The 2022 World Cup Group Stage

Here, I am keeping a running record of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. There has been much said about the decision to host the World Cup in Qatar. Questions around human rights, worker’s conditions, and FIFA corruption had dominated the tournament, before a ball had even been kicked. Would the question marks overshadow the football? Well, there would be further controversy around planned displays of rainbow armbands, and even rainbow hats, very early on.

What of the football itself? The World Cup was going ahead, regardless of protests and criticisms. How would the action proceed?

The First Fixtures

The opening game, between the hosts Qatar, and South American nation Ecuador, went more or less as I expected it to. Ecuador had too much quality for the hosts, and whilst a good early goal was disallowed for a dubious offside, soon striker Valencia put Ecuador ahead from the penalty spot (after the Qatar ‘keeper had taken out an Ecuador player as he went through on goal), and then Valencia doubled the advantage before the break, with a thumping header from a good cross. Qatar created very little (though they missed a glorious chance on the brink of half-time), and Ecuador always looked more likely to add to their tally. One or two good chances came their way in the second half, but a few misplaced passes prevented them from putting some extra gloss on the score line.

So, one match down. The hosts Qatar had the misfortune of losing, and their prospects only looked tougher from that point on. For Ecuador, the win was good, but sterner tests awaited in Group A.

From the hosts, to hope. Hope that England could navigate a potentially tricky opener against Group B opponents Iran. Against a backdrop of further controversy (this time regarding One Love armbands), England began their quest for glory in the winter heat of the Middle East. There were a few early, encouraging signs of life, and then Iran ‘keeper Beyranvand, in the act of saving an effort from England, bashed heads with one of his own players. His teammate recovered quite fast, but Beyranvand stayed down for quite a while, and had blood coming out of his nose. He was visibly shaken, and could barely stand, yet incredibly, it seemed he would stay on, despite the crunching accident. In the end, common sense prevailed, and Beyranvand was indeed substituted, and we could start to play in earnest.

England had to patient, but patient they were. They kept the ball, they passed it calmly, and when they struck, it was a quality cross from Luke Shaw on the left, met by 19 year-old Jude Bellingham’s head. The ball sailed into over the ‘keeper and into the net, and the Lions’ tails were up. A second followed soon afterwards, with 21 year-old Bukayo Saka seizing on the ball in the middle of the box, and slamming it home.

The third goal came from experience. Captain and talisman Harry Kane squeezed the ball in from the right, for Raheem Sterling to poke home. Suddenly, England were in uncharted territory – comfortably winning a World Cup at half-time!

The second half continued in a similar vein. Iran seemed determined to hack at the ankles of England players, and England retained the ball, without too much fuss. Around the hour mark, Saka collected the ball, darted in-field from the right, and slotted home quite nicely, for his second and England’s fourth. England were cruising, and a moment later, a slight measure of complacency crept in, and Mehdi Taremi slammed home from sort range to decrease the deficit.

Following an injury to Harry Maguire that forced him off (and led to a brief spell where England were a man down), manager Southgate made a flurry of substitutions, and around the 70-minute mark, Marcus Rashford ran through, tucked in from the right, and stroked the ball home to restore England’s four-goal advantage. It appeared things would remain that way, with Iran’s spark gone, and England content not to over-exert themselves, until Callum Wilson got on the end of a brilliant pass from Bellingham, and cut the ball back unselfishly for Jack Grealish to tap home in the 90th minute.

A penalty for Iran at the end of injury time was scored by Taremi, and thus the game finished 6-2.

It would be easy to get carried away. Prior to the match, I’d predicted that England would win 2-0, so the result and the performance was considerably better than I’d dared hope for. Five different players scored, and Harry Kane was yet to be among them! What might our potency going forward look like, once he began to shine? Yet tougher tests would await. Yes, England had played well, but how would we fare against sterner challenges?

Following England’s victory in Group B, Senegal would take on the Netherlands in Group A. I did not watch the entire game, only part of the second half, and it was a game lacking in quality from both sides. In the end, a late header from Cody Gakpo (making his World Cup debut), and an injury-time rebound goal from Davy Klaassen gave the Dutch a victory they needed. Senegal ‘keeper Edouard Mendy was arguably at fault for both goals, and Senegal would be disappointed to not take the chances that came their way.

After that, it was back to Group B, and Wales versus the USA.

For the Welsh, this was their first World Cup since 1958, when the Welsh were knocked out by a Brazil side boasting a certain teenage sensation by the name of Pele. The long wait brought them to the same group as England, but before the two fierce local rivals could face off, the Welsh would want to get off to a winning start against the Americans. A win would set up the clash with England very nicely. Defeat would obviously put their position on a knife-edge.

Within the first ten minutes, the USA had twice come close, and had dominated possession. However, the most important currency in football is goals, and they failed to turn that early control into a lead. Signs of ill-discipline also crept in, with two quick bookings for the Americans. From there, the game slowed a little, and that suited Wales more. The USA saw more of the ball, but couldn’t make their possession count. With half an hour gone, the game remained goalless, and the USA couldn’t break down Welsh resistance. However, a few minutes later, the relentless pressure would pay off.

