Belgium come back from the dead to leave Japan heartbroken

Keisuke Honda prepared to take the corner kick. With around 30 seconds remaining in Japan’s round of 16 clash with Belgium, the match was finely poised. One goal either way was sure to win it, with the scores level at 2-2 in the 94th minute. Honda, brought on to provide an impact from the bench, had won the corner, forcing Thibaut Courtois to dive full length to bat away his very long-range free-kick. Now, he put the ball into the centre, knowing that a goal would seal a famous Japanese victory.

Such a victory had seemed impossible when the sides began the match and inevitable shortly after half-time, when the Japanese went 2-0 up. Japan had only reached this stage on fair play points, while Belgium had looked like the real deal as their dynamic attack blew sides away in the group stage. Belgium were expected to cruise through, and their first half did little to suggest that Japan would give them any trouble. They exerted an almost effortless dominance over the Japanese, continuing to batter them until they seemed sure to crack.

Honda’s cross was too close to Courtois to give Japan a realistic chance of scoring. With his usual ease, Courtois seemed to glide off his line to take the ball, and he seemed to navigate the traffic of the penalty area with minimal fuss as he looked to offload possession to a teammate. Knowing the urgency of the situation, and the potential for a swift counter-attack, Courtois was moving quite quickly. From the expression on his face, you’d think he was going through a training drill.

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Takashi Inui celebrates after putting Japan 2-0 up early in the second half. Inui’s goal, a brilliantly taken shot from distance, seemed to give Japan the head-start they needed to claim a famous victory.

Courtois’ demeanour wasn’t quite so serene when Takashi Inui beat him just after half time. Belgium had already gone behind a few minutes earlier thanks to a counter-attacking goal from Genki Haraguchi, and they were determinedly trying to erase the deficit. In this climate, Japan found themselves going forward once more, only to have their attack rebuffed by Vincent Kompany’s solid defensive header. And then rebooted again, as Shinji Kagawa picked up the ball on the edge of the box. He controlled it and passed it to Inui, who lashed it into the back of the net from range. Earlier in the tournament, Inui had scored an excellent goal against Senegal. It was neither as good nor as important as this one. Belgium were behind, and Courtois’ stunned expression was a perfect representation of how Belgium were feeling. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Courtois rolled the ball out from the edge of the area, spotting a running Kevin de Bruyne in the middle of Belgium’s half. There were no Japanese players in sight as Belgium’s star playmaker ran through the middle of the field, approaching the halfway line with the same calm urgency that Courtois had shown seconds earlier. He passed halfway unchallenged, and continued to stroll unchallenged until he reached the edge of the centre circle.

De Bruyne’s fortunes had loosely mirrored those of his side. Early on in the piece, he had been decent but not quite at his best, making a few nice passes but never coming up with the impromptu moments of brilliance which so often define his play. Then, after the second goal, he fell apart with the rest of his team. Belgium’s star-studded attack seemed shell-shocked, and de Bruyne wasn’t quite working at his best alongside Belgian captain Eden Hazard. Belgium’s problems were not just isolated to two misfiring stars. Romelu Lukaku, who had looked so dynamic earlier in the match, was somehow missing chances he would normally convert in his sleep. They were making mistakes in possession, and attacks were breaking down without any need for Japanese intervention. Left wing-back Yannick Carrasco was woeful, seemingly turning the ball over every time he got it. Belgium’s so-called golden generation was unravelling against the disciplined Japanese, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

De Bruyne had plenty of options as he entered Belgium’s attacking half. He chose Thomas Meunier, streaming down the right wing. Meunier received the ball in the final third, and things were starting to get a little nervous for the Japanese. Belgium’s counter-attack looked fluent, and Japan’s defence was stretched to dangerous levels as the Belgian wing-back ran onto the ball. Meunier had options inside the box, and he kept running forward with those options at the front of his mind. Japan just didn’t have the numbers to put any pressure on Meunier, and he prepared to cross the ball into the box at his own leisure.

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Genki Haraguchi (front) scores the opening goal of the match past Jan Vertonghen (centre) and Thibaut Courtois. The goal came from a one-man counter-attack, and a poor piece of defending from Vertonghen.

Meunier had been partially responsible for Japan’s first goal, which really set the cat among the pigeons. He attempted to combine with Dries Mertens on the right wing, as he had done to good effect plenty of times in the first half. When Mertens lost the ball attempting to pass it in his direction, it didn’t seem too costly. Japan hadn’t made them pay in the first half. The ball that Gaku Shibasaki played in his attempt to break the defence open didn’t seem likely to make Belgium pay either. Genki Haraguchi was running through, but Jan Vertonghen was in the way. Somehow, he failed to make the challenge required to nip the slightly concerning but flawed counter-attack in the bud. His touch wasn’t enough to prevent the ball getting through, and Haraguchi managed to slip his shot past Courtois, with Vertonghen desperately chasing him to atone for his error.

Vertonghen got that chance with about 20 minutes of normal time remaining, and he seized the opportunity to reduce the deficit and shake Belgium out of their shock-induced stupor. The opening was a small one, and it came from a poorly defended corner. The ball bounced around in the box, and eventually it was hacked high in the air. It didn’t leave the area, instead landing right on top of Vertonghen in a rather unlikely goal-scoring position. On a tight angle, the centre-back’s best chance seemed to be a header into the middle, where others could attempt to capitalise. Instead, he chanced his arm. The truly remarkable looped into the back of the net from an acute angle, nestling itself into the bottom corner despite Eiji Kawashima’s best efforts and giving Belgium hope of salvaging something from the match.

Meunier played his cross into the centre, looking for Lukaku. The big forward had run into the box as Belgium looked to break, and he found himself face to face with a defender as the ball reached him. He could try to beat the man in front of him and let off a shot, or trap the ball, hold it with his back to goal and feed an onrushing player. Or he could just let it through, where he knew he had a teammate bearing down on goal. Lukaku decided to let it through.

Lukaku had been heavily involved in Belgium’s best chance to go ahead after the equaliser. With normal time winding down, Meunier picked out Nacer Chadli, who forced Kawashima into an acrobatic save and collected the ball as it ricocheted back into play. He lofted another pass into the centre, where Lukaku was waiting. While Belgium were falling apart, Lukaku had been on the end of two such crosses. One ended up wide of the target from point-blank range and the other was well blocked. Now, his header was on target but athletically tipped over the bar by Kawashima. Japan were holding on, and continuing to play out of their skins as they sought to find some kind of result. Akira Nishino’s men weren’t settling for extra time, and they were continuing to throw players forward in an attempt to win the game. In the end, it probably cost them.

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Nacer Chadli (in red) scores the winning goal in the 94th minute. Chadli’s finish sealed Belgium’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down, the first such comeback in a knockout game since 1970.

Lukaku let the ball pass through his legs, allowing Chadli to run onto it in space. Japan’s defence had been stretched to the point where they offered no resistance as Chadli collected the ball. There was nobody there to stop him. The second half substitute had a golden opportunity, and he slammed it emphatically past Kawashima’s futile attempts to deny him.  A Japanese defender slid in, but he came in too late to make an impact. Miraculously, Belgium had won. Miraculously, Nacer Chadli had come up with the goal to send them to the quarter-finals, with just eight seconds of injury time remaining. Japan had surely lost. Belgium had surely won.

