian Pulisic turned in Sergino Dest’s headed cross get the crucial breakthrough, putting his body on the line and suffering an abdominal injury after subsequently clashing with Iran’s goalkeeper.
(A SIDE NOTE: Let’s be real here: Christian Pulisic is the premier player for the USA. At some point he needed to step up, be the difference maker, and get it done. You’re not put on this team to be popular, sell shirts, and make revenue. You’re here to be the go-to guy, “The Man”. It took long enough for you to finally show up.)
The USA started to go more direct as Iran was not as disciplined in their defensive shape. Iran played much more aggressively in the second half, pushing the action up the field, and taking advantage of the space created with the track meet they were now running as the game became an end-to-end affair. The USA needed an insurance goal as they too were pressing the action with some quick quality crosses into the center and switching play from wing to wing. But unlike Pulisic, there was no quality finishing by anybody up front. What kept Iran from scoring wasn’t staying back and defending, but continuing to attack, never letting Iran get comfortable getting forward.
It was even possession for both sides, 51-49, but the USA took many more shots, 12-4. The last 20 minutes the US began clinging increasingly anxiously to their lead. Americans then went into survival mode, clinging to dear life. Two frantic appeals for penalties in the closing stages before the referee finally blew the full-time whistle after more than nine minutes of stoppage time sealed the deal. The USA now gets the Netherlands in the next round, but optimism is tempered by injuries to key players Pulisic and forward Josh Sargent. – DK
Wales 0-3 England: Why does inverted forward Sir Marcus Rashford not start? For England or for Manchester United? It is clear that he changes the complexion of every game he plays for club and country. His shooting touch, speed, quickness, touch on the ball, ball skills, movement off the ball, attacking from either wing, reading of the attacking buildup, runs into space, and ability to run at defenses and get behind them are phenomenal. He finally started this last group fixture and immediately paid dividends.
Don’t get me wrong, Rashford is not the only reason England outshot Wales 18(7) to 7(1) and won the possession battle almost 2-1. At least half the reason is because Wales was totally inept at pretty much everything their entire stay, and they relied on players that have been with this squad way too long and need replacing with younger, hungrier, quicker athletes (I’m looking at you Christian Bale and Aaron Ramsey). Also part of the reason is England patiently kept the ball and found their front men several times with coordinated and organized attacks.
But this game was just set up for Rashford. He picked up the ball on the left wing and either brought it inside or crossed it into the box, and when he got on the end of service Wales were 6’s & 7’s. All of this was before Rashford finished his 50th and 68th minute goals. Replacing Bale and his old and slow ass with forward Brennan Johnson, was not going to slow England’s momentum. Rashford wasn’t the only inverted forward benefitting from the thrusts on the wings. Advanced flanker Phil Foden on the other side doubled the lead within seconds of Rashford’s first goal as England won the ball back high up before forward Harry Kane whipped a low cross to the back post where Foden was arriving to tap home with ease.
England basically mailed it in from there. Kudos to Wales for getting here, but their stay was underwhelming to say the least. England win Group B and now get Group A runner up Senegal on Saturday. – DK
Tunisia 1-0 France: Nine changes for a French side that has already won their group, they in essence were a completely different team so I didn’t expect cohesion and communication to be as crisp as the previous two fixtures. Tunisia went top heavy with three at the top but they were going to drop five back to try to slow down the France speedy wings, so they were going to put some pressure on right away, maybe catch them off guard before the French established a rhythm, push the pace early and see if they could get up early. Unfortunately, France looked incohesive and disjointed to start, especially in the backline, where they were clearly not communicating with each other and letting patient buildup get into the final third – and 6’s & 7’s man marking on set pieces.
There is a clear talent drain on the flanks when Killian Mbappe’ and Ousmane Dembele aren’t playing; there was no speedy or efficient attacking buildup. France looked stuck in place when they had possession, just knocking the ball around back and forth and not displaying that aggressive attacking into the final third. France were giving up way too many corners to a Tunisian side that was playing for them; you figured they had to score at some point. Tunisia were always much more likely to score this entire game, having kept France pinned back in their own third furiously sending service into the box. It finally happened in the 58th minute when Khazri, who was making runs into the French box all game long, made a long run right through the heart of France from the half-touch line to slide a trickle right by substitute keeper Steve Mandanda.
It took up to the 77th minute for Mbappe’ to partner on the wings with Dembele for some positive attacking quality from the flanks. Once Antoine Griezmann came on late, it was just constant pressure from France, and eight minutes into stoppage time it looked like France leveled things, but an offside put that the kibosh on that. This 1-0 Tunisian upset was tempered by the fact that Australia won their last group fixture and pipped Tunisia for the last spot in the next round. Even though France played mostly back-ups and basically mailed it in, this is not how a futbol power wants to go into a knockout stage. – DK
Australia 1-0 Denmark: The Danes needed to find their go-to guy Christian Erikson the ball more and further up the field, and get better movement from their players when they were on the ball. The Australians came in having to keep their shape, keep their discipline, and don’t chase everything, yet they still needed to be more direct, especially through the middle. The Aussies where still looking for reliable finishing up front, using their third different target man up front in three games.
Denmark started out getting more players forward, and they made it a point to get players to help the attack by holding the ball up when they moved into the final third (Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, more of a holding midfielder than a ball-winning midfielder this game, was integral in attaining this goal). Denmark was getting good service into the box and quality finishing. That they didn’t score says a lot about Australia’s defense this match. Both teams needed a win to advance to the next round, so neither were spending significant time just dilly-dallying around, getting into their attacks quickly.
