2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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Sweden calmly remove Switzerland with Forsberg’s fortunate strike

There was less than a minute remaining in the round of 16 clash between Sweden and Switzerland when Isaac Kiese Thelin received the ball in the centre of the field. Sweden led courtesy of Emil Forsberg’s slightly fortunate opener, and they had found an opening as the Swiss desperately committed men forward to their last ditch attack. Kiese Thelin played the ball into space, where Martin Olsson was running onto the ball at speed. There seemed to be no way to deny the onrushing Swedish left-back. Then Michael Lang entered the scene. The Swiss right-back, deputising for suspended captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, was quicker than Olsson, and he was breathing down his neck as the Swede reached the edge of the box. Lang gave him a push. It was subtle, but it was enough to send Olsson toppling to the ground, and enough to convince Damir Skomina to award a penalty and expel Lang for the foul. Lang left without complaint, and he was already off the field when the video assistant referee decided that the foul had actually been committed outside the box. Yann Sommer saved the resultant free-kick, but it was little consolation for the Swiss.

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Martin Olsson (right) is brought down on the edge of the box by Michael Lang. Lang was sent off for the challenge, but his expulsion had no impact on the outcome of the match.

The opening exchanges weren’t exactly filled to the brim with goalmouth action. Sweden had some early chances, mostly coming as a result of Swiss turnovers coming out of defence, but none of them really tested Sommer. When Switzerland settled, they began to control the ball and Sweden began to sit back and watch as their opponents played the ball around harmlessly. Occasionally Xherdan Shaqiri or Lang would slip in a dangerous ball, and occasionally Blerim Džemaili would squander a brilliant chance, but otherwise the Swiss posed little threat. The Swedish, despite conceding the lion’s share of possession, had the better chances in a generally slow first half. Albin Ekdal missed a couple of shots, most notably a close-range volley which should have been put away. Marcus Berg made his presence felt in attack, but he couldn’t quite combine his excellent positioning with the finishing touch required. Through all of it, Sommer’s nice diving save to turn away Berg’s dangerous volley was the only real save either goalkeeper had to make in the first 45 minutes.

The second 45 started similarly to the first, and it seemed like more of the same was imminent. Switzerland continued to look in control, even taking four corner kicks in a row early in the half, but they still couldn’t find a way through Sweden’s very well drilled defensive unit. They tried crosses, but most of them didn’t even reach the middle, let alone their intended target. Sweden’s direct, counter-attacking style looked more effective than Switzerland’s attempts at slow build-up play with their best finishers isolated in non-dangerous positions, but it wasn’t like Sweden’s counter-attacks were really worrying their opposition. Then they went ahead.

Forsberg, Sweden’s previously underperforming star, was the man who finally broke a deadlock which had lasted for over an hour and was threatening to carry on past the standard 90 minutes. The Swedish attacked the Swiss with a bit of urgency, and they managed to reach the edge of the area with the defence slightly out of position. That was enough for Forsberg. He received the ball from Ola Toivonen just outside the box, and he proceeded to take a touch before firing a shot at the Swiss goal. Between the posts, Sommer sunk into a low crouch, ready to make the save that seemed to be coming. The ball was headed straight to the ever-alert Swiss goalkeeper. It never reached him. Instead, it flew into the top corner, courtesy of Manuel Akanji’s incautiously outstretched leg. The ball hit the defender’s foot and took off, leaving Sommer with no time to react and no hope of making the save.

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Emil Forsberg (right) gets in the way of Breel Embolo’s header as Robin Olsen watches on. The slightly threatening corner was one of Switzerland’s only real chances as they looked to equalise.

Switzerland put some dangerous balls in. They tested Robin Olsen from range on a couple of occasions. They had corners, lots of corners. Nothing came of them, save for one threatening clearance which was cleared by Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist. Breel Embolo made an impact, but he could do no more than threaten to threaten. Ricardo Rodríguez put in plenty of crosses, both from set pieces and in open play, but none of them really tested the Swedish defence, and none of them provided Olsen with anything to do. Shaqiri’s crosses were even less dangerous. Attackers were thrown into the box, but Switzerland’s lack of a good finisher rather undermined their attempts to breach the Swedish defence through their numbers in the box. One of Rodríguez’s crosses finally found its mark shortly before the last act of Switzerland’s tournament ended in Lang’s expulsion. Haris Seferović actually got the header on target, but Olsen made the save and it came to nothing. Ultimately, Switzerland were just too short on talent in the final third, and they paid a heavy price.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Sweden 1 (Forsberg 66)
Switzerland 0
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig (Krafth 82), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Svensson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 82); Toivonen, Berg (Kiese Thelin 90).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lang, Djourou, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Seferović 73), Zuber (Embolo 73); Drmić.
Sent-off: Lang 90+4

