Shaqiri leads Switzerland to come-from-behind win

Branislav Ivanović played a long into the box, where Manuel Akanji headed it away safely to Granit Xhaka. Early in the match, Serbia’s crosses had presented Switzerland with plenty of trouble, and a headed goal had left them behind in the fifth minute. The centre-backs had improved, however, and Serbia hadn’t really threatened with a cross since half time. Switzerland had been chasing the game since going behind early, and though they had controlled the second half they still found themselves level with the Serbs, with less than a minute of normal time remaining. A draw seemed the likely result.

Serbia couldn’t have started the game any better. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer was forced into action early, making a reflex save to deny Aleksandar Mitrović as the big striker rose to meet Luka Milivojević’s cross. Less than a minute later, the Swiss weren’t so lucky. It was Dušan Tadić who put the cross in, beating Ricardo Rodríguez with a nice touch and swinging it in on his left foot. Once again, Mitrović was there. Once again, he got his head to it, beating Fabian Schär to the ball. This time, he looped it past Sommer and left the Swiss goalkeeper with no chance. For the second match in a row, Switzerland found themselves behind early, and needed to chase the game.

On the edge of his own penalty area, Xhaka was faced with a sea of red. Serbia were perfectly organised, and the Swiss seemed to be trapped inside their own half. Xhaka had space, but he had very few options. After holding the ball for a few seconds, Serbia came at the central midfielder, and he could hold onto the ball no longer. Finding back-up striker Mario Gavranović in space, he picked him out with a straightforward pass.

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Vladimir Stojković (in yellow) makes a diving save to deny Blerim Džemaili (centre) from close range. Džemaili had a couple of great chances to equalise, but couldn’t find the back of the net.

Switzerland had started to control possession after going behind, but their lack of composure in attack cost them. Blerim Džemaili had two great chances, once missing the target when Rodríguez found him in the penalty area and then forcing Vladimir Stojković into an excellent save when he latched on to Steven Zuber’s clever pass into the box. At the other end, Mitrović’s confidence was through the roof, and he was winning aerial duels in the box and creating plenty of issues for the Swiss. At one point, the big striker even unleashed a bicycle kick from the edge of the box. Unsurprisingly, it missed. Alongside Mitrović, Tadić was creating issues with his brilliant control and excellent delivery. As the half drew to the close, he nearly teed up Duško Tošić and Nemanja Matić with one perfectly taken corner, and he thundered a volley over the bar. The Swiss were under pressure as the sides went into the break, and they needed to do something different.

Gavranović had the ball, and he faced a solid four-man Serbian defence. Switzerland’s attack had passed the midfield, but Gavranović still found himself fairly deep in his own half with little chance of breaking through. Serbia had done a good job restricting his options, and the half time replacement for the ineffective Haris Seferović could only run at the defence, unsure of what to do. Then, spotting something, he threaded a neat ball in behind the Serbian defenders.

The leveller came just after half time, and out of nowhere. It started with a counter-attack, as the Swiss looked to rebound from a Serbian corner and found themselves facing a slightly stretched defence. The ball made its way to Xherdan Shaqiri, who wheeled around on his left and attempted a shot which was solidly blocked by Aleksandar Kolarov. The ball trailed into space outside the area, seemingly harmless. Then Xhaka ran onto the loose ball. He didn’t worry about taking a touch, or setting himself. He just ran at the ball, aimed, and, without breaking stride, sent an unstoppable strike into the back of the net from a long way out. Stojković was caught flat-footed, and didn’t move as the ball rocketed past him. Minutes later, Shaqiri hit the top of the post with an incredible bending effort, regaining the ball after being tackled by Kolarov and nearly beating Stojković with a remarkable first time strike. Switzerland were starting to make things happen.

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Xherdan Shaqiri (back) scores the winning goal past a diving Vladimir Stojković (right) and a sliding Duško Tošić. Shaqiri was Switzerland’s best player, and thoroughly deserved his late goal.

Shaqiri was there to get on the end of it. All day, the diminutive star had been testing the Serbian defence, and now he found himself in on goal, with no defenders to beat. Tošić was the culprit, allowing the dangerous winger to slip in behind him and run onto the ball unimpeded. The ball had only just crossed the halfway line when Shaqiri got the ball at his feet, but the Serbian defence was already out of the equation and all Tošić could do was chase and hope for the best. As Shaqiri closed in on his target, the centre-back could have fouled him, got himself sent off and possibly prevented the goal. Instead, he chose to keep chasing, and Shaqiri kept running.

The game had soon become a more free-flowing affair. Mitrović thought he should have received a penalty when he tangled with two opponents in the box, but Felix Brych ignored his appeals and rubbed salt into the wound by paying a foul against him. It was Serbia’s best chance of the second half, as Switzerland began to pepper Stojković’s goal. For a fleeting moment, Switzerland thought Gavranović was one-on-one with the Serbian keeper after a nice pass from Shaqiri. The shot missed, and, seconds later, the offside flag was raised. Ivanović’s attempt to deny Zuber nearly ended in disaster, as the experienced right-back stabbed it past Stojković and only narrowly avoiding putting it into his own net. Soon after, Breel Embolo headed Rodríguez’s cross down for Gavranović, whose effort was poor and easily saved by Stojković. The Swiss had more chances, but Serbia continued to hold firm.

Tošić waited until the last moment to attempt his tackle, choosing to hold his challenge until Stojković rushed at Shaqiri. The diminutive Swiss dynamo would have won a penalty had he been fouled. Instead, sandwiched by two defenders, he just threaded it between them. Tošić lay on the ground after his last-gasp challenge. Stojković was on the deck after attempting in vain to make a save. Shaqiri was still on his feet as the ball rolled into the back of the net, and he wheeled away in celebration. He received a yellow card for removing his shirt during the celebration, but he didn’t care. Switzerland had won.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Serbia 1 (Mitrović 5)
Switzerland 2 (Xhaka 52, Shaqiri 90)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Ivanović, Milenković, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević (Radonjić 81); Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić (Ljajić 64); Mitrović.
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Embolo 73), Zuber (Drmić 90+4); Seferović (Gavranović 46).

