Saudi Arabia knocked out in lifeless encounter

Luis Suárez was hacked down in the middle of the field, and Uruguay tried to catch the Saudi Arabian defence out with a quick free-kick. It worked, to a point. Edinson Cavani slipped into space, and glided to the edge of the box. Then, with nothing else to do, he stopped. No Uruguayan player had joined him on the counter-attack. If there was one moment in this match which summed up Uruguay’s lack of commitment to free-flowing play, this was it. Suárez gave them a one-goal lead midway through the first half, and they kept it until the final whistle. It wasn’t pretty, and for large periods it was turgid, but Uruguay didn’t seem to care as they sealed their spot in the round of 16 with an unspectacular but solid victory.

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Luis Suárez celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game. The goal could have been the first of many, but Uruguay were too comfortable in their lead to really push for more.

Things could have been a lot worse for the Saudis. Their tournament opener against the Russians was an unmitigated disaster, and it was all bad news following their 5-0 defeat. Players were being promised “consequences” for their poor performances, Juan Antonio Pizzi looked set for the sack and, to cap it all off, their aeroplane caught fire on their way to Rostov-on-Don. Against an experienced Uruguayan side complete with two brilliant strikers in Suárez and Cavani, a bloodbath was not out of the question. It may well have happened, too, had Uruguay understood their part in it all. Unlike Russia, they didn’t attempt to press the Green Falcons, instead allowing them to play the ball around and settle into the game. For their part, Saudi Arabia seemed so happy not to be blown away that they gratefully knocked the ball around without really trying to breach the Uruguayan defence. Then Uruguay hit the front, and began to drain the life out of the contest.

The goal came from a corner, and a goalkeeping error. Carlos Sánchez swung the ball into the box, unsuccessfully hunting out Diego Godín’s leap at the front post. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Al-Owais missed it as well. The keeper launched himself at the ball and took a wild flail, and his failure to connect left everyone exposed. With no-one having impeded its progress, the ball fell straight at the feet of an unmarked Suárez, who had no troubles finding the back of a very open net. Suárez has scored plenty of goals in a remarkable career, but he won’t have scored many that were more straightforward.

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Osama Hawsawi (right) slides in to thwart Edinson Cavani. Hawsawi played a very solid game in the heart of a sterner Saudi defensive unit.

Saudi Arabia continued to push after going behind, finding the space and time they needed to string some passes together and even starting to create some chances. Hattan Bahebri had a couple of opportunities to equalise, at one point latching on to Yasser Al-Shehrani’s ball into the box but blasting it over the bar. Leading the line, Fahad Al-Muwallad showed some pace, and threatened to cause serious issues for the Uruguayan defence. He never really made good on his threat. The Saudis weren’t being pressed into mistakes high up the field, but they were met at every turn by a solid Uruguayan side content to sit back in the confidence that they could handle anything thrown at them.

As the second half drew on, Uruguay continued their approach, resulting in a dull game which just continued to get duller. At least the Uruguayans had some chances, with Sánchez continuing to fight and Cavani improving to bring a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacks. He had some great chances, wrong-footing Al-Owais after heading Lucas Torreira’s mishit shot towards the opposite corner and beating three Saudi defenders to create something out of nothing, but he couldn’t find the back of the net. It wasn’t costly, as Saudi Arabia played like they were simply relieved not to be blown away and continued to mount tentative attacks devoid of urgency. In the 93rd minute, Uruguay managed to win themselves a corner. With Saudi Arabia presenting no real threat, they could have tried for a goal and sent it into the box. They didn’t, happy to play it short, stop their opposition from receiving the ball and generally do whatever it took to get the win. They got the win, and that’s all that really mattered for them.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Uruguay 1 (Suárez 23)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Clément Turpin (Fra)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Varela, Giménez, Godín, Cáceres; Sánchez (Nández 82), Vecino (Torreira 59), Bentancur, Rodríguez (Laxalt 59); Suárez, Cavani.
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Al-Owais – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Bulaihi, Al-Shehrani; Bahebri (Kanno 75), Al-Faraj, Otayf, Al-Jassim (Al-Mogahwi 44), Al-Dawsari; Al-Muwallad (Al-Sahlawi 78).

Top 5
1. Carlos Sánchez (Uruguay)
Sánchez was one of the few Uruguayan players who presented a threat going forward, and his hard work down the right flank had a big impact on Uruguay’s play. He provided the assist for Suárez’s goal, and made his presence felt until his substitution late in the piece.
2. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
With a more solid defensive structure around him Hawsawi was able to thrive, making some key stops and denying Uruguay with some athletic pieces of defensive work. He made his presence felt against Uruguay’s very dangerous strike pairing, and he combined well with club teammate Al-Bulaihi.
3. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani played an active role in the first half as a conduit between the midfield and the attack, but it was his second half effort which caught the eye. Playing a more advanced role, he started to work his way into pockets of space in the Saudi half and added a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacking play. There’s room for improvement, but he looks in decent touch.
4. Ali Al-Bulaihi (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Bulaihi came into the team after the catastrophe of the tournament opener, and he immediately provided the solidity in central defence that the man he replaced, Omar Hawsawi, lacked. He made a number of good challenges on Suárez and Cavani, and seemed to cause some frustration for the Uruguayans.
5. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
The fact that Suárez had, by his lofty standards, a quiet game but still managed to find the back of the net speaks volumes for his ability to get himself on the scoresheet. The goal was by no means a difficult one to convert, but his positioning was as dangerous as ever and he showed some evidence of his footballing smarts.


