World Cup Week 1 Update

So we’re one week into the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which means we’re about halfway through the group stage. This seems like a good time to take a look at how things have gone so far, give my thoughts on things, and check in on how my predictions are holding up.

Off we go!

 

Group A

Games so far:

Russia 5 – 0 Saudi Arabia Egypt 0 – 1 Uruguay

Russia 3 – 1 Egypt Uruguay 1 – 0 Saudi Arabia

So the Saudis are bad; really, really bad. They just got blown away by the Russians in that opening game, and the one goal loss to Uruguay doesn’t reflect the gulf in talent between those two teams.

The Russians, meanwhile, have been phenomenal. While their final two goals of the first game came in second half stoppage time, it was a dominating performance. They stayed in form by following it up with a 3-0 dispatching of Mo Salah’s Egypt. What’s been most impressive for Russia is that they’re succeeding despite the fact that Alan Dzagoev, who I noted was the man through which everything offensively runs for Russia, pulled a hammy in the first half against the Saudis and is questionable to return at any point in the tournament. The way Denis Cheryshev is playing though, maybe Russia don’t need him. They’ve qualified for the Round of 16 where they’ll either play Spain or Portugal, neither of whom will want to face them.

Egypt now look silly for resting Mo Salah against Uruguay, even if he wasn’t 100%. They controlled much of that game but found no end product. If there was a time to risk Salah, that was it. I’d favor them to beat the Saudis in their final game but that won’t matter at this point.

Finally, Uruguay have been incredibly underwhelming as Luis Suarez has blown several good chances. They’re going to get out of this group almost by default, but they certainly haven’t been impressive.

I predicted Uruguay and Russia to go through, which is how it’s going to be. In what order depends on their game against each other. Uruguay need a win to finish in first.

 

Group B

Games so far:

Portugal 3 – 3 Spain Morocco 0 – 1 Iran

Morocco 0 – 1 Portugal Spain 1 – 0 Iran

Group B may have given us the game of the tournament on just its second day, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick completed with a late free kick to cancel out Spain and two goals from Diego Costa. Ronaldo is fully aware how much Portugal’s success depends on him and his supporting cast is just good enough to allow him to control games. He of course also scored four minutes into the game against Morocco, which was enough to beat a Moroccan team that doesn’t seem to have a clue where the goal is. Costa has been on a tear for Spain, now scoring in 10 straight games for them (although I’m not sure he deserves that one against Iran).

Morocco probably deserve better than what they’ve gotten, controlling both of their games with the majority of possession and a lot of promising play. However, if you don’t score you can’t win and they’ll be going home.

Iran still have a chance of getting out of the group but they’ll need to beat Portugal to do it. Good luck with that.

The really fun scenario is if Spain and Portugal both draw. That would leave them level on points, goal differential and goals scored. The next tiebreaker is least number of yellow cards. If they also tie for that, first and second place will be decided by lots.

I still think Spain and Portugal are the ones who get out of this group, but the order is anyone’s guess. I’d favor the Spanish playing Morocco who have nothing to play for.

 

Group C

Games so far:

Australia 1 – 2 France Denmark 1 – 0 Peru

Denmark 1 – 1 Australia France 1 – 0 Peru

Peru is the tragedy of this tournament. They’ve played some pretty good-looking soccer and been very competitive in both matches so far. They made two major mistakes against France: not starting captain Paolo Guerrero at striker, and Christian Cueva missing a penalty when the game was 0-0. That was their chance, and a win in that game followed by a loss to France still would have left them in a great position against Australia in their final game.

France have been good enough, needing VAR and Paul Pogba to save them against the Australians before a flukey Kylian Mbappe goal got them by Peru. They can’t take Denmark lightly, or they’ll find themselves in second place in this group. They definitely don’t look ready yet for the knockout stage. They were better against Peru, but they’ve got another gear or two to find.

Denmark looked completely on track before a VAR-awarded penalty for a handball in the box gave the Socceroos a penalty which was put away by Mile Jedinak (the only way he ever scores). Christian Eriksen has been as good as always, and I think they’ve got a good chance to beat France and top this group, but they have to be careful because….

Australia sit three points behind Denmark with a two goal worse differential. That means that if Australia beats eliminate Peru and France beats Denmark, Australia could be going through and the Danes could be going home.

A lot to still play for.

I got on the bandwagon rooting for Peru to make it out of the group, which clearly won’t happen. France is through, but that was a foregone conclusion.

 

Group D

Iceland 1 – 1 Argentina Croatia 1 – 0 Nigeria

Argentina 0 – Croatia 3 Nigeria 2 – 0 Iceland

This has been one of the strangest groups at this tournament.

Let’s start with the good news: Croatia have been awesome. They navigated their game against Nigeria and got the three points, which is all that matters. They then turned in the team performance of the tournament so far in their absolute demolition of Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Croatia are going to win this group, and I’d be very afraid if I were whoever finishes second in Group C.