Chadli played a big part in Belgium’s crucial second goal. He had looked good after replacing Carrasco, and when he received the ball from a Japanese corner with space to run into he just took off. Inui attempted to impede him and stop him from breaking through. Chadli shook him off. Eventually, the counter-attack created a corner, as de Bruyne’s shot was blocked over the bar. Hazard was taking it. The corner was cleared away, but de Bruyne still managed to find himself the ball with time and space. He was too far out to score, but he knew exactly where Hazard was and he passed it to his captain in space on the left wing. After a bit of dribbling, Hazard crossed. It was another substitute, Marouane Fellaini, who met the ball with his head and couldn’t miss from close range. The decision to replace Mertens with Fellaini had seemed an intriguing one at the time. The afroed midfielder more than justified his introduction with that one moment.

Chadli’s goal came with basically the last kick of the game, and sealed one of the most remarkable comeback wins in World Cup history. When the final whistle blew, Belgium’s reaction was one of overwhelming relief, while Japan’s was one of complete despair. The Japanese had given their all, and found themselves in a position where they looked almost certain to progress. They had brought one of the competition’s favourites to their knees, yet they still found themselves beaten. As for Belgium, it’s hard to know what to think. There were plenty of good moments, and their stunning comeback shows that they have good spirit and excellent resolve, but they’ll have to ask themselves what went wrong in the first place. In the end, the enthralling, rollicking battle sent Belgium through, and that’s really all they can ask for.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4)
Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Belgium (3-4-2-1): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco (Chadli 65); Mertens (Fellaini 65), E Hazard; Lukaku.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 81); Haraguchi (Honda 81), Kagawa, Inui; Ōsako.

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Marouane Fellaini celebrates after scoring Belgium’s second goal from the bench. Fellaini’s size had a big impact on the latter part of the game, as he collected a goal and repeatedly threatened the Japanese defence.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier dropped off slightly during Belgium’s poor period after the second goal, but he was otherwise consistent and very dangerous. His delivery from the right wing was excellent, and he used his size to good effect when tracking back to assist the defence.
2. Nacer Chadli (Belgium)
Chadli came on for Carrasco and immediately reinvigorated the Belgians with his confident ball use and his dynamic run down the left. He contributed to two of Belgium’s three goals, and scored the winner in the dying moments. With Carrasco looking horribly out of form, Chadli is a very good chance to start in the quarter-finals.
3. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui scored an excellent goal to give Japan an almost unassailable lead, and his work slipping behind the Belgian defence on the break caused plenty of problems. He put in some dangerous crosses and made some very clever runs, and he was involved in basically all of Japan’s best attacks.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo was excellent, doing his defensive duties as the left-back and pushing forward into dangerous positions. He put in some very dangerous crosses, and his combination with Inui was as sharp as ever. He showed his experience with an excellent individual performance.
5. Marouane Fellaini (Belgium)
The decision to bring Fellaini, a central midfielder, on for Mertens, a right winger, seemed an odd one. Mertens had been dangerous on occasions, and Fellaini has never quite been the finished product. Then, slotting in on the right wing, Fellaini delivered a brilliant performance on the right. He managed to score the equaliser with an excellent header, and showed he can be a handy impact player.

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Mexico’s fight not enough against clinical Brazilians

Fernandinho picked out Neymar in acres of space. It was a rare treat for Neymar, who had seemingly been hacked, stamped on and brutalised every time he received the ball. With Mexico’s defence caught out, Brazil’s talismanic winger surged forward, revelling in the chance to show his markers a clean pair of heels. Unlike Mexico’s attackers, whose play was riddled with unnecessary touches in the final third, Neymar just ran straight at the Mexican goal, making no beelines and clearly outstripping the futile attempts to pursue him. Eventually, he found himself one-on-one with Guillermo Ochoa, and with a brilliant chance to score his second goal and seal Brazil’s place in the quarter-finals. Ochoa, not for the first time, denied Brazil with an excellent save, getting his foot to Neymar’s shot to keep it from finding the back of the net. Not for the first time, his defence let him down. Roberto Firmino, introduced from the bench a few minutes earlier, won the race to the ball, and scored with a straightforward tap in. Brazil were through, and Mexico’s World Cup campaign was over.

Brazil looked distinctly off colour in the opening exchanges as Mexico started confidently. The Mexicans never really threatened Alisson in the Brazilian goal, with many of their attempts being blocked and most of their attacks lacking a clinical touch in the final third, but the warning signs were there. More worryingly for Brazil, their attacks looked disjointed and unthreatening, and they didn’t lay a glove on the Mexican defence for much of the first half hour. At one point, Brazil won a throw-in, and Fagner managed to throw it to none of his teammates. Mexico went up the field dangerously, but Hirving Lozano couldn’t complete a cross in the final third. That one piece of play was an almost perfect representation of Brazil’s fragility and Mexico’s poor conversion of opportunities.

Then Neymar made something happen. He danced past Edson Álvarez and Hugo Ayala, and forced Guillermo Ochoa into a save with a shot from a ridiculously tight angle. He never had a realistic chance of scoring, but the ball began to ping around the Mexican defence, causing chaos at every turn. When Philippe Coutinho blasted a shot over the bar Mexico could breathe after a minute or two of goalmouth action, but the warning was clear. Mexico hadn’t forced Alisson into a difficult save despite all of their dangerous-looking attacks, while one run from Neymar had nearly broken their defence open.

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Roberto Firmino scores Brazil’s second goal from point-blank range. Firmino’s goal snuffed out any hopes Mexico had of causing an upset and progressing to the quarter-finals.

There were more signs of Brazil’s danger in the minutes that followed. Neymar found space on the left, and only an excellent slide tackle from Álvarez kept him from breaking through. More bedlam in the box ensued when Gabriel Jesus ran into space and fired a left-footed shot at Ochoa, who parried it away. Even that wasn’t enough, as Brazil got another shot away and it had to be cleared off the line. Neymar won a free-kick, and Álvarez found himself in the book, when the young right-back kicked at the ball and instead upended the Brazilian superstar rather emphatically. Neymar’s free-kick whizzed past the bar. Brazil had found their mojo, and it wasn’t looking too good for Mexico when the half time whistle blew.

Brazil kept pushing after the break, and they were soon ahead. They started well as Coutinho ran straight through the Mexican defence and Ochoa needed all of his reflexes to bat the ball away. They scored a few minutes later. Neymar started it, darting in from the left and playing a brilliant back-heel for Willian as the Brazilian wingers crossed over. Willian took a fraction of a second to weigh up his options before taking a heavy touch and bursting past the Mexican defence to find space in the box. His dangerous ball across goal beat Ochoa’s dive, and no Mexican defender was there to clear the ball away. Instead, Jesus and Neymar were sliding in, hoping to capitalise. Jesus just missed it, but Neymar connected and steered the ball into the back of the net.

