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World Cup 2018: Group H First Matches

The last group to begin World Cup play is Group H, which starts with Colombia meeting Japan.  The Samurai Blue come in as one of the lower-ranked teams, 61st in the FIFA rankings.  This is a rematch of a group game four years ago in Brazil in which Colombia slammed Japan 4-1.  Just a few minutes in, a Japanese breakaway gets a shot off that the Colombian goalie expertly blocked, but the rebound  goes right back to the Japanese for a follow-up shot.  With the goalie on the ground, Colombian defender Carlos Sanchez used his arm to block the shot.  This is both a penalty kick and an automatic red card for Sanchez.  Shinji Kagawa delivered the penalty kick to the right while the goalie guessed left for an early Japanese lead.  While Japan controls the pace through the first half, Colombia had several scoring opportunities, notably Radamel Falcao several times knocking volleys with an outstretched foot on passes over the top of the defense.  Japanese striker Yuya Osaka made a beautiful nutmeg move that led to a good opportunity.

However, neither team was able to put shots on goal.  In the latter part of the first half, on a free kick just outside the Japanese box, Juan Quintero fooled the wall by striking the ball under the jumping wall and toward the near post.  The Japanese goalie nearly made the save, but the ball just got over the goal line.  In the second half, Colombia began to feel the effect of being a man down as the Japanese created several scoring opportunities.  Near misses on shots and one good save by the Colombian goalie kept the game tied for much of the second half.  Finally, in the 73rd minute, the pressure was too much.  A Japanese corner kick resulted in an Osaka header to the far post and the lead.  As time wound down, the Japanese used their man advantage to play keep away and keep the Colombians from gaining possession.  The Colombians pushed everyone up on offense at the end in a futile effort to get the equalizer.  Despite being the underdog going in, the Japanese looked to be the better team, controlling the pace and developing better shots.

8th ranked by FIFA, Poland went into its match with Senegal looking to take control of the group with Colombia’s loss.  They played without defender Kamil Glik, benched with a shoulder injury.  Perhaps as a result, the Poles opened the game with four in the back instead of their usual three.  Senegal opened the game being very aggressive on the attack, sending passes over the top of the Polish defense for its wings to run onto.  They were unable to deliver shots on target however.  Neither team developed good combinations for much of the first half until 37 minutes in when Senegal strings together passes from midfield to the left side and switching sides to the right.  The final pass was to an on-rushing Idrissa Gana Gueye, who rocketed a shot off a Polish defender and into the goal from just outside the box.  The goalie never stood a chance after the deflection.  Invigorated, Senegal nearly delivered another goal a few minutes later off a corner kick.  But the attacker headed the ball down with too much force and it bounced over the goal.

Starting the second half, Poland brought on another midfielder replacing one of their defenders, getting back to the three-wide defense that brought them success in qualifying.  Early in the second half, Polish captain and striker Robert Lewandowski, who was the leading goal scorer in qualifying, made a great solo run from midfield, but was fouled and taken down just outside the box.  Lewandowski bent the ensuing free kick around the wall to the near post, but the Senegalese goalie made a great save.  15 minutes in, Mbaye Niang, who was off the field because of a slight injury, was motioned on by the referee just as Senegal put a pass over the top of the Polish defense.  Niang raced in from the sideline and beat the defense and goalie to the ball.  He flicked the ball over the goalie and then followed it to bury the ball into the empty net.  Poland complained about the timing of when Niang was let on the field to no avail.  As time was winding down, a Polish defender took down a Senegalese attacker near the end line in the box.  No foul was called and Poland immediately launched a counterattack off the goal kick where they drew a foul about 35 yards out from the goal.  Senegal’s defense appeared to be waiting for the referee to allow a substitute onto the field when the referee instead signaled for the free kick.  The kick was expertly delivered into the box where Grzegorz Krychowiak sent a header to the far post for a goal.  It was too little, too late though, as time ran out soon thereafter.  The referee had both teams complaining about his controversial leading to both second half goals.  Group H ends their first matches upside down from expectations with both group favorites Colombia and Poland losing.

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World Cup 2018: Group G First Matches

The first Group H match featured world #3 ranked Belgium, who stormed through qualifying, against Panama which squeaked into the World Cup out of the CONCACAF region ahead of the United States.  The early going was back and forth as the two teams felt each other out, but a critical early mistake by a Panamanian defender tapping the ball back to his goalie without putting any zip on the ball nearly resulted in a goal when a Belgian striker got to the ball first and fired a shot.  Fortunately for Panama, the shot was wide into the side of the net.  Throughout the first half, neither team is able to put together sustained possessions or good scoring opportunities.  The Belgians controlled the ball a little more, but were not showing much creativity in the attack.

In the second half, things changed.  Only two minutes in, Belgian striker Dries Mertens nails a volley from the upper corner of the box after a failed clearance attempt allowed a teammate to head the ball out to him.  Belgium almost got a second goal minutes later on a free kick, but it bent just wide left.  Soon after, Panama had its best chance to score when Michael Murillo made a great run into open space in the box and onto a nifty chip pass.  However, he could not put the ball past the goalie who made a quick reflex save.  Midway in the second half, Belgium managed some fancy dribbling inside of the Panama box leading to a short cross into the middle where Romelu Lukaku headed it in.  Lukaku struck again minutes later by outrunning the Panamanian defense onto a through ball and dribbled it into the box and chipped a shot over the goalie.  Despite the big 3-0 advantage, Belgium remained on the offensive till the end of the game, gathering several more good shots at the goal.  Belgium played like the Group G favorite that they are.  Panama may be lucky to score a goal in this World Cup.

