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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group C and D Third Matches

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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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group C and D Second Matches

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.


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World Cup 2018: Group D First Matches

Group D opened play with heavy group favorite and two-time champion Argentina taking on World Cup darlings Iceland, making their first Cup appearance ever.  Imagine a game where one team had the ball over 70% of the time, completed their passes 92% of the time, had over 700 passes while the other team had less than 200,  took 26 shots to the other team’s 9, and had 10 corners vs. 2 for the other team.  You would expect that game to be a blowout.  The beauty of the beautiful game though is that dominance on the field does not always translate to wins.

As expected, Argentina dominated the ball from the get go.  Iceland was back on its heels and forced to bring everyone back on defense and to play rough.  The continued pressure by the Argentine offense finally achieved success when Sergio Aguero found a glimmer of space on a turn around shot that found the upper corner of the goal.  With the lead in hand, Argentina relaxed and Iceland pressed forward.  A shot across the box was deflected by Wilfredo Caballero, the Argentine goalie and onto the foot of Alfred Finnbogason among a sea of defenders.  Finnbogason buried the equalizer in the back of the net.  Argentina continued it’s offensive onslaught in the second half and earned a penalty kick after an unnecessary trip by an Icelandic defender.  Superstar Lionel Messi took the kick and directed it to the left corner, but goalie Hannes Halldorsson, a filmmaker when not playing futbol, guessed right and made the diving save.  Messi did not hit the ball hard and one wonders why he was taking the kick in the first place as he has only made 50% of his penalty kicks lately.  This failure would haunt Argentina the rest of the way as Iceland packed its defense, sending multiple men to mark Messi and rarely advancing to the other side of the field.  Iceland was content to play for the draw, taking no shots in the second half.  Argentina never figured out how to break through this defensive effort and the 1-1 draw was not the result they expected.

The other group D game featured Croatia and the tourney’s youngest team, Nigeria.  Unlike the Argentina-Iceland match, this game was spent with a lot of back and forth pushes.  Both teams found opportunities.  Nigeria repeatedly went to Victor Moses down the right wing, but while he delivered many good crosses into the box, a solid Croatian defense put out any fires before they started.  30 minutes in, Croatia broke through on a corner kick onto the near side of the goal box where it was headed into the middle.  Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic drove a diving header off a defender and into the corner of the goal from there.  Other than that goal, neither team had a shot on goal in the first half.  The Super Eagles started strong in the second half using superior speed and switching the point of attack to create opportunities.  Like the first half though, they cannot finish.  Croatia’s offense was not putting anything on goal either.  Midway in the second half, a Croatian pass into the Nigerian box resulted in defender William Troost-Ekong making a football, not a futbol, tackle, wrapping his arms around Mandzukic and pulling him to the ground.  Croatian captain Luka Modric drilled the resulting penalty kick into the bottom left corner for a 2-0 lead.  Down by two, one would expect Nigeria to play with some desperation and push the attack, but, if anything, Croatia did a better job controlling the pace through the end of the game.  The victory left Croatia in sole possession of first place of Group D, but with tough games against Argentina and Iceland yet to play.

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