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri’s dominant second half display got Switzerland over the line, and his late winner was a fair reward for a brilliant individual performance. He was quick and skilled, and he seemed to be able to find space in almost any situation. He was always a threat, especially when wheeling around to shoot with his lethal left boot.
2. Aleksandar Mitrović (Serbia)
Mitrović managed to find the back of the net in the first five minutes, and it helped his confidence for the rest of the game. He was constantly challenging the Swiss defenders in the air, and he was unlucky not to grab another goal with his excellent aerial presence and good positioning.
3. Dušan Tadić (Serbia)
Tadić was in very good touch in the first half, collecting the ball on the right wing and using his excellent skills to put Switzerland under the pump. His cross allowed Mitrović to head in Serbia’s only goal, and his delivery from both set pieces and open play created plenty of chances.
4. Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
Xhaka turned the game in Switzerland’s favour with one brilliant first-time shot, showing both his incredible skills and his ability to change the game in the space of seconds. He had a hand in the second goal as well, and his composure in possession helped Switzerland to build their attacks.
5. Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
Sommer started the game with a tremendous reflex save, and although he conceded moments later he kept that good form up for the rest of the match. His judgement and composure when dealing with dangerous balls into the box was impeccable, as was his distribution from the back.

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Devastating Musa brings Iceland crashing back to earth

Gylfi Sigurðsson looked calm as he stepped up to the penalty spot. The pressure was on, and as he stepped up to take the kick, awarded after Tyronne Ebuehi’s late challenge on Alfreð Finnbogason, Sigurðsson was carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Iceland had gone into their clash with Nigeria brimming with confidence after they held Argentina on World Cup debut, and against a Nigerian side coming off a poor first-up display they seemed to be in with a good chance of notching a historic win. It hadn’t turned out that way. Ahmed Musa had run riot and collected two goals, and Sigurðsson’s penalty was shaping as their only hope of getting some kind of result. He blasted it over the bar, ending Iceland’s chances of a remarkable comeback and breaking the hearts of a nation in the process. The penalty had given Iceland hope of a miracle. The miss emphatically extinguished it.

The first half was an interesting one, with Nigeria dominating possession but failing to even take a shot, and Iceland sitting back but managing to create all of the half’s dangerous opportunities. It was Sigurðsson, Iceland’s main midfield creator, who took the early initiative. He forced Francis Uzoho into a tough save with a well-placed free-kick, and followed up a few minutes later by working his way into space and testing the young goalkeeper once again. Nigeria settled after Iceland’s fast start, but they couldn’t create any opportunities against Iceland’s typically staunch defence. The penalty-saving hero against Argentina, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, had absolutely nothing to do, and Iceland looked to be in a decent position.

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Icelandic fans perform their trademark Viking Thunderclap in the stands of the Volgograd Arena. It was a disappointing result for Iceland, but the famous celebration was as loud as ever.

They started to find more chances as the half drew to a close. Birkir Már Sævarsson played a dangerous ball into the box, but Leon Balogun’s slight touch kept Birkir Bjarnason and Jón Daði Böðvarsson from getting on the end of it. Finnbogason got close when he connected with Sigurðsson’s free kick directly in front of goal, but he didn’t get a solid enough touch on the ball to bundle it into the back of the net. Iceland continued to threaten in first half injury time, but they couldn’t provide any further challenge to Uzoho’s goal. When the half time whistle blew, Iceland were on top. When the teams came back out after the interval, things began to turn.

Nigeria came out firing after half time, and Iceland got caught out by a lightning Nigerian counter-attack less than four minutes after the resumption. Left-back Hörður Björgvin Magnússon was caught out by Victor Moses, who spread quickly into space and had time to cross it into the centre. The ball found Ahmed Musa, whose first touch was brilliant. Expecting the ball to keep travelling towards the back post, Ragnar Sigurðsson was wrong-footed when Musa tapped it the other way, giving the dynamic striker the space he needed to slam it into the back of the net. Suddenly, Iceland were behind, and Sigurðsson lay on the ground after taking a blow to the head in Musa’s follow-through. The centre-back returned with a fluorescent pink bandage strapped around the afflicted area. Unlike Sigurðsson, Iceland’s best football never resurfaced.

Things didn’t look good for Iceland in the minutes after the goal. Nigeria continued to knock the ball around with confidence, aware that Iceland weren’t putting them under pressure when they had the ball and equally aware that they held all the cards. Moses was beginning to make Iceland’s defenders nervous with his pace and skill on the right, and Iceland weren’t creating the chances they did in the first half. Their play was flat, and they needed a spark that didn’t seem to be coming. Then Musa scored the second, and seemingly killed off their chances.

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Ahmed Musa (right) competes for the ball against Hörður Björgvin Magnússon. Musa’s brilliant second half dismantled Iceland’s defence and allowed Nigeria to take a comfortable win.

It had been coming. Seconds before he doubled the Super Eagles’ advantage, the rapid striker rammed a thunderous shot into the bar, and although Iceland survived it was clear that they were under the pump. When Iceland’s players were committed to the attack, Musa struck. The ball was bombed out of defence, and Musa left Kari Árnason in the dust as he pursued it in behind. When Halldórsson came to meet him, Musa eluded the desperate clutches of the keeper with his incredible speed, and found himself faced with an open goal. Sverrir Ingi Ingason, on after Ragnar Sigurðsson was finally substituted, stood on the goal line but couldn’t do a thing as Musa’s composed finish found the top corner.

