Thursday 19 July 2018

World Cup 2018 Diary - second and third group games

Day 10: Saturday 23rd June
Belgium v Tunisia; South Korea v Mexixo; Germany v Sweden

Judging by the BBC pundits’ reaction to England’s win over Tunisia last Monday, Belgium must today be considered the greatest team the world has ever seen after they beat the Africans 5-2 with, as the sadly absent Andy Townsend might have put it, “genuine exhilarating football”.
In the evening, a ‘genuine sensation’ was building in Sochi, although I didn’t know about it until the next morning, waking up on the sofa and realising that my historically flawed power nap-plan had crumbled again. Once again watching on delay thanks to the kids, a late dinner, The Bridge (happy to watch a Swedish detective with the missus instead of her country' s football team, believing I could watch fictional drama and non-fictional drama in the same night) Germany showned no sign in the 20 minutes that I managed, of the vulnerability that would then infect them after my surrender to sleep. I woke, grubby and regretful, but senses intact to opt for the highlights. Shame, as I missed out on a live, thrilling end, Germany down to ten men at 1-1 but keeping their knockout stage hopes alive with a last minute free kick masterpiece from Toni Kroos.
Not sure what’s going on with Germany, though, they were ripped apart at times by Sweden and were lucky not to be down to ten, way before Jerome Boetang finally fulfilled his destiny by being red carded. Kroos was playing in a back three, which seemed daft. Low could surely have taken a chance on even Arsenal scapegoat Skhodran Mustafi to play in defence if it meant one of the most effective midfielders in the world could play in his actual position. The omission of Sane in the squad is still inexplicable, and the absence of a world class forward – which cost them in Euro 2016 and has been a problem since the retirement of all-time World Cup highest scorer, Miroslav Klose – has not been solved by the presence of Timo Werner. He was apparently their star at the Confederations Cup, but here in Russia the continuing game time of George McFly lookalike Mario Gomes says much for their forced faith in looking back and worries for the future.  

Day 11: Sunday 24thd June
England v Panama; Japan v Senegal; Poland v Colombia

I go to the supermarket when England play Panama, and find that extra yard of space, which is a sure sign of a world class shopper, even taking account for the lack of opposition trolleys. While the rest of the country bathes in happiness over a 6-1 win that breaks the World cup record for the quickest tally of goals scored (five) in one half, I get a free run at the falafel aisle, so who exactly is really winning, eh?! 
Day 12: Monday 25th June
Uruguay v Russia; Saudi Arabia Egypt; Spain v Morocco; Iran v Portugal

“Well, that was fun yesterday, wasn’t it?” somebody says to me at work in reference to the England game. I don’t explain, just agree submissively. It’s not like I’m going along with a racist remark or anything, I’m just pretending in that moment that I am happy my country won a football match. I feel unease, but to unburden myself seems so wearisome. This is in spite of my LGBTQ+ ally training from Stonewall, which touches upon the exhaustion LGBTQ+ people must feel when they invent everyday stories to keep their difference a secret. My place of work is a positive, inclusive environment, but I’m still choosing to live a lie.
In the comfort of my own kitchen, I watch Spain take on Morocco in the second half, aware they could potentially be England’s opponents in a semi final. I worry then, when Morocco, already out of contention for the second phase, take the lead with about 20 minutes left, a brilliant header in the top corner. This elevates Portugal, playing Iran in the synchronised third and final of the group games (West Germany and Austria way ahead of VAR in innovation), to the top spot in the table and potentially England’s last four opponents instead.  I’m reliant on the like of Spain to provide me with assurance that this World Cup isn’t so even that England could stumble all the way through it. I need the heavyweights, but now doubt that the successive European Champions and World Cup winners between 2008 and 2012 can ease my nagging concern. Morocco play with the energy and fight of a team with nothing to lose, while I curse the Spanish Football Federation for sacking their manager on the even of the tournament (Julen Lopetegui signed a contract with Real Madrid without his existing employers knowing) and bringing in the sporting director, Fernando Hierro, a figurehead symbol of his country’s mentally fragile, underachieving years. 
Then, in the late stages of the other game, Ronaldo misses a penalty, and while an injury was being treated in the one I was watching, I went to hang out some washing on the line. When I came back, all the men on the ipad were standing still, or at least not playing. A VAR check was happening, as BBC’s pictures showed that Aspas’ clever flick into the Morocco net did not show him in an offside position. This allowed commentator Steve Wilson and co-commentator Danny Murphy to judge that the goal would stand, while we waited for the official to reach that inevitable conclusion himself. The goal was indeed awarded, and meanwhile in Saransk, Iran equalised against Portugal, putting Spain in top spot again, where they qualify to play the hosts on Sunday. Portugal now face a seemingly far sterner test against Uruguay, who embarrassed the Russians 3-0 in front of their own fans in the afternoon (like the time Dad shouted at me in front of my best friend for coming home late from school after going overboard collecting conkers).