Mexico kept playing with verve and ambition, but they couldn’t break down the Brazilian defence. Alisson finally needed to make a save when Vela unleashed a dangerous looking shot on the break, and he casually tipped the ball over the bar. His manner suggested he could have saved the shot with his eyes closed. Mostly, however, they took one touch too many, or missed passes, or did both. In the end, Brazil’s centre-backs had a busy but not too difficult time getting in the way of Mexico’s attempts on goal, and the Mexicans didn’t really look like scoring. It was a different story at the other end, where Ochoa was still making all of the tough saves. He needed to act quickly to deny Paulinho and Willian after good attacking moves, and Brazil’s attacks seemed to become more and more threatening as Mexico pushed harder and space began to open up.

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Neymar reacts after receiving a stamp on the foot from Miguel Layún. Layún wasn’t punished for the incident, but it showed the heated nature of the contest.

In the middle of it all, there were the fouls. Neymar, and to a lesser extent his teammates, were treated very physically by the Mexican defenders, culminating in a touchline incident which left Neymar writhing on the ground in seeming agony and Miguel Layún fiercely protesting his innocence. More fouls were committed as the game drew on, most of them emanating from overly rough Mexican defence, but Brazil kept their heads and kept marching on. The second goal, starting with some good play in the middle and displaying the clinical touch Mexico lacked, was a fitting way to end a slightly nervous but ultimately comfortable win. They’re in the quarter-finals, and they are sure to be a tough opponent.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Brazil 2 (Neymar 51, Roberto Firmino 88)
Mexico 0
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Paulinho (Fernandinho 80), Casemiro; Willian (Marquinhos 90+1), Philippe Coutinho (Roberto Firmino 86), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa – Álvarez (J dos Santos 55), Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Herrera, Márquez (Layún 46), Guardado; Lozano, Hernández (Jiménez 60), Vela.

Top 5
1. Willian (Brazil)
Willian was patchy in the group stages, but he found his best form against Mexico with a dynamic performance on the right wing. He created Neymar’s first goal, and plenty of good things came when he ran at the Mexican defence with purpose and composure. Above all, he looked confident, something that bodes well for the road ahead.
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar knows how to make things happen. He won countless free-kicks thanks to Mexico’s overly physical treatment of him, but he continued to get up and he was rewarded with a goal and an assist. When he had space to run with the ball he put the Mexicans under pressure.
3. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa completed a brilliant tournament with another stunning performance in the Mexican goal, parrying a number of dangerous looking shots to safety and repelling attack after attack with his reflexes and excellent positioning. It’s hard to know what more he could have done.
4. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho’s excellent form continued with another strong effort in attacking midfield, and his combinations with almost all of his teammates had good results. He worked into little pockets of space perfectly, and he found plenty of room to take on his dangerous shots from outside the box. He looks like the creative force Brazil need to go a long way.
5. Andrés Guardado (Mexico)
With Rafael Márquez drafted into the starting line-up Guardado was freed to push further up the field early on, and he challenged the Brazilians with some good runs and some dangerous crosses. In the second half, with Márquez removed, he played well in a more defensive role, showing his versatility and his determination to give his all.

Subašić finally trumps Schmeichel as Croatia finally trump Denmark

Croatia entered their clash with Denmark on a high. Having won all three of their group stage matches at a canter, they had slotted into the easy side of the draw. With plenty of quality and a relatively simple path to the final made easier by Russia’s upset win over Spain hours earlier, Croatia had reason to be confident. Denmark, whose progress to the round of 16 was solid rather than spectacular, were expected to provide a test, but the Croatians seemed good enough to progress without too much trouble. Eventually, they did progress – with the last penalty of a drama-filled shootout.

Denmark couldn’t have started better. Just 58 seconds after kick-off, the ball was in the back of the net, courtesy of a long throw-in. Jonas Knudsen hurled the ball a remarkable distance after Denmark won the throw on the right, and the Croatians didn’t know what to do. The ball slipped over the back to Mathias Jørgensen, whose hastily scrambled shot rebounded off Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and the post before going in. A team with star players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid had been undone by a remarkably long heave from Ipswich Town’s left-back. It wasn’t the prettiest way to score a goal, but the throw was a brutally effective means of breaking down Croatia’s defence.

Denmark’s lead didn’t last long. To be precise, it lasted all of one minute and 52 seconds. Šime Vrsaljko found space on the right, and played a fairly routine ball into the box. It should have been cleared easily by Henrik Dalsgaard, who found the ball at his feet with no opponents around. Instead, he firmly planted the ball into the face of teammate Andreas Christensen, and the ball bounced kindly for Mario Mandžukić in the box. The big striker had little problem putting the chance away from close range, and suddenly the game was back on level terms. In less than four minutes, both sides had scored, and the frenetic beginning suggested that an exciting match was in the offing.

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Mario Mandžukić (front) and Mathias Jørgensen battle for the ball in the air. Both men scored their team’s only goals, both of which came in the opening five minutes of the match.

Then neither side scored for the rest of the match. Unsurprisingly, things started to settle down after the frenetic beginning. Croatia seemed to take control of possession, and they began to find the better chances. Ante Rebić was fouled on the edge of the area, but Ivan Perišić’s free-kick was drilled into the wall and away for a corner. Perišić’s dangerous cross caused more problems for Denmark as Knudsen and Mandžukić tussled in the box and the striker appealed for a penalty. Néstor Pitana, the intense-looking Argentinian referee, was unmoved, telling Mandžukić in no uncertain terms that he had not been fouled and that he should get up. Rebić forced Kasper Schmeichel to parry his shot from close range, and Perišić bungled a golden opportunity when his second-chance shot thudded harmlessly into the turf and didn’t even reach the six-yard box. Dejan Lovren connected with Luka Modrić’s free-kick, but his header didn’t have enough on it and it flew wide of its mark. As the game progressed, however, Croatia’s opportunities began to dry up against Denmark’s well-drilled defence.

Denmark had some opportunities, particularly in the second half, but they didn’t have the clinical touch in attack to trouble Croatia. Martin Braithwaite had – and missed – most of their best chances. Early on, he went one-on-one with Subašić, but the Croatian keeper saved his shot well. Then the ball kicked up into his face and trailed away for a goal-kick. Yussuf Poulsen created a chance for him in the centre, but Braithwaite blasted the shot a long way wide. Thomas Delaney ran straight through the heart of the Croatian defence, and then completed his seemingly endless run with a pass for Braithwaite. Braithwaite missed. There were other chances, like when Danish star Christian Eriksen hit the bar (it never really looked like testing Subašić) and when Nicolai Jørgensen forced Subašić into a save from a decent position, but Denmark weren’t really worrying the Croatians.

In the last 10 minutes of normal time, Croatia began to step up their game. Perišić headed the ball onto the roof of the net, and Rebić made a couple of dangerous runs down the right after Perišić’s quickly-taken throw-in caught Denmark unawares and heralded a short period of goalmouth action. It passed, however, and there was no goal in the first 90 minutes. The Danish started extra time well, putting Croatia under pressure with a series of Knudsen’s gigantic throws and some good attacks. Domagoj Vida was a little hasty in coming out of position, and Denmark threatened as Eriksen perfectly threaded the ball through the gap he left in the defensive line. Knudsen won a corner with some good work down the left, and Denmark continued to threaten, but they couldn’t break through.