Defending with just a 3-man backline, Australia were practically gifting space on the flanks for the Danes to run on to, sending in cross after cross. But the urgency picked up for the Aussies as they began creating chances and threatening the Danish defense in the second half, although still giving up space in the back for the Danes to keep attacking. The match became a war of attrition; who was going to get the breakthrough first. It was the Aussies in the 60th minute, finally breaking the deadlock as Mathew Leckie timed his sumptuous run through the Danish defense in the opposition half perfectly and sent the ball through fullback Joakim Maehle’s legs before beating keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Despite a 69-31 percent advantage in possession (77-23 after the goal), and a 13-8 shot advantage, the problem that plagued the Danish this entire tournament, reliable finishing in the final third, is what defined their stay in Qatar. For the first time, Australia won two games in one World Cup, getting pipped for first place on goals differential. On the final day of group play, two of FIFA’s top ten national sides lost. Denmark is the only one of the two not advancing; nobody would have guessed that they would finish group play with only one point. – DK
Poland 0-2 Argentina: “The Magician” Lionel Messi played more like the false-9 he is so expert at, dropping back to get on the end of service on a run inside for The Albicelestes, who this time need advanced wingers Angel di Maria and Julian Alvarez to bring the ball forward. The surprise leaders of the group so far, Poland was more of a provider up to this point, but what they needed from him was to finish, so he needed to be on the end of service more than provide it. Problem is that with his national side he doesn’t have the kind of world-class service he had a Dortmund, Bayern, and now at Barcelona.
Argentina were always more likely to score as they finally showed their attacking skills, ball skills, passing and shooting skills, among the best in the world at all four (Messi or no Messi). From one moment to the next, I was never able to figure out what Poland was trying to do in attack; they were more helter-skelter with no real offensive buildup, and even their long balls inside and crosses into the box were met with efficient Argentine resistance. Goal Poacher Robert Lewendowski was simply neutralized; Argentina knew who they had to stop, and he was constantly man-marked out of existence. The proof was in the pudding: Poland was on the ball only 27% of the time, and they made nary a shot on goal on four shot attempts, while Argentina kept Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny under siege (12 shots on target in 23 attempts).
The opener for Argentina came right after the restart when striker Alexis Mac Allister redirected a Nahuel Molina cross with a first-time shot that trickled past Szczesny and off the far post. Teenage wonderkid striker Alvarez announced himself on the world stage and doubled Argentina’s lead midway through the second half, picking up a pass from advanced midfielder Enzo Fernandez in the penalty area and lashing a shot past Szczesny. I gotta give it to Szczesny; he put in a world-class performance in the face of the onslaught and was solely responsible for keeping Poland in this match (especially when he saved a Messi penalty attempt), and deserved much better from a side that gave him no help in turn. A big two-game turnaround from an Argentina side that were totally emasculated by the Saudis in their opener. Despite being thoroughly outplayed, Poland also snuck into the knockout round in second place thanks to a superior goal difference over Mexico. — DK
Saudi Arabia 1-2 Mexico: I never would have thought that El Tri could come into their last group fixture without having scored at least one goal. They just haven’t been able to find any finishing up front. That said, urgently needing to beef up their goal difference, Mexico took the game to Saudi Arabia from the start and never stopped running, peppering the Saudi goal with long-range efforts in a desperate bid to wrest control of their own fate, piling on the pressure on an indecisive Saudi backline. Saudi Arabia committed to playing a very high line, leaving a lot of space between the midfield and defense for Mexico to make runs into and exploit.
Mexico switched play effectively; good patient possession in the center, followed by long diagonal passes to the flanks, immediately followed by runs and passes back into the center in the final third – and the Saudis couldn’t keep up. After going goalless through their first 2½ matches and 430 minutes in total at the World Cup dating back to 2018, Mexico exploded to life in spectacular fashion to start the second half. An up-top forward, Henry Martin, finally broke the deadlock in the 47th minute, finishing from close range after defender Cesar Montes flicked on a corner to give Mexico hope. Just five minutes later there was pandemonium. From almost 35 yards out, Luis Chavez sent a direct free kick arrowing into the top corner to put Mexico 2-0 up and within sight of the knockout stage (finishing up front during the run of play wasn’t working for Mexico, but goals from set pieces surely were).
But as developments transpired elsewhere, Mexico needed just one more goal to progress. As Mexico continued to desperately surge forward through seven minutes of stoppage time, Saudi Arabia, now playing spoiler, broke through and delivered the final dagger to El Tri’s hopes thanks to Salem al-Dawsari’s goal. What a cruel and agonizing end to a great match. The Mexico victory was pyrrhic; Mexico exited the World Cup in dramatic fashion, missing out on a place in the last 16 to Poland on goal difference. It had been 44 years since Mexico didn’t make it out of the group stage. After such a great start to their tournament, upsetting Argentina, Saudi Arabia couldn’t build on that and exit a tournament they had a great chance of advancing. – DK
Croatia 0-0 Belgium: Unusual position for both teams of this stature as both need a result to get to the second round. Belgium’s lost to Morocco four days ago meant that nothing but a win would do. Because target man Romelu Lukaku had been injured for the last seven weeks, he was not in form and missed some easy chances in the box when he came on after halftime. This was the story of Belgium’s tournament: Reliance on a group of players past their prime that were too frequently injured or too out of form and just lacked the quick twitch ability to make the plays they used just four years ago.
It was when Belgium put in the few subs they could that their energy level ticked up slightly, but their play thereafter just seemed a little too casual, lacking urgency (I’ve always wondered why some supposedly transcendent sides are called a “golden generation” when at the highest level they haven’t won any gold?). Croatia did better mixing in new players with veteran stars that may not be in their prime anymore but are still healthy and in-form.
I was expecting a much better match with a lot more urgency. Belgium just couldn’t get jumpstarted, and now they need to come to the quick realization that they need to start from scratch and get new, young, hungrier players. You can make an argument that a dominant Croatian defense that didn’t allow a single goal through group play got them to the knockout round, but given the quality of attack they had to face through three fixtures, I think that would only be half right. – DK
Canada 1-2 Morocco: Morocco was not going to let grass grow under their feet, with every intention of racing out, claiming that first early goal, and claiming their rightful place in the knockout round. Morocco opened the scoring on four minutes as inverted forward Hakim Ziyech profited from a weak clearance by goalkeeper Milan Borjan, forced to race Moroccan forward Youssef En-Nesyri to the ball because of a weak back pass from his own defender, Steven Victoria. Ziyech’s nonchalantly chipped shot from 35 yards out into the empty net may have looked simple, but some players panic in that situation and fluff the chance.