Then there’s Iceland, who partied like it was 2016 after turning in another solid defensive performance against Argentina, a game defined by Lionel Messi missing a penalty that would have given Argentina the lead. A win against Nigeria would have all but guaranteed a place in the Round of 16, but they lost 2-0 to two Ahmed Musa goals.

Nigeria made significant lineup changes against Iceland and it worked to perfection. They now enter their final game with the opportunity to advance if they win. That final game is against Argentina…

What to say about Argentina? Messi may be the greatest player of all time, but he hasn’t been at his best and has gotten minimal support from his teammates. His missing a penalty against Iceland was the big story, but I questioned the decision to leave Higuain and Dybala on the bench when you know Iceland are going to place incredibly defensively. Unbelieably, they left the two Juventus stars on the bench again against Croatia, and once again payed the price

With Iceland’s loss, a win over Nigeria will get Argentina through despite how much they’ve struggled in their first two games.

 

Group E

Games so far:

Switzerland 1 – 1 Brazil Costa Rica 0 – 1 Serbia

Brazil 2 – 0 Costa Rica

It’s been a frustrating tournament so far for Brazil. They were held to a draw by Switzerland in their opening game, and scoreless for 90 minutes by Costa Rica. Thankfully for them, Coutinho and Neymar both scored in second half stoppage time to give them a 2-0 win. That result knocks out Costa Rica, who fell victim to an Aleksandar Kolarov free kick in their first game. I was skeptical of this Costa Rica team, the oldest in the tournament, being able to replicate anything near their Cinderella run from 2014.

Switzerland followed up their draw with Brazil with a come-from-behind victory over Serbia finished off by an 89th minute winner from Xherdan Shaqiri. They now put themselves in a great position to advance, as a win over the Costa Ricans will guarantee them a place in the last sixteen.

As for Serbia, they’ll need to beat Brazil to guarantee a trip to the knockout stage. A draw and a Brazil loss could also do it, but I wouldn’t count on that.

Brazil are my pick to win the tournament, and I’m confident they’ll get out of the group. However, they’ll need to start converting more of their chances if they’re going to make it all the way to the final.

 

Group F

Games so far:

Germany 0 – 1 Mexico Sweden 1 – South Korea

The biggest shock of the first round of games was Mexico knocking off Germany behind a great counter attacking goal from Hirving “Chucky” Lozano. Mexico controlled this game basically from start to finish. They are now firmly in the driver’s seat in this group; if they can beat the Germans they can definitely beat Sweden and South Korea. As for the Germans, I’d anticipate some big changes when they face Sweden on Saturday. They looked really flat, and the four year championship hangover appears to be real (the last three defending champions have lost their opening match). They also may be without defender Mats Hummels, who pulled a muscle in practice and will be a game-time decision against Sweden.

The Sweden vs South Korea game was…..incredibly lame. Sweden scored from a penalty awarded (rightly) by VAR. South Korea don’t appear to know how they want to get Son Heung-Min involved, and he’s their only route out of this group. Unfortunately, they play the Mexicans next and could find themselves on the brink of elimination by the end of the weekend. It’s hard to say much about Sweden; we’ll know what they’re really made of after they face Germany.

I had Germany finishing first, Mexico second. While the order of that looks very much in doubt, I still feel pretty confidence that Germany isn’t going to pull a 2014 Spain.

 

Group G

Games so far:

Belgium 3 – 0 Panama Tunisia 1 – 2 England

Belgium did exactly what was expected of them against Panama, dominating from start to finish as their all time leading goal scorer Romelu Lukaku scored twice following an awesome volley from Dries Mertens. Their super attacking style was no match for Panama and it probably won’t be much of a match for Tunisia either.

Meanwhile, just when it looked like England were going to drop points to an inferior Tunisia side (which would have been very true to form), Harry Kane found himself unmarked in the six-yard-box for the second time in the game and, like the first time, knocked the ball home to win the game for England in stoppage time. England’s problem is usually that they fold under pressure, but clearly not Harry Kane. Having survived this scare, I’d expect them to take care of business against Panama

A quick Chelsea plug, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was awesome after coming as a sub and I hope he starts against Panama.

Panama and Tunisia were always going to be underdogs in this group and it’s hard to see either of them winning their second games. That would set up a Belgium/England game for first and second.

I predicted Belgium and England to get out of the group in that order, and after one game I feel pretty good about that.

 

Group H

Games so far:

Colombia 1 – 2 Japan   Poland 1 – 2 Senegal

Group H kicked off with two upsets that turned the group upside down. Colombia went down to 10 men only a few minutes in when Carlos Sanchez raised his arm in the box and blocked a shot that was going on goal. Japan took advantage, and Colombia find themselves in a tough spot after entering the tournament as group favorites.

Senegal managed to largely take Lewandowski out of the game (credit to Kalidou Koulibaly), and that allowed Senegal to control the tempo.

This was the most wide open group heading into the tournament, and it’s lived up to that expectation. It could be one of the few groups where all four teams still have something to play for in their third game.

 

I’ll have another update next week once the group stage is finished and we’re looking forward to the Round of 16.

 

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