Iceland tried to reduce the deficit, but there just seemed to be something missing. Passes just didn’t quite hit the target, and their moves didn’t quite come off. The award of the penalty had momentarily put some wind back in their sails, but as their star missed the team seemed to deflate, limping over the finish line against a confident Nigerian team who never looked like giving up their lead. In recent times, Iceland have made a name for themselves with their incredible discipline and ability to recover from seemingly any setback. Now, coming off the heights of their incredible World Cup debut with the weight of expectations on their shoulders, they just couldn’t match it when Nigeria put everything together. For once, they suffered a blow from which they couldn’t recover.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Nigeria 2 (Musa 49, 75)
Iceland 0
Referee: Matthew Conger (NZ)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Balogun; Moses, Etebo (Iwobi 90), Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu (Ebuehi 46); Musa, Iheanacho (Ighalo 85).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson (Ingason 65), Magnússon; Gíslason, Gunnarson (A Skúlason 87), G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Böðvarsson (Sigurðarson 71), Finnbogason.

Top 5
1. Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
When he had room to run, Musa’s pace was terrifying, and when it was coupled with excellent touch and good finishing the striker became a lethal attacking force for the Super Eagles. He finished with two thoroughly deserved goals, and he will come into their key match with Argentina full of confidence.
2. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses started the second half with pace and purpose, creating Nigeria’s first goal with an excellent cross and keeping Iceland on the back foot with his ability to make an impact cutting in from the right wing. He has been in great form at this tournament, and will be looking to keep it up.
3. Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Ndidi was heavily involved in defensive midfield, working well with John Obi Mikel and Oghenekaro Etebo to shield the back four and make life very difficult for Iceland’s attackers. He even managed to make something of a contribution to the attack, forcing Halldórsson into a tough save with a dangerous shot from distance.
4. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Iceland)
Penalty miss aside, Sigurðsson had a strong game. He looked like the only Icelandic player capable of creating his own opportunities, and he gave Uzoho a stern test on a few occasions. He will be disappointed with his late penalty miss, and it’s unfortunate that one error will define an otherwise strong performance.
5. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo knows how to run, and he did plenty of hard work transitioning between defence – where he did the bulk of his good work – and attack. His energy was impressive throughout, and it’s no coincidence that he was the only other Nigerian player in the box for both of Musa’s goals.

Brazil’s dominance pays off in last-gasp victory

Neymar wept. As Björn Kuipers blew the final whistle, Brazil’s star player sank to his knees in the middle of the pitch and let his emotions show after a 98 minute rollercoaster ride. Neymar had shown flashes of ridiculous skill and flashes of petulance, drawn a penalty and then had it revoked, and, at the end of it all, scored Brazil’s second goal with the last kick of the game. His performance was ambiguous: there were so many highs and lows that it wasn’t necessarily clear whether he was dominating or disappointing. The same could be said of his team, who controlled every aspect of the match but came very close to being left frustrated. It was a tough day for the Brazilians, but was it a good one? It’s complicated.

Brazil started the game with overwhelming control over possession and territory, but they couldn’t find the spark to break down a very well organised Costa Rican defence. Instead, it was Costa Rica who had the best chance of the first 15 minutes, against the run of play. It came from Cristian Gamboa, who ran past Marcelo and found space to pull the ball into the centre. The cut-back found an open Celso Borges as he pushed forward from midfield, but the shot was wide and didn’t test Alisson in the Brazilian goal. Neymar excited the fans when he flicked the ball over Gamboa and charged forward into space, but he found himself faced with a wall of Costa Rican defenders and he was eventually fouled from behind by Johan Venegas. He took the resultant free-kick, but put it too close to Costa Rica’s goal and Keylor Navas claimed it easily.

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Philippe Coutinho takes a shot from outside the box. Coutinho was one of Brazil’s best players, but his long shots didn’t quite have the desired effect against brilliant Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas.

Then, after a slow start, things started to open up. It started with a disallowed goal. Brazil found a bit of space on the break, and Marcelo found space to put a mishit shot into the box. It found Gabriel Jesus, but the young striker’s thunderous close-range shot into the top corner didn’t count due to his clearly offside position. It was a better move from Brazil, and it kick-started five minutes of breathtaking play. Neymar began to make lethal runs over the back, and his combination with Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho created space for both men to target the Costa Rican goal from range. Unfortunately for Brazil, their opponents held firm. At one point, Paulinho found his way into space on the break, but he didn’t get the delivery right and allowed Costa Rica time to get back.

The second half didn’t begin well for Costa Rica. An early mistake by Bryan Oviedo, whose back pass caught Navas by surprise, resulted in a turnover on the edge of the box and a chance for Neymar from the resulting cross. In the first half, such an opportunity tended to be followed by something of a lull. This time, Brazil didn’t let up, and with their next attack Fagner found Jesus in the middle. Jesus hit the bar, but Paulinho ensured Brazil weren’t done yet. He won the ball from the rebound and teed up Coutinho, who was only denied by Gamboa’s sharp block. Paulinho was soon pushing higher up the pitch, and he started creating more opportunities. He found Neymar in the middle, but Navas superbly tapped the shot over the bar. Soon after, he teed up Coutinho on the break, but the shot was hit straight at Navas and the goalkeeper gathered it comfortably. As the heat started to go out of the game once again, Costa Rica continued to hold on to the deadlock. Neymar had a brilliant opportunity when he found himself in acres of space on the edge of the box, with the ball at his feet. He missed, and it just didn’t seem like Brazil’s day.