Top 5
1. Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
Forsberg finally found some of his best form just when Sweden needed it, and his goal, while lucky, was a fitting reward for a strong performance. He looked threatening when he received the ball in the attacking third, and he made good things happen. It bodes well for Sweden’s quarter-final clash.
2. Ricardo Rodríguez (Switzerland)
Rodríguez was involved in most of Switzerland’s attacking play, and there was little wrong with his deliveries into the box. He put in plenty of crosses overlapping from the left side of defence, but he was never found wanting despite his aggressive forward play. With some quality players in the middle he could have easily picked up a few assists.
3. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist has been a dominant force in Sweden’s penalty area throughout this tournament, and he saw them through to the quarter-finals with another big effort in the heart of the defence. He is seemingly never beaten in the air, and he just continues to hold the fort for his side.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg worked into plenty of good spots, but once again he left goalless after a series of saves and misses conspired to thwart him for the fourth match in succession. He has specialised in making a nuisance of himself at this tournament, and he was always heavily involved in Sweden’s attack.
5. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji is so composed that it’s hard to believe he has just 11 international caps to his name. He has slotted into the Swiss defence effortlessly at this tournament, and he didn’t miss a beat here despite losing his group stage partner, Fabian Schär, to suspension. He is a massive talent, and seems to have a big future ahead of him.

Mexico progress, but confidence in tatters after Swedish blitz

Bizarre scenes ensued as the final whistle blew to end Mexico’s clash with Sweden. In the stands, the majority Mexican crowd was cheering, having learned of Germany’s spectacular collapse against the South Koreans. On the pitch, the Mexican players huddled together, reeling from a shock 3-0 defeat and thinking their World Cup campaign was over despite starting their tournament with two wins. The Swedish were happily oblivious to the impromptu Mexican gathering that was taking place in the middle of the pitch, instead contenting themselves with celebrating the crushing victory which emphatically sealed their spot at the top of a volatile Group F. Eventually, relief washed over Mexico as they learned of Germany’s demise, but the scars of an unexpected and crushing defeat will remain as they head for the round of 16.

It didn’t start well for Mexico. Referee Néstor Pitana dispensed the fastest yellow card in World Cup history, with Mexican left-back Jesús Gallardo going in the book after less than 15 seconds. The resultant free-kick was headed across goal by Marcus Berg and was only just dealt with by the Mexican defence. Not long afterwards, Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was penalised for handling the ball outside the box, and was forced to make a reflex save to deny Emil Forsberg’s free-kick. Berg and Andreas Granqvist combined to make Mexico very nervous as they got on the end of Ludwig Augustinsson’s corner, with Berg’s overhead kick only just missing the goal.

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Hirving Lozano (left) and Sebastian Larsson battle for the ball. Larsson was booked for the challenge, and a previous yellow card means that he will be suspended for Sweden’s round of 16 clash as a result.

Carlos Vela had a great chance at the other end when Sweden turned the ball over in a dangerous position, but he couldn’t quite test out the desperate dive of Robin Olsen with a shot that just flew wide. Mexico hadn’t quite weathered the storm, however. Forsberg had a brilliant opportunity when he got on the end of Mikael Lustig’s perfect cross, but he sent his shot flying over the bar.  Pitana checked for a potential handball in the box with the aid of technology, and Swedish coach Janne Andersson was fuming when the Argentinian referee determined that Javier Hernández had not committed an offence and no penalty was given. Ochoa was called into action almost immediately afterwards, tapping the ball over the bar from close range. Mexico started to get more opportunities, but the Swedish were still on top when the half time whistle blew.

The first goal came just after half time, with Augustinsson finding the back of the net after Berg’s cross bobbled around in the box. Viktor Claesson was in position to score when Berg rolled the ball in from the right, but he couldn’t hit his shot well enough and the ball looped up off his boot. As luck would have it, Augustinsson was perfectly positioned to take advantage of his teammates miscued shot, having pushed into the box from his normal defensive position. The left-back slammed it goalward, and it had too much force for Ochoa. The Mexican keeper got a touch, but he was never going to keep it out. Then, not long afterwards, centre-back Granqvist scored the second.