Portugal ride Ronaldo’s wave to edge out determined Atlas Lions

Fayçal Fajr lifted the free-kick long into the box. In the dying embers of Morocco’s clash with Portugal, the Atlas Lions were desperately trying to recoup a one-goal deficit that had existed from the fourth minute of the match. At stake were Morocco’s chances of progressing from a tough group, with a loss certainly consigning Hervé Renard’s team to elimination – with one game still to play. Fajr’s free-kick was launched at the mass of bodies now crowding the Portuguese penalty area, and it fell at the feet of Moroccan captain Medhi Benatia, who had space and drew back his left foot to shoot from inside the area. He had missed in an almost identical situation earlier in the half, but surely this time, with the game on the line and everything set up perfectly, he could test Rui Patricio. Once again, the ball cleaved the air over the bar, sailing away from the goals and, ultimately, proving to be Morocco’s last chance to save their tournament. They fought valiantly, but they ultimately fell to a goal from the man who has destroyed so many of Portugal’s opponents: Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lunges forward to score the only goal of the game in the fourth minute. After going ahead early on, the Portuguese held onto their lead for the rest of the match.

Whatever plan Hervé Renard had made to deal with Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick in Portugal’s opening clash with Spain, it didn’t work. Less than five minutes had elapsed when Bernardo Silva and João Moutinho combined to deliver the ball into the box from a Portuguese corner, and Ronaldo, apparently unmarked and in plenty of space, headed home from close range. Manuel da Costa, assigned to stick with the Portuguese captain, was neatly sidestepped, and Munir El Kajoui had absolutely no chance as Ronaldo dived forward and drilled his header into the back of the net. When, a few minutes later, Ronaldo found space to shoot in the box and only narrowly missed, and Morocco seemed incapable of keeping him down.

Then things began to turn. Morocco started to put some sustained pressure on the Portuguese, working to win the ball high up the pitch and beginning to take some control. On the left wing, Hakim Ziyech was the architect, creating their best chance when he picked out Medhi Benatia from a corner and twice working his way into space to fire shots at Rui Patricio. In the meantime, he drifted all over the field, stringing together excellent passes and creating plenty of problems. On the right, Nordin Amrabat, who started the game wearing a skull cap but ditched it after 15 minutes, was the main weapon. He had pace, skill and threatened every time he received the ball, especially in space. Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was a man under siege, often left embarrassed by his quicker, more skilled and cannier opponent, and Amrabat looked like breaking the game wide open on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for Morocco, he didn’t. Portugal still carried some threat, and El Kajoui was forced into a tough reflex save to deny Gonçalo Guedes just before the break.

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Nordin Amrabat (left) attempts to take on Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Amrabat was too good for Guerreiro all day, and he created plenty of trouble for Portugal.

Morocco started the second half with all of the zest they showed in the first, but they still struggled to break through Portugal’s defence. Patricio was forced to make a brilliant save to deny Younès Belhanda, whose headed effort from another dangerous Ziyech free-kick was destined for the bottom corner before the experienced goalkeeper deflected it away for the relative harmlessness of a corner. Shortly afterwards, Benatia blasted a shot over the bar, and it seemed like Morocco were beginning to lay a prolonged siege to the Portuguese goal. They couldn’t. The chances continued to come, but Portugal were able to assert just enough control to keep the pressure from mounting. Ziyech had a great chance, but his shot was deflected over the bar. The corner came to nothing. Pepe deflected a Moroccan corner into his arm. Morocco’s protestations for a penalty came to nothing. Morocco fought until the final whistle, and dominated a Portuguese team who didn’t disprove the theory that they’re too reliant on Ronaldo. It all came to nothing.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Portugal 1 (Ronaldo 4)
Morocco 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59), João Moutinho (Adrien Silva 89), William Carvalho, João Mário (Fernandes 70); Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Carcela 75), Ziyech; Boutaïb (El Kaabi 69).

Top 5
1. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat was in blistering form down the right, terrorising Guerreiro all match and giving the Portuguese defence plenty of problems. His delivery into the box was dangerous, and if Morocco had a clinical finisher in the middle he could have finished the game with multiple assists.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo only needed one moment to win Portugal the match. His evasion of da Costa at an early corner and subsequent finish proved to be the only goal of the match, and it gave him a remarkable record of four goals in two games at this tournament. Do Portugal rely on him too much? We shall see.
3. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech was everywhere as Morocco tried desperately to equalise, and he looked like one of the only Moroccan players capable of creating chances against a solid Portuguese back four. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and caused plenty of nervous moments for Portugal.
4. Rui Patricio (Portugal)
Considering Morocco’s control of possession and territory, Patricio had less work to do than he may have otherwise expected. He was, however, called upon to make some tough stops, with his effort to deny a well-taken Belhanda header a particularly brilliant – and crucial – intervention.
5. Mbark Boussoufa (Morocco)
Boussoufa worked hard on and off the ball and allowed Morocco to control the game with his work in the middle. He created some chances with dangerous deliveries into the Portuguese penalty area, and put good pressure on Portugal when they had the ball.