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Luka Modrić reacts with relief after scoring during the penalty shootout. Modrić had a golden opportunity to win it for Croatia in the final minutes of extra time, but Kasper Schmeichel managed to save his penalty.

Then Modrić began to get involved. Croatia’s star created a brilliant chance out of nothing with a beautiful ball for Andrej Kramarić, but Denmark survived as Schmeichel tapped a potentially dangerous cross over the bar. Then Modrić produced another moment of inspiration which seemingly confirmed Croatia’s victory. Upon receiving the ball in midfield, he threaded a delightful pass through the heart of the Danish defence, putting Rebić one-on-one with Schemichel. At pace, Rebić rounded Schmeichel on the edge of the box, and all that was left to do was slot the ball into an open net. He didn’t get the chance as Mathias Jørgensen slid in from behind, conceding the penalty and putting his further participation in the match in serious doubt. Mercifully, he was only booked by Pitana, but Modrić was almost certain to score. He didn’t. Schmeichel dived the right way and clutched the ball gratefully, and the game was destined for penalties. Schmeichel was brimming with confidence, and Denmark seemed to have the upper-hand as Eriksen stepped up to take the first kick of the shootout.

Enter Subašić. Eriksen’s penalty was saved by the Croatian goalkeeper, who flung himself the right way, diverted the ball into the post, and celebrated with understandable gusto. Croatia had the edge. Then Schmeichel, determined to match his counterpart, denied Milan Badelj with his feet. The teams were back level. Finally, with the fourth penalty taken in the match, Simon Kjær scored. He drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner, and the goalkeepers’ desperate attempts to one-up each other proceeded to take the back seat as the shootout began to follow a more familiar pattern. Kramarić scored, and Schmeichel was warned for coming off his line before the kick was taken. Michael Krohn-Dehli scored. For once, Modrić looked unsure of himself, and nervous. He scored anyway, going straight down the middle and only just eluding Schmeichel’s feet before trotting away relieved.

Then Subašić made another save. Lasse Schöne took the kick, drilling it to the left and watching as it was emphatically parried by the diving goalkeeper. Once again, Croatia had the ascendency as Josip Pivarić prepared to take his penalty. Unfortunately for Croatia, anything Subašić could do, Schmeichel could seemingly do better. Pivarić took a long run up, taking a few sidesteps and running at the ball with some aggression. Schmeichel was unperturbed, and made the save. The battle of the two goalkeepers was back on, and the penalty-takers were becoming increasingly nervous. Subašić did it again. Brimming with confidence, he denied Nicolai Jørgensen with his feet. Croatia just needed to score to win, with Rakitić entrusted with the crucial kick. Unlike so many before him, he made no error. Relief washed over Croatia as they ensured they would not become the next highly-rated team to fall by the wayside, and booked a date with the hosts in Sochi. Their performance was shaky, and probably their worst of the tournament thus far, but it was a win. The fact that they’re still in the competition means that the drama, tension and the very late night was worth it.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4)
Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 81); Rakitić, Brozović (Kovačić 71); Rebić, Modrić, Perišić (Kramarić 97); Mandžukić (Badelj 108).
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, M Jørgensen, Knudsen; Christensen (Schöne 46), Delaney (Krohn-Dehli 98), Eriksen; Poulsen, Cornelius (N Jørgensen 66), Braithwaite (Sisto 106).

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Luka Modrić and Danijel Subašić celebrate after Croatia’s victory. Subašić played a key role in the shootout with three penalty saves.

Top 5
1. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)
Schmeichel made all of the saves he had to in general play, and then went to a whole new level as the match was drawing to a close. He saved Modrić’s penalty to ensure the game went to a shootout, and he kept Denmark in the shootout by making a couple of excellent saves. At times, he looked unbeatable.
2. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić had a quieter game than his opposite number, and then proceeded to win Croatia the game with his penalty shootout heroics. He made three saves from five Danish penalties, and his efforts were eventually enough for Croatia to come away with the win. He will take massive confidence from some of his penalty stops.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić is having a brilliant individual tournament, and the dynamic winger continued to feature prominently with his all-action approach. Mathias Jørgensen’s foul from behind was all that stopped him from putting away a late winner, and he made a number of dangerous runs from both wings and through the middle.
4. Thomas Delaney (Denmark)
Delaney used his physicality to good effect, making his presence felt against Croatia’s star-studded midfield and providing an attacking threat with his dangerous forward runs. One such run took him well in the area, and his slightly inadvertent assist for Denmark’s only goal showed his attacking threat.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić showed his cool temperament when he calmly slotted the winning penalty, and he stood up to fill the void when Modrić had a quiet game (an event which may never occur again). He seemed to take on the majority of Croatia’s playmaking duties, and he created some decent opportunities with his excellent passing.

Spain control the ball, but Russia hold on for shock win from the spot

Marco Asensio and Koke prepared to deliver the free-kick. Spain had won the kick on the right wing after Russian left-back Yuri Zhirkov clattered into Spanish right-back, and after dominating possession it presented them with their best chance of turning their control of the match into an early lead. Asensio, starting in place of decorated midfielder Andrés Iniesta, was the man who stepped up to take the free-kick. The 22-year-old languidly approached the ball and gracefully delivered the ball towards the back post, where pugilistic Spanish captain Sergio Ramos was entangled with Sergei Ignashevich. It was a bizarre scene. Ignashevich wasn’t watching the ball, instead gripping Ramos in a bear hug and tackling him to the ground. He wasn’t watching the ball when it reached the pair, and Ramos desperately tried to get a boot on it. He didn’t. Instead, the ball bounced of Ignashevich’s calf, looping past Igor Akinfeev and putting Spain in the lead. With just over 10 minutes gone, Spain were in control.

Iago Aspas approached the penalty spot. He needed to score to keep Spain in the competition. He ran up to the ball, and lashed his penalty straight down the middle. Akinfeev saved it. The Russian captain kept the penalty out and it flew away harmlessly, confirming Spain’s elimination on penalties and sending the Russian fans into raptures. Akinfeev, so calm during the shootout, celebrated loudly as he was embraced by his euphoric teammates. Spain, defeated in a match they had controlled from start to finish, could only stand disconsolately, wondering what had gone wrong. Ignashevich’s own goal, and Spain’s celebrations, were in the distant past. It didn’t feel like it had happened in the same game. The weather wasn’t even the same, with the sun that had greeted the beginning of the match giving way to pouring rain as the match progressed to a famous Russian victory.

After the goal, such an end was inconceivable. Spain weren’t really penetrating the Russian defence, but Russia weren’t even touching the ball, let alone threatening the Spanish. Spain just passed. And passed. And passed a little more. The centre-backs got plenty of the ball, as did Koke and Sergio Busquets in holding midfield. Occasionally, they saw fit to distribute the ball into a more threatening position. Such occasions were rare. Then, as so often happens, Russia’s one real piece of attacking play provided the equaliser. In a sign of what was to come, they scored from a penalty. It started with a corner, as Artem Dzyuba got his head to Aleksandr Samedov’s delivery and knocked it into Gerard Piqué’s raised arm. No amount of protesting could convince Björn Kuipers to reverse his decision, and Dzyuba stepped up to confidently drill the penalty past David de Gea. Dzyuba ran towards the corner in a slightly confused but passionate celebration, running with his arms outstretched before slapping his chest a few times, jumping and punching the air in front of him and, finally, standing to attention. At least the sentiment was clear.