Héctor Moreno gave away the penalty which really put Mexico in trouble. Berg found some space to run into the box, and Moreno slid in from behind, took his legs out and conceded the penalty. Beads of sweat dripped down Granqvist’s forehead as he prepared to take the penalty, suggesting the Swedish captain was nervous. If he was, it didn’t affect his kick. The penalty was perfect, stroked above Ochoa’s dive and into the top corner. Sweden’s lead was doubled, and the Mexicans were in deep trouble. Juan Carlos Osorio threw attackers on, hoping against hope that his team could reduce the deficit, but they faced a determined Swedish defence who were ready to stop them at every turn. They only ended up going further behind.

Guillermo Ochoa tries in vain to stop Andreas Granqvist’s excellent penalty. Ochoa did all he could, but the Mexican keeper couldn’t prevent the Swedish from turning their dominance into goals.

The third goal was a farce. Claesson heaved a long throw into the box, and the Mexicans panicked. Isaac Kiese Thelin managed to beat both Moreno and Carlos Salcedo in the air, and he flicked the ball towards the goalmouth. Ola Toivonen fought desperately to get a touch on the ball, but it eventually eluded his lunge and found its way to Edson Álvarez, who attempted a clearance. Somehow, Álvarez’s clearance never made it out of his own six-yard box. He muffed his attempted kick, and his poorly hit clearance ricocheted into his other leg and rolled into the back of his own net. There have been an unusually high number of own goals this tournament, but none have been quite so comical.

Mexico had chances as the game wound down, but they were struggling to get one goal, let alone three. Sweden’s defence was unyielding, and they held on to a clean sheet to cap off a near-perfect performance that will fill them with confidence heading into the knockout stages. For Mexico, their horror performance will have impacted their confidence going into the round of 16, and progress beyond that point suddenly seems a long way off.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Mexico 0
Sweden 3 (Augustinsson 50, Granqvist 62 pen, Álvarez 74 og)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Mexico (4-2-3-1): Ochoa – Álvarez, Salcedo, Moreno, Gallardo (Fabián 64); Guardado (J M Corona 75), Herrera; Layún (Peralta 89), Vela, Lozano; Hernández.
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson (Svensson 57), Ekdal (Hiljemark 80), Forsberg; Berg (Kiese Thelin 68), Toivonen.

Top 5
1. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
In terms of size, Granqvist was the biggest player on the pitch, and he seemed to tower above all others thanks to his sheer presence in the air. He was rarely, if ever, beaten in an aerial duel, he was always in good defensive positions and he even managed to score a penalty at the other end. A truly dominant defensive performance.
2. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa stood up once again for the Mexicans, making some truly brilliant saves to deny Sweden as they besieged the Mexican goal in the first half. He kept them in the game, but he couldn’t clear up all of their defensive errors and he really couldn’t have done much to stop the three goals.
3. Ludwig Augustinsson (Sweden)
Augustinsson scored a rare goal running forward from left-back, and his attacking raids were a handy addition to his typically solid defensive work. He put in some nice crosses, and put the Mexican defence under a bit of pressure on the overlap while staying in good positions when Mexico attacked.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg managed to play a key role with his aerial work in the box and his ability to get into good positions. He has been extraordinarily unlucky not to score in all of Sweden’s three games, and he won the penalty which all but sealed the win for the Swedes.
5. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Claesson did plenty of hard work on the right flank, and it was his poorly dealt with long throw which created Sweden’s third goal. He was energetic in attack and defence, and he was involved in most of Sweden’s play thanks to his desire to chase the ball.

Germany breathe a sigh of relief as Kroos classic leaves Sweden heartbroken

Toni Kroos stood over the free-kick. Germany’s crunch clash with Sweden was coming to an end, with the teams level and the Germans desperately searching for a winner. After nearly 95 minutes of action, the Germans were fighting to keep their World Cup destiny in their own hands, and the pressure of a nation’s high expectations sat on Kroos’ shoulders. The Germans didn’t expect to be in for a group stage fight when they came to Russia. Then their defence was decimated by Mexico’s lethal counter-attacks, and they sunk to a 1-0 loss. Now, with the score at 1-1 against the Swedes, and with just 10 men on the field, Germany were relying on Kroos. The recriminations if he couldn’t create something would be massive.