En-Nesyri remained dangerous throughout the first half, doubling Morocco’s lead in the 23rd minute when he ran onto a sumptuous long ball into space from Achraf Hakimi and beat Borjan at the near post (Ziyech and En-Nesyri have cleary established themselves as reliable finisher up front). The flankers needed to show up for Morocco, and Achraf Hakimi was brilliant while his fellow wingback Noussair Mazraoui was outstanding on the opposite flank.
While Canada’s Alphonso Davies was predominantly playing through the middle, Mazrouai and Hakimi did well to shut down the half spaces and ensured any potential danger with the ball at Davies’ feet was often nullified before he had a chance to get going. For whatever reason, Canada pressed high in numbers, which created space in the back for Morocco to take advantage of with long service up front on the counter. For the last 5 minutes of the first half and the first 20 minutes of the second half, Morocco was too passive out of possession and in transition, conceding Canada far too much possession.
Canada had an almost 3-2 advantage in possession, but that just shows qualitative Morocco was when they had the ball and how Canada wasted their advantage as none of their shot attempts were on target. Canada ran away from North American competition in qualifying, but it was clear that their 36-year absence from the biggest stage in sports meant they just weren’t up for the enormity of the event. Morocco clearly was up to it as they played with energy and enthusiasm throughout. What won it for Morocco and was truly impressive was their transitional excellence coupled with an ability to turn fairly ordinary passages of play into goal-scoring chances. – DK
Japan 2-1 Spain: Alvaro Morato scored two goals off the bench for Spain so far, so he got the start up top in this one. For Spain their tiki-taki approach is simple: Retain possession to draw you out to open any sliver of space, then before you know it attack that space. It may seem mundane and boring, but believe me there is a purpose. Japan is quite happy to defend and use their quickness, speed, and workrate to press, then run a track meet to the front. At the eleven minute mark, Spain were wondering why they hadn’t started him to begin with. The buildup in the box that resulted in the goal is the perfect example of passing with a purpose.
This was not the game for Japan to just sit back and attack; 78% Spain possession kinda says it all, dontcha think? It’s not like Japan, or anybody else Spain plays, didn’t know what to expect because this is how Spain plays all the time. The key to beating them is to score first; that will take them out of the uber-patient game plan and make them have to chase the game. Instead, Japan literally chased Spain all over the pitch trying to get the ball – and the Samurai Blue got exhausted. By the second half, Japan had had enough. They came out with people further up the field and closing down Spain high to regain possession, and it was the two substitutes (Junya Ito and Ritsu Doan) who respectively quickly regain the ball in the final third and finished off a long shot from the right in the 48th minute as a result. It was a formula that worked again 4 minutes later when Kaoru Mitoma pressed and took the ball from, then from quickl transition got it to Ao Tanaka (Japan) for a right footed shot from very close range to the center of the goal.
It took over 50 minutes, but with a lead Japan accomplished exactly what they wanted to from the beginning: Take Spain out of their comfort zone tactically and get them to chase the game. And when Spain get taken out of their game plan, they usually have no answers. Japan are the surprise winners of the group, but are going to have to show more against a lockdown Croatia side in the knockout round that has not given up a goal so far. Because of developments elsewhere, a Spain side that certainly played down to expectations after their massive 7-goal win in their first group fixture made it through by the skins of their teeth despite losing on goal differential – and what would seem to be a gift draw against Morocco. – DK
– A massive day in upsets. Pre-tournament favorites, the #2 ranked Germans and the #11 ranked Belgians, both eliminated within hours.
Costa Rica 2-4 Germany: Before we get to the analysis, a noteworthy accomplishment. This was the first ever World Cup game to feature an all-female officiating crew. What took so long?! Now let’s move on. On a day full of action, excitement and tension, this may have been the most entertaining, competitive fixture. Only a win could advance either or both of these sides, then they would need lots of help from the other group fixture running concurrent. Germany needed more organization and communication when they put the ball up top, so they pushed usual space investigator Thomas Mueller to the front. Costa Rica stayed compact but not pressing high, wanting to transition and get forward quickly, but in attack they were pretty impotent because the Germans were pressuring them in transition on the counter-press.
Germany trusted that even without an out-and-out striker up top, they had enough attacking quality pushing forward in the midfield. They were right: Die Nationalmannschaft with machine-like precision got the ball downfield with fluid movement inside and deft, simple combination passing into and inside the box to take several quality shots on target. This resulted in a strong goal from forward Serge Gnabry in the 10th minute. This unrelenting flow and attack kept up for most of the next almost 50 minutes as Costa Rica was committing six defenders in the box the many times the German attack got there.
Then an extended 15-minute lapse in concentration by Germany almost undid their entire efforts. German super keeper Manuel Neuer, annually one of the best keepers in the world, could do nothing 13 minutes after the restart when Yeltsin Tejeda thundered the ball past him on the rebound. Juan Pablo Vargas then bundled the ball over the line in the 70th minute on a set piece bungle to put Costa Rica in front. Knowing that they now needed to score as many goals as they could in the short time left in the match, the Germans were still unrelentingly throwing everything at Los Ticos.
Substitute forward Kai Havertz, on for Mueller, provided the finishing Germany needed with confident finishing in the 73rd and 85th minutes. The last one put Germany in the lead, but because of circumstances elsewhere, they needed more scoring with only five minutes left and in stoppage time. Substitute deep lying playmaker Niclas Fullkrug found plenty of space to run onto in the box and took a shot from very close range to the bottom right corner from a simple chest pass from Leroy Sane’. Germany needed Spain to lose to have a chance, but the seven goals Spain score in their first group fixture was too much to overcome in differential, so that coupled with Japan’s win meant it was Spain that made it through. A most bitter climax for the Germans. Costa Rica ran more cold than hot in this tournament but did have a chance to go forward after their win against a Japan side that surprisingly topped the group. – DK
Ghana 0-2 Uruguay: Uruguay was always going to be unlikely to qualify from this group after their first two group fixtures. Uruguay needed to get more confident and reliable in front of goal; they hadn’t scored since the last World Cup. Ghana just needed to not lose by a lot to advance. Both teams played compact and got the ball forward quickly in possession, but whereas Uruguay countered quickly with good communication and movement in possession, Ghana countered with long through balls and passing with fewer players going forward.