Day 13: Tuesday 26th June 

Denmark v France: Australia v Peru: Argentina v Nigeria: Iceland v Croatia

Listening to Talksport FM's summary of the first 0-0 of this World Cup, I became pleased that Denmark and France had just played out a dreadful, drab encounter befitting the scoreline's name, because it infuriates the station's main presenter, Adrian Durham. I can't bear his voice, and had to turn off after hearing his strained tones bleating "How stupid...!" but did so satisfied that radio sport's biggest wind-up merchant had been stitched up himself by 90 minutes of West Germany-Austrian-1982-type skulduggery (albeit without a victim - neither Peru or Australia could qualify no matter the outcome of their match in the same group). Durham is the Piers Morgan of the sports reporting airwaves, shit-stirring in the absence of anything better to do and priding himself on being disliked in his crusade to tell-it-like-it-is. How remiss of Denmark and France to conserve their energy for the next round and deprive Durham of his apparent right to be entertained with every passing match.  He is without doubt (no, hang yes, yes) my least favourite Adrian to have ever presented coverage of football, and that's quite a feat.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Lionel Messi showed up today, or at least the ball showed up for him, courtesy of Sevilla's creative midfielder Ever Banega, who found him in the inside right position, from where a velvet touch, and then another out of the reach of a Nigerian defender enabled him to fizz a shot across the goalkeeper. 1-0 Argentina, and they were escaping with the last breath in the World Cup just as they'd gasped their way into it.   
But wait a minute, don't forget that defence of theirs, even with a new goalie, Amani, in ahead of Caballero. Two Argentines go for the same ball and concede a corner, and one of them, Javier Mascherano - reminiscent here of a Dad pulled in to a Sunday league game due to lack of numbers - gave away a penalty in equally rash terms. Victor Moses of Chelsea stroked the ball home calmly and then performed a somersault, probably confident in the knowledge that Antonio Conte won't be at Stamford Bridge after all this is over to tell him off.
Argentina step it up thrillingly in their search for the winner they need to get through (as long as Iceland don't beat Croatia) but get lucky twice when former Watford one-trick pony (and half-Prem season wonder) Odion Ighalo fluffs two great chances that would have put Nigeria into the knockout stages. BBC pundits later claim that Argentina got lucky a third time when Marcos Rojo got away with heading the ball onto his outstretched arm in the penalty area. Rio Ferdinand conceded that the action was accidental, and that the position of the arm wasn't elevated but countered by arguing that his bad positioning was responsible for the incident. Gary Neville, another past Manchester United defender, had presented the same view on ITV when discussing the VAR-led award of France's penalty against Australia.  Going to ground after losing Griezmann was justice enough in Red Nev's eyes to penalise the defender, even if no actual contact or interference was made. It should be remembered here that Red Nev's eyes had failed him during a mid noughties documentary on David Beckham when his efforts to host his friend for dinner were lengthily disrupted by his inability to find a wooden spoon anywhere in the kitchen. The desperate inspection of cupboards and drawers way exceeded the average time taken for a VAR check, and even years on, the frustration of falling below the high standards he sets himself, allows Red Nev to overlook a non-foul in favour of a definite dive.  
One pundit who doesn't think Rojo should have been penalised, is Pablo Zabaletta, but then he does have an Argentine passport!! If I was in the studio I would have added that, well, it's about time the Argentine's got away with a controversial handball in the World Cup!!!
As it turns out, Rojo is very much rewarded for his endeavours when he sweeps in Mercado's right wing centre with all the aplomb of a professional footballer. I shouted in delight, arms up in the air, and it's a stirring moment when the slow mo shows the full ecstasy etched on his face as he approached his glorious leader, Messi, to jump on in celebration, while the bare-chested, scarf-twirling maniacs in the stands go loco, to be fair.
Nigeria had looked good in the second half against Iceland, Musa showing Leicester fans what they didn't see last season, scoring as many goals in that match as he'd managed in his one season at the Not Filbert Street Stadium. And had another rejected Prem forward not displayed why initial 'interest' in prising him away from Vicarage Road had waned, they would probably have been through to face France instead. 
Instead, high up in the VIP area, Maradona was given carte blanche to present a double-finger address to, presumably, Nigeria fans. The 2010 manager's wild eyes was reminiscent of his goal celebration against Greece in USA 94,  while the disgrace that Lineker objected to (worse than some of Russia's evil deeds, Gary?) was coincidental in featuring Nigeria, who were beaten in Argentina's second game of that 94 World Cup, minutes before Maradona was led off for a random drug-test. Like Rio Ferdinand, a period of absence was the result.  