Then they won a penalty. Douglas Costa drove a wedge through the Costa Rican defence, and found Gabriel Jesus in a good position. He found Neymar, who drew contact from Giancarlo González as he looked to work his way into a shooting position. It was minimal, but the Brazilian star fell backwards theatrically, and Kuipers pointed to the spot. There was relief for Brazil, until the video assistant referee got involved. Upon review, Neymar’s attempt to win a penalty from little contact was exposed, the protests of Costa Rica’s indignant players were upheld and the game remained scoreless. It seemed to be too much for Brazil to take.

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Neymar (front) and Philippe Coutinho celebrate after Neymar’s late goal. It was an up-and-down game for Neymar, but the goal allowed him to finish on a high.

After the overruled penalty things began to get frustrating. Neymar was booked, not for exaggerating González’s contact but for slamming the ball to the ground in frustration when Johnny Acosta lay on the ground taking an injury break. Then, for good measure, Coutinho was booked a few seconds later. Acosta was booked for his delay in taking a throw, and then both he and Óscar Duarte spent lengthy periods on the ground – at the same time. When Navas collided with Roberto Firmino in the box and spent a long time getting up, the Brazilians weren’t hiding their indignation. As the clock passed 90 minutes with scores still level, it seemed like Costa Rica would, against all odds, deny the Brazilians.

Then the goal came. This time there was no heartbreak for the Brazilians, and no VAR concerns. There was just a simple ball into the box, a good header and a thunderous finish. Marcelo provided the ball, crossing it in high towards Firmino. He launched himself at the ball, won it down and found Jesus, who was waiting in the middle and was more than capable of tapping the ball into the space to his left. It would have been in keeping with Brazil’s luck on the day if no player had been there to capitalise on the dangerous touch. Now, after over 90 minutes, the ball finally broke for them. Coutinho was there, storming into the box, and he slammed it home through Navas’ legs to give Brazil the lead. On the sidelines, coach Tite was so excited that he charged onto the pitch, lost his balance and crashed to the turf. He didn’t care. With Costa Rica’s resistance finally broken, Neymar managed to bag a goal with a 97th minute tap-in, a happy end to a stressful day at the office. Brazil won, and maybe that’s all that matters.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Brazil 2 (Philippe Coutinho 90+1, Neymar 90+7)
Costa Rica 0
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro, Paulinho (Roberto Firmino 68); Willian (Douglas Costa 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Fernandinho 90+3).
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa (Calvo 75), Acosta, González, Duarte, Oviedo; Venegas, Borges, Guzmán (Tejeda 83), Ruiz; Ureña (Bolaños 54).

Top 5
1. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was everywhere for the Brazilians, mostly operating alongside Neymar on the left but also drifting all over the pitch to good effect. He scored the breakthrough goal with a perfectly timed run into the box, and he was always on hand to play a dangerous pass or unleash a shot from distance.
2. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Navas managed to keep a dominant Brazil at bay for over 90 minutes, yet managed to never really look challenged by some high-class attacking players. Somehow, he always seemed to be in the perfect position, and his efforts very nearly allowed Costa Rica to pull off a huge upset.
3. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar’s game was far from flawless, but at the end of an up-and-down game he came out on top. He was involved in almost everything, and he made things happen every time he got the ball. Some of his moments of skill, like a ridiculous rainbow flick over Yeltsin Tejeda in the dying moments, had to be seen to be believed.
4. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Jesus was very active all game, and created plenty of chances with his hard work getting into dangerous spots. He provided the assist for the opening goal and the last pass before Neymar’s near penalty, and he made a lot of handy little contributions to Brazil’s attacking moves.
5. Paulinho (Brazil)
Paulinho started the game in the centre of midfield, but he gradually pushed forward and began to create some brilliant chances. His combination with Coutinho was excellent, and he was among the most influential players on the pitch in the few minutes before a slightly premature substitution.

Dismal Argentina picked apart by ruthless Croatians

The game was all but over. A listless Argentinian team had been destroyed by a clinical Croatian side, and they were waiting to be put out of their misery by the final blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle. Talismanic captain Lionel Messi had done nothing. In goal, Willy Caballero had been woeful. Now, in the dying moments, Croatia ran forward on the counter-attack. Three men broke forward against a stretched Argentinian defence, and the ball reached Ivan Rakitić in the centre. Rakitić fired a shot at Caballero, who dived to make the save but couldn’t tip it out of harm’s way. Instead, it fell to late substitute Mateo Kovačić. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he could have easily scored then and there. He decided not to, playing a pass into Rakitić, who brought the ball to a complete stop before disdainfully stroking it past Marcos Acuña into the back of the net. Croatia’s previous two goals were bad enough. This one was so contemptuous, and showed so little respect for Argentina’s proud footballing history, that it was much worse. Before Rakitić’s goal, Croatia had beaten Argentina. After Rakitić scored, the defeat became a humiliation.

It hadn’t started that poorly for Argentina. They won their fair share of possession in the early stages, and managed to find a few little openings against the Croatian defence. Croatia had most of the clear-cut chances, like when Ivan Perišić tore into space and drilled a shot at Caballero, and when Mario Mandžukić couldn’t quite connect with an open header from close range, but they weren’t dominating. Then, Argentina blew their best opportunity of the match. It started on the wing, where Acuña cut inside right-back Šime Vrsaljko and caught Dejan Lovren out of position. When Domagoj Vida deflected the resulting cross straight to Enzo Pérez on the edge of the box, the midfielder was faced with a defence in disarray and an open net. Somehow, he missed.

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Jorge Sampaoli (front) looks on as Croatia put the finishing touches on their victory. Sampaoli came into the match under a lot of pressure, and the crushing defeat didn’t help his cause.