A persistent problem throughout this tournament for Ghana was their backline, which gave up way too much space in the back, an oddity considering how fast they were. It was like recognition of any building attack and reading of the game just wasn’t in their vocabulary. Two quick counters by Uruguay and in the 26th and 32nd minutes proved that as Ghana got embarrassed by Uruguay’s quick movement and passing into the final third, where G. de Arrescaeta needed only one touch to put the ball in goal.
It just looked like Ghana had not communication or togetherness on either end of the pitch, as if eleven strangers got on the pitch for the first time and made it up as they went along. After the two goals, Uruguay was happy to use this Ghanian disorganization to just play disciplined and compact and knock the ball around amongst themselves as long Ghana didn’t press. I’m always fascinated by Uruguay’s unmatched ability to put several shots on goal from distance.
After the 32nd minute, it became obvious that Uruguay’s finishing touch had disappeared just as quickly as they found it. In turn, Cameroon was getting quick service into the box, but unlike their previous two tournament games, forgot how to finish them. Despite all their futbol deficiencies, Ghana could have qualified from this group. For Uruguay, a win that feels like a crushing defeat. End of an era for La Celeste, and just like Belgium yesterday, another aging power is eliminated. – DK
South Korea 2-1 Portugal: After underwhelming performances in their first two group fixtures, Korea needed to press the attack and get into the attack quickly, and their best play Heung-min Son had to get off the schneid and create offense in the front, so he was given a free role to move from his usual left flank and roam anywhere on the pitch. Portugal, on the other hand, had already qualified for the next round, so they were going to keep possession in front of a Korean defense that was not pressing very high, and make the surprise long ball up front, hoping to catch Korea napping. An approach that worked early for Portugal as the long pinpoint accurate pass from fullback Diogo Dalot got the ball in front of goal for Ricardo Horta to one touch.
Portugal’s wingers had so much quality coming inside in the final third that it gave their wingbacks space on the flanks (especially on the right) to join in on the attack. So out of possession Korea had to commit numbers back. What make me think South Korea still had a chance from this point was they contained and frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo up top better than anyone I’ve seen so far (Ronaldo is a large part of Portugal’s attack, so you can never really stop him, all you can hope to do is minimize his effectiveness).
Portugal defensively was so confident in transition that they felt too comfortable letting Korea move into their own end, and in the 27th minute it mattered. From a Son corner, Kim Young-Gwon shot from very close range to the centre of the goal following a corner. As the game progressed, I kept wondering why they never put on their best player so far, Bruno Fernandez, even when they took off Ronaldo. I figured Portugal had already won the group coming in, so they wanted to save Fernandes for the next round (I’m also guessing Ronaldo played even though he didn’t need to because his narcissistic azz just has to play when he wants to).
One minute into stoppage time, after Hwang Hee-Chan right footed shot from the center of the box to the bottom left corner of the net after a long pass to Son getting behind the defense with a through ball following a fast break, Portugal must’ve wished they made the change. Portugal had an over 3-2 advantage in possession, but took the name number of shots and shots on goal, 13(6), indicating that possession was not important to Korea. No, they couldn’t waste time making coordinated attacking buildup; they needed to create quick chances in front and get a finisher on the end of service fast. And Son clearly was the engine that drove South Korea to the next round. This result made the Ghana-Uruguay match irrelevant. – DK
Cameroon 1-0 Brazil: Cameroon took a big chance playing such a high defensive line against the best side in the world at breaking it. For Cameroon to get to the next round, all they had to do was beat a Brazil side they’ve never beaten in a World Cup, a Brazil side that is riding a record 17 group stage wins in a row, a side that has not been beaten at all since April of last year. Brazil, having already won the group, made nine changes to their starting lineup to get some time on the pitch for their reserves, all of whom are under the age of 25.
The rustiness showed for Braziln not showing the same cohesiveness we’ve seen from the starters, and uncharacteristically sloppy ball possession. Cameroon leaned heavily on their two front player Eric Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar to get direct service from long and do something with the ball in the final third, not committing numbers up front, not pressing very high in the back, and staying compact. What has gone unnoticed about Brazil so far this campaign is that defensively they haven’t even given up so much as a shot on target, let along a goal!
Surprised that Cameroon isn’t playing with a little more urgency considering they are at the bottom of the table and need help if they win. Needless to say, after halftime Cameroon turned it into a track meet – and Brazil being Brazil was happy to oblige. Little midfield play as both teams ran quickly to either end of the pitch. You had to figure somebody was going to score with the abundance of fast-paced attacks on both ends, but I didn’t think it would take as long as it did. Aboubakar’s pacey header from a brilliant wide cross on the counter would have been the moment of the match, but when this idiot took his shirt off in celebration afterwards already on a yellow card, Cameroon had to survive the next eight minutes of stoppage time against of all sides Brazil with only ten men.
Luckily for the Indominable Lions it didn’t matter. Cameroon gets their first-ever victory over Brazil, but due to circumstances elsewhere they can’t advance because of goal differential. Because of those same circumstances Brazil wins the group for the same reason, but going into the next round losing your last group fixture is not how you want to proceed. – DK
Serbia 2-3 Switzerland: Beforehand I thought this might be a cagey match between two differing styles. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Both these sides came out swinging, getting into each other’s ends from the jump and testing each goalkeeper. Both teams pressed high, attained possession quickly, and transitioned even faster getting bodies in the box. It looked like both sides were shirking their defensive responsibilities and just attacking in waves, leaving the back vulnerable and disjointed, especially in fast transition, at least for the first 50 minutes.