Russia show they’re the real deal against overpowered Egyptians

It appears that Russia have been underestimated. They entered the World Cup as the second-worst ranked team in the tournament. They had played just three competitive games in the last two years, and their defensive situation was so dire that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich reversed his retirement to help fill the holes in their back four. At least they were hosting the event, although it’s not clear whether they would have qualified without the automatic qualification granted to the hosts. Going in, it was easy to write them off. Now, after two comfortable victories, Russia have all but sealed their place in the knockout stages with a game to spare. When they beat Saudi Arabia, whose defence completely and utterly failed them, it wasn’t too hard to write the 5-0 victory off as a damning indictment on the insipid Saudis. When they beat Egypt, with the Pharaohs bolstered by the return of in-form attacker Mohamed Salah, there was no more writing the Russians off. They’re almost certain to get out of Group A, and coming off the high of two convincing wins they will be a very tough opponent.

All eyes were on Salah as the teams took the field. Egypt’s star winger has been the subject of much conjecture since he left the Champions League final with a shoulder injury, and there was plenty of doubt surrounding his availability for the tournament. When he sat out their tournament opener, Egypt looked devoid of any genuine attacking threat. As such, the return of the world’s most in-form forward, even at less-than-full fitness, was a massive boost for the Egyptians. Then he barely touched the ball for the first 20 minutes. It was Russia, brimming with confidence after their dominant first-up win, who dictated terms early. They came out hard and left the Egyptian defence scrambling on a number of occasions, especially when Aleksandr Golovin turned the ball over deep in attack and fired a shot just wide of Mohamed El-Shenawy’s goal.

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Mohamed Salah reacts after the final whistle. Salah came into Egypt’s team hoping to help keep their World Cup hopes alive, but his return couldn’t get them across the line.

Soon, the Egyptians had begun to settle, but neither side was ready to take the heat out of the contest. Egypt just started to provide a threat. Egyptian striker Marwan Mohsen fought hard for every ball, and Trézéguet provided a touch of class on the left wing. As Egypt grew into the contest, Salah began to find the ball at his feet more often, cutting infield and finding space to pass and shoot. Despite the pace of the game, and the fact that Russia largely had a free reign in attack down the left with Salah not performing any real defensive duties, neither side created many clear chances. As for Salah, his best moment came shortly before the break, when he turned Yuri Zhirkov and fired a left-footed shot just wide of the Russian goal. He had worked himself into the game, his blistering pace was clearly still there and it seemed like he could return to something nearing his best in the second half.

Instead, the game was all but over about 15 minutes into the second half. Russia took the lead just after the break following a series of errors. First, Mohamed El-Shenawy decided to punch Golovin’s seemingly harmless instead of catching it, giving Roman Zobnin the chance to put the ball back into the box. Then, to compound his goalkeeper’s mistake, Ahmed Fathy’s clumsy attempt to prevent the ball from reaching Russian man mountain Artem Dyuba rebounded off his knee towards the bottom corner. Ali Gabr just watched, and El-Shenawy’s dive to stop the errant challenge came too late. With Egypt needing a win to give themselves a realistic chance of progressing, Fathy’s own goal made their task a lot harder.

Then Denis Cheryshev stepped up to double the lead and send the Russian fans into raptures. Before this tournament, Cheryshev hadn’t scored at an international level, and he wasn’t expected to be a huge factor in Russia’s success. Then, coming off the bench against Saudi Arabia, he scored twice. Elevated to the starting line-up for Russia’s second game, the left winger was just as effective. When Mário Fernandes received the ball from Aleksandr Samedov inside the box and pulled it back looking for a teammate, Cheryshev was there, and open. He made no mistake.

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Artem Dzyuba (second from left) is swamped by teammates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba’s effort put Russia 3-0 up, and gave them an unassailable lead in the match.

If Egypt had any remaining hope of salvaging a point from the game, it was extinguished a few minutes later. The play started innocuously enough, with Ilya Kutepov taking a free-kick inside Russia’s half and hacking it long towards Dzyuba at the edge of the penalty area. Dzyuba was another player who came off the bench in the tournament opener, and earned himself a start against Egypt by scoring with his first touch of the ball. Now, after receiving Kutepov’s hopeful pass forward, the striker used his giant frame to barge Ahmed Hegazi out of the way, used his surprisingly good touch to beat Gabr and fired the ball past El-Shenawy into the back of the net.

Salah managed to nab a consolation goal when he slammed a penalty past Igor Akinfeev (after he was dragged down in the box), but it was too little, too late for the Pharaohs. Russia’s three goals in 15 minutes had effectively killed off all resistance, and as the game meandered towards its inevitable conclusion it was hard to escape the thought that Russia are a lot better than their form leading in would suggest. It was hard to get a read on Russia after their first-up win over Saudi Arabia simply because the Saudis were so woeful. After repeating the feat against Egypt, it’s clear that Stanislav Cherchesov’s men are capable of making a genuine impact.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Russia 3 (Fathy 47 og, Cheryshev 59, Dzyuba 62)
Egypt 1 (Salah 73 pen)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov (Kudryashov 86); Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov, Golovin, Cheryshev (Kuzyayev 74); Dzyuba (Smolov 79).
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Shenawy – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny (Warda 64), Tarek Hamed; Salah, Abdallah Said, Trézéguet (Ramadan Sobhi 68); Marwan Mohsen (Kahraba 82).

