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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group G and H Third Matches

Senegal 0-1 Colombia: Senegal went with a safe 4-4-2 that played like a 4-2-2-2, with Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate providing cover for the backline, the creative talisman Sadio Mane on the left and speedy Ismaila Sarr getting deep in the right, Mbaye Niang the target man up front partnering with Keita Balde, who was expected to finish. Columbia played a 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 when they needed to send numbers forward. The creative force coming in from the left was James Rodriguez, but Juan Cuadrado was expected to make attacking runs from the right, with Ramadel Falcao holding up play for false-9 Juan Quintero trailing in. When Senegal had the ball in the final third, Mane, Niang, and Balde rotated throughout.

Colombia took a little time to get into their rhythm, which is short, crisp passes in the center. Senegal coach Aliou Cisse wanted his player to be creative with the ball on their feet. When Rodriguez went out with an injury in the 34th minute, the Colombian attack seemed to stall, like they were stuck in second gear, never finding that extra gear. Senegal was really organized, picking balls off in the midfield. At around the 60th minute Columbia got some inspired attacking from Quintero, who took on the talisman role with Rodriguez out, and Cuadrado got on the ball and into the box more effectively. Falcao just wasn’t getting the ball in the box much, shut down as he was by the Senegalese backline. A Yerry Mina header on a corner was the difference in this game in the 74th minute.

Needless to say, as soon as there was a score, Senegal sent numbers forward in an attempt to get on the board. Mane made several forays into the box, but Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was there to thwart it. Niang had a tough time getting on the end of the ball, so he was replaced late by Diafra Sakho. Senegal was level on points, goals, and goal differential with Japan at the end, but Senegal gets eliminated on the new fair play rule. FIFA needs to find a better tiebreaker than who has the least yellow cards.

Japan 0-1 Poland: Japan used a hybrid 4-5-1 that morphed into a 4-4-2 with two major changes; Yoshinori Muto was the starting target man up front holding the ball up for Shinji Okazaki joining him up top in a false-9 role. No real midfielder creator, so the wingers Takashi Usami and Gotoku Sakai were expected to bring the ball forward on the flanks. Poland, already eliminated from the tournament and with nothing to lose, experimented with an attacking 3-4-3, with deep-lying playmaker Grzegorz Krychowiak roaming from the center linking up with forwards Kamil Grosicki and Piotr Zielinski, trying to get striker Robert Lewandowski the service and help in the box he just hadn’t been getting. Japan was composed and sound on the ball, they keep the ball very well and have a fine balance; if someone goes forward, someone covers them. Japan was smart enough to let Lewandowski have just a little space, because they knew if they got a body on him he has the size and strength and turn and get a trailing player to help him. Poland could not allow the game to get stretched, because that suits Japan where they can be efficient with their passing, move into areas, and before you know it they are running at your backline.

Both teams were good at transitioning back on defense when not on the ball. Japan was at their best attacking when Muto trailed back and got the ball and his flankers Usami and Sakai got forward in front of him. Except for the one goal (a set piece goal by Jan Bednarek in the 59th minute), Japan’s defense was quite disciplined in the center, not allowing Poland to get through the middle, forcing them to have to use the flanks for the most part, interrupting the Polish attack at midfield. The center of Poland’s defense, Jan Bednarek and Kamil Glik, held firm all game long, and they had to; Japan ran at the heart of it all game long. Lewandowski had a horrible tournament, never allowed to get the ball on his feet in the box; he needed help and got none. It is obvious that the way to stop as prolific a scorer as Lewandowski is to cut off his service.

England 0-1 Belgium: Lots of changes for this top-of-the-table fixture for two teams already in the knockout stage; out of 22 postions, 19 different players started from their previous group fixtures. England looked to stay on the ball and employ an attacking 3-1-4-2. Eric Dier looked to break up play in front of the back three, and England Manager Gareth Southgate wanted to see what Trent Alexander-Arnold could do on the right side servicing James Vardy and Marcus Rashford up top. Belgium likes to filter numbers centrally in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Thorgan Hazard taking his brother Eden’s spot on the left filtering inside, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini in the center given the keys to the car to make the Belgian attack run, and Youri Tielemans and Adnan Januzaj rotating up top with striker Michy Batshuayi.

Early on this game was about who could pin whose wingers back, not giving them the space to move forward. Belgium’s attack was not nearly as dynamic without Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in the engine room. Alexander-Arnold showed a lot of calmness and flair on the right with his thrusts down the flank and service into the box; at 19 he was given a lot of responsibility in this game, and he performed capably in his first World Cup. Danny Rose, on the other hand, was less effective on the left. I like what I saw from Fallaini, who made several well-timed forays into the box with the ball on his feet, putting the England back three on their heels. With this many substitution, you kinda had to figure that the tempo, flow and rhythm that we had seen from both these teams in their first two fixtures would be interrupted.