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Igor Akinfeev celebrates after saving Iago Aspas’ penalty to confirm Russia’s win in the shootout. Akinfeev led from the front, saving two penalties as Russia claimed a famous victory.

Now needing to score another goal to get the win, Spain reverted back to their modus operandi: pass, pass and pass some more. They started to move the ball forward with slightly more intensity as the half drew to a close, with Diego Costa coming particularly close when he got on the end of a neat through ball and tested Akinfeev from close range. It came to nothing. Then, after half time, the intensity seemed to disappear. Spain passed, a lot, but never really made headway against Russia’s determined five-man defence. They didn’t seem to have enough urgency to break them down.

Spain’s play became an endless cycle of harmless backwards and sideways passes, which weren’t even played at enough speed to move the Russian defence from side to side. Russia did some running, but they never really had to exert themselves in defending Spain’s attacks. Iniesta came on and threatened to make something happen, playing a quick one-two to run into the box but failing to control the ball at the decisive moment. Russia cleared the ball away, Piqué received the ball uncontested, and the cycle of sideways and backwards passes started again. Jordi Alba played a little lofted pass for Isco, but it was cleared away for a throw-in. The cycle started again. Isco and Iniesta found the ball in the box, but they got in a tangle and the Russians got it away. Eventually their rather toothless-looking counter-attack failed, and the cycle started again. Spain won a corner and looked slightly dangerous, but Russia eventually cleared. Dani Carvajal threw the ball all the way back to Piqué, and the cycle started again.

Spain started to lift their intensity, and there were a few good attacks, but the cycle continued. Iniesta forced Akinfeev into a diving save after receiving the ball just outside the area, and Iago Aspas nearly converted from the rebound. Russia cleared, and the cycle started again. Russia nearly had a chance when Ramos made a rare error in position and a number of slips granted Golovin the ball in a dangerous position. They conceded a free-kick, and the cycle started again. Spain won a free-kick and three consecutive corners, but Russia continued to rebuff them and eventually Ramos headed over the bar. The cycle started again. Fittingly, Spain were passing the ball sideways when the whistle blew to signify the end of the first 90 minutes.

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Andrés Iniesta (front) controls the ball under pressure from Roman Zobnin. Iniesta had an impact after entering the game, making Spain look more dangerous with his runs into pockets of space.

Spain began extra time with more urgency, with Isco heavily involved and slipping a nice pass through for Carvajal shortly after play resumed. They continued to pass the ball around without allowing Russia time on the ball, but suddenly they were pushing up towards the edge of the penalty area, allowing them to win the ball in more advanced positions. Russia still held firm, though, and they didn’t look like being breached despite Spain’s slightly more adventurous attacking play. At one point Aspas slipped over on the edge of the area, and Isco cannoned straight into his back. Both fell over. It just wasn’t happening for Spain. For the first time in the match, Spain had the space and, more importantly, the will to mount a genuine counter-attack, and Iniesta’s pass found Aspas in space. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Aspas was fighting a losing battle as he took on the entire Russian defence with no support. His shot was eventually blocked.

Spain continued to control possession, but their risk-averse approach seemed to give them little chance of scoring. Rodrigo, Spain’s fourth substitute (in the first World Cup game to involve a fourth substitution in extra time), nearly made something happen when he forced Akinfeev into a save and Spain picked up the rebound, but Russia managed to survive. Iniesta continued to threaten, but Russia continued to survive. Russia had a nervous moment when Koke’s free-kick contributed to all sorts of tangles in the box and the video assistant referee began checking for a penalty, but no evidence of illegal defending was found. Eventually, after more than two hours of Spain’s ceaseless passing, Kuipers blew the whistle to signify the end of regular play, and to signify the beginning of the ultimate tiebreaker, the dreaded penalty shootout.

Iniesta stepped up first, stroking the ball past Akinfeev very calmly. Fyodor Smolov drilled his penalty past de Gea. Piqué flicked the ball nonchalantly into his hands as he walked up to take the penalty, and he showed his coolness with a brilliant finish. Ignashevich was next, chipping it past de Gea and expressionlessly turning on his heel and walking back to the centre. Then came Koke. Koke strolled up to the spot, and drilled it to the left. Akinfeev went the same way, parrying the kick and sending the home crowd into raptures as Koke pulled his shirt up to cover his face. He looked as though he was hoping the turf would swallow him up. Suddenly, Spain were behind. Golovin didn’t miss for Russia. Neither did Ramos, who took a meandering approach to the spot and sent Akinfeev in the wrong direction. De Gea needed a save. Denis Cheryshev, who has spent all of his professional career playing in Spain, didn’t allow that to happen. Time was running out, and Spain only had one more kick to get themselves back in the shootout. Aspas missed it, and it was all over. Spain’s turbulent and underwhelming campaign ended on penalties, and Russia’s dream run in front of their home fans continued. The Spanish had no answer as they tried to subject Russia to death by a thousand cuts. In the end, the only team harmed by Spain’s monopolisation of possession seemed to be the Spanish themselves.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Spain 1 (Ignashevich 12 og)
Russia 1 (Dzyuba 41 pen) (a.e.t, Russia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho (Carvajal 70), Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Koke, Busquets; Silva (Iniesta 67), Isco, Asensio (Rodrigo 104); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 80).
Russia (5-3-2): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov, Zhirkov (Granat 46); Samedov (Cheryshev 61), Zobnin, Kuzyayev (Yerokhin 97); Dzyuba (Smolov 65), Golovin.

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Rodrigo (centre) is denied by Igor Akinfeev (left) during extra time. The save was one of Akinfeev’s best, and was a highlight of a performance capped off by his penalty shootout heroics.

Top 5
1. Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Considering Spain’s dominance of possession, Akinfeev had surprisingly little to do, but he was always there when Russia needed him. He made some nice saves, and he showed his experience in the penalty shootout by coming up with a pair of excellent saves and sending his side through.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
When Spain conduct the inquiry into how their round of 16 exit came to be, Fernando Hierro’s decision to remove Iniesta from the starting line-up will come in for immense scrutiny. When he came on, the 34-year-old provided an energy his teammates lacked, and he looked like Spain’s best chance of breaking through. He showed his experience by neatly slotting home his penalty.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco was everywhere, popping up all over the field and playing some neat passes as he tried to breach the Russian defence with dynamism and flair. He was involved in almost all of Spain’s attacks, and his through passes were more incisive than most. He has a big future, and although he wasn’t at his most fluent he had a big impact.
4. Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Ramos seemed to find the ball more than any of his teammates, and he had an impact with his experience and threat at set pieces. His work on the end of Asensio’s free-kick allowed Spain to go ahead early, and his defensive work was always solid. He was one of the experienced Spanish players who converted in the shootout.
5. Ilya Kutepov (Russia)
Kutepov did some good defensive work as part of Russia’s back five, keeping Spain out on a few occasions with blocks and clearances and generally looking solid. With most of Spain’s play focusing on Kutepov’s side of the field, he held up well and wasn’t really beaten throughout the 120 minutes.

