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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