Denmark 0-0 France: I wasn’t convinced this was going to be an exciting match going I, and I hated to be right. Denmark played it safe with a center-intensive 4-3-3 that could morph into t a 4-5-1 if they got more adventurous in attack (they did not). Midfield creator Christian Erikson, who usually likes to find the game, was pushed back more to clog up the middle with Martin Jorgensen, and the front line of Martin Braithwaite, Andres Cornelius and Pione Sisto were more of the first line of midfield defense. France rung up six changes to his lineup (they knew they were through so they were playing it safe, also), playing a safe 4-5-1 that could also have morphed into a 4-5-1 has they wanted more offense (they did not either). Antoine Greizmann was the focal point of the attack in the center, with Olivier Giroud the lone target man up front. There was some attacking action early, as Denmark more or less circumvented its midfield and get the ball quickly to its front three, who were responsible for most of the attack in the box.
France midfielders Steven N’Zonzi and N’Golo Kanté were squeezing out the midfield, making it tough for Erikson to get the ball, so Denmark was more than happy to go over the top. Right winger Djibril Sidibé and right flanker Ousmane Dembélé made some impressive thrusts into the attacking end early. Giroud and Greizmann were marked men all game long; Danish center backs Mathias Jørgensen and Simon Kjaer put them on lockdown. I’m not going to bore you with what happened in the second half. Suffice it to say that the ball just kind of got passed around back and forth, neither team really trying very hard, both knowing they were through to the next round with a scoreless draw.
Australia 0-2 Peru: Australia went with a basic 4-4-1-1 formation, not very adventurous considering they still had a chance at advancement depending on the result in the other group fixture. No real creator anywhere on the pitch for the Socceroos so they were just going to play the ball to their front man Tomi Juric and hope he could get the ball on to Tom Rogic trailing in. Peru were going to run at you with a 4-2-3-1, with three forwards up front with Edison Flores and André Carrillo bringing the ball into the box for target man Paolo Guerrero from either flank. Peru was not going to just sit back and let the Australians come at them; they pressed them high, forcing the Aussies to go over the top to get the ball forward. Australia took a lot of shots but very few on goal, and they were rewarded a lot of direct free kicks. Both teams tried to stay compact, forcing each other to make lateral passes and avoid diagonal long balls. Not much play from side to side.
Recognizing the Australia was playing a high back line, Peru played a long ball up front to Guerrero, who set up Carillo for the one-timer. Australia didn’t changed their game after going down, but they were more aware of the long ball getting behind them. Peru’s backline was playing high, also, which is why Australia was getting up front frequently. In the second half, Peru replaced Yoshimar Yotún with Pedro Aquino to get more of a push forward in midfield. Center forward Christian Cueva finally got on the end of a give-and-go, then found Guerrero in the box for a right-footed shot to the bottom left corner of the goal. In response, the Aussies brought on a veteran target man in Tim Cahill to offer more movement off the ball in the box, draw back deep into midfield to get the ball forward, and offer more aerial ability in front of goal. Then Australia tried to get more speed going forward by bringing in 19-year-old flanker Daniel Arzani, who was less creative than Robbie Kruse on the left but could get into the attacking end faster. Nothing worked. Peru stood firm and finished their tournament on a winning note despite crashing out days ago.
Iceland 1-2 Croatia: Iceland allowed too much space to Nigeria in their previous group fixture, so this time around they played a more compact 4-2-3-1, with Emil Hallfredsson and Aron Gunnarsson lying back in the center just in front of the back four. Alfred Ginnbogason was the target man up front getting on the end of balls into the box from flankers Birker Bjarnason and Johann Gudmundsson on the break, with talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson trailing in support. Croatia was already through to the next round, so there were nine changes to their 4-5-1 formation that felt more like a 4-3-2-1, but deep-lying playmaker Mateo Kovacic and free talisman Luka Modric retained their spots with the freedom to roam and find the game, with Ivan Perisic making his first start slotting inside from the left. Croatia is very good at making crisp, precise passes in a controlling attack, but what makes them dangerous is their ability to move players out of their usual roles and rotate them forward, backwards and inside as needed. When they don’t have possession they are adept at taking players on and closing them down and harassing them immediately. Iceland stayed tight defensively, then picked their moments and sprung on the break. Opportunities came up for Iceland on rare Croatian mistakes; they just didn’t convert.
Croatia played rather leisurely, choosing not to go up tempo; they did not have to take the game to Iceland, just manage the game and wait for opportunities to creep up. The one person Iceland needed to keep off the ball, Modric, they didn’t do a very good job of; as a result, you got to see why he is one of the best midfielders in Europe; he is very clinical and precise. Iceland’s best forays forward were down the flanks. What finally got Croatia on the board was a patient overloaded buildup in the Icelandic half resulting in a Milan Badelj finish in the center of the box. Needing a result, Iceland had to get forward, so they sent all of their wingers forward in attack, and overloaded the attacking half in more of a 3-5-2 setup. A Dejan Lovren handball in the box gives Iceland a lifeline; Sigurdsson converts. Iceland poured it on after that, but you could tell they were gassed late. Emil Hallfredsson got his pocket picked by Badelj in the back third, and he sent the ball into the left side of the box to Ivan Perisic, who sent it into the right corner of goal. A game effort by Iceland, who created plenty of chances on goal and had a number of chances to win, but they left way too many gaps for a possessive and organized Croatia team to exploit.
Nigeria 1-2 Argentina: Nigeria played a tight, midfield-intensive 3-5-2, looking to challenge Argentina in the middle third, but surprising given that there were only three defenders against an otherworldly player like Mess. The idea was to get the ball to right flanker Victor Moses on the right, and then bring the ball into the box for target man Kelechi Iheanacho to hold up play and Admed Musa to finish. It appeared as if Argentina was playing a conservative 4-4-2, but with the many changes to the starting XI, Argentina looked to keep their options open. Argentina replaced Sergio Aguerro with Gonzalo Higuain, who is better finding channels in the box. Lionel Messi was the central talisman up front, free to move all over the pitch, and Angel di Maria was back on his customary left flank, so Argentina was getting a lot more movement in the final third. With an eye on getting more players moved up in attack, Argentina brought in Éver Banega in a linkup roll. It worked; Banega with an over the top long pass to Messi, who beat his man one on one for an easy goal.
Nigeria looked confused in attack all game long, there was no organization to their offense, and couldn’t get any momentum going, like they didn’t know what they wanted to do on the ball from one moment to the next. Banega and Javier Mascherano did a great job of tying up the Nigerian attack in the midfield. Messi-Higuain-di Maria worked well together; the attack just flowed. Nigeria got a break in the 51st minute, when Mascherano was called for a penalty for bringing down in the box on a corner; Moses converted. In desperation, Argentina sent numbers forward. Center back Marcos Rojo does not come to mind when you think of the Argentine attack, but he was in the box on a cross by right winger Gabriel Mercado. Argentina spent so much time introducing their attack down the left flank with di Maria; what put them over the top was the one time they went down the right flank. Nigeria tempted the fates by giving up way too much possession to a sleeping giant.
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