Top 5
1. Roman Zobnin (Russia)
Zobnin put in a huge effort all game, getting himself forward from the centre of midfield while still performing all of his essential tasks as a holding midfielder. He was the last Russian to touch the ball before Fathy put it into his own net, and he allowed Russia to take control in the middle of the park.
2. Aleksandr Samedov (Russia)
Samedov found himself on the ball in almost every Russian attack, and seemed to be at the heart of all of their dangerous moves despite not collecting a goal or an assist. His set piece delivery and vision were excellent, and he caused plenty of problems for Egypt with the ball at his feet.
3. Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Salah’s return to the Egyptian team, and his importance to the Pharaohs meant that he was destined to be the centre of attention. He took a while to get himself into the game, but when he did it was clear that his blistering pace and eye for goal was still there. He came close on a number of occasions, and he deservedly finished with a goal to his name.
4. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
After his star turn in the tournament’s first match, Golovin could have been forgiven for a slight drop in standards. Against Egypt, there was no such drop. Once again, Russia’s star attacking midfielder was everywhere, harrying the Pharaohs when they had the ball and playing with great skill when he received it himself. A class act.
5. Marwan Mohsen (Egypt)
Mohsen deserves credit for putting in a very solid performance as Egypt’s main striker. He is far from the most talented member of their attack, but he made up for it with his determination to attack the ball and his fierce presence in aerial duels. He came up with some good moments, and made a few things happen.

Lions roar against lacklustre Poland

M’Baye Niang re-entered the field of play with nearly every player on both sides in Poland’s attacking half. The Senegalese striker had left the field after landing awkwardly in an aerial duel with Jan Bednarek, and he had just received clearance to return to the fray from Bahraini referee Nawaf Shukralla. On its own, the decision to allow him to return was the kind of call that is made every day. On this day, however, his return coincided with an inexplicable backwards heave from Grzegorz Krychowiak which caught everyone off guard. Niang pounced. He took a touch to evade the foolish charge of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and had no competition as he stroked the ball into an open net. The protests had started even before the goal was scored, but they fell on deaf ears. With the Lions of Teranga already leading by a goal, Niang’s stroke of good fortune was ultimately enough to seal a historic victory.

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M’Baye Niang (left) beats Łukasz Piszczek shortly before Senegal opened the scoring. Niang’s win, and subsequent run into the attacking third, was the catalyst for the goal.

In terms of World Cup upsets, Senegal are now repeat offenders. Back in 2002, their only previous World Cup appearance, they shocked the French on the tournament’s opening day, and against a well-rounded Polish side they were looking to do it again. The game started openly, with both sides looking to play the ball quickly, but there were few clear-cut chances despite the pace of the game. Neither side quite showed the requisite composure within the final third, with neither side recording a shot on target in the first half hour. M’Baye Niang missed a particularly good chance after Youssouf Sabaly beat one opponent and played an incisive pass through the Polish defence, only for Niang to take an ultimately inaccurate shot instead of passing to a wide open Mame Biram Diouf. Soon after, Kamil Grosicki missed a golden opportunity to head home from fairly close range, and it seemed like the chances would begin to flow. They didn’t. Instead, it was the attacking errors that began to add up as the game progressed, with the play often very ugly.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Senegal took the lead via a very unfortunate deflection. There had been signs that the pace of the game was beginning to lift as the first half drew to a close, but neither side had really looked like finding the back of the net. It was an innocuous piece of play which started it. Niang outmuscled Łukasz Piszczek on the halfway line, and immediately burst into space. He found Sadio Mané near the edge of the penalty area, and the dynamic Senegalese star took a slight pause before honouring Idrissa Gueye’s forward run from midfield. Poland were scrambling to get back, and Gueye’s originally off-target shot hit Thiago Cionek in mid stride as the centre-back ran towards the goal. Wojciech Szczęsny was already committed, and didn’t stand a chance as the ball drastically changed direction.

Robert Lewandowski had been shut down by Kalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sané in the first half, but he appeared to come to life early in the second. With a good touch he breezed past Koulibaly, and was only stopped by Sané’s professional foul just outside the box. The Polish captain took the resultant free-kick and forced Khadim N’Diaye into making a full-length diving saved, and it seemed like he had found his best form. He didn’t produce anything similar for the rest of the match. Niang capitalised on Poland’s catastrophic lapse a few minutes later, and the game as a contest seemed over. Poland continued to fight, but none of their efforts seemed to come to anything. Then, with less than five minutes of normal time remaining, Krychowiak stepped up to head home Grosicki’s perfectly delivered free-kick. It presented Poland with a potential lifeline, a chance to salvage something from the wreck of their underwhelming effort against a well-organised Senegalese defence.

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The Senegalese fans in the crowd in action during the match. The crowd was dominated by Polish fans, but Senegal’s supporters still managed to make themselves heard.