In the 51st minute, England let Belgium have a little too much possession in the final third, allowing Januzaj to pick his spot on the right side of the box for a finisher. After that, England started to get a lot of offensive buildup through the center with sideline-to-sideline midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, While Belgium started filtering their passing through the sides. Not a disappointing loss for England, and certainly not a statement win for Belgium. This would have ben a much better game if both teams still had had something to play for. But given how both teams played, you have to wonder if either can regain the momentum they had coming into this game.

Panama 1-2 Tunisia: The best game of the day turned out to be this one between two teams that had already been eliminated and had the freedom to play with no pressure. Panama came out in a 4-3-3 that played like a 4-1-4-1 when they wanted a more disciplined approach, with Gabriel Gomez providing cover for the backline, Ricardo Avila and Anibal Godey the sideline-to-sideline midfielders expected to run into space going forward, Jose Luis Rodriguez and Edgar Barcenas on the upper flanks servicing the ball inside to lone target man Gabriel Torres. Tunisia played a similar 4-3-3 formation but was a little more compact, with their crafty playmaking talisman Wahbi Khazri playing up top, rotating players in and out from sideline to sideline, so they were going to rely on movement both on and off the ball between the midfield and front players. Tunisia were on their third goalkeeper in Aymen Mathlouthi due to injuries.

Tunisia’s approach seemed to work better, passing the ball from one side to the other, moving the ball back and forth even in the final third, being patient and getting players running in and out to create opportunities (why didn’t they play like this all along?). Tunisia’s movement up front really confused the Panamanian defense. As a result, when Panama did get possession they were out of sync and there was decided lack of precision in the attack; they tried to get forward quickly but lacked an organized effort. It is of particular note that the lone goal scored by Panama was by own-goal (Yassine Meriah in the 33rd minute, although on that particular Panamanian buildup the Tunisian backline was 6’s & 7’s). To deal with the constant Tunisian movement up front, it looked like Panama was dropping five back in defense. The two attacking players that were expected to score for Tunisia – Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (in the 51st minute) and especially the striker up top Wahbi Khazri (in the 66th minute) – finally got on the board this tournament.

Both Tunisian goals were as clinical as they come, as the Panamanian backline left too many wide open spaces and did not communicate with each other. Panama did get some long passes into the attacking third in the last 25 minutes, but nothing they could get on the end of to finish. Panama finished them off with possession and tight defending in the back. It’s a shame we didn’t see this kind of attacking rhythm from Tunisia all along.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group G and H Second Matches

Belgium 5-2 Tunisia: As loaded as Belgium is, they did not play their best in the win vs. Panama. In this game, they looked to get midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne more involved in attack in a surprisingly adventuresome 3-4-3 formation. Tunisia plays the same formation, with a backline that plays surprisingly high. Belgium look to take advantage of this early by sending numbers forward and running at Tunisia’s backline, forcing a mistake at an inopportune time. It worked; Tunisia gave up an early penalty, which Hazard buried. Tunisia looked to close down the ball and run the ball down the flanks. Belgium’s talisman, Hazard, looked to get the ball in the box with his back to the goal; he was actually more of the target man than the man up top, Romelu Lukaku. Because of the early Belgian goal, Tunisia had to open up their attack and stretch themselves out, pressing and closing down even more to get control of the ball and go on the counter. Belgium is not the team you want to do that against. It was obvious early on that Tunisia’s high 3-man backline was just not going to work. Belgium ran at it all day, intercepted the Tunisian attack in midfield, then quickly counterattacked when Tunisia left all kinds of space for Lukaku to take advantage of. Witness the second goal, by Lukaku.

Tunisia got a lifeline two minutes after the Lukaku goal on, what else, a set piece, by Dylan Bronn. Tunisia had chances to tie the game, but playing numbers forward and leaving their backline exposed led to way too many counterattacks by Belgium. Lukaku took advantage with a finish just before halftime, and Hazard did the same early in the second half. Tunisia was clearly going to go down playing their game which wasn’t working, instead of making any adjustments. Belgium should have scored more, but Ben Mustapha came up big, keeping several shots on target by Michy Batshuayi out in a losing effort. He couldn’t keep one out, though, scored by Batshuayi in stoppage time. More than the victory, the +6 goal differential will figure heavily in Belgium’s final group fixture against England.