A breakneck thriller that had three lead changes. Xherdan Shaqiri put Switzerland ahead, but Serbia swiftly scored twice within 10 minutes through Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic to flip the game on its head. Breel Embolo delivered another twist in an absorbing opening period by pulling Switzerland side level just before the break, while Remo Freuler scored three minutes after the restart to restore their one-goal advantage again. Now this is the kind of urgency
I’ve been waiting for from a team that desperately needed to win (I just didn’t feel I was getting this in previous Matchday Three games from teams on the cusp of elimination). After they took the lead, the Swiss were a little more organized and responsible in the back, and even though they were still attacking, the track meet had slowed down. Serbia, for their part, seemed to not be able to make those through balls and diagonal runs work as well as they had the first 50 minutes. A breathtaking game throughout that was a deserved entertaining ending to the group stages of this tournament. – DK
Wales 0-2 Iran: Heavily dominated by England in their first match, Iran had to do better defending crosses and set pieces this time around, playing four in the back. Wales still wanted to take advantage of opposition mistakes and get the ball forward quickly. Iran attacked with a lot more confidence, this time with two out-and-out strikers to get the ball inside to, and showing a lot more energy and aggression all over the pitch. No patient buildup from Wales either, who wanted to get to ball to inverted forward Gareth Bale as quickly as possible. Iran had better chances on goal and took full advantage of mistakes, especially in the midfield. Wales had the ball more than usual; they had to take a less direct approach to attacking because of it.
The Welsh were getting caught with their pants down way too often, with Iranian players getting behind them on several occasions. Even after going down to 10 men, Wales stayed unmoved in the back until a long-range shot in stoppage time gave Iran the full points. You can’t say they didn’t deserve it; Iran was much more likely to score even when Wales was at full strength, they countered and took the game to Wales all game long. The final goal was wholly unnecessary. What a response from Iran after their total dismantling by England four days earlier. – DK
Qatar 1-3 Senegal: Two Matchday One losers needed to show us something different here. Defensively Senegal came with some high pressure, keeping Qatar in their own half most of the time. Senegal had a little bit more of a patient buildup, taking advantage of the flanks, but Qatar collapsed into the center and closed down the middle in the final third. The Qataris were slightly taller, so they played for set pieces in the final third to get their big players into the attacking end. Why there wasn’t a penalty for Qatar when Ismaila Sarr bundled over Qatari Akram Afif in the box in the 35th minute is beyond me. With Qatar defending well, it was going to take a catastrophic mistake for Senegal to break the deadlock, and unfortunately for Qatar defender Boualem Khoukhi, it turned out to be the latter. His attempt to clear a routine low pass into the box by Krepin Diatta went disastrously wrong as he went to ground without making proper contact with the ball. Khoukhi’s fluffed effort allowed Dia to pounce, and the 26-year-old striker needed no second invitation to rattle the ball in at the near post to give Senegal the lead.
The Qataris never could solve Senegal on the flanks: Famara Diedhou doubled Senegal’s advantage with a brilliant glancing header from an Ismail Jakobs corner from the left in the 48th minute. A pullback by Qatar in the 78th minute by substitute playmaker Mohammad Muntari was nullified in the 84th minute by substitute Senegal striker Bamba Dieng. Great energy and enthusiasm by the Qatari team (their “fans” showed no such enthusiasm, most of them left both Qatari fixtures by halftime), but at some point you have to learn how to play futbol. – DK
Netherlands 1-1 Ecuador: Ecuador played 5 in the back this game, hoping to slow the Dutch attack with a more organized defensive-minded approach. Nothing changed for the Dutch, emphasizing pushing the attack forward on the flanks and stretching the field, giving Holland the space to make things happen. Now having said that, it was the way that inverted winger Cody Gakpo picked his way through the center that got the Netherlands their first goal in the 6th minute. Ecuador continued to press to get back possession and get on the front foot quickly. Enner Valencia was still getting his chances on the attacking end, getting into space in the final third in the center of the field.
The South Americans went from strength to strength in the second half, consistently hustling the Dutch off the ball by applying a physically-demanding press that did not allow their opponents to play their usual flowing game. The equaliser for Ecuador four minutes into the second half was always on the cards, as Ecuador stole possession in midfield and fed Estupinan for a stinging shot on the left that Noppert did well to parry but with Valencia pouncing on the rebound. Interestingly, the 33-year-old has now netted Ecuador’s last six World Cup finals goals — three at the 2014 tournament in Brazil and three in Qatar. With a chance to be the first team to qualify for the knockout stage in this tournament, the Dutch got beaten off the ball after their early goal, but this result eliminated the hosts. – DK
England 0-0 USA: The marquee matchup. The USA made only one change: Haji Wright came in as the target man up top, which tells me Gregg Berhalter still is unsure about his finishing up top. The USA was trying to get two finishers in the box, having them right up against England’s two central defenders, so their 4-2-3-1 played more like a 4-4-2. The USA didn’t play an especially high line, but they did pressure the flanks and marked space more than marking any player, keeping the ball at the feet of the center backs, so good closing down from the two USA front men. In response, England moved the ball into space as opposed to passing to any player. England midfielder Jude Bellingham, whose movement off the ball was integral in getting the ball forward for England, became the man to watch. The other attacking option against the USA’s press was to go over the top. Finisher Harry Kane has a knack for getting the ball in the final third and bringing players in to help. Wingers Raheem Sterling and Bakayo Saka, usually contributing to the attack, had to track back to bring the ball forward out of their own end. Good buildup to some chances early by the USA – they were comfortable in possession and on the ball — but the finishing wasn’t there.
By the second half, both sides settled in and attack with frequency, mostly down the flanks, but still shoddy finishing. The USA got into the box more often than the Brits, but there was no ability in the box to mount effective finishing. Both defenses collapsed into their own box when there was an attacking threat. Very good goalkeeping by both Matt Turner and Jordan Pickford. A disappointing result for both teams, but the USA needed full points more. – DK
Tunisia 0-0 Australia: Australia had to come out aggressive, take advantage in the air, and get that early goal – like they did against France only keep it up this time; they could not afford to drop any points. Tunisia can’t afford to just sit deep and wait for the game to come to them; they have to take the game to Australia. Both teams still had issues up front finding reliable scoring. The more tactically disciplined team was Tunisia, as Australia found space down the left flank to get into the attacking end. More of an east-west game than north-south, as both teams understood the urgency. When they got possession, Tunisia was in a rush to get the ball up the field without trying to establish a little level of possession in the attacking end or establish some kind of coordinated attack, taking some pressure off of their backline having to defend crosses all the time, and make the Aussies have to move around. Striker Mitchell Duke scored midway through the first half with a glancing header from the left from Craig Goodwin past keeper Aymen Dahmen to give Australia the lead (Duke started the attack by tracking back to get the ball in front of the half-touch, then keeps running to the box to score the goal).