The goal ensured that Senegal had to endure some nervous moments, but Poland’s charge was too little and too late. As the final whistle went, the players and the small but vocal section of Senegalese fans in the Otkritie Stadium could finally celebrate. On this day, against a disappointing Polish side who will expect better for the rest of the tournament, Senegal showed flair and solidity. On this day, the tactically astute Adam Nawałka was thoroughly outcoached by Senegal’s dreadlocked manager, 2002 captain Aliou Cissé. On this day, Senegal took another big scalp, although it’s hard to tell if we should keep calling them upsets.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Poland 1 (Krychowiak 86)
Senegal 2 (Cionek 37 og, Niang 60)
Referee: Nawaf Shukralla (Bah)
Poland (4-2-3-1): Szczęsny – Piszczek (Bereszyński 83), Cionek, Pazdan, Rybus; Krychowiak, Zieliński; Błaszczykowski (Bednarek 46), Milik (Kownacki 73), Grosicki; Lewandowski.
Senegal (4-4-2): K N’Diaye – Wagué, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly; Sarr, A N’Diaye, Gueye, Mané; Diouf (N’Doye 62), Niang (Konaté 75).

Top 5
1. M’Baye Niang (Senegal)
Niang wreaked havoc throughout with his devastating pace and his imposing physical presence. He played a key role in both goals, outmuscling Piszczek to set up the first and scoring the second himself after a fortuitous piece of timing. He got into good positions, and looked like Senegal’s most dangerous attacker.
2. Salif Sané (Senegal)
Sané was the tallest man on the field, and he took advantage of his immense size and his remarkable athleticism to dominate in the box. His combination with Koulibaly was very effective in nullifying the influence of Polish star Lewandowski, and he could be in for a big tournament.
3. Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)
There was very little to split the performances of Koulibaly and Sané on the day, and Koulibaly was just as important as his slightly taller partner in keeping Poland at bay. He played a key role in shutting down Poland’s biggest stars, and was just as hard to beat as Sané.
4. Michał Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan, at his consistent best, was one of few highlights in an otherwise disappointing Polish display. He performed well at the back, staving off some dangerous attacks and acquitting himself very well against Senegal’s very pacey forward line. In the absence of regular defensive partner Kamil Glik he more than held his own.
5. Khadim N’Diaye (Senegal)
N’Diaye put in a commanding second half performance to see Senegal over the line, complete with a series of aggressive aerial claims in the latter stages of the victory. His athletic save to deny a well-struck Lewandowski free-kick was a particular highlight, and his strong performance is a good sign for the Lions of Teranga.

Ten-man Colombia falter against clinical Japan

Before this game, no Asian team had taken the scalp of a South American one in the World Cup. The clash between a powerful looking Colombian side, albeit without injured star James Rodríguez, and a Japanese side coming off a tumultuous, coach-killing build-up to the tournament, seemed unlikely to change that. In the World Cup, however, nothing is impossible, and Akira Nishino’s men proved it with a clinical second half performance which upset a Colombian side reduced to 10 men and set the cat amongst the pigeons in a volatile Group H mix.

The game got off to a bizarre false start, with the referee mistakenly lining the teams up in the wrong halves. After both teams underwent the slightly farcical process of switching sides before kick-off, things couldn’t have commenced any worse for the Colombians. Dávinson Sánchez was turned by Yūya Ōsako and found himself one-on-one with David Ospina, who made the save but couldn’t stop Shinji Kagawa from collecting the rebound and streaming towards a now exposed goal. Carlos Sánchez played goalkeeper and blocked a certain goal with his arm, and he received his marching orders before Kagawa drilled it home from the spot. After just over five minutes, Colombia found themselves one goal down, without their star player and with their second-most experienced player having just received the second-fastest red card in World Cup history. It wasn’t an ideal situation.

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Carlos Sánchez (on ground) is shown the red card by referee Damir Skomina (in red). Sánchez’s send-off was the second-fastest in World Cup history, and it derailed Colombia’s plans.

It couldn’t really get any worse, and the Colombians responded to the shock perfectly. They nearly recouped the deficit just five minutes later, with Radamel Falcao latching onto a free-kick but failing to divert it past Eiji Kawashima. Unfortunately for them, Falcao’s near miss didn’t mark the beginning of any sustained attack on the Japanese goal. Instead, what followed was a fairly dull period of play, with very little goalmouth action for either team but Colombia adjusting well to the loss of their key defensive midfielder.

Then, after building a little bit of pressure with a few dangerous attacks, the Colombians levelled. Falcao won a questionable free-kick on the edge of the box, and Juan Fernando Quintero decided to attempt a shot under the wall. It worked. The four men in the Japanese wall jumped as high as they could in an attempt to block the kick, and the ball rolled straight underneath their feet. Kawashima just didn’t seem to be ready for the unexpected move, and the ball had crossed the line before he managed to reach it. With the score at 1-1 going into the break, things weren’t tracking well for a Japanese side who had completely failed to press home their numerical advantage.

Then, after starting the second half with more a more aggressive approach, Japan began to turn things around. Ōsako got involved, turning Dávinson just as easily as he had in the opening minutes and forcing Ospina into another tough save. The Colombian keeper needed to pull off an even better stop a few minutes later when Ōsako found Takashi Inui in space and the left winger curled in a beautiful shot from just inside the box. Maya Yoshida’s slightly off target header and Hiroki Sakai’s poorly-directed shot added to Japan’s list of second half chances, and the Colombians found themselves under a bit of pressure. Then they went behind once more.

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Yūya Ōsako celebrates after scoring the goal which sealed Japan’s upset win over Colombia. Ōsako had a huge impact up front, playing a hand in both goals and creating plenty of other chances.