England 6-1 Panana: The focus for England was to get the ball out on the wings with an attacking 3-1-4-2 formation, creating space for flankers Ashley Young and Kieren Trippier to make runs going forward and get the ball into their primary scorer Harry Kane, but they were going to need more from Raheem Sterling in front of goal. Panama were going to maintain a low block 4-5-1 formation, looking to play deep and conservative to try to thwart the England attack. Center midfielder Gabriel Gomez was the center of attack, lying deep for Panama. Set piece service was problematic for Panama, but given how conservative they played and how they sat back and let the game come to them, they were going to rely on set pieces after quick counters without numbers. A bigger issue for Panama was their lack of finishing. Panama was intent on not letting Kane get on the end of long service into the box; problem was on a set piece they didn’t focus on others, which is why John Stones got loose in the box on a corner and headed in a gem in the 8th minute. After getting down early, Panama started making desperate mistakes, committing a foul in the box on Jesse Lingard that led to a Kane penalty. I liked the movement of center midfielder Jesse Lingard, whose position is center midfielder but played with a lot more freedom from sideline to sideline finding space anywhere he could to receive the ball and get it into the box. Panama were 6’s and 7’s in the back, especially on set pieces, as evinced by the Stones goal in the 40th minute, and the Kane penalty in the 45th minute.

England played a surprisingly high backline given the score, so on occasion Panama actually did show some quality getting into the final third, so it’s not like they were entirely toothless. I can understand why the Three Lions stayed on the gas; they wanted to make up the goal differential in their final fixture with Belgium. England’s backline didn’t let up, either, wanting to keep a clean sheet. So they weren’t happy about giving up a late goal to Panama in the 78th minute; it complicated their game against Belgium in case of a tie. Clearly England made its most effective thrusts forward on the right side with Trippier; you’d think Panama would have figured that out at some point. Harry Kane becomes the first England player since Gary Lineker in 1986 to score a hat trick in the World Cup. Panama is out in spectacular fashion.

Japan 2-2 Senegal: Two surprise leaders of Group H, this promised to be a track meet. Japan looked to play a technical, possession-based 4-5-1, moving the ball around and probing for space to get the ball to target man Yuya Osako, who held the ball up in the box for trailing talisman Shinji Kagawa. Nigerian target man M’Baye Niang got a lot of help in the box from a 4-3-3 formation that sent a lot of speedy, powerful players forward through the middle, and relied heavily on winger Sadio Mané to take the ball from the left to the center, while being very physical in the back. Senegal was physically more powerful and very direct going forward, but Japan could match them in speed and quickness. As expected, Mané was in the right place at the right time to put a bad clearance from Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima back in the net. Senegal was really putting pressure all other the pitch on Japan, forcing Japan to bring their attacking players back in defensive support. Japan caught Senegal ball-watching on occasion, spreading the ball out on the flanks going forward, making overlapping diagonal runs into space both on and off the ball, which caused Japan to finally brake through in the 34th minute on a Takashi Inui from the left flank.

In the second half, Senegal did a better job of switching play from side to side and organizing their attack, as evinced by their goal in the 71st minute by winger Moussa Wagué. Japan’s best attack came down the right flank by winger Hiroki Sakai to flanker Genki Haraguchi. After Japan replaced Shinji Kagawa with substitute talisman Keisuke Honda, Honda made his presence felt in the 78th minute when a confused and chaotic clearance from Senegalese goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye led to a Honda one-timer. Gotta give it to Japan; they stood up to the physical play by Senegal and the game never devolved into a street fight. Great effort by both teams, who I’m sure feel like they just kissed their sister.

Poland 0-3 Colombia: This game was simple for both teams: Get the ball to their finishers up front. Poland employed an attacking 3-4-3 formation, looking for center creator Grzegorz Krychowiak to link up with Piotr Zielinski and Robert Lewandowski in the box, who is not the kind of striker who can create his own shot and needs service and crosses. For Poland and their 4-2-3-1 formation, their approach was to get the ball out on the feet of their left flank talisman James Rodriguez, the leading scorer in the 2014 World Cup, and let him bring the ball into the box for Radamel Falcao to finish, with Juan Cuadrado and Juan Quintero trailing in. This was a fast-paced game; less time spent in the middle third than you would have thought. Both teams played with a sense of urgency given their unexpected losses in their openers. The unfortunate byproduct of this urgency was that things got chippy and physical, as evinced by the number of injuries. Falcao was getting crosses, but more times than not he was taking on three center-backs all by himself; Cuadrado and Quintero weren’t giving him the trailing help he needed.

Colombia took a more long approach to getting forward, mostly down the right flank with Curadrado. Poland were are little more direct with their passing through the center with Krychowiak, but they just weren’t developing an offensive rhythm, just way too disjointed and unorganized. Surprised by how little thrusts forward Poland got from their wingers Maciej Rybus and Bartosz Bereszynski considering they only had a three-man backline. Yerry Mina used his height and hops in beautiful use on a set piece cross from, who else, James Rodriguez. At some point the Polish side was going to let somebody get behind them as they sent numbers forward to try to get back in the game. It happened in the 71st minute by Falcao, and it happened again in the 75th minute when Cuadrado finished a filthy pass by Rodriguez. Lewandowski was just handcuffed all day by Colombia’s center backs Mina and Davinson Sánchez. Stick a fork in Poland; they are DONE!

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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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