The first round of games in the 2018 FIFA World Cup are now officially through, so let’s take a look back and see what has happened, and what we have learned now that every team has at least one game under their belt.
Russia starts with a bang
The hosts came in as the lowest ranked team in the World Cup, with a FIFA ranking of 70 (although Saudi Arabia is only at 67), but they ran all over the Saudis 5-0 in the opening game for their first win at a World Cup since 2002. Denis Cheryshev scored his first two international goals after midfielder Alan Dzagoev came up injured. It has been reported that Dzagoev will likely miss the rest of the World Cup, but Russian fans will be encouraged after seeing great performances from Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin. Another solid performance against Egypt all but qualified the Russians for the knockout stages, as Cheryshev scored again to sit atop the goal scoring chart, along with Cristiano Ronaldo. They have a tough game left against Uruguay, but without much left to do, they should feel safe enough to advance.
Cristiano Ronaldo does it again
The final match on a day where the first two games both produced late winners, Portugal and Spain did not disappoint. Cristiano Ronaldo scored on either side of a Diego Costa strike, the first on a penalty in the fourth minute, and his second went in just before halftime to give Portugal a 2-1 lead at the break. After Costa scored his second, and Nacho got Spain’s third just three minutes later, Ronaldo saved a point for Portugal with a stunning free kick just two minutes from full time. Even at 33-years old, Ronaldo is still in his prime. He became just the fourth player to score in four different World Cups, and doubled his own World Cup total from three to six. Without him, Portugal would have lost the match and likely have been at the bottom of Group B. As it is, Portugal is only behind Iran at the moment, and as it has been, any possibility of Portuguese success lies with Ronaldo.
VAR could have a huge impact
You could say that France might have gotten off a little lucky against Australia, although they were dominant for most of the match, as both of their goals can be attributed to the Video Assistant Referee. Antoine Griezmann converted a penalty that was awarded with VAR, the first such case in World Cup history, and Paul Pogba’s late shot was determined to have crossed over the line giving France a late 2-1 lead. Peru also received a penalty thanks to VAR in their match against Denmark, but were unable to convert and ended up losing 0-1. Sweden was also the beneficiary of a VAR awarded penalty in their 1-0 win against South Korea. The Swedes were dominant for most of the match, but the penalty was the only goal that they ended up scoring. It will be interesting to see how the technology will affect the tournament, but in the end, the human referee does have the final decision, so there will still be some room for error.
Messi misses another penalty, Iceland salvages a point
Goals from Sergio Aguero and Alfred Finnbogason just five minutes apart in the first half set the score of Argentina-Iceland at 1-1, but in the 63rd minute, Lionel Messi stepped up to take a penalty. Unfortunately for him, Iceland keeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson, a part-time film director, guessed right and saved it to keep the score level.
“I looked at a lot of penalties from Messi, and I also looked at my behavior in the last couple of penalties I’ve faced.” Halldorsson told the media, “I tried to get into the minds and what they’d be thinking about me – I had a good feeling he was going to go that way today.”
For Iceland, who were playing their first ever World Cup match, a draw against the 2014 runners-up will be a dream start, while results against Nigeria and Croatia could see them through to the knockout stages once again, and they know another fairy tale run could be in the cards.
As for Messi, who has missed 4 of his last 7 penalties for Argentina and Barcelona, he looked visibly frustrated after the match. Why wouldn’t he be? Iceland played a physical game, and he and his Argentina teammates were unable to break through for a winner, just like Portugal in their first match of the 2016 Euros. Speaking of Portugal, Messi will continue to be compared to Ronaldo whether he likes it or not, and after the first round of matches in this tournament, Ronaldo currently looks the stronger of the two as far as individual performances go. Regardless, both teams currently sit on 1 point, and are likely to move on past the group stages.
Germany and Brazil struggle
The past two World Cup winners have failed to advance past the knockout stages in the past two tournaments, and this year’s champions got off to a rough start. Germany was outplayed by Mexico in a 1-0 loss, and it should’ve been worse. Hirving Lozano scored in the 35th minute, and both teams spurned some great chances the rest of the way. The Germans should still be favored to advance with Sweden and South Korea not making for the toughest group, but Mexico looks like they could be the favorite to top the group.
Brazil started well enough, Philippe Coutinho scored an incredible goal to put them ahead after 20 minutes, but some questionable defending on a Swiss corner allowed them to equalize in the 50th. Brazil looked the better team the rest of the way, but were unable to find a winner. They have a slightly tougher road to the knockout stages than Germany, with games against Serbia and 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica, however they also put in a better team performance than the Germans, and should also be favored to advance.
England leaves it late
England looked frustrated, but were in control for most of their game against Tunisia, but it took a Harry Kane stoppage time winner to seal the three points. Kane scored early off a corner to give England a 1-0 lead, but a penalty given up by Kyle Walker allowed Tunisia to equalize before halftime. England has been given a lot of grief for underperforming in interntional tournaments for awhile now, but this team seems like they might possess enough to make a deep run. Granted, it was only Tunisia, but coming off a World Cup where they couldn’t advance past their group, England will take it. Refusing to let the two points slip out of their grasp should do wonders for the team’s confidence. Kane will need to step up and lead this team, and they will need to perform better against teams like Belgium, or whoever they may end up playing in the knockouts, to advance far.
Japan and Senegal surprise
The two favorites in Group H both lost 2-1, as Japan and Senegal defeated Colombia and Poland respectively. Carlos Sanchez was sent off in the third minute for Colombia, giving up a penalty in the process. Although they were able to level before halftime, Japan scored after the break to secure the three points. Senegal got a little help from a controversial second goal against Poland to win their match. M’Baye Niang had gotten injured and gone off the field to receive treatment, but came back on just as a Poland defender tried to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper. Niang intercepted the pass, and rounded the keeper putting the ball in an open net.
It’s possible neither team will end up advancing, but they both got a boost thanks to some upsets. If both teams make it through, they can look back to these games as an important strong starting point. Poland and Colombia play each other in the next round of matches, and the loser will likely be eliminated from contention.