Denmark 1-1 Australia: This was the back-and-forth, evenly matched game I expected it to be. Both teams play a combination game, putting passes together to work their way up the field in attack. The Danes did a better job of staying composed, closing down, maintaining pace, keeping the ball, and finding angles. The better quality shots were taken by the Danes. Both teams play a similar attacking style; get the ball forward, play up-tempo, make the other team uncomfortable when they don’t have the ball. A surprising amount of this game was played on both ends despite the lack of counterattacks and quick long balls from end to end. Aggressive pressure in the box by both teams led to either team being 6’s and 7’s on their goals in the first half; first by a lapse in judgment in the Australian backline leading to a quick goal by Dane talisman Christian Eriksen, then later a handball in the box by Yussuf Poulsen leading to a Mile Jedinak penalty for Australia.
The Socceroos were at their best defensively when they kept Eriksen off the ball. The last 45 minutes saw the Socceroos putting more pressure on the Danes, closing them down more when they had the ball. Denmark was at their best when first Poulsen and then his substitute Martin Braithewaite made strides down the right side on the attacking end. Australia still wasn’t making long passes into the attacking end, but they were getting downfield more with quick combination passing. Kasper Schmeichel came up big for Denmark in goal, living up to his famous father’s name. Don’t be fooled by the score; this was a battle from beginning to end.
France 1-0 Peru: I was surprised to see that for the first time in years, French midfielder Paul Pogba did not have some kind of colored dye in his hair. Peru can certainly create a lot of chances, but they just can’t seem to find the net. Peru’s tactics are simple; get the ball down the flanks long, hold up play and hope a trailing attacker will fill the space up front to put the ball on. It kind of make Les Bleus tentative at the beginning, staying back in a tactically rigid 5-4-1. France were noticeably better in the air on headers and 50/50 balls. When Olivier Giroud was linking up with Kylian Mbappe, France was much more fluid and coordinated in the final third. Good defensive resistance from Peru, but you kind of got the sense that Pogba-Mbappe-Greizmann linkup would eventually break through. It happened when Mbappe got free in the center.
A more controlled attack by Peru in the second half, as they played with a sense of urgency, keeping Les Bleus pinned in their own end trying to stave off the furious Peru attack. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris stepped up, keeping the many Peru chances out of the net. With about 25 minute left, Peru played a little more direct, getting the ball into the attacking third a lot faster, trying to find the equalizer. To withstand the onslaught, French coach Didier Deschampe brought on fresh legs in Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir, and Steven N’Zonzi. I kept waiting for forwards Paolo Guerrero, Christian Cuevo, and Andre’ Carrillo to put the ball in the back of the net given how many chances they all had in this and the previous game against Denmark, but they just couldn’t seem to finish. A surprisingly quiet game from Antoine Greizmann. France didn’t win; they survived.
Argentine 0-3 Croatia: The key to this game was the play on the wings, because Argentina used a rigid center back three, the Croatians looked to move the ball forward quickly on the flanks. Nobody does a better job of finding space for himself in the box than Lionel Messi, but in this tournament he his having issues finishing, highly unusual for him. The best way for Croatia to interrupt the otherworldly creativity of Messi and Kun Aguerro was to get physical and disrupt their rhythm and flow. Obviously the point of attack for Croatia was talisman Luka Modric, so every time he got the ball on his feet, there was defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano to close him down. Argentina didn’t seem to play the nervy, one-two combination game that characterizes them, seeming to be just a little too conservative, leaving some good playmakers on the bench. It just looked like Messi was having a hard time getting off the schneid. That goal by Croat Ante Rebic was a gift, a fatal error by Caballero. That got Argentine coach Jorje Sampaoli to bring on Gonzalo Higuain in place of Aguerro. Aguerro was playing up high in the box, trying to split the Croatian defenders but not getting enough space to get a shot off. Huguain moved around a little more off the ball.
As an aside, I love the sight of spectator Diego Maradona biting his fingernails nervously after Argentina went down by a goal. In an attempt to get more finishers up front, Argentina brought on Paulo Dybala and crowded the forward attack with as many as five players, dropping Messi back in support. Argentina just weren’t playing with any width; they have among the best wingers in the world and they just aren’t utilizing them. They totally lacked creativity on the ball, finishing up front, and their talisman, Messi, practically disappeared in the second half. On the second goal by Modric, it looked like Argentina just gave up. To say that Croatia’s midfield just ran over Argentina is an understatement. After that Argentina was 6’s and 7’s, unorganized and unmotivated, getting caught too far upfield on Croatia’s last goal by Ivan Rakitic’. How Argentina gets out of this is beyond me. Just no heart.
Nigeria 2-0 Iceland: Nigeria employed a more adventuresome 3-5-2 scheme for this one, looking to get flankers Bryan Idowu and Victor Moses more into the attack going forward and relying on Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi to interrupt the Icelandic attack in the center of midfield. What’s more telling is that Nigeria went with a 19-year-old in goal, Francis Uzoho. Nigeria has the youngest team in this tournament, while Iceland has the tallest. The game plan for Iceland is simple: use their size to win the ball – especially on 50/50 balls – then get the ball quickly to their linkup player Gylfi Sigurdsson. Nigeria’s game plan was to play the ball diagonally, stretching Iceland on the wings and in the back. The referee in this game as a lot less rigid in calling physical play than in other fixtures.
Nigeria caught Iceland with too many players forward early in the second half; Moses got the ball on the right flank with only two Icelandic players back and quickly got the ball in to target man Ahmed Musa in the box, who finished off a one-timer. I don’t think Iceland is built to play any differently when they get behind. If Iceland was going to get back into this game, they had to stop giving up significant possession to the Super Eagles. Predictably, Iceland started sending numbers forward, which left them vulnerable in the back and on the flanks, which gave Nigeria ample opportunities on goal. Musa’s second goal proved this. Wow! Iceland got a lifeline with a penalty and Sigurdsson misses wildly (Uzoho didn’t even have to do anything). The Super Eagles stuck to their tactical rigidity in the back and it paid off.