Tunisia brought on the squad’s top scorer Wahbi Khazri in the second half as they upped the tempo in search of an equalizer (they had a 14-9 shot advantage over the Aussies and were better getting their 3-man attack involved), getting better possession in their quick buildup in attack. But the Australian defense stood firm with goalkeeper and skipper Mat Ryan a calming presence at the back. Australia made the one goal stand up, got full points and found themselves temporarily in second in Group D until the defending champions’ fixture later in the day. – DK
Poland 2-0 Saudi Arabia: Poland needed runners into space to make space for Robert Lewandowski to get on the end of chances in the box. The Saudis just needed to keep the same energy and tactical and technical buildup they had in their upset of Argentina four days earlier. The Saudis early on surrounded and suffocated Lewandowski, challenging the Poles to get somebody else to beat them. Continuous pressing and takeaways resulted in quick attacking buildup in the opposition end for the Saudis. I wonder if Lewandowski really likes playing for his national side? He is not nearly the finisher with the national side he is at club level because he doesn’t get the service he gets with his club side. To wit, Poland just don’t make things happen for themselves; at this level attacks don’t just come to you, you have to create them. In the 39th minute, Poland finally created a scoring chance when Lewandowski took matters into his own hands and he lifted the ball over the keeper and pulled it back for Zielinski to fire into the roof of the net.
A foul in the box by Poland gave Saudi Arabia a lifeline advanced winger Feras Al-Brikan failed to convert (Wojciak Szczesny may be in the twilight of his career, but when he is on he is still a star keeper). Even though Saudi Arabia had an almost 2-1 advantage in possession and took more shots on goal than their opponents, Poland dropped five in the box when under siege. Instead of waiting for opportunities to develop for himself, Lewandowski brought players into the attack. In the 84th minute, defensive midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki slipped and Lewandowski pounced, robbing him of the ball before sliding a tidy finish beyond Mohamed Al-Owais and into the net. A vital win for a Poland side that went from near death to a chance at winning the group outright. – DK
France 2-1 Denmark: Denmark is one of the teams that historically has given the French fits. From the outset, Denmark took the ball to wide areas, specifically on the left, trying to find space in the center to shoot. Denmark may have had three in the back, but to keep the quick French from attacking the box, they collapsed inside with all eleven players. Target man Andreas Cornelius was everywhere doing everything for the Danes; as the tallest player they were going to put him inside whenever possible. Both Kilian Mbappe’ and Ousmane Dembele were going to own either flank, so Denmark had to decide it they were going to put numbers on either or stay disciplined and clog the middle on defense. Denmark wanted to slow down play with back-and-forth passing, anything to slow down the fast east-west French. Mbappe’ is so fast that he often outran his support.
The second half began much like the first: Find Dembele and Mbappe’ on either wing and let them make something happen. Talisman Christian Erikson was much more effective finding players in the box for Denmark. Mbappe’ had the freedom to roam the last third of the game, and in the 60th minute he made a good give-and-go with Theo Hernandez from the left for the tap-in. Denmark opened up their attack after going down a goal, and their height advantage on set pieces finally mattered when Andreas Christensen headed in an Erikson corner in the 68th minute. Man, was Denmark getting great one-touch shots on goal on the counter or what; it was just random luck that kept them from scoring. You simply can’t leave Mbappe’ alone and ignore him because he will make you pay. While France made their attacking buildup on the right, Mbappe’ snuck up on the left unattended and made a move into the box for an Antoine Griezmann cross. Let’s not kid ourselves folks: As Mbappe’ goes, so goes France. – DK
Argentina 2-0 Mexico: I don’t think anybody thought these two teams would be coming into their second group fixture with 0 and 1 points respectively. Mexico played very risk-averse, keeping numbers behind the ball, look to counter, and break through traffic in the center. Argentina played with more aggressive pressing the Mexican backline, trying to win the ball back in further up the field so they could quickly counter. Both teams weren’t really getting any coordinated offense in the box in the first half; it was more scattershot than organized. Especially Argentina, who had most of the possession but out of desperation were forcing their passes inside to Messi. El Tri were getting the ball to their two forwards but more times than not they had to come back and get it, then lacked communication going further forward.
Messi works best as a false-9, coming out of the box to get the ball deep. That is how he scored in the 64th minute; about 24 yards from goal to get service inside and find that small yard of space for a long shot into the corner of the goal. An 87th minute corner from midfielder Enzo Fernandes slammed the door shut on Mexico. Argentina went from the cellar to second in one fell swoop, with a chance to win the group Wednesday against Poland. – DK
Japan 0-1 Costa Rica: Costa Rica was understandably shell shocked after their 0-7 dismantling by Spain, so they came into this game against as fast and quick a team as Japan with no set formation. When they defended, they dropped 5 back into their backline and everybody else clogged the center; when they had possession, they kept three back in the center and sent 7 forward. The Japanese didn’t seem all that worried about Costa Rica’s attack; most of the game was spent in the opposition end with what seemed like floods of players attacking, taking every opportunity to use their youth and speed to run at an old and tired Costa Rican side, wearing them down. On the rare occasions Costa Rica had the ball, it seemed that they were hesitant to get into the attack despite the numbers they sent out of their end, appearing content to just knock the ball around the midfield, doing anything they could to keep the ball from their running opposition. It took only 28 minutes for Costa Rica to have more touches of the ball than they had the entire 90 minutes against Spain (such was how total that dismantling was).
Japan came to life in the second half, getting on the front foot – this time getting attackers in the box — and keeping Costa Rica on their back heels. But then the unthinkable happened: Japan’s backline failed to clear out of their third of the pitch and Keysher Fuller’s 81st-minute effort, Costa Rica’s first shot on target, stunned the drum-beating Japanese fans in the stadium. All of Japan’s control and speed was for naught. Costa Rica put a huge dent in Japan’s hopes of reaching the World Cup last 16. Now Japan needs a result from their last group fixture against Spain. A fantastic recovery for Costa Rica. – DK
Belgium 0-2 Morocco: Belgium pushed their playmaker Kevin De Bruyne up to the front but flooded the midfield with five players, hoping to put a roadblock up against Morocco while beginning with players in position to go on the attack in a moments notice. Morocco made five changes to the squad that drew four days ago, which tells me they had no confidence in many of their starters and/or tactics. Morocco clearly wanted to turn this game into a track meet, but early on it was the Belgians who interrupted Morocco in the midfield and got the ball in front of Morocco’s goal (a lot of set pieces). It looks like it is time for Belgium to think about replacing their “Golden Generation” with newer, younger players because, with the exception of De Bruyne (who did his damndest and gave his all to get this side a result), more times than not they just lacked the quick-twitch reactions and quickness needed to get it done. They just aren’t anything special anymore.