Kroos was on a tight angle which made shooting difficult. He shot anyway. He rolled the ball to Marco Reus, who trapped it and left it alone. In the Swedish wall, Jimmy Durmaz and Sebastian Larsson, free to run at the ball, attempted to charge Kroos down. They didn’t worry him. Having ever-so-slightly improved the angle, he stepped back up to the ball and took his shot. Robin Olsen didn’t stand a chance as the ball curved and, as if floating, bypassed his desperate dive. It was, thanks to its importance, timing and, above all, difficulty, a goal that will stick in the memory long after this tournament is done. Germany won, and Kroos’ classic strike may well have saved their tournament.

Germany got off to a fast start, shooting out of the blocks as if possessed and placing their opponents under immense pressure. The chances came thick and fast. Sweden clumsily dealt with Joshua Kimmich’s cross and required a desperate goal line block from Larsson to repel Julian Draxler’s shot from a dangerous position. Soon after, the ball was set up for Jonas Hector to volley, but Andreas Granqvist did well to interpose his body between ball and goal. The chances kept coming. Draxler slipped a half-cross-half-shot just past the post. Victor Lindelöf just managed to bundle the ball out when Reus slipped past Ludwig Augustinsson and centred the ball for Timo Werner. Less than 10 minutes had elapsed.

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Toni Kroos celebrates after scoring Germany’s late winner. A German win wasn’t looking likely until Kroos found the back of the net with a well-hit shot into the top corner.

Signs of their vulnerabilities against Mexico did remain, and Sweden managed to exploit them once or twice. Just under 15 minutes had gone when Antonio Rüdiger made a mistake in possession and Marcus Berg surged towards the German goal. He was only denied by a questionable challenge from Jérôme Boateng and a typically excellent save from an onrushing Manuel Neuer. Sweden continued to protest Boateng’s non-punishment for a good five minutes, but no change in decision was forthcoming. After Germany’s early surge pushed Sweden to the brink, the heat had gone out of the game, and the Swedish defence was looking much more assured. Then Sweden scored.

As was the case against Mexico, Germany conceded from a turnover. The normally solid Kroos made an uncharacteristic mistake in possession, allowing Sweden to flood forward in transition. The ball found Viktor Claesson, whose lofted pass towards the centre found Ola Toivonen. Toivonen held off Antonio Rüdiger as he controlled the ball, and with the big centre-back lunging desperately to stop him the Swedish striker lifted the ball over Neuer towards the back of the net. Time seemed to stand still as Toivonen’s shot, aided by a slight deflection from Rüdiger, looped towards the goal line. As it finally buried itself in the back of the net, it cued delirium for Sweden and devastation for Germany. Suddenly, Germany were on the brink of the unthinkable: a group stage exit.

Olsen denied the Germans shortly afterwards with two brilliant stops in rapid succession. İlkay Gündoğan started it, forcing the Swedish keeper into a diving parry, and when he only managed a slight – and slightly inadvertent – deflection on Thomas Müller’s follow-up effort it looked as if the Germans had scored. Mercifully for Sweden, and agonisingly for Germany, the ball rolled just wide of the goalpost while a now helpless Olsen watched on. Sweden continued to make occasional forays forward, with Claesson denied by a last-ditch challenge from Hector and Berg forcing Neuer to pull out a stunning save with a brilliant header, but they couldn’t add to their lead. They didn’t really have to. When the half time whistle blew, Toivonen’s goal was still the difference between the sides.

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Jérôme Boateng is shown the red card by referee Szymon Marciniak. The decision left Germany with only 10 men, but it didn’t stop them from winning the match.

Germany needed to respond after half time, and they did. Finally, after a catastrophic defeat against Mexico and a potentially scandalous first half against Sweden, the Germans found the back of the net. Finally, they responded with their backs against the wall. It came from Werner, who slipped through on the left and pulled the ball back looking for one of his attackers. He had options. It went past Müller, rolling on through and taking a slight deflection off Lindelöf. It went behind Mario Gómez, taking a slight deflection off the half time substitute on the way. It went to Reus, and he didn’t miss. He bundled the ball past Olsen, and Germany breathed a slight sigh of relief. It wasn’t pretty, and it came straight off his knee, but Germany didn’t care.

