Who were the Winners, the Losers, the Sublime and the Ridiculous?
The business end. Knockout Football. Where one mistake can cost you everything. The finest of margins. Any other clichés you care to mention. This is where it counts. After the spills and thrills of the group rounds some truly tantalizing draws were made and enthralling football ensued. Normally when a tournament enters the knockout phase, the goals dry up as coaches tighten up defenses and creativity is stifled by the fear of mistakes. Not so this time around, much to the entertainment of the fans all around the world glued to their television sets. Stoppage time winners, red cards and a performance worthy of an Oscar just proved why the entire globe has been spellbound by Russia 2018.
An odd one to start off with, I know but considering the circumstances with which they reached this phase the gutsy Japanese have much to be proud of. Scraping in to the knockouts courtesy of the much criticized Fair Play system most expected a phenomenally talented Belgium side to swat aside the Samurais with ease. How wrong we were. What a game. Japan have always been proof that the sum of the parts can always overcome the lack world class talent. The men in blue ran themselves into the ground, picked themselves up and did it all again and that was just the first half. The opening goal to put them in front was well deserved and typified their dynamism. The second had me jumping on the table.
Could they hold on? The question on everyone’s lips and boy, did the Belgians have the answer. Almost through sheer force of will did they turn the tables to complete the first come from behind victory of its nature since 1954. None of their goals were masterpieces but they all count and their winner was just cruelly executed as Japan bravely tried to win the game. Although they bow out of Russia 2018, Japan can do so having won the hearts of the world.
The hosts continue to astound. What a night for the Russian public as they won a penalty shoot out to dismiss European football royalty. Spain have been disappointing for most of this world cup and the loss exposed the depths of their problems. Their defense relies on two of the most vaunted center backs in the world but it now seems clear that their time is over. Pique’s handball was inexplicable and correctly reviewed by VAR. I’d love to know what was going through his mind when he stuck his hand in the air? Diego Costa was starved of service by a midfield in disarray. Long gone is the celebrated trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets in their prime. Replacing them was always going to be a difficult task and as individually gifted David Silva, Koke and Isco are, they lack the cohesion of the Barca trio.
Possession is 9/10ths of the law but as Russia proved it doesn’t mean much if you can’t score. The hosts will now have a very real chance of reaching their goal of a semi final.
The curse is over. The Three Lions have finally won a penalty shoot out a World Cup. After so many heart aches from the spot, Jordan Pickford’s big left paw kept out Bacca’s penalty to send the home of football wild. Yet it all could have been so different. This match proving once again how small the margin between winning and losing really is. A stoppage time equalizer from a Mina header forcing extra time in a game balanced on a knife’s edge. With no goals to show from the extra half hour, the event any England football fan dreads came to pass: penalties, and when Jordan Henderson’s penalty was kept out it looked as if history would repeat itself all over again. Up stepped Mateus Uribe. The ball thundered off his foot, leaving Pickford grasping thin air before slamming into the underside of the bar. The world held its breath. And then England screamed with delight as the ricochet forced the ball out.
Had Lady Luck finally lifted her grudge against the Three Lions? She had indeed as Trppier and Dier buried their spot kicks before Pickford earned his team a spot in the Quarters.
Messi and Ronaldo:
Is this the beginning of a new era?
One where we might just see a new name emerge to claim the Ballon d’Or? Given this duo’s current records at club level perhaps not but after Messi dragging Argentina to the last World Cup final and Ronaldo doing one better by leading Portugal to glory at the Euro’s it is a sign that things are changing. It’s a sad thought that when Qatar kicks off in four years that in all likeliness the two best players of the 21 st century will not be gracing the pitch.
Speaking of two of the greatest ever, here is supposedly the usurper to the throne. What a sad day for football that would be if Neymar carries on with his needless histrionics. Especially, after we watched on as Ronaldo helped a stricken Edison Cavani off the pitch in a show of true sportsmanship, which is so sadly lacking in the modern game. I will leave this here because if I spoke my mind the editors would have to censor the entire paragraph.
What a start to the tournament they had. Unfortunately, as the campaign has progressed the ideas have ran out and the legs tired. Brazil didn’t really have to get out of second gear and whilst the Mexicans deserved their spot in the knockout stages, they didn’t build on that opening performance which had many tipping them as dark horses.
What a strike.
Taken in isolation this was a great goal: a lightening quick counter, dynamic running, crisp passing and an arrowed finish that left Courtois with no chance. However, when you combine that with the fact that this was for the underdogs to take a two goal lead against highly fancied opposition at a stage in the game where most expected the Japanese to sit back and protect their lead? That made it sensational.
The ball left Uribe’s boot like it had been fired from a cannon. Top Right. Postage stamp. Unstoppable? That’s what I thought. That’s what the Columbian thought. That’s what everyone
in the stadium thought as they rose as one as the ball arrowed towards the goal. Not today however as Pickford flew through the air at full stretch to palm the ball wide. Great pity that the resulting corner led to the equalizer but take nothing from the save.
Usain Bolt would have struggled to get the ball from one side to the other as fast as this counter attack. From defending a corner to scoring a goal in less than ten seconds. If you had turned
away for a moment you would have missed it. As soon as Japan lost control of possession in the Belgium box you could see trouble. Incisive passing and do or die running lead to Nacir Chadli tucking the ball into the back of the net from a Hazard cut back to condemn Japan to defeat.
Not since Zidane have we seen such a blatant head butt on the World Cup stage. Red mist seemed to descend on the Columbian as he decided that he would acquaint his skull with Jordan
Henderson’s chin. Madness. Somehow he managed to stay on the pitch regardless of the fact that the resulting penalty was given with VAR. To most, it was a clear cut red card and the referee will have had some explaining to do after the game.
The sad fact is that in La Liga the defender would have probably gotten away with it. He and his team would have swarmed around the referee and reminded him that he plays for Barcelona and that a different set of rules apply. The ref, fearful for his job most doubt, would have agreed that it is totally natural to fling your arm way above your head and by mistake make contact with the ball. Thankfully, this game wasn’t being played in Spain and justice prevailed.