By the last quarter of the game, Belgium was just gassed, and that’s when Morocco ran right by them. Abdelhamid Sabiri’s free kick from near the corner flag caught out Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at the near post as it curled in at the 73rd minute mark. Zakeria Aboukhlal’s extra time goal came on the counter-attack, set up by Hakim Ziyech as Belgium were caught pressing forward for a hopeless equalizer. Two substitutes, two goals! Morocco in the driver’s seat to get to the Round of 16. Belgium now gets an in-form Croatia to try to get out of this group. – DK
Croatia 4-1 Canada: Canada needed their best player, speedy left winger Alphonso Davies, to step up in this one to give them some kind of lifeline – and he delivered early when he opened the scoring in the 2nd minute with a superb leaping header — Canada’s first goal in men’s World Cup history and the fastest goal in this tournament so far. Canada had to not be overwhelmed by the moment, find their finishing touch, find a way to break down Croatia deft passing and possession in the middle, and especially figure out a way to break down the Croatian press.
At least for the next 20 minutes Canada was up to the task, with long crisp passes up front from Tajon Buchanon on the left to Davies on the right that froze Croatia further back than they wanted to be. But then Canada found out what the rest of the futbol world already knew: Croatia are very good at finding goals when they are behind, and their press did their job. Croatia took over the possession and cut off Canada before they could get out of the middle third. Midfield creator Luka Modric is among the best in the world at finding lanes in the middle for his killer through balls, and on side outs Ivan Perisic is one of the best at long throws into the center. By the 36th minute, Croatia took over. Croatia drew level in the 36th minute when Perisic, a growing influence on the left, slid the ball through to Andrej Kramaric, who one-timed it into the far corner. They took the lead eight minutes later when a lovely build-up from the back ended with Marko Livaja firing right-footed low into the net from the edge of the area after being fed by Mateo Kovacic.
Canada rang the changes at halftime in an effort to claw back the initiative, but by then Croatia methodically started picking them apart; their deft passing and ability to spread the field left Canada spread way to thin in the back. Canada’s hopes of getting back into the contest were dashed when a curling cross from Perisic on the left was controlled by Kramaric, who shifted the ball on to his left foot and dispatched it low into the bottom corner in the 70th minute. Deep into stoppage time, Croatia added a final blow when Mislav Orsic broke clear and unselfishly squared for Livaja to tap home to send Canada packing from the tournament. – DK
Spain 1-1 Germany: Two former World Cup champions playing each other in the group stage virtually never happens, but Germany has not been playing up to their elite reputation since winning this tournament eight years ago. Both teams pressed higher up the field than their opening day matches, not allowing either team to sit back and have possession in their own end. So this had all the characteristics of becoming a game of turnovers. Germany wanted to get the fullbacks as far into the attack as they possibly could against an incredibly flued Spanish side. That dictates the possession in this kind of game, getting defenders further up creating width and getting a numbers advantage. With Germany in their previous fixture, they had 80% of the possession in the first half and ended up losing.
Pretty mundane match by both teams for most of the half, trying to force actions as opposed to making good decisions in the attacking end. Germany just seemed to lack sense of urgency; like they were trying not to do anything too risky. The game had its moments of intensity but not enough to get excited about given how things just got clogged in the center. Play opened up after quick turnovers as both teams got into the final third several times with chances because of them. Spain plays a high line defending set pieces, trusting that their offside trap will work – and that the officials and VAR will do their jobs.
In the second half Spain wanted Germany to press them, counting on their ball skills to get Germany to commit so they could quickly break down the flanks and get the German’s 6’s & 7’s when they had to react in their own box. got the breakthrough on a rare attacking buildup in the 62nd minute when Alvaro Moratta, a substitute false-9 sitting back to come in late on the left-sided buildup, gets on the end of a Jordi Alba cross for the opening goal. Germany’s right flank was vulnerable, and Alba took full advantage. No sooner does Alba’s replacement Alejandro Balde come in than German right winger Jamal Musiala take ties Balde up in knots and get the ball inside to Niclas Füllkrug for the powerful goal in the 83rd minute. That was an exciting no-holds-barred game with two futbol heavyweights slugging it out for as entertaining a draw as you will see. Spain is still in the driver’s seat in their group but Germany has a lifeline but needs to get full points in four days against Costa Rica to advance. – DK
Cameroon 3-3 Serbia: Both teams come in having lost in their first group fixtures, so a loss by either sends them home. I get the sense that sitting back and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake you can take advantage of, like Cameroon does, is more chasing the game and more reactive, as opposed to being proactive and creating an attack for yourself. Serbia, on the other hand, is all about ball movement, keeping the ball moving and waiting for the right opportunity to get it to their main finishers inside.
Needless to say, most of the game was played in the Cameroonian end of the pitch with Serbia ruling the possession. Much better chances up front than four days earlier for Serbia, with forward Mitrovic doing better at getting behind the Cameroon backline. Serbia did not press high, but they didn’t need to; they did a good job of cutting off space and passing lanes. Cameroon is stronger on the right than the left, which was no surprise, but knowing it and stopping it are two different things. An unforced error by the Serbian goalkeeper gave Cameroon a cheap corner resulting in Jean-Charles Castelletto being left unmarked and an easy tap-in. On direct free kicks and corners Serbia was 6’s & 7’s. Serbia was finding holes in the Cameroon backline to put quick service into. A set piece header by 6’4” Strahinja Pavlovic early in stoppage time found the corner of the net to level things.
