KATHMANDU, June 21: From Iceland’s historical World Cup debut when it held Argentina to a 1-1 draw to Mexico beating the champions Germany 1-0, from Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick to Lionel Messi missing a penalty, the first round of the group stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup saw it all.
The big guns faltered in the round with Portugal and Spain sharing the spoils of a 3-3 draw, Brazil being held by Switzerland and France needing the technology to beat Australia. Uruguay needed a 89th minute corner to beat Egypt, while England saw most of its chances either missed or saved by the goalkeeper in its 2-1 win over Tunisia.
The only good performance with good result came to Belgium when it saw off Panama to win the game 3-0 that after Dries Mertens scored a scorching volley to lift his side.
The World Cup is wide open. It has never been as exciting after the end of round one.
The most disappointing result among the big guns was when Mexico defeated Germany with most speculating the hoodoo these recent World Cups have given us.
Italy and Spain faced the fate of going out of the World Cup group stages after winning the finals on earlier occasions. Italy won the 2006 edition, and went out of the group stages in 2010, while Spain won the 2010 finals, and crashed out of the group stages in 2014.
Germany has the resources to recover from the upset it faced against the Mexicans considering the number of game changers in the squad.
The likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, among others, including its captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Germany surely can recover against Sweden and South Korea, but Coach Joachim Loew must change the playing style same to tactics when it won the last World Cup in 2014.
Germany looked shaky at the back with veteran center backs Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels offering far too much room which led to Mexico attacking from small pockets of space. Hirving Lozano scored the winner against Germany on the 35th minute which was a prime example of how the Germans left its defense line failing to make enough grounds in the counter attack.
Germany should improve these weaknesses in the second round match against Sweden, who also beat South Korea 1-0, and will have all the advantage and less pressure in the game. A point will help the Swedes a lot in its pursuit of reaching the next round, as it can be easily expected of the Mexicans to defeat South Korea.
The next on the casualty list are South American duo Argentina and Brazil. Both the teams managed to take a point from their first game opponents, but none of them could actually make a meaningful difference with the likes of Messi and Neymar on their sides.
It was a nervy and tempting day at the Otkrytiye Stadium in Moscow where the first-timers Iceland managed to take a point against Argentina.
The country with over 300,000 population stayed back, absorbed the pressure, bullied the Argentinean attack line, saved Messi’s penalty and scored an equalizer four minutes after Sergio Aguero had given the South Americans a crucial lead.
Messi and co now faces a balanced Croatia in a bid to keep its round of 16 hopes alive, as Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0 to go top of the Group D table.
Likewise, it was pretty much the same as far as Brazil was concerned with the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Gabriel Jesus, among others failing to create an impact in the second half.
The first half saw Brazil dominate the game with Coutinho scoring his trademark curling effort from just outside the box. Switzerland scored the equalizer in the 50th minute and kept Brazil under the pressure throughout the game. None of the big players made an actual impact in the second half for Brazil, while every Swiss player was on a different mode and successfully protected the point.
Brazil will need to be on its best when it takes on Costa Rica, who lost to Serbia 1-0 and will be hoping to at least get something out of the game to keep its successive round of 16 hopes alive.
Convincing, yet not so good
Portugal 3-3 Spain! This was one of the best games of the World Cup and both the teams scored from the first to the last moment to hung on to the draw.
Spain was the better side despite, conceding early on from a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, but equalized inside the 25 minutes through Diego Costa to balance the match. Spain conceded again from a sloppy goalkeeping from David de Gea, but pulled two back to make the score 3-2 inside the hour mark. A late freekick goal from Ronaldo, which sealed his hattrick, meant Spain had to share the point despite playing better than Portugal.
Uruguay, France and England had the same problems in this round. All three teams won, but none of them were that convincing.
Uruguay defeated Salah-less Egypt 1-0 and had to wait as far as the 89th minute through Jose Gimenez.
France was expected to take control of the game against Australia, but thanks to two technological decisions, it managed to win. Well the decisions were legit, but the performance was below par. The first decision saw Antoine Griezmann taking the penalty kick after VAR adjudged that he was fouled by Joshua Risdon in the box, while the second spot kick was given to Australia as Samuel Umtiti handled the ball inside the box with his hand. The third goal saw goal-line technology being used for the first time in this World Cup with Aziz Behich scoring an own goal after Paul Pogba lofted the ball over the keeper.
England had its finishing to blame as it could not score more past Tunisia. Having had 18 shots and 60.6% possession, England found it hard to score more. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard missed most of the glorious chances, while they were saved by a brace from captain Harry Kane.
Better prepared underdogs
Russia, Iceland, Croatia, Serbia and Mexico were the teams who surprised many.
Russia started the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia, giving the Asians no chance at all to come back. Iceland leveled the game against Argentina and did not give Messi or co any chance to cause major threats.
Croatia played a balanced midfield performance defeating Nigeria 2-0 and comfortably. Serbia had its midfield and captain Aleksandr Kolarov to thank as his free-kick sealed a 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
And the best of the lot was Mexico’s compact defensive and free flowing attacking performance defeating Germany and making life difficult for the Germans to make a comeback.