Former Brazilian striker Ronaldo and World Cup mascot Zabivaka made a symbolic first kick to kick start the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but it wasn’t until the hat-trick of Cristiano Ronaldo that the World Cup really started. When Mexico stunned defending champions World Cup got it’s first upset. From Rojo’s volley in the 86th minute to send Argentina through to the knockouts, escaping a major scare, to Son Heung-Min’s goal to send the defending champions packing, to sum up what’s happened in the first round of the World Cup so far, here is the FIFA World Cup 2018 Group Stage Round Up:
Bizarre Trend Continues
When South Korea scored 2 injury time goals, Germany got eliminated from the tournament. It shocked few, stunned many, but actually there was nothing to be shocked of as it was merely a trend that continued. In the last five tournaments four times the defending champions faced the first round exit. In 2002 it was France, 2010 came with Italy’s turn and 2014 was when Spain got jolted. And we will have to wait for another 4 years, to see if there is any chance of this trend getting halted. Well it was all speaking of the trend, and when we look into Germany’s performance they never really looked like defending the crown. It was the late Toni Kroos spectacle that saved them from complete embarrassment, otherwise this was a very scanty display, more bizarre than the result. For the reigning champions, four times World Cup winners and number one ranked side in the world, this performance will ask a lot of questions.
Big teams, big scares
It was not just Germany who had tough time in the group stage, no team in this World Cup had an easier path. Brazil were held by Switzerland in their opening game and looked quite off coloured. They started the next game again very slowly, as Costa Rica were happy to let the game go deep. And it took Phillipe Coutinho’s stoppage time magic to wake up the sleeping giants. Argentina, another team with a proud footballing history had an uninspiring display until Lionel Messi struck with his entrancing footwork against Nigeria to book a place in the last 16. Spain and Portugal were held by Morocco and Iran respectively whereas France had to contempt with a draw against Denmark.
Big Player, Big Tournament, Big Performance
It just took over 3 minutes for Cristiano Ronaldo to devise a penalty and finish off in style to start his World Cup campaign. David de Gea’s fumble allowed him another cool finish to score his second goal of the match. In the dying minutes and Portugal trailing by one goal came the best shot, the heroic free-kick, the hat-trick. The free-kick was sublime, the ball went over the wall, bent and dipped and struck the nets. It finished the first hat-trick of the tournament, and it came from the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo and was there ever any doubt?
Video Assistant Referees (VAR)
So the first time in a FIFA World Cup, the VAR technology is utilized and it hasn’t been without controversies. When Spain were allowed a goal against Morocco through the use of VAR technology, it raised concerns and none more than Morocco midfielder Younes Belhanda, who said that the VAR technology was just to help the big teams.
There was also a controversial penalty awarded in the Group B match, as Iran equalized against Portugal.
The main concern of VAR is that it is purely up to the referees to call for the VAR, whereas they may be pressurized by the teams or crowd or intensity of the game. There have been occasions where one team was awarded a penalty or a goal by using VAR but in the other team’s case it wasn’t even checked. Apart from this limitation VAR has certainly helped in making some good decisions as the number of penalties awarded in this tournament has been a record. It’s some improvement to reduce bad decisions in the game, and some improvement is better than no improvement.
With so many upsets happening, different teams emerged as dark horses of the tournament. Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Senegal are the teams that have qualified for the next stage, exceeding the expectations of many, but even the most of their optimistic fans would not be hoping of them getting any further. Belgium and England had an easy group so their performance will totally be measured on how they play in the knockouts. But there is one team that has emerged as real contenders of dark horses in this tournament, Croatia have looked far from number 18 in the world, punching above their weight as they defeated the World number 4 in an emphatic fashion. How far will Croatia progress will depend on their captain and Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modrić.
Best Goal so far
When Toni Kroos netted the free kick, it was thought to be the goal of the tournament. It might well just be awarded as the goal of the tournament considering the timing of the match as it was the last kick of the match and had he not scored there, Germany’s World Cup would have ended just two matches into the tournament. But what it did was, it helped Germany’s hopes to live for one more match and then see them crushed by the buoyant Koreans, but that goal deserved more.
The best team so far
The upsets and close matches have meant that there are no clear cut favourites of this tournament so far. Belgium have looked dominating in their group, but realistically speaking they had an easier group, once they get to the quarterfinals they will surely be tested by Brazil or Mexico. Croatia have looked compact, but for them to keep the same intensity in the knockouts will be difficult. Anyhow winning the group means Croatia will face Denmark in the round of 16. They would not have hoped for an easier opposition than that. And if they do qualify for the quarterfinals, they will have their task cut out potentially against the 2010 winners, Spain. Uruguay won all 3 matches but will face Cristiano Ronaldo’s side, which will be a much awaited clash. Brazil and Argentina started slowly but they might just have peaked at the right time. The way teams have performed in the first round and looking at their path ahead in the knockouts Croatia have a good chance and an easy path ahead till the final. Whether they will be able to capitalize on it or not, it is there to be seen.
Race for Golden Boot
Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo are in the race to win the golden boot, but their chances depend a lot on their performance in the next games as well as how their teams play. Harry Kane has scored 5 while Ronaldo and Lukaku 4 each in the group stage of the tournament. Kane has struck after every 31st minute, Lukaku after 37 minutes and Ronaldo after 68 minutes. Lukaku and Kane both look in sublime form, and as Belgium are much stronger team and real contenders of this World Cup Lukaku might well get his hand on the Golden Boot along with the World Cup Trophy.
What to look forward to
The most anticipated clash of the knockouts will be the first clash of round of 16 and it will be Argentina taking on France. On the form and the way teams played in the group stage Argentina stand no chance, but when you have a player of the quality of Lionel Messi in your ranks, anything is possible. They have come through a tough group, they have had hard battles in the group stage, they narrowly escaped a complete humiliation in fact it’s a new life they are living. They were down, they were out, their World Cup was over, but somehow they managed to hang on, and now it’s all but over. This new life might just be enough to ignite new spirits in the team and who knows what can come next.
Highs and Lows
The Spain-Portugal encounter was one of the best matches of the World Cup, but Rojo’s goal in Argentina-Nigeria clash was one of the high points of the World Cup as it might totally change the fate of this World Cup. Nobody wishes to see the favourites knocked out in the group stage, and when a team like Germany plays like how they played, there cannot be a lower point in this World Cup than that.
So the first round of 2018 FIFA World Cup has ended and it gave us many moments to cheer, many to be depressed, many to appreciate and many to criticize. It was a colourful round in Russia, a memorable one, full of excitement, full of emotions, full of upsets and most of all, full of penalties. The bars have been raised and the standards have been high and now as the World Cup moves to more intense stages, it’s no harm in anticipating that there is more to come yet better to come.