There was still the small matter of winning the game, and the second half passed without too much goalmouth action. The Germans were on top in terms of possession and territory, but time seemed to fly as they pressed the Swedish defence without creating too many chances. Sweden still had some opportunities, and Neuer only just recovered from losing his balance in time to stop John Guidetti from getting on the end of a very dangerous ball. Then Boateng, already booked for a poor challenge on Emil Forsberg, took out Berg’s legs. Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to send him off, and Germany’s task got a lot harder. They kept pushing, but it looked like they were going to be denied.

They started to find better chances as the game entered its final moments. Kroos put in a beautiful cross, and Gómez met it with a perfectly-timed header. It seemed destined for the back of the net before Olsen reacted. He leapt to tap it over the bar, keeping the Germans at bay. Julian Brandt came off the bench and had a chance when he found space to shoot outside the box. His shot was driven with tremendous force. It had Olsen completely beaten. It also rammed into the bottom of the post, leaving the Swedish goal threatened but unharmed. Then, with seconds left, Kroos scored. It didn’t erase the stress of the first two games. It didn’t completely undo the harm that Germany have done their World Cup chances. But it put their fate back in their hands, and that’s all that matters.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Germany 1 (Reus 48, Kroos 90+5)
Sweden 1 (Toivonen 32)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Rüdiger, Hector (Brandt 87); Rudy (Gündoğan 31), Kroos; Müller, Draxler (Gómez 46), Reus; Werner.
Sent-off: Boateng 82
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson (Durmaz 74), Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Berg (Kiese Thelin 90), Toivonen (Guidetti 78).

Top 5
1. Marco Reus (Germany)
Reus scored the crucial equalising goal, and created plenty of chances with his movement in attacking midfield. His ability to make things happen in and around the penalty area more than justified his selection over Mesut Özil, and he seems to be in excellent form.
2. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist led the Swedish defence, and he was in top form as they held firm until the last minute. He was always determined to stop his opponents, and he pulled off some excellent pieces of defensive play throughout. He has been in excellent form, and he will be the key to Sweden’s chances as they aim to beat the odds and make the second round.
3. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was largely responsible for Sweden’s goal, but he built into the match as it went on and he played a crucial role in the win with his brilliant late goal. He was usually solid in possession, and his class began to assert itself as the game came to a close. His winner was incredible.
4. Timo Werner (Germany)
A half time switch to the left-wing paid dividends for Werner, who began to attack the Swedish defence from wide areas and put dangerous balls into the box. He assisted Reus for the equaliser, and his combination with Hector provided Germany’s most potent second half threat.
5. Robin Olsen (Sweden)
Olsen made some brilliant saves to deny the Germans, and his work improved as the game went on. His double save to deny Gündoğan and Müller and his reflex stop to deny Gómez’s brilliant header kept the Swedish in the game.

Sweden do it comfortably against disappointing South Koreans

Kim Young-gwon’s long ball sailed into the Swedish penalty area. The clock had just ticked past 90 minutes, and Sweden were holding on to a one-goal lead against a determined but slightly lacking South Korean team. Now, they were desperately bombing the ball into the penalty area, hoping for something – anything – that could give them a lifeline in the match and the tournament. Kim Young-gwon’s pass found Lee Jae-sung, who managed to get a header back into the centre, where an unmarked Hwang Hee-chan was in a perfect position to grab a late equaliser, or at least test out Swedish keeper Robin Olsen. He did neither. Hwang’s miss came from Korea’s best chance of the match, and put a stopper in any hopes the Taeguk Warriors had of salvaging a point from their disappointing performance. They just weren’t clinical enough on the day.

It was a physical opening, with plenty of rough challenges from both sides leading to an abnormally high foul count and giving Salvadorian referee Joel Aguilar plenty to do. He performed his duties with enthusiasm and intensity, at one point giving a stern talk to Jang Hyun-soo and Marcus Berg complete with animated – and intriguing – hand gestures. In general play, South Korea had much of the early running, but they didn’t create any real chances and soon the Swedes had taken control. Over 15 minutes had passed before the first real chance of the game, when Swedish centre-back Andreas Granqvist ran straight through the middle of South Korea’s defence, played a one-two with Marcus Berg and was only denied by Kim Young-gwon’s last-ditch sliding challenge. Minutes later, Berg had an even better opportunity, but inexperienced goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo made a brilliant save to keep the scores level.

Son Heung-min (right) attempts to keep the ball under pressure from Sebastian Larsson. Son was well-marked during the game, although he did threaten on a couple of occasions.