Day 14: South Korea v Germany: Mexico v Sweden: Serbia v Brazil: Switzerland v Costa Rica

North Korea started it. 
Don't worry, I'm not going all political again, I mean in terms of football World Cup shocks and the divided Koreans. The North shocked Italy and the world (including "an adoring crowd at Middlesbrough who loved them and called them "us" ") in 66, knocking out one of the tournament favourites 1-0 and even dashing into a 3-0 lead against Portugal in a quarter final before Eusebio put them in their place.  Twenty years later, in Mexico, their friendly neighbours from the South caused an even bigger shock when they escaped without a single red card in an assault-charged  tournament debut.  Sixteen years further, co-hosting in 2002 with Japan, they did for Italy again, the Golden Goal winner from their Perugia striker sufficient to get him the sack from his club. Their quarter final with Hierro's Spain is a real-life example of what you might have expected Russia to benefit from this year. With two Spanish goals wrongly disallowed in the 90 minutes, a penalty shoot out saw the South Korean goalkeeper allowed to make saves practically from the penalty spot itself. I went to a wedding that day, and remember people being outraged by he injustice who normally had no interest in football. Their luck ran out in the semi final, though, unable to find a way, any way, past an uninspired Germany who weren't quite as bad as in Euro 2000, or as vulnerable in their 5-1 home humbling by England six months earlier. 
Another sixteen years on, and the world is shocked again when, already eliminated, South Korea take Germany with them. The holders' last-gasp win over Sweden when a man short proves not to be a symbol of a resurgence. While the Swedes unexpectedly bashed up Mexico 3-0, a lumpen, tired-looking Germany watched time and again as the Koreans' Ighalo-like profligacy obliged them to trudge forward again in hope of a goal that would deprive the Mexicans of their route to the last 16. Their moment seemed to arrive when Bayern Munich's Mats Hummels found himself all alone in the Korean box, only for the centre half to shoulder the cross wide and invite similarities (if only by me) with Kevin Keegan's slice of infamy against Spain in 82. The Koreans finally got their act together, scoring twice in stoppage time, the first after a VAR hold-up, the second when Golden Glove winner of 2014, Manuel Neuer embarked on an escapade that will probably become the second most memorable act of a German goalkeeper found outside his box in a World Cup match. With players like scorer Heong Son Min of Tottenham and the all-action Ju-Se-Jongo, Korea's win isn't the seismic shock of the North over Italy, for instance, but Germany, any Germany, going out at the first possible stage - the first time it's happened since group stages were formed -  is the real jaw-dropper. But should it be? The holders of a World Cup have now gone out in the group stage in four of the last five tournaments, rivalling as tradition, the opening 1-0 defeat for defending champions. It's just that it's...Germany. Things that happen to others don't happen to them. They always 'find a way', it is said. Whether it's a back-header of the century from Uwe Zeeler in 1970 when 2-0 down to England in the quarter final, or an ailing Karl-Heinze Rummenigge leg 2-0 down in the 86 Final, or a right foot shot from Mesut Ozil at 0-0 and on 4 points in the final group game in 2010  with 20 minutes left or a last seconds free kick on the byline from Toni Kroos as they stared 1 point from two games in the face against Sweden last Friday, they always get there. They always 'find a way'. But not today. It's easy to crucify in hindsight, but when was leaving out Leroy Sane from the squad ever going to be accepted as masterstroke?  His omission was all the more glaring in light of Timo Werner being pushed out into his position in the second half today, and looking even more useless than at centre forward. The toying with Kroos at centre back seemed nearly as odd, as did dropping Ozil after the Mexico defeat and then putting him back in after they beat Sweden. 
In the BBC studio, Alan Shearer unleashed an attack on Germany's creativity and discipline, while never once mentioning that he'd tipped them to win the tournament. 

