Uruguay 3-0 Russia: You knew going in that neither teams was going to spend a lot of time in the middle third. Uruguay’s intent was evident from the start; they played an attacking 3-1-4-2 formation, putting long balls up front to their two front men Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and were so intent on quickly attacking they sent long passes directly up front and even took long shots from outside the box. Russia had every intent to play a direct attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, pumping the ball down the flanks and getting the ball inside to target man Artem Dzyuba to hold up play in the box and get his trailing help Aleksei Miranchuk from the center and flanker Denis Cheryshev from the left. A long pass to the front left Russia 6’s and 7’s in the back, fouling Suarez at the edge of the box; he converted a direct free kick for the score. Russia were not letting grass grow below their feet, pumping the ball forward to Dzyuba on the counter.
Russia put their size to good use, going over the top, winning 50/50 balls in the air and drawing set pieces. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and center defender Sergai Ignashevich showed their age; these two should have been better on set pieces. But it was Uruguay that did better on set pieces; left back Diego Laxalt scored on a corner. If Dzyuba got the ball anywhere but in the box, he was quickly closed down by two defenders. Uruguay made life on the left wing problematic for Russia, as evidenced by right back Igor Smolnikov having problems trying to slow Uruguay down, and leading to Smolnikov’s sending off early. Russia’s response was quick long balls over the top to the front to Dzyuba, but with no help.
With a two-goal lead, Uruguay looked to slow the game down, get their feet on the ball, manage the game, play keep away, and moving the ball around looking for overloads on one side of the ball. What put the final nail in the Russian coffin? A Cavani one-timer on a corner. Three set pieces, three goals! I guess Russia is good against bad teams, and bad against good teams.
Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt: Even though they were the first team out of the tournament, the Saudis played to win, utilizing a 4-1-4-1 that played like a 4-5-1, which was center-intensive despite not having a true talisman in the center and having numbers on the flanks. Egypt was also playing to win, choosing to keep it’s starting XI from the previous two group fixtures in a 4-5-1 formation, wasting no time getting the ball directly to their right talisman Mo Saleh, who was used to attack and draw Saudi players to him, hoping to open up space for other Egyptian players. Whenever Saleh touched the ball, two to three Saudi players collapsed on him, which didn’t stop him from trying to put it in fifth gear when he got the ball; it finally worked for him on a goal in the 22nd minute.
I was struck by the amount of skill on the ball both teams had, but what negated that was the lack of true defensive shape both teams exhibited. The Saudis controlled most of the match with their possession, showing a little more quickness (they had to if they were going to play the ball through the middle). Salem Al-Dawsari and Yaseer Al-Shahrani made some impressive thrusts into the attacking third from the left, but I was struck by how they and the rest of the Saudi flankers took less advantage of the flanks and made runs into the center into the teeth of the Egyptian defense.
As long as Saudi Arabia attacked in the center, Egypt defended with essentially two lines of four, leaving Salah and Treziguet up top making up the bulk of their counterattack. The heat mattered not to both these teams from hot-weather countries. The Saudis got shots off, just not on target; story of their tournament. Saudi pressure through the center eventually resulted in two Saudi penalties in the first half, converting on one by Salman Al-Faraj. At some point you knew that the Saudis would break through during the run of play with as many furious runs they made at the center of the Egyptian defense. It finally came in the 5th minute of stoppage time, on a patient build-up in the box to Al-Dawsari. Don’t tell either one of these teams this game meant nothing – it meant everything to these teams and these countries.
Iran 1-1 Portugal: Good to see Iran playing a meaningful game this late in the tournament. Iran sat deep in a modified 4-1-4-1 which played a lot like a 6-3-1, lying deep and waiting for Portugal to bring the game to them for them to counter. Portugal played a surprisingly more cautious 4-4-2, bringing in right flanker Ricardo Quaresma to set up Cristiano Ronaldo roaming freely from sideline to sideline in the final third, with Andre Silva in the box. Iran gave up an obscene amount of possession, but that did not worry them; they were comfortable keeping everything in front of them, content to make Ronaldo have to take his chances from long range. Not much play on the flanks by Iran, who were content to make direct attacking thrusts at Portuguese midfielders William Carvalho and Adrien Silva. Iran went for the quick combinations at the heart of the Portuguese defense in the box, putting together passes but not getting off any quality shots on target.
You could tell that Portugal wanted to catch Iran on the break, but Iran worked to interrupt the break. Iran was getting good chances in the final third, they just weren’t capitalizing on them. Somebody other than Ronaldo finally got it done for Portugal; as long as Iran was going to let Quaresma have the ball on the right flank, Quaresma was finally going to bring it in himself and take a shot. A rare miss by Ronaldo on a PK. Iran with a lifeline in the 3rd minute of stoppage time with a penalty goal by midfield substitute Karim Ansarifard. A Great fight back by Iran, putting Portugal through the ringer, but because of the result in Kaliningrad, Portugal goes through and Iran is sent packing.
Spain 2-2 Morocco: Morocco did not let Spain off the hook even though they had long since been eliminated. Spain played – what else – a patient 4-3-3 that played like of 4-5-1, ruling possession looking for space to make short passes into and looking to control flow and tempo. Andres Iniesta is the focal point of the patient attack for Spain in the center of midfield, looking to get the ball up front to target man Diego Costa, with help from David Silva and Isco coming in from the flanks. Morocco, with no pressure, looked to play a more direct 4-1-4-1 that plays like a 4-5-1, wanting to get the ball on the flanks to Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat, who then looked to cross the ball into target man Khalid Boutaïb. Spain wingers Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal love to push forward, creating space for Silva and Costa in the box. Morocco did their best to get bodies on Spain players in the attacking half, hoping to at least slow down the Spanish attack, which got tempers flaring.
The game plan for Morocco was allow Spain to have it, and when they made a mistake, pounce. It worked to perfection on their first goal when Boutaïb stole the ball at the half touch line from Sergio Ramos – Spain practically lulled themselves to sleep — and walked it in in the 14th minute. Isco found a channel to run into in the 19th minute and practically got in front of goal unmolested for a Spanish equalizer. I think Iniesta’s run into the box is what gave Isco the space to score; Iniesta runs into center channels caused all kinds of problems for the Moroccan backline all game long. The Spanish backline was getting beat by long passes and throws behind them; Boutaïb and Amrabat from the right had several good chances in front of goalkeeper David De Gea. As usual, Spain ruled the possession, this time by pressing high and winning the ball. Both teams were on point with substitutions: Youssef En-Nesyr came on for Boutaïb and scored in the 81st minute for Morocco, and Iago Aspas came on for Diego Costa and scored in the 91st minute for Spain. Give credit to Morocco for not giving in. They had something to play for: Pride in themselves, their team, and their country…