It was Ōsako who scored the goal, but Keisuke Honda who made the difference. Introduced for Kagawa, he added a new energy to Japan’s attacking play, and they had a great chance almost immediately after he entered. A quick piece of build-up play allowed the powerful Ōsako to hold the ball up inside the box, with Dávinson’s desperate block from underneath the Japanese striker the only thing preventing Sakai from scoring. No such intervention could save them from Honda’s resultant corner, which picked out Ōsako with pinpoint accuracy and was headed unstoppably into the post and into the back of the net.

Colombia reacted with plenty of aggression. James, brought on despite his injury, found himself in a great position, but Ōsako’s desperate block prevented Colombia’s star man from finding the back of the net. Another block, from Genki Haraguchi, stopped a potentially dangerous corner from developing into something more worrisome. Almost immediately afterwards, Johan Mojica’s dangerous cross fizzled out, falling into the lap of a grateful Kawashima. Colombia looked ready to fight for the leveller, and Japan looked in for a protracted period of desperate defending. They weren’t. Down a man from the word go, Colombia seemed spent as Japan found plenty of free passes and monopolised possession. They were desperate, but desperation wasn’t enough as their tired team limped over the finish line. For Japan, the result is an unexpected boost to their seemingly slim hopes of progression. For Colombia, it could prove to be a fatal blow to their chances of going further into this tournament.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Colombia 1 (Quintero 39)
Japan 2 (Kagawa 6 pen, Ōsako 73)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Colombia (4-2-3-1): Ospina – Arias, D Sánchez, Murillo, Mojica; C Sánchez, Lerma; Cuadrado (Barrios 31), Quintero (Rodríguez 59), Izquierdo (Bacca 70); Falcao.
Sent-off: C Sánchez 3.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 80); Haraguchi, Kagawa (Honda 70), Inui; Ōsako (Okazaki 85).

Top 5
1. Yūya Ōsako (Japan)
Ōsako was a force to be reckoned with in the Japanese attack, continually upstaging Sánchez and playing a massive hand in Japan’s upset victory. His strength on the ball allowed him to retain possession in attack, and his distribution was excellent. The winning goal was a fitting reward for his efforts.
2. José Fernando Quintero (Colombia)
Quintero was brought in to replace the injured James, and although he was subbed off relatively early in the match, he left a big mark. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and he capped off Colombia’s first half recovery with a canny free-kick goal. He could definitely spring a surprise or two.
3. Gaku Shibasaki (Japan)
Shibasaki was all action in the centre of the park, shuffling forward with seemingly boundless energy and getting better as the match progressed. His second half display was particularly significant, and his control of the ball in the attacking third allowed Japan’s play to flourish.
4. Hiroki Sakai (Japan)
Sakai worked very hard on the right flank all day, and was another player whose influence grew as the match progressed. He had a few chances as he started to find space on the overlap, and against tired Colombian opponents he became a potent attacking force for the Japanese.
5. Keisuke Honda (Japan)
Japan were in control of the game when Honda replaced Kagawa in the 70th minute, but the introduction of the veteran attacking midfielder was the change they needed to turn that into a winning goal. His cross to assist Ōsako’s goal was perfect, and the impact he had on the team suggests he may get a chance to start the next match.

Heroic Harry Kane breaks Tunisian hearts

This game had the potential to mark the beginning of a new era for the English national team. After years of constant disappointment, culminating in an embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, this latest iteration of the Three Lions was coming in to the World Cup with little hype and plenty of talent. Nine of the players in their starting line-up to face Tunisia were making their World Cup debuts, and there was a feeling that this side, spearheaded by the remarkable Harry Kane, could usher in an exciting new time for English football. Then, on the pitch, Gareth Southgate’s youngsters dominated, but conceded a fortunate goal to their opponents and were only saved from the ignominy of a first-up draw by Kane’s heroic 91st minute winner. Have they changed? It’s not yet clear.

England began the game in ominous form, blowing Tunisia away in the early stages with their electrifying attacking play as the chances came thick and fast. Jordan Henderson’s long ball in behind found Dele Alli, whose dangerous cut back nearly found Raheem Sterling in a great position. Tunisia intercepted, but Alli picked the pocket of left-back Ali Maâloul in the penalty area and Jesse Lingard’s shot was only just blocked by Mouez Hassen. Hassen was called into action at the next corner, leaping desperately to deny Harry Maguire’s header, and shortly afterwards he was caught out when Lingard broke through the defence and found Sterling in front of an open goal. Somehow, the talented youngster missed. Meanwhile, Hassen lay on the ground, having injured his shoulder trying in vain to stop Lingard. Less than five minutes had elapsed.

Unsurprisingly, the goal soon followed, and it came from another poor piece of marking at a corner. Ashley Young swung it in, and this time it was John Stones who rose above the rest and headed towards the top corner, forcing Hassen into another incredible save. Unfortunately for him, the ball landed right onto the boot of Kane, who had absolutely no trouble finishing a straightforward chance from inside the six-yard box. For those looking for a new era, it was a very promising start. As England’s new captain wheeled away in celebration, it was hard to escape the feeling that Kane’s easy finish was the first of many goals to come.

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English coach Gareth Southgate celebrates following his side’s dramatic victory. Southgate seemed fairly concerned during the second half, and he let his relief show when Kane gave England a late lead.