Portugal, and Ronaldo, bow out against Cavani’s brilliant double

Ricardo Quaresma attempted to dance around Christian Stuani on the right wing. Portugal were desperately chasing a late equaliser against a determined Uruguayan defence, and their World Cup future was on the line. Eventually, Quaresma decided he couldn’t really get past Stuani. Instead, he jumped over him, intent on gaming the referee and winning a free-kick in a dangerous position. César Ramos was not fooled, the ball went out for a goal-kick, and Portugal reacted indignantly. Cristiano Ronaldo, their captain, undisputed star player and main goal scorer, led the protests. He ran towards Ramos, got in his face, and received a yellow card for his troubles. Even if Portugal had managed to equalise in the final moments, and even if they had made it through to the quarter-finals, Ronaldo would have been suspended. It wasn’t really fitting that what was potentially Ronaldo’s final act at a World Cup involved a disciplinary indiscretion.

The game was always likely to be an interesting one, with both sides fielding solid defences and dangerous attacks headlined by world-class talent (Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay, Ronaldo for Portugal). It was Suárez and Cavani who struck first. Cavani started it, receiving the ball on the right wing and switching it across Portugal’s back four to pick out Suárez on the left. Having received the truly remarkable pass, Suárez cut back onto his right foot, as if preparing to shoot. His cross almost looked like a shot as it flew towards the back post. Then Cavani got on the end of it. If Portugal thought Cavani had played his part after his brilliant cross-field ball, they were wrong. The Uruguayan striker put in an immense effort to complete a brilliant cross-field one-two which broke down Portugal’s defence. The finish, a header from close range, was the easy part.

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César Ramos (right) shows Cristiano Ronaldo a yellow card for dissent. Ronaldo lost his cool in the final moments of Portugal’s defeat, culminating in his second booking of the tournament.

Now chasing the game, Portugal controlled possession and territory but never really looked capable of breaching Uruguay’s solid and very determined defence. Ronaldo had a shot blocked. Gonçalo Guedes had a shot blocked. William Carvalho tried a long shot. It was blocked. Crosses were played into the box, looking for Ronaldo, but they were never quite on point and they were mostly claimed without challenge by Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. Occasionally, they weren’t too far off, and Diego Godín would have to head them away instead. When Uruguay went forward quickly after Portugal’s missed chances, Suárez won a free-kick and forced Rui Patrício into a tough save as he directed said free-kick under the wall. It was more dangerous than any of Portugal’s many attacks. Back up the other end, Ronaldo took a free-kick on the edge of the box. It was blocked, by the wall, and cleared away by Lucas Torreira’s bicycle kick. A succession of poor crosses and ineffective attacks later, Portugal went to half time without looking like breaking down Uruguay’s seemingly impenetrable defence.

Portugal started the second half much as they finished the first, dominating possession but failing to make much of it. Then, shortly after resumption, they scored. It all happened quite suddenly, starting with some nice build-up play and a corner emanating from Adrien Silva’s shot on the edge of the area. Silva slipped, but his shot was somehow deflected away for a corner. From the corner, they found the back of the net. It was a rare defensive lapse from Uruguay which created the opening. Raphaël Guerreiro’s cross beat Godín’s partner, José María Giménez, and Ronaldo’s big leap. Unfortunately for Uruguay, Pepe was there, and completely unmarked. He had no problems getting his head to the ball, and he had even fewer issues putting the header into the back of the net.

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Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring one of his two goals. Both of Cavani’s goals were brilliant finishes, and they delivered Uruguay to victory.

It didn’t take long for Uruguay to take the lead again. Cavani scored the goal, beating Patrício with a classy finish and sending the Uruguayan fans into raptures. It began with a mistake. Pepe, the goal scoring hero only a few minutes earlier, bungled a defensive header, presenting Nahitan Nández with the opportunity to run at Portugal’s now stretched defence. He played a beautiful sideways pass to Cavani, who received the ball just inside the box and in plenty of space. Cavani had a few options as he approached Nández’s perfect pass. He could pick up the ball and dribble towards goal, getting himself to close range before unleashing a shot. He could have dribbled wide and put in a cross for Suárez, who was streaming through the middle. Instead, he shot first-time. He angled his run towards the ball so that he could shoot with the instep of his right foot, and he nonchalantly curled the ball past Patrício and into the opposite corner of the net. It was a truly remarkable strike, and it left Portugal needing another equaliser.

Portugal began to improve as they pursued their second goal, but they couldn’t find the elusive equaliser. Muslera made a mess of dealing with Guerreiro’s cross, but Bernardo Silva couldn’t capitalise as he blasted it over the top of an empty goal. Mexican referee Ramos decided he had fouled Muslera anyway. Their crosses became more dangerous, and they were creating shots in better positions. Uruguay didn’t seem to care. Godín won the ball in the air every time it was kicked in his direction, and Uruguay’s hard work meant that they continued to weather the storm. They threw themselves in front of shots. They were always there to challenge the Portuguese. Ronaldo attempted to intimidate his opponents with tricks and breeze straight past them. Unfazed, they just waited until his tricks had been completed and kicked the ball away contemptuously. Uruguay had an answer to everything Portugal threw at them. By the end, Portugal had nothing left to throw.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Uruguay 1 (Cavani 7, 62)
Portugal 1 (Pepe 55)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Sánchez 81), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (Rodríguez 63); Suárez, Cavani (Stuani 74).
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Ricardo Pereira, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva (Quaresma 65), João Mário (Manuel Fernandes 85); Guedes (André Silva 74), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani was in brilliant form, scoring both of Uruguay’s goals and providing a touch of class to every Uruguayan move. His finish to complete the second goal was superlative, and his hard work and effortless class allowed him to score the game’s opener. His combination with Suárez looks scary, and Uruguay will be hoping that the late niggle he picked up doesn’t hurt their campaign.
2. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Where would Uruguay be without Diego Godín? It’s certain that they’d be nowhere near as solid. Once again, Uruguay’s captain and defensive leader was colossal, rebuffing Portugal’s attacks thanks to his height, experience and brilliant positioning. He always seemed to be exactly where Uruguay needed him, and he ensured Uruguay’s safe passage to the quarter-finals.
3. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William was in fine form, pulling the strings from deep in midfield and taking charge of all of Portugal’s attacking play. His defensive work rate was good, but it was his underrated playmaking ability which really stood out on a night where little went right for the Portuguese.
4. Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Torreira’s defensive effort was unbelievable, as he pushed himself to his limits with his determination to get in front of shots and keep Portugal from breaking through. He threw himself in Portugal’s way, at one point ending up on the ground after blocking a particularly powerful effort from Ronaldo. He fought very hard.
5. Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
Silva hadn’t really found form in the group stage, and he found himself dropped for Portugal’s crucial clash with Iran as a result. Restored to the starting line-up, he finally justified his selection, looking dangerous as he ran at Uruguayan defenders and putting in some incisive crosses.