When a colleague at work told me last Friday that Brazil had just scored in the last minute to beat Costa Rica, I joked that the goal had probably come from a desperate hoof into the box and a knock down from the big man in the box. It turned that I wasn't far off, just the big men absent. This evening, against Serbia, they score with a header from a corner ( Neymar to Thiago Silva, a combination noteworthy of it's Paris St Germain connection and of both players being absent, and possibly responsible for, their country's 2014 semi-final  7-1 catastrophe by Germany in front of their own fans, recalling memoriues of me being berated by my dad in my own bedroom in front of my cousin because I'd been holding a cup of soup close to the closed door that he then barged through unannounced, but please, let's not get caught up in my childhood relationship with my father, we're talking about a game of football in Russia here, for heavens sake). To highlight this moment would be to suggest that I'm talking about Brazil pre 1990, when the thoery was that the men in yellow didn't often do things like use their head to divert the ball forward, or welly a clearance 60 yards downfield, or employ a destructive midfielder in the front of the back one for protection. "You score three and we'll score four", Alan Hansen would assume their philosophy even at recent World Cups, although I doubt that was ever really true of even the 1970 or 1982 teams. It was in 90 that the "European" influence of their now internationally scattered players could be seen in, well, the absence of Socrates, and every pass being a back heel, for instance. Interestingly, this apparent change if style saw them go out at the earliest stage since 1966 (losing 1-0 to Argentina), although they won the next one in USA, conceding only to Holland in the quarter final. Against Serbia they look to me like they could repeat that success. Not only do they score headers at corners, they produce chips like Coutinho's for the kpening goal, scored by Paulinho. They play the ball at a speed hat I couldn't help comparing to England's, and wonder what would be said by our delirious studio bums if we played like them. Perhaps most tellingly of all, they have a goalkeeper better than Ederson.  Roma's Allison actually dropped a routine cross during Serbia's best spell of the match at 1-0, although I'd be happy to see him keep his place  as part of the quality assurance theory in terms of stopping England, if it means not having to look at Ederson's terrible neck tattoo.

Day 15: June 28th  Senegal v Colombia, Japan v Poland, England v Belgium, Panama v Tunisia 

The chap who sits behind me at work disagrees with my favourable assessment of Brazil and argues that if England were to face them in the quarter final (fingers crossed, should England get that far), you just have to "negate Neymar". 
"But what about Coutinho, Willian, Gabriel Jesus, Marcelo...?" I counter. 
If they negate Kane, who would be left to scare them? In fairness to England, Brazil have a population of roughly 210 million compared to the 60 million or so over here, so it should be expected that they are better than us and have won the most World Cups of any country. As someone who is forever banging on about Manchester City's Dubai-sponsored, petro-dollar wealth that has transformed an unthreatening, lower-middle Premier League club into regular title winners, I feel it's only fair I should say that. The Beeb never say that about City f course, not when it might call into question their weekend nights product. You'd think they had the same budget as Huddersfield Town, the way they don't go on about it. Alan Hansen did refer to it once, when he was pissed off that Liverpool's derailing in 2013-14 allowed City to sneek in and claim the title. "They should win it!" he harrumphed (when, in 2004-05 when the newly Abramovic-rich Chelsea won the league for the first time in 50 years ahead of Arsenal, he merely declared that the money was "relevant").
But let's not get into my bitterness about how the distortion of wealth is dictating that only City and Chelsea can win the league these days (with the notably beautiful exception of Leicester City ), we're celebrating the World Cup here, for goodness sake, no need for the black cloud. Come on...
  Kane didn't play against Belgium tonight, and was one of those rested for a game that would decide who avoided the Brazil tie in the quarter final. I'm being incredibly disrespectful to Mexico, who face Brazil in the last 16, but their fans have been chanting anti-gay rhetoric whenever the other goalie takes a goal kick, so I'm not that bothred by my conduct. FIFA have warned Mexico that that they could be handed a bonus of up to £6,000 if they continue to repeat the insulting language, or something. I didn't watch again, but was glad to see England get a defeat under their belt, albeit in a game that judging by the line ups, was probably like the proverbial 'on the beach' end of season Prem contest. Should the game have ended in a draw, which would have left both teams on same points and goal difference, the team with the best fair play record, or less yellow cards, would have secured top spot in the group.  In five a side tournaments as a kid, the number of corners won would decide drawn matches, rewarding positive play rather than relying on referee perfection.
My pleasure at seeing England settle for runners up is tempered by the surely favourable route that lies ahead. Although Belgium face Japan in the last 16, they get the likely tussle with Brazil, while England will face Colombia without their star player James Rodriguez of Real Madrid (loaned to Bayern Munich last season, scoring against Real in the Champions League semi final) and then Switzerland or Sweden in a quarter final, followed by in a semi by Spain, whose travails now infuriate me. This is supposed to be the World Cup I get to fully relax and enjoy (now that I'm watching it) with no England distraction to threaten me because of the poorest squad we've had in years! Before the tournament, one of my favourite writers said that England's "lack of star quality will do for them at some stage", but could he have foreseen such a carpet rolled path to the last four?
Adnan Januzai, this was no time to make your mark.

So, the top two from each group go through to the first knockout stage, while the bottom two drop through the trap door to Love Island. Early indications are that Serbia will look to couple up with Peru, while there are doubts that Senegal will fancy Dani Dyer on a balmy Thursday night in Mallorca.  


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