The next few minutes did little to contradict that theory. Hassen’s injury led to his removal shortly after Kane’s opener, and Farouk Ben Mustapha, the third-choice goalkeeper in the squad (Hassen was already playing over the unavailable Aymen Mathlouthi) was called into action. He was needed shortly afterwards to save Henderson’s volley, and as England continued to create chances Lingard missed a volley from close range and Maguire forced Ben Mustapha into another save after a strong header. England were creating all the chances, and were repelling anything Tunisia threw at them.

Then, disaster struck. Being England, a side with a chequered relationship with penalties, of course the goal came from a spot kick. Kyle Walker was the culprit, unnecessarily flinging out an arm as he defended Dylan Bronn’s cross and catching Fakhreddine Ben Youssef flush in the face. When Ben Youssef went down like a ton of bricks, Wilmar Roldán was quick to point to the spot. Taking the kick, Ferjani Sassi made no mistake, with Jordan Pickford getting a fingertip to the ball but not doing enough to prevent it from finding the back of the net.

England had more chances as they looked to retake the lead. A Kieran Trippier free-kick was headed down by Maguire, and when Alli beat Ben Mustapha to the follow-up effort it created a nervous moment for Syam Ben Youssef. The centre-back just cleared Alli’s header off the line, and both Sterling and Stones failed to connect properly as they sought to take advantage of Tunisia’s defensive disarray. Meanwhile, Kane was tackled by Sassi in the box, but Roldán missed the incident completely. Lingard had two more chances as the half drew to a close, with Bronn deflecting his excellent volley over the bar and a dangerous run allowing him to tap the ball over Ben Mustapha only for it to roll harmlessly into the post. On another day, England could have gone into half time ahead by three or four goals. Instead, they were tied.

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Harry Kane (back) heads home England’s late winner. Kane scored two crucial goals, with his second breaking a deadlock that had existed for over half the game.

The second half started fairly slowly, with England largely dictating terms but not finding any real chances against the Tunisian defence. It didn’t matter too much, as the inaction only stretched for the first 10 minutes of the half while the English settled back in. Then it stretched on. The hour mark passed. Then 65 minutes. Suddenly, 75 minutes had elapsed and England hadn’t seriously threatened the Tunisian goal for around half an hour. Maguire and Walker were seemingly no longer playing as centre-backs, instead parking themselves in Tunisia’s half. Marcus Rashford was introduced in a desperate attempt to make something – anything – happen. All that they managed to create was a couple of free-kicks in potentially dangerous spots, both of which missed the target.

England were still dominating in the final few minutes, but Tunisia held firm. Maâloul frustrated Trippier by standing in front of the ball as the wing-back looked to move the ball on quickly. Wahbi Khazri left the game with five minutes to go, stopping just short of taking a lap of honour as he walked off the field while exchanging pleasantries from Roldán and detouring to accept the congratulations of his teammates. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench and made some things happen, but it looked like the match would end in despair despite all of England’s hard work. It felt like such a shame.

Then, just as it seemed like England would need to settle for a draw, the winner came. It was Kane, of course. Trippier’s ball into the box found Maguire and Syam Ben Youssef, and Maguire rose above the determined centre-back to head it towards the back post. Then, after 45 minutes of almost flawless defending, the Eagles of Carthage left England’s captain all alone, and in a perfect position just inside the six-yard box. He was never going to miss, and England could breathe a massive sigh of relief as they finally saw off a determined Tunisian challenge. It was a close run thing, but the new-look Three Lions came out with the win, and will only grow in confidence from here. Is it the start of a new era? We shall see.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen)
England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col)
Tunisia (4-3-3): Hassen (Ben Mustapha 15) – Bronn, S Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maâloul; Sassi, Skhiri, Badri; F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Khalifa 85), Sliti (Ben Amor 73).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Loftus-Cheek 80), Henderson, Lingard (Dier 90+3), Young; Sterling (Rashford 68), Kane.

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Jesse Lingard has an early shot at the Tunisian goal. Lingard was lively from the start, and was very unlucky not to find the back of the net.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was full of energy, bursting through the Tunisian defensive line on a number of occasions and creating plenty of chances. He was unlucky not to find the back of the net during a dynamic first half performance, and his movement in transition created plenty of space for his teammates to work into.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane managed two poachers’ goals, and showed why he is such a dangerous goal-scorer in the process. He worked tirelessly all day, stepped up exactly when his team needed a hero, and positioned himself perfectly to get himself a brace on World Cup debut. If there was any doubt about his credentials before, he has erased it with a brilliant performance.
3. Syam Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef had plenty of work to do against England’s dynamic attack, but he stayed composed and did very well to stave off some dangerous pieces of forward play. He was the only member of Tunisia’s back four who performed well in the first period, and he looked even more solid in the second half when his teammates started to pick up their efforts.
4. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery was brilliant, as was his energy and attacking presence down the right flank. He played a key hand in England’s injury time winner, and ensured they kept pushing right up to the final whistle with his desperation to get the ball moving quickly.
5. Jordan Henderson (England)
Henderson created plenty of chances with his dangerous diagonal balls in behind the Tunisian defence. As ever, he positioned himself well in holding midfield and allowed the English to thrive with his solidity. He occasionally threatened in attack, and could be a very handy part of the English side down the track.

Belgium score three without breaking a sweat

At least they survived the first half. As Belgium opened their World Cup campaign by cruising to victory against a Panamanian side who were completely outmatched by their star-studded opponents, that was the one thing Los Canaleros could cling to, the one positive souvenir of a tough day. For Belgium, it was business as usual despite a slightly-too-casual opening, with Dries Mertens netting a stunning volley and Romelu Lukaku picking up a brace as they dominated the second half and never seemed to get out of first gear.