As the stalemate continued to linger, Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli was nervous. After Argentina’s first-up draw with Iceland he was under pressure, and it showed. When Maximiliano Meza’s attempt at a cross inadvertently hit the bar, he threw his arms up in the air. When Ante Rebić, right in front of the Argentinian bench, fouled Eduardo Salvio, Sampaoli raged at the referee, calling for a red card and trying to find someone – anyone – with whom he could air his concerns. Occasionally, he summoned a mysterious-looking long-haired assistant, and, with their mouths covered in case Croatia had a lip reader handy, they engaged in tactical discussions. Mostly, though, the bald-headed coach just paced around his technical area, wearing a black jacket, a black shirt and a concerned demeanour. He walked at a disconcertingly fast pace, as though he was running late for an important appointment. As the contest became increasingly physical, Sampaoli became increasingly tense.

Then, shortly after the break, Croatia took the lead in embarrassing circumstances. The goal was a gift. Argentina intercepted Croatia’s long heave forward, and Gabriel Mercado played it back to his goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have. When Caballero got the ball, he looked to pass it back to Mercado. Even with Rebić standing vaguely in between them, it shouldn’t have been a hard task. After all, Rebić’s press was more a token gesture than a serious attempt to win the ball back. Then Caballero tried a chip pass, mishit it and ballooned it in the direction of Rebić, who made no mistake with the volley. It was a farcical piece of play, and it left Argentina chasing the game against a strong Croatian team.

At one point, Gonzalo Higuaín nearly created an equaliser with a nice cut-back for Meza, but Danijel Subašić made a fine reflex save and Rakitić desperately slid in to prevent Messi from getting himself a goal. Argentina’s star, hero and occasional one-man team had been completely shut down, and his teammates couldn’t cope. As the game went on, Messi showed signs of frustration. On the touchline, Sampaoli had ditched the jacket, and was now pacing around in a slightly-too-tight black t-shirt which clearly showed his heavily tattooed arms. He was frantic, and the removal of the jacket only made him look more nervous. His substitutions had been made, and it was out of his hands. Then Luka Modrić scored.

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Luka Modrić (right) celebrates after doubling Croatia’s lead late in the game. Modrić’s goal from long range capped off a brilliant performance in midfield.

Modrić, as ever, had been excellent in midfield. Now, with 10 minutes of normal time left to play, he received the ball on the edge of the box, with Nicolás Otamendi barring his way. He took a touch to the right, then the left, before going right again. Then he unleashed a shot at the Argentinian goal. Otamendi was there, but his outstretched right leg couldn’t impede the ball’s progress. Caballero dived full length, but he could only get his fingertips to the ball and couldn’t stop it as it lodged itself in the bottom corner. It was a great goal, and it sealed Argentina’s fate. Sampaoli’s team were in no mood to attempt a miraculous comeback.

Tempers flared late, with Otamendi nearly starting a brawl by lashing out at Rakitić and two other players receiving yellow cards as the match drew to a close. Argentina tried to manufacture something in attack, relying on the immensely talented players on the pitch to see them through, but there was no real structure and Croatia rebuffed them with contemptuous ease. After Rakitić’s goal, and with the game drawing to a close, Sampaoli could only stand in the dugout and stare into the distance. Argentina still have a chance to progress, but that chance is as slim as ever. Their talents have failed, Sampaoli’s time as coach is almost certainly coming to a disappointing end, and it would take a miracle for Messi to get his World Cup title. In Argentina, football is so revered that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call this defeat a national crisis. There’s no way of knowing how big the fallout of this crushing defeat – against brilliant opposition, it must be said – will prove to be.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Argentina 0
Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero – Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavón 56), Pérez (Dybala 68), Mascherano, Acuña; Messi, Agüero (Higuaín 54), Meza.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Brozović; Perišić (Kovačić 82), Modrić, Rebić (Kramarić 57); Mandžukić (Ćorluka 90+3).

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Ivan Rakitić finishes off Croatia’s win with a goal into an open net. Rakitić put in a brilliant midfield performance, and the late goal was just reward for his efforts.

Top 5
1. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić finished off a simple chance in injury time to cap off a brilliant individual game with a deserved goal. He fought hard all day, and his block to deny Messi from close range was a perfect example of how hard he worked defensively. In attack, he combined well with Modrić and started to get into dangerous positions, and his all-round performance bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić was at his best directing traffic in the middle of the park. He was always on hand to pick out a key pass, make a dangerous little run or find some other way to trouble Argentina’s defence, and he capped it off with a brilliant goal from long range. With him pulling the strings in the middle there is very little Croatia can’t do.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić went off injured less than an hour into the game, but he left a mark with his incredibly vigorous attack on the ball. He was rewarded for his hard running with a goal when he intercepted Caballero’s horrendous pass and made a tough volley look deceptively easy, and Croatia will hope he is fit to take the field for their final group stage game.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić is still yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has looked so good leading the line that he is sure to find the scoresheet some time soon. He used his physical power and excellent positioning to intimidate the Argentinian defence, and he could have bagged a couple of goals with headers that only just missed the target.
5. Marcos Acuña (Argentina)
Coming into the team after Argentina’s disappointing display against Iceland, Acuña was one of few bright spots to come out of the loss. He fought hard until the end, and showed some promise shuffling up and down the left wing. His crosses were about the most dangerous aspect of Argentina’s play.

France’s first half blitz eliminates Peru

There were a lot of questions surrounding the French heading into their clash against Peru. Even though they were expected to beat Peru and seal their progress to the knockout stages with a game to spare, an unconvincing victory against a determined Australian side had raised doubts about their attack, and seemingly left the ball open for a dynamic Peruvian team who were unlucky to lose their first-up clash with Denmark. In front of a crowd dominated by vocal Peruvian supporters (who added to the fun by letting a few red and white balloons onto the ground), France’s margin of victory was the same as it was in their opening game. This time, however, their blistering first half performance sent out a clear warning to the rest of the competition, and their solidity in the face of Peru’s desperate second half surge showed that they are tough to beat.

