FIFA World Cup is officially underway for all 32 qualifying teams, as Group H teams Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan finally got into the action Tuesday. With 20 games in the books, we have an idea of what is to come, but the results so far have shown the groups are anything but a foregone conclusion. Footballing giants suffered surprising draws and defeats, and the underdogs showed they meant business during the first wave of games. So how does each table look with 28 games remaining in group play?
With Groups A and B a game ahead of the rest of the field, the hosts have gotten off to a hot start taking six points from their first two games. After claiming three points in their opener against Saudi Arabia, the Russians faced a stiffer opponent in Egypt on Tuesday, who had Mohamed Salah back in the starting lineup. The Liverpool star did manage to score on a penalty kick, but Russia dominated Egypt from start to finish en route to a 3-1 victory and the top spot in the group. Uruguay beat Salah-less Egypt 1-0 on Friday and followed it up with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia this morning. With six points each, Uruguay’s matchup with Russia on Monday will be the deciding factor in who wins the group and who moves on in second place.
- Saudi Arabia
The hosts have looked lively on the attack against both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while Uruguay scraped their way by with just one goal in each game, both of which came from set pieces. If Russia continues to feed off of their home field advantage, Uruguay could be in trouble. A draw is all the Russians need to take first on goal difference and knowing this may lead Uruguay to apply more offensive pressure. In reality, it’s a toss up, and both teams are going through to the knockout stages, but my gut tells me to believe in the hosts.
In what most would argue was the best game of the 2018 World Cup so far, 2010 World Cup champions Spain took on 2016 European champions Portugal. After brilliant goals from both sides and a hat trick from Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the game settled at a 3-3 draw. Iran, who went unbeaten in World Cup qualifiers took care of Morocco 1-0 after a dramatic own goal in the 95th minute to go to the top of the group after game one. However, Spain and Portugal both took three points home with them today. Spain defeated Iran 1-0 thanks to a third World Cup goal from Diego Costa and a VAR offsides call that wiped out an Iran equalizer. Portugal jumped ahead early on Morocco via a brilliant header from Ronaldo, who currently leads the golden boot race with four goals in the tournament, and held on despite a strong performance from the last place team.
Despite being eliminated from reaching the knockout rounds, expect Morocco to fight their hardest against a much better Spain team and try to leave Russia with at least a point. Iran desperately needed to build off of their last-second victory over Morocco and although they played well, they now will need to defeat Portugal to move on. I can’t see that happening with Ronaldo scorching hot, so look for them to take home three more points and move along atop of Group B.
Despite a valiant effort from each of the underdogs in Group C, both France and Denmark claimed three points to start their World Cup campaigns. Denmark withstood a furious attack from Peru and clawed their way to a 1-0 win while France made World Cup history in a 2-1 win over Australia. Antoine Griezmann bagged a goal from the first ever penalty awarded by VAR review (video assistant referee). Although the Aussies would tie the game with a penalty of their own just a few minutes later, it would not be enough, as Paul Pogba made a terrific run that led to an unlucky own goal with just 10 minutes to play.
Neither of the two favorites had convincing performances, but first game jitters should be out by now and with three points already secured, both teams should emerge from the group. Peru looked strong against Denmark but to get out of this group that was a game they needed to rescue at least a point from. They will now need at least a win and a draw to get by, and still have to play France. Australia is in the same boat as Peru points-wise, and will have to figure out how to get their attack going after posting just four shots in their game with the French.
Hailed as one of the two best players in the world, Lionel Messi is infamous for his shortcomings on the international stage. Argentina has lost in three straight international finals including the 2014 World Cup, and stumbled out of the gates to get started in 2018. Iceland, the cinderellas of Euro 2016, fought their way to a 1-1 draw with the South Americans thanks to a saved Lionel Messi penalty kick by goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson. The Nigeria Super Eagles had looked forward to the 2018 World Cup with their snazzy sold out jerseys and exciting, young team but were humbled by the experienced Croatians in their first match. A header by striker Mario Mandzukic was deflected in for an own goal and captain Luka Modric bagged himself a penalty kick goal later to see his side to a 2-0 win.
Even after a disappointing start, Argentina should win Group D. They are ranked 5th in the world, far ahead of any of the other nations in their group, and looking at their roster from top to bottom shows why. If they are able to get everybody involved instead of forcing play through Messi, both Nigeria and Croatia should walk off the field the losers against Argentina. Croatia will likely be satisfied with a draw against Argentina but a loss would not butcher them. As long as they capture a win over football minnows Iceland, they will be on to the knockout stages.