Dominant Mbappé sends Argentina packing

When Argentina’s round of 16 clash with France was confirmed a few days ago, there was plenty of excitement. Neither side had quite hit their peak in the group stage, but the idea of two international powerhouses going toe-to-toe was an enticing one. The match delivered, in every way. There were goals. Seven of them, to be exact, with a couple of classic strikes thrown into the mix. There was tension and late drama, and, sealing the deal, there was an individual performance from a number 10 which broke the game open and delivered a stunning victory. Unfortunately for Argentina, it wasn’t their number 10 who did the damage.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s number 10 wearing star player, captain and talismanic goal scorer, was the man Argentina needed to step up if they were to beat the French. They were relying on him to take the game by the scruff of the neck and deliver an Argentinian victory. Much like a young and talented Messi, Kylian Mbappé went into the game with a reputation as a precocious talent. Blessed with pace, skill and an eye for goal, the 19-year-old was playing his first knockout game in his first World Cup, and he stole the show. In two stunning blitzes, Mbappé created three of France’s four goals, and announced himself as the real deal (if there was any doubt before) with a devastating performance.

Mbappé started the game strongly, with an blitz that threatened to knock Argentina out before they had a chance to get into the game. It was his pace that did the trick. Whenever he got the ball, he didn’t bother controlling it. He just knocked the ball forward and ran, making the Argentinian defenders look pedestrian as he hit top speed. Early on, he won a free-kick just outside the box with a dangerous run, and France nearly scored as Antoine Griezmann struck his shot straight into the bar. It was a sign of things to come.

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Ángel Di María celebrates after equalising with an incredible long shot. The 30-yard effort took France by surprise, and heralded Argentina’s best period of the match.

The goal followed soon after, as Mbappé picked off a lazy pass in his own half and took off. Argentina couldn’t catch him. He left their defenders for dead as he burst through the middle of the field at tremendous speed, running at them like a one man battering ram. Marcos Rojo, whose late goal allowed Argentina to qualify for the round of 16, barred his way. Mbappé just smashed the ball out in front of him, relying on his momentum and stunning pace to win the ball back in the box. He never got that far as Rojo brutally halted his progress, sending him crashing to the turf and giving France a penalty. Griezmann made no mistake from the spot. A few minutes later, Mbappé was at it again, latching on to a quickly-taken free-kick from Paul Pogba and winning another foul, this time just outside the box. He seemed unstoppable.

Then, just before half time, Argentina equalised out of nowhere. They had worked their way back into the game after Mbappé’s early surge, but the French hadn’t looked troubled by any of their attacks and they were holding them off calmly. They didn’t look like scoring when Ángel Di María, not Messi, turned the game on its head with one moment of pure brilliance. He received the ball 30 yards out from goal, in a bit of space. He decided to have a shot from the improbable position, presumably deciding to try his luck with no defenders there to close him down. Then, with his left boot, he unleashed a curling strike into the top corner. Hugo Lloris dived desperately, but the French keeper had no chance against Di María’s perfectly-placed shot. Suddenly, Argentina found themselves right back in the contest. Minutes after half time, they were ahead.

The second goal was fortuitous. Messi started it, attempting an off-balance shot from the edge of the area after Pogba deflected it straight to him. It wouldn’t have caused any problems for Lloris had Gabriel Mercado not been standing in its path. The Argentinian right-back, through a stroke of good luck, intercepted Messi’s shot and diverted it into the bottom corner, sparking rapturous celebrations. The French keeper never stood a chance. Suddenly, France found themselves needing to chase the game, and were left wondering where it all went wrong.

They equalised soon after in stunning circumstances. It was coming. Griezmann nearly scored after a horrendous miscommunication between half-time entrant Federico Fazio and Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani, and France were beginning to exert some pressure on their opponents. They scored a couple of minutes after Griezmann’s near miss, with a strike which rivalled Di María’s earlier effort. It started with Lucas Hernández’s cross, which was cleared to apparent safety by Nicolás Tagliafico. Argentina didn’t reckon with Benjamin Pavard. The curly-haired French right-back had pushed forward, and upon reaching the ball on the edge of the area he attempted a first-time shot, and nailed it. With the side of his foot he drove the ball into the top corner, leaving Armani with no chance and putting France back on level terms. The enthralling contest was hanging in the balance, waiting for someone to seize the momentum.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Lucas Hernández after scoring France’s fourth goal. The goal all but sealed France’s win and their passage to the quarter-finals.

It wasn’t Messi who stepped up. It was Mbappé. Shortly after Pavard’s leveller, he put France ahead with an excellent goal. Hernández started it once again, finding Blaise Matuidi in the box. Matuidi’s shot was blocked, and the ball found Mbappé in the congested situation. He was good enough to make something happen. The young star somehow burst into space with one touch, and with Argentina’s defence scrambling to keep up he rammed home his advantage. Armani got a hand on it, but he couldn’t stop the close-range effort. Then, before Argentina could process what had happened, he struck again.

The goal started from the back, with N’Golo Kanté playing a nice pass to Griezmann, whose delightful touch found a running Matuidi, whose pass found Olivier Giroud in a dangerous position. Within seconds, they had picked their way through Argentina’s press (if such a press existed), and they found themselves on the edge of the box with Argentina’s defence in disarray. Mbappé was storming through on the right, and once Giroud played him through he was never going to be caught. He slammed the ball past Armani for the second time in minutes, and sparked rapturous celebrations. It didn’t look like Argentina would be able to respond.

Argentina pushed, but the French defence held firm. Messi created something out of nothing deep into injury time, allowing Sergio Agüero to score with a nice header, but it was too little, too late. When Nicolás Otamendi sparked a mass brawl in the dying moments, it was clear that Argentina’s tournament was over. After an underwhelming showing in Russia, the international careers of some of Argentina’s key players may be over too. For France, a powerful display under pressure has reinforced their credentials as potential World Cup winners. If Mbappé keeps his form up, he could take them to the title himself.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68)
Argentina 2 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé (Thauvin 89), Griezmann (Fekir 83), Matuidi (Tolisso 75); Giroud.
Argentina (4-3-3): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (Fazio 46), Tagliafico; Pérez (Agüero 66), Mascherano, Banega; Pavón (Meza 75), Messi, Di María.

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Kylian Mbappé celebrates after scoring his second goal. Mbappé took Argentina apart with a dominant performance, and he looks in ominous form heading into the last eight.

Top 5
1. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé won France the game, plain and simple. In the first 20 minutes, he drove a wedge through the Argentinian defence and put them on the back foot with his devastating forward runs, and he backed it up with two second-half goals. With the game on the line, it was Mbappé who delivered with a dominant performance, and it’s scary what he can do at the rest of his World Cup.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was in excellent form, slipping into dangerous pockets of space, finding himself a goal with a coolly taken penalty and creating plenty of opportunities. His ability to put Argentina under pressure with the ball at his feet contributed to France’s very dangerous attacking play.
3. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María dragged Argentina back into the game with one moment of supreme quality, and he continued to shine for the rest of the match. His 30-yard strike was one of the goals of the tournament, and he stood up in a big way when his team needed him.
4. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Messi may have played his last World Cup game, and he was not to blame for Argentina’s defeat. He picked out some brilliant passes, including a perfect cross for Agüero with Argentina desperately pushing for a goal against a packed defence. He looked dangerous, and if this was his last World Cup match he went out with a strong performance.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played some beautiful passes and made some very strong runs through the middle, and he was an imposing presence for the French. He used his physical strength to control the midfield, and his solid pairing with Kanté functioned well once again. He looks to have found some form, and could be very dangerous.