Panama had been waiting for this day since October last year, and their first half of World Cup football was a success, even if, predictably, it was Belgium who had the first real chances. Jaime Penedo was called into action early on, saving a hard-hit shot from Yannick Carrasco and needing quick reflexes just seconds later to deny a dangerous attempt from Mertens. Shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard intercepted Román Torres’ slightly shallow backpass before it reached Penedo and drilled a shot into the side netting, and it appeared like Panama were about to be suffocated by the weight of Belgium’s opportunities. They weren’t.

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Eden Hazard (left) runs away from Gabriel Gómez during the match. Hazard’s control with the ball at his feet caused plenty of issues for the Panamanian defence.

Belgium had chances, of course, like when Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was nearly turned into the Panamanian net by Torres and when Hazard ran straight through the defence and forced Penedo into another fine save. But those chances were too often punctuated by lengthy periods of inaction, where Les Diables Rouges controlled the ball but couldn’t find the urgency to break down their determined opponents. They were approaching the game with all the energy of a Sunday stroll in the park, seemingly waiting for something to happen rather than pushing for it. Hazard threatened, but never really did anything meaningful, and de Bruyne wasn’t getting into good enough positions to take advantage of his incredible vision. Up front, Lukaku was completely anonymous. By half time, the scores were still level, and Panama still hadn’t been seriously tested by an underwhelming Belgian team.

Belgium emerged from half time with more purpose, and it took less than two minutes for them to go ahead thanks to Mertens’ wonder goal. Torres could only clear the Belgian winger’s fairly harmless ball into the box as far as Hazard and Fidel Escobar, and after an aerial contest the ball ended up back where it started, falling to Mertens in the box. Casually, he took on the shot first time, looping the volley towards goal on a tight angle and leaving Penedo with no chance as the unstoppable strike floated into the top corner. It was a remarkable finish, and its difficulty was belied by the nonchalance with which Mertens took the quarter-chance.

With the deadlock broken, Belgian deemed that there was no further need for their top effort. Soon the game slipped back into the lull of the first half, with Belgium controlling proceedings but not quite doing enough to seriously threaten the Panamanian goal. Panama had a golden opportunity almost immediately after Mertens’ goal, but Michael Murillo couldn’t finish against Thibaut Courtois. It was telling that the Belgians didn’t seem too concerned by the possibility of Panama scoring, and Jan Vertonghen was only getting worked up over Carrasco’s dereliction of his defensive duties. It was the best opportunity Panama had for the rest of the match. Around 15 minutes later they doubled their advantage.

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Romulu Lukaku celebrates after scoring Belgium’s third goal. Lukaku’s chip over Jaime Penedo was a fitting finish to a dominant Belgian display.

It was the previously quiet Lukaku who was good enough to bag the second after some brilliant build-up play. Hazard started it, once again challenging every defender in sight with one of his pretty but directionless runs, and after engaging three Panamanian defenders he slipped a pass to de Bruyne. What happened next was pure class. Upon receiving the ball, de Bruyne shimmied past Aníbal Godoy, found himself in perfect position and threaded an exquisite cross onto the forehead of the powerful striker with the outstep of his right boot. Like Mertens’ perfect volley, it was a moment of nonchalant brilliance which clearly highlighted the difference between the two sides.

A fast break, a good run from Hazard and an effortless first time chip from Lukaku provided the third goal, but by that point the game was already over. Panama fought up to the final whistle, at times drawing big cheers from their large contingent of supporters when they came close to scoring a historic goal, but they never really stood a chance against Belgium’s second half onslaught. For their part, Belgium only tried as hard as they needed to, and the ease with which they sealed their 3-0 win should sound a warning to any team that will come up against them.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75)
Panama 0
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel (Chadli 90), de Bruyne, Carrasco (Dembélé 74); Mertens (T Hazard 83), Lukaku, E Hazard.
Panama (4-1-4-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gómez; Bárcenas (G Torres 63), Cooper, Godoy, J L Rodríguez (Díaz 63); Pérez (Tejada 73).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard came into his own in the second half, playing a big hand in both of Belgium’s goals and looking very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He was always attempting to take on the Panamanian defence, and while they managed to stop him most of the time he had a big impact when he did break through.
2. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku came into his own after a quiet first half, bagging two second half goals and working his way into good positions. He showed an excellent turn of speed in scoring the final goal of the match, and with his freakish athleticism and excellent supporting players it’s scary what he could do if he puts together a full 90-minute effort.
3. Jaime Penedo (Panama)
Penedo had plenty of work to do, especially in the first half, and he made some truly brilliant saves to deny Belgium’s brilliant attackers. He was one of the few Panamanians who didn’t seem slightly out of place against their world-class opposition, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Dries Mertens (Belgium)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how easily he seemed to take the chance, but Mertens’ volley to open the scoring could be an early contender for goal of the tournament. Otherwise, he made plenty of dangerous attacking runs and created plenty of problems for Panama’s defence in a solid effort.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne was another of Belgium’s stars who began the game slowly but finished with an excellent second half display. He worked into more advanced positions as the game progressed, and when he got the ball in and around the penalty area he was capable of providing special balls like the assist for Lukaku’s first goal.