South Korea gave a glimpse of their counter-attacking threat as the half went on, with Son Heung-min twice finding space on the break and twice being thwarted by Granqvist, who blocked Son’s potentially dangerous cut back on one occasion and, less legally, threw himself in front of Korea’s fast-moving star player on the other. Sweden still had control, however, and had a string of great chances as the half drew to a close. Berg managed to latch onto a lofted ball into the penalty area and put a ball past Cho into a very dangerous spot, but no-one was there to take advantage of the open goal. Seconds later, Ki Sung-yueng’s excellent slide challenge was all that prevented Ola Toivonen from breaking through, and there were more nervous moments as Viktor Claesson nearly headed home in the dying embers of the first period. The half ended, fittingly, with the ball in the hands of Cho, one of the busiest players on the pitch.

Sweden picked up where they left off in the second half, nearly catching South Korea out almost immediately with a quickly taken free-kick. The resultant move gave Emil Forsberg space to shoot, but his effort whistled safely over the bar. More chances came as the game progressed, with one of the biggest thwarted when Kim Young-gwon acted swiftly to clear the ball after Cho did well to parry Toivonen’s header. South Korea had a bit more play than the first half, with Koo Ja-cheol’s header into the side netting causing some nervous moments, but they were still conceding possession and territory. Then, finally, the Swedish broke through. It came from a penalty, created by a slight error from Cho and a much bigger one from replacement left-back Lee Min-woo.

Andreas Granqvist (left) celebrates after opening the scoring during the second half. Granqvist stepped up to take the penalty, and slotted it home coolly.

The opening was created by Cho’s slight mishandling of the ball as he attempted to claim Ludwig Augustinsson’s cross against Berg. The Swedish striker’s positioning made things tough for the Korean keeper, and the fumble gave Viktor Claesson a chance to take the ball in a dangerous position. Then his legs were taken out. Lee Min-woo, only on the field because Park Joo-ho picked up an injury stretching for an errant pass, initially appeared to take the ball, but when replays showed that Claesson had knocked it away before being tripped there was no question surrounding the correct call. The newly-introduced video assistant referee has made its fair share of controversial calls this tournament, but this was not one of them. Granqvist was the man who stepped up to take the penalty, and he stayed calm as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner. If finish was composed, the celebrations were anything but as Granqvist, his face red and animated, charged towards the Swedish fans.

South Korea couldn’t recover. They retook control of territory by pushing higher up the pitch, but Sweden were more than capable of resisting South Korea’s slightly dangerous but ultimately feeble forays into the final third. In the end, Hwang’s chance was their only real opportunity to rectify the deficit, and his miss was a perfect representation of the lack of clinical finishing which cruelled their chances of victory. For Sweden, the win was unspectacular but comfortable, the kind of professional performance they were looking for to start their tournament right.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Sweden 1 (Granqvist 65 pen)
South Korea 0
Referee: Joel Aguilar (Slv)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Jansson, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson (Svensson 81), Ekdal (Hiljemark 71), Forsberg; Toivonen (Kiese Thelin 77), Berg.
South Korea (4-3-3): Cho Hyun-woo – Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-soo, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho (Kim Min-woo 28); Lee Jae-sung, Ki Sung-yueng, Koo Ja-cheol (Lee Seung-woo 72); Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Shin-wook (Jung Woo-young 67), Son Heung-min.

Top 5
1. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist was extremely solid at the back, and found his way onto the scoresheet with a perfectly taken penalty. The goal was not his only foray into attack, and his energy on both sides of the ball was a huge bonus for his side. He led by example, and set the tone for Sweden’s composed performance.
2. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)
Cho was the least experienced goalkeeper picked in the Korean squad, but he more than justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with an excellent performance. He made some great saves, including a brilliant one-on-one stop to deny Berg, and kept South Korea in the game with his performance.
3. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Claesson was everywhere, especially early on in the match. He was a threat inside the box and tested the Koreans with his delivery from the right wing. His determination to hunt the ball all over the pitch will serve him and Sweden well for the rest of the tournament.
4. Kim Young-gwon (South Korea)
Kim saved his side’s blushes on a number of occasions, twice making last-ditch challenges to deny Swedish attackers in dangerous spots and avoiding an awkward situation early in the second half by reacting quickly to a dangerous ball. His defensive work was excellent, and he will be a key player going forward.
5. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
At times, Berg lacked the poise needed to finish from the great positions he found himself in, but his positioning was perfect and if his finishing improves he will be a force to be reckoned with. He was very active throughout, and can make an impact at this tournament.