It soon became clear that France’s attack had finally clicked, and they were more potent in every area. Olivier Giroud was brought into the side, and he immediately provided a presence that had been lacking with his strength on the ball. Giroud brought everyone else into the play, and the results were spectacular. Antoine Griezmann did find the back of the net in the first game, but he was a shadow of his brilliant best. Here, he was surging in from behind Giroud and creating chances by finding plenty of open space. Paul Pogba was one of France’s best against Australia, but he was even better against Peru. With his forwards running into space, he came up with his usual moments of lazy brilliance. On the wing, Kylian Mbappé suddenly looked more menacing, dipping into his bag of tricks and terrorising the Peruvian defence.

The chances came thick and fast. Pogba took a long shot, and nearly caught Pedro Gallese flat-footed as the ball bounced just past the post. Raphaël Varane’s header flew just over the bar. Giroud and Mbappé played a one-two through the heart of the Peruvian defence, but the 19-year-old couldn’t quite control it. Griezmann got involved when Giroud headed the ball down for him, but Gallese made a good save. Pogba chipped Peru’s defence to find an onside Mbappé, but the precocious talent was in an awkward position and he didn’t even make contact with his attempt at an improvised stabbed back-heel volley. Unsurprisingly, the goal came soon after.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Antoine Griezmann after scoring the only goal of the game. Both players improved dramatically on their first game performances as France put in a menacing attacking performance.

It came when Pogba won the ball deep in attack, and found Giroud in space behind the Peruvian defence. Alberto Rodríguez slid in to block the shot, and executed the block to perfection. The result couldn’t have been worse. The ball bounced up off his leg, floating over a helpless Gallese and straight into the path of an onrushing Mbappé. He couldn’t have missed it if he tried. The goal was a just reward for half an hour of dominant attacking play, and they didn’t seem to be finished. A blistering counter-attack reminded everyone, if a reminder was needed, of France’s remarkable speed on the break, and as the half time whistle sounded the Peruvians were under siege.

Needing at least a draw to keep their World Cup hopes alive, Peru just didn’t have it in them to penetrate the French defence. They had their moments, and they came very close when Pedro Aquino’s long range shot slammed into the intersection at the top corner of the French goal. Around the hour mark, they came up with 10 minutes of blistering attacking football which had the French on the back foot and trapped in their half. Varane and Samuel Umtiti, the latter bouncing back well after his brain explosion in the first match gifted Australia their only goal, held firm, and gradually the heat went out of the Peruvian attacks.

By the final whistle, a French victory had been inevitable for some time. With their scary attack and stunning defence, they seemed nearly invincible, and they will be a formidable opponent come the knockout stages. For Peru, following a dominant but ultimately fruitless display against Denmark, it seemed an unfortunate way to bow out of their first World Cup in 36 years. As bright as they looked, they came up against a French team with their mojo back, and they never really stood a chance.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
France 1 (Mbappé 34)
Peru 0
Referee: Mohammed Abdulla Hassan Mohamed (UAE)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba (N’Zonzi 89), Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 75), Griezmann (Fekir 80), Matuidi; Giroud.
Peru (4-2-3-1): Gallese – Advíncula, Ramos, Rodríguez (Santamaría 46), Trauco; Aquino, Yotún (Farfán 46); Carrillo, Cueva (Ruídiaz 82), Flores; Guerrero.

Top 5
1. Olivier Giroud (France)
If Giroud’s opening game omission for the more purely skilled Ousmane Dembélé didn’t seem like a mistake at the time it definitely does now. Giroud added poise to the attack on return to the starting line-up, and his physical presence allowed him to hold off defenders and create dangerous pockets of space for faster teammates to run in to. He won’t be dropped any time soon.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba put in another commanding performance in the centre of the park, winning the ball on a number of occasions and providing an attacking threat with his vision and technical ability. His successful tackle high up the pitch, and subsequent pass behind the defence, was integral to the winning goal, and he looks set to make more of an impact down the track.
3. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé displayed pace, skill and plenty of confidence as he launched threatening raids from the right wing and scored the only goal of the game with a good run in behind. He looked very dangerous with the attack functioning at its best, and with proper support he may have a huge impact at this tournament.
4. André Carrillo (Peru)
Carrillo has played two brilliant games at this World Cup, and he has been remarkably unfortunate to find himself on the losing side in both of Peru’s matches. He was everywhere as Peru looked to break through a resolute French defence, and it’s no coincidence that he reached his peak during Peru’s 10 minute period of dominance in the second half.
5. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann’s movement was always dangerous, and, unlike his disappointing first-up effort, he looked like creating something every time he got the ball. He notched up an instant chemistry with Giroud, and their combination could be a very fruitful one at this tournament.

Wasteful Australia made to pay as Denmark take a draw

Where was Timmy? As Australia badgered the Danish defence, controlling possession and creating promising opportunity after promising opportunity, Australia’s 38-year-old talisman was conspicuously absent. Australia were desperately searching for some kind of inspiration, something that would take them past the Danish and seal a crucial win. Why then, with the game winding down and Australia pushing hard for a goal, was Tim Cahill, the Socceroos’ all-time leading scorer, sitting on the bench wearing an ugly green shirt and a dull brown vest? Bert van Marwijk used Tomi Juric, and the gangly striker got in the way. Jackson Irvine was used, and had no impact. For all of Australia’s efforts, they got a draw.

Australia may have been disappointed with the final result, but they would have taken it gratefully had they been offered it 10 minutes in. Australia started slowly, and went behind when they bungled a defensive clearance, turning the ball over in a vulnerable position. Nicolai Jørgensen received the ball on the edge of the box, and managed to evade Trent Sainsbury before playing a bouncing pass into the centre. It was Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star playmaker and most dangerous attacking threat, who ran onto the ball in plenty of space. Aziz Behich tried to get there, but he was too far away to make a difference as Eriksen hit an unstoppable side-footed shot into the top corner. Mathew Ryan dived, but the Australian keeper had no chance.