Three minutes later, one of those “holes” in the Cameroon backline was found by star winger In the second half, Serbia’s deft passing in the final third totally confused Cameroons backline. When Aleksandar Mitrovic added another in the 54th minute, it looked like Serbia were in complete control and cruising to a win. But Cameroon isn’t called the Indomitable Lions for nothing. Coach Rigobert Song took out a defender and replaced him with forward Vincent Aboubakar, who them proceeded to spend the next five minutes running Serbia ragged. He netted a fine solo goal with an audacious chip over the keeper after having snuck behind the high line defense in the 63rd minute to reduce the deficit, before breaking forward and crossing to Eric Choupo-Moting to smash in the equalizer three minutes later.
Despite furious attacking from both sides the last 30 minutes, there would be no more scoring. The rollercoaster Group G fixture leaves both sides on a single point from their two games, still in contention for a knockout round place but just barely. – DK
South Korea 2-3 Ghana: It never takes long for the Koreans to build momentum; they look to run from the opening whistle, but as usual it’s the buildup in the final third that is lacking. That said, Ghana looked a little nervy in the back, and Korea kept them pinned back early. I didn’t recognize this before now, but Korea tended to play the ball short on corners, clearly playing for them. Ghana’s tendency to play the ball long from the back once they won possession wasn’t working against a side as quick and fast as Korea, who challenged and pressed everywhere on the pitch. Playing a very deep backline on a Ghana direct free kick from the left, Korea was 6’s & 7’s in the back giving no room for the goalkeeper to play the ball, leaving Mohammad Salisu to tap in the loose ball in the 25th minute.
That individual moment of brilliance made Korea tentative, almost afraid to come out of their end , now giving up more possession to Ghana. It happened again ten minutes later when inverted forward Jordan Ayew sent a brilliant cross into the box for Mohammad Kudis to finish. The Ghanaians were flying after that, and Korea were chasing the game, making long passes to the front and long runs on the wings from the back.
In the second half Korea settle down and got their groove back, this time with a more patient buildup as opposed to the track meet they started with in the first half. Conversely, a more confident Ghana tried to make it a track meet. The ten minutes between the 58th and 68th minutes was by far the most entertaining stretch of faction the tournament so far. Lee kang-in dispossesd Tariq Lamptey and fired in a cross that Gue-Sung Cho, the K-League’s top scorer, attacked with pace, leaving Salisu watching as he got in front of his marker to power home a 58th-minute header. Cho was even more determined as a chip from Kim Jin-su caught the out-of-position goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi scrambling and Cho climbed above two center backs to score a dramatic equalizer, right in front of a bank of screaming Korean supporters.
Ghana, who would have been eliminated from the World Cup had they lost, looked vulnerable but were handed a surprise lifeline by sloppy Korean defending in the 68th minute. Gideon Mensah was allowed to get a cross in from the left, which Inaki Williams missed but the ball fell for Kudus to tuck home with his left foot – all while the Korean backline failed to attack the ball. With the way these two teams were playing I was certain there would be more scoring. Yet pace and movement from both teams fail to garner another goal from either, and the match ended with Ghana in a position to qualify for the next round while Korea need a win and a lot of help. Two great games back-to-back. – DK
Brazil 1-0 Switzerland: Neymar is done for the group stages, so anchor man Fred slots in deep, and Paquata’ gets in as the advanced attacker in the midfield. Switzerland wasn’t scared or intimidated with every intent of attacking. Good energy from the Swiss, pressing and counter pressing all over the field, getting the ball back in play quickly, going up-tempo, and a good runout in midfield. The chemistry between Brazilian players took time to develop without Neymar at the center of everything.
As the game wore on, Rafinha in the center became the focal point of the attack, getting the ball into the box for the inverted forwards to run on to. Switzerland did not press high; they did not want to take a chance that Brazil would get behind them on the counter. A rather mundane first half was followed by more of an attractive attacking flair from Brazil in the second, although they seemed to have a few more mental lapses in the back, which gave the Swiss more opportunities in the final third.
With Brazil increasingly desperate, half-time substitute Rodrygo played a first time ball to Casemiro, a cover man for the backline, who struck it with the outside of his foot and it glided in past keeper Yann Sommer in the 83rd minute. While Rodrygo provided the assist, Casemiro and Brazil owe a debt of gratitude to Vinicius Jr. for the goal — Brazil’s newest superstar had drawn three increasingly desperate defenders onto him which created space for the goal. After that the outcome was obvious; Brazil does not cough up late leads. The victory leaves Brazil in a solid position to finish as leaders in Group F with six points after two games — three ahead second-place Switzerland. – DK
Portugal 2-0 Uruguay: A different look for Portugal as Bruno Fernandes moved from his familiar attacking central playmaker role to right inverted winger, where he was expected to provide service into Cristiano Ronaldo, — “The Narcissist” — up top. Portugal played with a back three, something they hadn’t done in a year and a half, so clearly they were prepared to send numbers forward. Poacher Edinson Cavani came in to replace Luis Suarez up top for Uruguay, clearly looking to get better finishing after their scoreless draw four days earlier. Uruguay did not want Portugal to have time on the ball, so they pressed higher than normal. Portugal were using the ball very well, shifting it from side to side, crisp passing, long range shots, and breaking Uruguay’s backline, forcing them to move into gaps in front of them and away from the box.
Uruguay is going to concede possession any time they play, sitting back deep and waiting for any opportunity to circumvent the midfield and go vertical hoping Darwin Nunez or Cavani get on the end of it (in essence, pretty much how they’ve played for over 14 years now). Portugal ruled the possession 3-1, no shock. Really scrappy game in the middle of the pitch with both teams getting really stuck in. But things turned on a dime when the playmaker Fernandes took it upon himself to circumvent The Narcissist and take his chances on goal. Fernandes scored from the left flank in the 54th minute with a cheeky whip-in cross-shot.
Portugal, then put the game out of reach just before full-time when VAR awarded them a questionable penalty and Fernandes calmly converted from the spot for his second of the night. Portugal survived a hectic finish to the game to become the third team after France and Brazil to qualify for the last 16. Uruguay now has to beat an in-form Ghana and need Portugal to throttle South Korea. Sorry, Ronaldo fans: The best player for Portugal through two games is Bruno Fernandes. – DK