Brazil failed to live up to the hype surrounding their team entering the tournament, and despite an early goal from Philippe Coutinho, the 2014 hosts drew 1-1 against Switzerland. The Swiss may be considered a bit overrated at 6th in the world rankings, ahead of France, Spain and England to name a few, but proved their strength in their first match in Russia. Serbia played Costa Rica in an even but scrappy game, and Serbian defender Aleksandar Kolarov was the difference maker with a beautiful free kick goal to seal a 1-0 victory.
- Costa Rica
Superstar Neymar left training Tuesday with an injury to the same foot he recently returned from surgery on. However, he practiced today and will be ready to go against Costa Rica Friday morning. The big teams have struggled to get out of first gear to start this tournament but I expect Brazil to show up with a fiery passion in their next two games to ensure they win the group. Serbia finishing second would be a surprise but is not out of the question. They have a strong midfield led by Nemanja Matic and Sergej Milinkovic Savic but will need to get more creative in the attack if they want to break down the Swiss. Switzerland should manage six points in their next two games to get through to the next round, and Costa Rica will need a miracle to take down the giants they’ll face to finish group play.
In an absolute stunner, 2014 World Cup champions Germany fell to Mexico 1-0. The Germans sent 25 shots towards the net but only nine were on target, and El Tri’s lightning fast counterattack play led to a Hirving Lozano goal in the 35th minute. Despite having 61% of the possession, Germany could not break down the Mexican defense and will now need to rebound to get out of the group. Sweden played well in a 1-0 win over South Korea, not allowing a single shot on target and scoring a penalty to earn three important points.
- South Korea
Mexico’s historic win over Germany should be the difference maker in group F, as both Sweden and South Korea lack the firepower to withstand an onslaught from the more potent offenses. Sweden could give Germany some trouble if the defending champs are unable to get the goal they need to open the floodgates, but if everything goes according to gameplan, expect the number one team in the world to find their way out of the group.
Belgium’s exciting young team from the 2014 World Cup has blossomed into a top-tier unit in 2018. They wiped out Panama 3-0 behind two goals from Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku and will hope to build on the victory by earning another three points against Tunisia next. England struggled against the African representatives but escaped with a 2-1 win thanks to a brace from Harry Kane that included a stoppage-time tap in that won them the game.
With a lethal attack that balances strength with speed, a midfield led by a maestro in Kevin De Bruyne, and a veteran defense backed by Thibaut Courtois at goalie, Belgium may well have a chance at not only winning Group G but the whole World Cup. England looked rocky against Tunisia but should steamroll Panama (who has never qualified for a World Cup until 2018) next and secure their spot in the knockout stages.
Perhaps the most unpredictable group saw two upsets in the first two games. Colombia played without their star midfielder James Rodriguez, who had a calf injury, and three minutes into their game with Japan they were playing with only 10 men after a handball led to a red card for Carlos Sanchez. Shinji Kagawa netted the resulting penalty kick and despite a tying goal from Colombia, Japan was able to find another goal with their one-man advantage to win 2-1. In another dramatic 2-1 game, Senegal knocked off Poland in shocking fashion. A deflected longshot was redirected into the net before halftime to give the Senegalese a goal, but their second goal was even stranger. After briefly heading to the sideline to nurse an injury, M’Baye Niang was waved back on to the pitch by the referees just as Poland back passed to their goalkeeper. Niang came from midfield and sprinted towards the ball beating Wojciech Szczesny to it and touching it around him before tapping it into an empty net. The play seemed unfair but was not reviewable by VAR and the goal stood, giving Senegal a second goal that would prove to be the winner, as a late Poland goal was not enough.
Senegal may have taken the wind out of the sails for Poland, and despite the goal being controversial, their overall performance was pretty impressive. If they take care of business and bring home three points against Japan look for them to represent Africa in the knockout stages. After a nightmare start for Columbia, expect them to be better playing with 11 men going forwards. The return of James Rodriguez to the lineup will help as well if he is able to go by the time their game with Poland kicks off Sunday afternoon. Whoever wins their matchup should go through with the loser going home, but a draw could hurt them both, giving Japan the chance to seize a golden opportunity and move on to the next round.
The group stages end with Group H’s final batch of games on June 28th. Most teams still have two games to go, and there has not been enough action to pick a frontrunner just yet. With an abundance of games going on during week two, there is still plenty of football to be played to decide which 16 teams will move on to the knockout stages. Will Ronaldo continue to dominate? Will Germany recover from their unexpected defeat? How will Brazil and Argentina respond after discouraging draws? The internet will keep you posted, but the best way to find out is to watch.