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Pione Sisto (front) leads Matthew Leckie to the ball. Sisto was one of Denmark’s few attacking threats during a poor second half display.

As Denmark continued to control play and stifle most of Australia’s attacks, it seemed like the Socceroos had little chance of breaking down their solid defence. Matthew Leckie found chances, and made a few things happen with his pace down the right wing, but Robbie Kruse’s lack of poise in the attacking third meant such moves broke down on more than one occasion. Then, more through good fortune than anything else, Australia levelled. The goal was almost identical to the one they scored in their game against the French. Like the first game, they won a penalty after a handball in the area (although this one was more controversial), and Mile Jedinak’s shot was almost identical to his spot kick against the French. Kasper Schmeichel obviously hadn’t done his homework, and he flung himself the wrong way. Australia were level at half time as a result, and they looked to go on to better things after the break.

The Socceroos came out after half time and created plenty of trouble for the Danish defence. Early on, Jens Stryger Larsen was forced to head Behich’s dangerous cross away from an onrushing Matthew Leckie. Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic both challenged Schmeichel from distance, with the latter forcing the Danish keeper into making a solid save and the former sending the ball whistling over the bar. Denmark couldn’t attack with any fluency, Eriksen was basically anonymous and Mooy’s creative talents were starting to come to the fore. Australia just needed the finishing touch. They just needed Timmy. When striker Andrew Nabbout dislocated his shoulder, van Marwijk had his chance. A change was made, but it was Juric who came on. Soon after, Leckie had a chance as he attempted a volley. Juric made himself a nuisance, the shot went wide, and it became clear that Australia needed a clinical touch. Where was Timmy?

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Tomi Juric (front) competes with Andreas Christensen. Juric was introduced for Andrew Nabbout in favour of talismanic striker Tim Cahill, and didn’t justify his inclusion.

One Australian substitute did have a big impact, but it just wasn’t enough. Daniel Arzani was introduced with just over 20 minutes left, replacing Kruse after his poor effort on the left wing. After a slightly slow start, the World Cup’s youngest player began to get on the ball, and his impact was immediate. He breezed past Pione Sisto on the right wing with one remarkable touch, and whipped in a cross that, unfortunately for Australia, flew past everyone and out for a throw-in. Then, after getting the ball on the left, he weaved his way into the box and drilled a shot at Schmeichel. For the rest of the match, he provided nuggets like that, receiving licence to roam and dropping into space to cause Denmark plenty of problems. Unfortunately for Australia, the lack of an outlet to finish his chances meant most of the young gun’s best work was unrewarded. As Denmark held on for a draw that massively boosts their progress but seriously jeopardises Australia’s, there was one question on the lips of all Socceroos fans. Where on earth was Timmy?

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Denmark 1 (Eriksen 7)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 38 pen)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Esp)
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Stryger Larsen; Delaney, Schöne, Eriksen; Poulsen (Braithwaite 59), Jørgensen (Cornelius 68), Sisto.
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 82), Kruse (Arzani 68); Nabbout (Juric 75).

Top 5
1. Matthew Leckie (Australia)
Leckie was the only Australian who consistently threatened for the entirety of the match, showing pace, strength and skill and making life very difficult for Stryger Larsen at left-back. He put in plenty of dangerous balls, and with better finishing in the box he could have easily finished with an assist or two.
2. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy grew into the game as it progressed, working well with Jedinak to take control of the midfield and put Denmark under the pump. He was pulling the strings in most of Australia’s second half attacks, and his excellent work both on and off the ball nearly got his team over the line.
3. Pione Sisto (Denmark)
Sisto was one of Denmark’s only real threats in the second half, finding himself space on the break and using his pace to seriously test the Australian defence. He came up with a couple of dangerous efforts from distance, and seemed the only Danish player able to acquit himself well when Eriksen’s input was stifled.
4. Daniel Arzani (Australia)
Arzani is special. He has pace, skill and composure, and lifts his side when he comes on the pitch. He only had 20 minutes to make his mark after replacing the dangerous-looking but ultimately ineffective Kruse, but if his sparkling cameo isn’t enough to justify an elevation into the starting line-up it’s not clear what will be.
5. Aziz Behich (Australia)
Behich found plenty of space overlapping from left-back, putting in dangerous crosses and combining well with Kruse and then Arzani in attack. He managed to have a big attacking input without getting caught out on the break, and he will have a big say in Australia’s eventual finish at this tournament.

Spain toil hard to edge out determined Iranians

Euphoria. That was what Iran felt when Saeid Ezatolahi bundled a poorly defended free-kick into the bottom corner. Thanks to Spain’s errors, they had erased the one-goal lead their more skilled opponents had toiled so hard for, and they were suddenly in with a chance of shocking the Spanish and snatching a point to reinforce their opening game win over Morocco. Spain, meanwhile, couldn’t believe that after dominating possession and spending over half the game breaking through a determined Iranian defence, they had just lost the lead they had worked so hard for. Then, mere seconds after the euphoria of scoring, came despair. Ezatolahi was offside. The goal didn’t count. Thanks to the new video assistant referee, Spain’s lead was intact and Iran had to fight for another opening. They couldn’t find one.