Tunisia come from behind to take consolation victory

Nawaf Shukralla paid the free-kick in a dangerous position. Panama, desperately searching for the equaliser that would give them their first ever World Cup point, eagerly prepared to take the kick. As three of them stood huddled over the ball, with a minute left on the clock, Shukralla had his hands full dealing with the Tunisian players standing in the wall. Having used his vanishing spray to mark the spot where the players should stand in order to block the free-kick, said players continued to stumble over the line as they jostled for position, causing something of a delay. Eventually, the kick was taken, more than 90 seconds after its award and after the stoppage time allocated by the referee had expired. With the last real kick of the game, Édgar Bárcenas shot, and picked out Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi. Mathlouthi received a free-kick after making the save, and his hoof up the field marked the end of the game and Panama’s tournament.

The match was a dead rubber, with both teams coming in winless and already eliminated, but neither side was going easy as they pursued a consolation victory. Tunisia started well, controlling possession early and largely keeping Panama out of the game. They had some chances, looking most dangerous when Naïm Sliti put in a dangerous low cross, but Fakhreddine Ben Youssef wasn’t quite able to latch onto it and the ball rolled harmlessly to Jaime Penedo. Sliti was heavily involved in the minutes that followed, attempting an acrobatic but incredibly ambitious aerial kick which trailed well wide of the target and another ambitious long shot which sailed harmlessly into the stands. For the most part, however, Tunisia’s domination of proceedings didn’t result in too many opportunities.

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Panama’s players celebrate after opening the scoring through Yassine Meriah’s own goal. Panama lost the lead and lost their third game at their debut World Cup, but their fans were still very vocal and they celebrated loudly after the first goal.

Panama’s first real attack came after the first half hour, and it culminated in the game’s first goal. It began with a long shot, which Mathlouthi could only parry back into a dangerous spot. Román Torres found the ball and had his shot blocked, and it rebounded to young winger José Luis Rodríguez some distance from the goal. Looking to get closer, Rodríguez played a one-two with Torres and shot from the edge of the area. Mathlouthi had it covered before the deflection. The ball slammed into Yassine Meriah, and the goalkeeper was in no position to prevent the diverted shot from finding the back of the net. Panama had the lead, and their always vocal fans were going crazy.

Tunisia recovered well. Ben Youssef nearly scored when he got on the end of Oussama Haddadi’s cross from the left, but he couldn’t quite get enough on his header to put it on target. Haddadi created another chance a few minutes later, picking out Wahbi Khazri with a nice looping ball into the box. Khazri skied it, sending the volley flying into the stands. Khazri had two more chances in rapid succession as the half came to a close, forcing a diving save from Penedo, collecting the rebound and testing the veteran goalkeeper once again. Panama survived, just.

The equaliser came shortly after the break after a very nice move was started by Sliti just outside the box. He turned his man expertly before laying a pass to Khazri, whose ball into the box couldn’t have been any better for Ben Youssef. The big attacker slammed it home from close range, leaving Penedo with no chance as his thunderous shot found its mark. Tunisia continued to push, and they had another chance moments later when Khazri was fouled on the edge of the box and the ball fell to the onrushing Ben Youssef. He put the shot on target, but Penedo made an excellent save to keep the teams level.

The game had begun to open up, and Panama had a great chance when Aymen Mathlouthi fumbled a cross intended for Luis Tejada, presenting Édgar Bárcenas with a golden opportunity just inside the box. His volley was well-hit and on target, but Mathlouthi managed to get in the way. The ball went through his hands, hit him square in the face and bounced away. Mathlouthi was left on the ground, raising concerns that an outfield player would need to stand in (with two of Tunisia’s three keepers already out injured) but he eventually got up and continued. Then Tunisia went ahead.

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Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (left) levels the scores early in the second half. Ben Youssef’s goal put Panama on the back foot, and the Eagles of Carthage went ahead soon after.

Haddadi and Anice Badri combined dangerously on the left wing, and the left-back had the space to play the ball across goal. Penedo couldn’t do anything to stop Haddadi’s cross, and the ball found Khazri on the back post. It would have taken a supreme effort for Khazri to miss the chance from such close range. Now with a one-goal lead, the Eagles of Carthage began to pass the ball around with confidence, and there didn’t seem to be any way back into the game for the Panamanians.

For a moment, Panama thought they’d scored when Bárcenas hit a shot straight into the top corner, but Tejada had fouled Meriah in the build-up and the goal didn’t stand. They had more good chances to equalise, with Bárcenas providing some dangerous crosses from the right wing and Luis Ovalle playing a ball which four Panamanian attackers had the chance to latch on to (none of them did). None of their opportunities came to anything. As the game wound down, Tunisia brought on Ahmed Khalil and Bassem Srarfi, whose introductions ensured that, remarkably, every member of Tunisia’s 23-man squad featured at some point in their three matches. They left early, but at least everyone had a go.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Panama 1 (Meriah 33 og)
Tunisia 2 (F Ben Youssef 51, Khazri 66)
Referee: Nawaf Shukralla (Bhr)
Panama (4-5-1): Penedo – Machado, R Torres (Tejada 56), Escobar, Ovalle; Bárcenas, Godoy, Gómez, Ávila (Arroyo 80), Rodríguez; G Torres (Cummings 46).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Mathlouthi – Nagguez, Meriah, Bedoui, Haddadi; Chaalali, Skhiri, Sassi (Badri 46); F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Srarfi 89), Sliti (Khalil 76).

Top 5
1. Naïm Sliti (Tunisia)
Sliti was in excellent form on the left wing, slipping past defenders, displaying exemplary control and balance and creating some dangerous opportunities with his work on the ball. He was heavily involved in Tunisia’s best attacking play, and he played a key role in their equaliser with a brilliant turn.
2. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri finished the game with a goal and an assist, and he caused plenty of problems for the Panamanian defence with his excellent positioning and brilliant passing. He was dangerous when he won the ball close to goal, and capped off a good tournament with an excellent performance.
3. Oussama Haddadi (Tunisia)
Haddadi came in at left-back and immediately looked more solid than the man he replaced, Ali Maâloul. He made some great attacking contributions down the left, including the assist for Khazri’s goal and a number of dangerous crosses.
4. Édgar Bárcenas (Panama)
Bárcenas looked like Panama’s most lively player with his work in the wide areas. He drifted from side to side, put in some good crosses and fired off some shots which really tested Mathlouthi. His long shot into the top corner was a stunning strike, even if the goal didn’t count.
5. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef’s combination with Khazri and Sliti gave Panama plenty of issues, and he used his size and pace to good effect in picking up a goal and very nearly finding more. He was good in the air and on the ground, and looked very dangerous.