Next up was England and Tunisia.  Almost immediately the Tunisian defense broke down and turned the ball over inside their own box, resulting in a hard shot from about six yards out.  Tunisia’s goalie made the kick save though.  England gathered several more quick, early opportunities, but kept just missing, until a corner kick found John Stones for a header.  The goalie again made the save, but the rebound went right to English captain Harry Kane who easily booted it in.  Somewhere in the sequence, the Tunisian goalie got hurt and he collapsed just after play resumed.  Tunisia turned to a back-up goalie who was immediately under assault from England’s offense.  Despite really poor marking by Tunisia’s defense inside the box, England cannot quite connect on another goal.  Tunisia’s offense was largely ineffective until English defender struck a Tunisian player in the head with his elbow inside the box.  It was a really stupid move particularly since there were no other players around them that might have hidden his illegal action.  Ferjani Sassi snuck the penalty kick just off the diving goalie’s fingers for the equalizer.  The English assault on the Tunisian goal continued throughout the rest of the first half with one save being made by a Tunisian defender heading the ball out from the goal line.  Near the end of the half, Englishman Jesse Lingard flicked a shot over the diving goalie from about 15 yards out.  With Lingard and a defender racing after the ball, it rolled slowly toward the goal before hitting the right post and rolling out of bounds.

The second half pace slowed down quite a bit, but England continued to control the game.  Numerous Tunisian penalties brought on numerous English set pieces, but England seems to lack a Beckham-type player who is a wizard on free kicks.  In extra time at the end, England finally garnered a winning goal on a corner kick that Harry McGuire headed over to Kane, who headed it in for his second goal of the game.  Once again, extremely poor marking by the Tunisian defense left Kane wide open for his shot to win the game.  Although England won the game as it was expected to do, its inability to finish against a terrible defense has to be concerning, particularly with a game against a really good Belgian defense still to come.

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World Cup 2018: Group F First Matches

Group F kicked off with the first match of defending champion Germany facing off against Mexico.  El Tri came out the aggressor and some good passing led to a great early opportunity that was only denied by a sliding block from long-time German defender Jerome Boateng.  The ensuing corner kick bounced off a German defender and rolled lazily across the mouth of the box, but no one could capitalize before the goalie finally pounced on it.  Both teams managed good pushes upfield, the Germans using short passes and controlled possession, while the Mexicans used long passes to great advantage particularly down the left wing.  For much of the first half, Germany got the better shots, but they weren’t making the Mexican goalie move much.  Mexico’s first good opportunity came about 34 minutes in on a through ball to Miguel Layon, but the pass is a touch too hard.  A minute later though came a great Mexican sequence.  A steal outside of their own box and a quick pass to midfield started a quick counterattack.  Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez started a deft give and go and attacked the German defense down the middle before laying the ball to the left side for Hirving Lozano, who picked it up in stride in the box.  Lozano made a quick stop and turn toward the middle to beat a defender and launched a rocket to the bottom left corner of the net beyond the diving goalie.  It was as pretty a sequence as you will see with the steal to the goal running almost the length of the field in less than 10 seconds.  The Mexicans seemed invigorated by the goal and launch several other quick counterattack opportunities in the first half.

In the second half, the Germans pushed their defenders up to help the offense, but lacked creativity in getting good shots.  The Mexican counterattack continually created opportunities and a 2-on-1 nearly garnered a second goal.  Germany kept the pressure up and got lots of shots off, including a bicycle kick in the box that went just high, but too often were mishitting their shots.  Essentially the second half was played on the Mexican half of the field with occasional Mexican breakouts.  If the Mexicans were a little bit crisper with their passes, they could have gotten several more goals.  As time ran out in the second half, Germany was taking any shot they could, but could not finish.  The 1-0 result continues a recent trend of defending World Cup champions failing to win their first matches in the next Cup.  The stats from this game would suggest that Germany was the better team and was just unlucky, but the stats lie.  Mexico earned this win, playing a better game and with a strategy that repeatedly broke down the German defense.  The Germans lacked a player who could finish and one wonders if they miss the retired Miroslav Klose, who was that finisher in the last 4 World Cups.

The second Group F game could not have been more different than Germany-Mexico.  Sweden, returning to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, took on perennial Asian qualifier, South Korea.  This game was a tough watch.  Neither team was sharp.  Passes and shots were off-target, possession could not be sustained, and neither team looked like they belonged in the Cup.  It was 20 minutes into the game before there was an on-target shot.  It resulted from poor marking in the box by South Korea’s defense, which allowed Swedish striker Marcus Berg to get a point blank shot from about 10 yards out, but it was right at the goalie who made the easy kick save.  This was the best opportunity for either team in the first half.  South Korea never managed an on-target shot in the first half, but technically got one early in the second half, a weak grounder from outside the box directly at the goalie. 

The best South Korean scoring opportunity came a little later in the second half  on a header that went barely wide left.  18 minutes into the second half, Sweden was awarded a penalty kick after a video review, the third time in this Cup that the new video review for penalties has resulted in a penalty kick.  It was an accidental foul by the South Korean defender who made a slide tackle at the ball, but the Swedish attacker got to the ball first just barely.  It was a clear foul, but not one that you could really fault the defender for.  Andreas Granqvist buried the penalty kick in the bottom right of the net easily as the South Korean goalie guessed the wrong direction on his dive.  Neither team was able to do much after that, trading possessions that they were not able to convert into scoring opportunities.  While Sweden ended up with the 1-0 win and 3 points, I would be surprised if either team advanced out of this group.

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