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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group A and B Third Matches

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…

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group B Second Matches

Portugal 1-0 Morocco: Expected Porgutal to be on the front foot and attack from the outset; I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was Morocco that went on the attack from the outset. On the rare occasions when Cristiano Ronaldo has issues finding space up front, he has no problem drifting wide left to find it. There is only one person on the field Morocco absolutely has to mark; how they left Ronaldo open in the box on the set piece header that gave Portugal the early lead I will never know. Morocco actually did a good job putting numbers in the box up front, taking some quality chances. I like how comfortable Morocco was in tight spaces, with had good movement off the ball.

The much better attacking came from Morocco, and as the game wore on they sent waves of players into the attack, doing everything they could to get opportunities in the box, keeping up the pressure, but they just couldn’t find that final touch to put the ball in the back of the net. Morocco was especially effective down the right wing with Nordin Amrabat. When Gelsin Martins came into the game in the second half, Portugal showed more forward verve on the right flank. For two games Spain and now Morocco have been taking advantage of the weak center of the Portuguese defense in Jose’ Fonte and Pepe; Morocco just couldn’t finish. A very winnable game for Morocco. I’m waiting for Portugal to show me they are more than just Ronaldo…

Iran 0-1 Spain: Since Spain was going to play their usual “tici-taci” possession-intensive style, Iran was going to be satisfied sitting back and staying in front of the Spanish attack. It was up to Iranian Saeid Ezatolahi in the center of midfield to keep Diego Costa and Andres Iniesta out of the box. Things got snippy, which made sense; Iran doesn’t have the futbol quality that Spain has, so they threw their weight around. The problem was that when you give up so much possession to Spain, they eventually find a way to get the ball through. I know you want to keep your discipline and shape, but at a whopping 82% possession by Spain early, it would probably help if you had the ball at some point [sarcasm intended]. Winger Ramin Rezaeian finally got on the end of one for Iran, their first shot on goal in the 51st minute.

La Furia Roja patience paid of in the 53 minute by the opener by Diego Costa, his third goal (of course, it was Iniesta that provided it). You could make the argument that the best player on the pitch today was Isco, who found some space on the left side to keep possession and get in the final third. A VAR review took an Iranian set piece goal off the board, which I’m sure will bring a lot of criticism and controversy. The goal by Spain certainly opened up the game for Iran, who closed down Spanish players with the ball, gained possession and started getting the ball quickly forward into the box. Spain wanted to sit back and run out the clock after their goal, but Iran wouldn’t let them, and the game turned into a track meet the last 20 minutes. Got the sense that Spain was more relieved this game finally ended rather than feeling victorious.


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World Cup 2018: Group B First Matches

Morocco and Iran led off Group B play.  This game offered both teams their best chance to win a game in group play as neither is expected to do well against Spain and Portugal.  Morocco had superior speed and tried to use it to their advantage with long passes into the corners for their wings.  Unfortunately, this speed and some sloppy Iranian defense did not translate into good shots.  Morocco simply lacks a good finisher.  Too many of their shots were off target or directly at Iranian defenders.  On defense, the Moroccans tend to group together leaving large patches of the pitch unattended.  Iran was quick on the counterattack, but could only manage two on-target shots in the match.  Iran managed one good sequence late in the first half, but the Moroccan goalie proved up to the task, blocking one point blank shot and a second follow up rebound shot.  In the second half, Morocco really controlled possession, but managed very few scoring opportunities.  Neither team could put together sustained sequences.  Too many passes and shots were off target.  Perhaps fittingly, however, Morocco lost the game 4 minutes into extra time, on an own goal.  A Moroccan defender attempted to head out an Iranian free kick into the box, but instead put the ball past his own goalie.  All in all, a pretty ugly game to watch.

Portugal and Spain, the favorites, met with Group B and Iberian Peninsula supremacy on the line.  Portugal pressed the attack early on and Cristiano Ronaldo drew a penalty kick three minutes in with a step over move to beat a defender in the box who was then forced to foul him.  Ronaldo absolutely drilled the penalty kick into the upper right corner of the goal for the early lead.    The Portuguese kept up the pace, winning headers and generally looking more hungry.  However, midway through the first half, Spanish striker Diego Costa did some fancy dribbling around a few defenders and then blasted through the equalizer.  After that, the Spaniards took control of the game and nearly scored a few more goals with near missed shots.  In the last few minutes of the first half though, Portugal regained its composure and began placing pressure on the Spanish defense again.  Ronaldo managed a half foot of space for a turn around shot in the box which rocketed off the hands of Daniel De Gea, the Spanish goalie for a go ahead goal.  Despite the oomph on Ronaldo’s shot, De Gea really should have made the save. 

Early in the second half, Spain again got an equalizer on a beautiful floating free kick to the right side of the Portuguese goal, which was then headed back to the middle where Costa ran onto it for the easy goal.  Just a few minutes later, Nacho Hernandez hit a screaming volley off a rebound from just outside the box that hit the left post and went in, giving Spain its first lead.  Although Spain continued to control possession throughout the second half, Portugal managed a free kick with only a few minutes remaining.  Cristiano Ronaldo proved his reputation as one of the best two players in the world by bending the kick around the wall and into the upper right corner of the goal for the third tie of the game and a hat trick for Ronaldo.  The goalie barely moved on the kick as he immediately realized he had no chance at it.  Time ran out soon after and left neither team in control of the group yet.  Goal differential may prove to be the difference between first and second place in Group B, so expect to see both teams run up the score when they play Morocco and Iran.  This was the most entertaining game to watch in the first two days of the Cup.


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