The game started as expected, for the most part. Iran were named in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, but the team that took the field lined up with a six man defence and everyone else aiding the defensive effort. Generously, it could have been called a counter-attacking strategy. Realistically, Carlos Queiroz’s side was just parking the bus. Spain, on the other hand, did exactly what was expected of them. They took the free possession on offer, and kept passing it around in an attempt to break down their opponents. The only part that didn’t go to script was the scoreline. Spain were meant to clinically cut their way through their opponents, finding the back of the net at will. Instead, they found a very determined defensive front who were willing to fight for everything. As a result, the game settled into a pattern that was as repetitive as the mindless droning noise of the vuvuzelas blown by the Iranian fans. Spain would pass the ball around with impunity, but Iran would throw multiple defenders at them if they got too close.

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Morteza Pouraliganji (left) battles to keep the ball under pressure from Diego Costa. Pouraliganji had a great game and mostly kept Costa quiet, but the Spanish striker still found the scoresheet.

There were some chances, of course, but not enough to cause Iran too much stress. David Silva got close on a few occasions, blasting an athletic attempt at a set piece over the bar and watching as one of his free-kicks rebounded off the wall but didn’t deviate from its course. With the half winding down, he managed to find some space in the box, but his dangerous looking shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of Morteza Pouraliganji. At the other end, Iran gave under-fire Spanish keeper David de Gea very little to do, although they did have a great chance when Vahid Amiri was played through and had acres of space on the right wing. Unfortunately for Iran, Amiri seemed too surprised when he found himself onside in the box to actually do anything meaningful, and a tentative cross evaded everyone and went out of bounds.

Spain continued in their attempt to break down the Iranians as the second half started, and they had a couple of encouraging chances shortly after resumption. Gerard Piqué nearly found the back of the net after Isco’s dangerous corner, but there were plenty of Iranian defenders around to ensure it didn’t go in. Sergio Busquets created more problems less than a minute later, forcing Alireza Beiranvand to make an excellent save before Lucas Vázquez, following in at pace, forced the Iranian keeper to bat it away. A rare attacking foray from Iran saw Karim Ansarifard receive the ball from a long throw and drill it into the side netting, and the game was just beginning to open up a little. Not long after Iran’s near miss, Spain took the lead.

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A scrum forms on the Iranian goal line as Diego Costa (right) attempts to force the ball into the back of the net. The bizarre moment was indicative of Iran’s determination to prevent Spain from scoring.

The goal was created by Andrés Iniesta’s brilliance, and a large dose of good luck. Iniesta is almost certainly playing his last World Cup, and he can’t really play out a full game in the Spanish midfield. At the conclusion of this tournament, he will move to Japan to begin the next phase of his career. With Spain struggling to break down a determined Iranian defence, Iniesta made something happen. He picked up the ball in midfield, and started to run at the Iranian defence while firing a pass to Silva. He sprinted to receive Silva’s follow-up ball, and when a defender stood in his way he beat him without breaking a sweat. His second pass found Diego Costa in the box, and the striker spun out of trouble and looked to shoot. He never really got a shot off, with Ramin Rezaeian putting a tackle in before he could get his boot to it, but he scored anyway. Rezaeian’s tackle rebounded into Costa’s knee, and the ricochet shot past Beiranvand into the back of the net. It was a fluke, but that was of little concern to the Spanish.

Apart from Ezatolahi’s disallowed goal, the Iranians never really looked like getting the equaliser, with Spain still controlling possession and having most of the chances. Bizarre scenes ensued when Spain took a cleverly worked out corner and Sergio Ramos’ mishit shot bobbled dangerously towards the goal line, before Rezaeian lay on the goal line to stop Piqué from tapping it in. When Ezatolahi and Costa also got involved and Beiranvand tried to wrestle the ball out, a scrum developed on the Iranian goal line with the ball trapped underneath. Eventually Iran survived, but just holding on wasn’t enough. They needed to chase the game, and Mehdi Taremi had a great chance when Amiri nutmegged Piqué and sent in a brilliant cross to the dynamic forward. The header missed, and Iran’s last real opportunity went begging. Spain were still controlling possession when the final whistle sounded, happy to come away with a hard fought 1-0 win.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Iran 0
Spain 1 (Diego Costa 54)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
Iran (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Milad Mohammadi 69); Omid Ebrahimi, Ezatolahi; Ansarifard (Jahanbakhsh 74), Mehdi Taremi, Amiri (Ghoddos 86); Azmoun.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (Koke 71); Silva, Isco, Lucas Vázquez (Asensio 80); Diego Costa (Rodrigo 89).

Top 5
1. Saeid Ezatolahi (Iran)
Ezatolahi was named as a defensive midfielder, but he spent the majority of the game playing as a third centre-back while Iran desperately repelled Spain’s attacks. He excelled in the role. He was a strong presence in the air and he denied Spain at crucial moments. He nearly levelled the game, but his goal was disallowed after he unluckily found himself offside.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta didn’t play out the full 90 minutes, and he didn’t find himself on the ball as much as some of his teammates. He was, however, the man who finally drove a wedge through Iran’s disciplined defensive unit, needing to lay just two passes to set up Costa for Spain’s opening goal. He knows how to make things happen.
3. David Silva (Spain)
Silva was in excellent touch, controlling most of Spain’s attacking play and creating chances for himself and others. His set piece delivery was dangerous, as was a combination with Isco that continues to put Spain’s opponents under immense pressure. His good form bodes well for games to come.
4. Morteza Pouraliganji (Iran)
Late in the first half, Silva had an opportunity to put Spain ahead, and his shot looked destined to challenge Beiranvand. The only hitch? Pouraliganji’s outstretched leg. That challenge was just one example of Pouraliganji’s brilliant defensive work, which continued to keep them at bay for most of the match.
5. Isco (Spain)
Once again, Isco was at the heart of all of Spain’s attacking play. His set pieces were both dangerous and devious, and he threatened Iran’s defence as he drifted all over the field and beat opponents with his brilliant dribbling. His combination with Silva was as effective as ever.