A nice diagonal run from Timothy Weah met the beautiful pass from Christian Pulisic, and Weah was suddenly in behind the Welsh defence. He stroked the ball beyond the reach of ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey, and now the pressure on Wales went up a notch. Wales playmaker Gareth Bale then earned himself a booking for a high boot, which never helps one’s performance.

The score remained 1-0 at half-time, so it was entirely possible that Wales could turn things around. A considerably better performance would be needed, could they find what they needed?

There were some early hints that Wales could cause the USA a few problems, but the USA remained dangerous. The game appeared to open up a little, as the Welsh sought to get forward more. The risk was a quick counter-attack from the USA, but without any sort of risk, Wales would be destined to lose. They began to create some half chances, but nothing definitive. However, around the hour mark, they started to threaten more, and a couple of good opportunities to equalise, that they couldn’t quite take.

Then came the most golden of all opportunities, on 80 minutes. Gareth Bale was brought down in the penalty area, and the ref did not hesitate to point to the spot. It was Bale versus Matt Turner in the USA goal. The winner? Bale. He blasted the penalty beyond Turner’s grasp to level the score.

The game finished 1-1, and it was perhaps one of the best demonstrations of a classic football adage, namely that football is a game of two halves. The USA dominated the first half, and the Welsh were the better side in the second. A draw was a fair result, though the Welsh would undoubtedly be the happier of the two nations.

The next game was one I hadn’t planned to watch. Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favourites, played Saudi Arabia in Group C’s opening game. I half-heartedly followed the game online, and at half-time, a Lionel Messi penalty had put Argentina a goal to the good. When I checked later, somehow the score was 2-1 to the Saudis. I’d arrogantly written them off, and perhaps the complacent Argentines had as well. With little over half an hour to play, a shock was on the cards. Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Al Dawsari sent Saudi fans into an understandable state of delirium, but then they had to prepare for a seemingly inevitable onslaught. Argentina did try, but the quality of balls into the box wasn’t there. Brave defending and some good goalkeeping were keeping Messi and co at bay.

As is proving customary, there was a lot of added time. The Saudis had attempted a fair bit of time-wasting, but officials at the World Cup aren’t tolerating it, and thus, the Saudis had eight minutes to hold on, and the Argentines had eight minutes to rescue themselves.

As in the England/Iran game, we bore witness to another serious head injury, and it was another case of teammates colliding. Saudi ‘keeper Al Owais came out to get the ball, and unfortunately, his knee slammed into the face of Yasir Al Shahrani, more or less knocking him out. Al Shahrani would prove to be OK, but the big story would be that Saudi Arabia would hold on, and claim a very famous win! Were Argentina disappointing? Yes. Don’t let that take away from what the Saudis achieved. They wanted it. They had the desire. They fought, and Argentina didn’t. The World Cup had its first shock.

Next came the first game of Group D. North African side Tunisia faced Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark. Would the Danes emerge victorious, or would Tunisia take encouragement from Saudi Arabia’s exploits? The answer was… neither. I didn’t watch the game, but I’m led to believe both sides worked hard to create chances. Good defending and wasteful finishing prevented either nation from claiming an important win, and Denmark and Tunisia instead took a more dubious prize, namely that they featured in the 2022 World Cup’s first goalless game.

The World Cup then had its second goalless game in a row. I didn’t watch Mexico versus Poland (the other game of Group C), but both teams would have wanted a win, especially in the wake of Argentina’s stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia, so this was a bit dour for both nations.

The last game of the 22nd was the clash of France (reigning champions) against Australia in Group D. Again, I didn’t watch most of this one, however I was aware of a shock early lead for Australia. It did not last. France were 2-1 up at half-time, thanks to goals from Rabiot and Giroud, and I tuned in just in time to watch an exquisite cross from Dembele on the right, that found Mbappe, who headed home to open his World Cup account. A few minutes later, Mbappe turned provider for Giroud, with a great ball in from the left, that Giroud headed home. It was all too easy for the French, and you couldn’t help but wonder if more goals would come.

In the end, the answer was… no. Still, France pulled the strings, played by far the better football, and had served up a reminder of why they are champions in the first place.

Group F got underway with the clash of Morocco against Croatia. The 2018 runners-up (Croatia, not Morocco) were, on paper, the better side, but football isn’t played on paper. I didn’t watch the game, and am glad of it, for it proved to be yet another 0-0.

Group E started with four-time World Cup winners Germany, against Japan. The Germans have a history of being at the sharp end of major tournaments, but failed to progress beyond group stages of the 2018 World Cup, and England dumped them out of Euro 2020 without too much fuss. Nonetheless, you write off Germany at your peril. They are a football superpower for a reason. On a curious note, a BBC pundit (I want to say Chris Sutton, but don’t quote me on that) predicted a shock 2-1 win for Japan.

At the break, German led 1-0, thanks to a Gündogan penalty, and what I saw of the second half was a German side creating chances, but being denied by brave goalkeeping from Japanese ‘keeper Gonda. He made save after important save to keep Japan in the game, and they often say saves are as good as goals at the other end…

The warnings were there. Neuer had to make a good save of his own to deny Junya Ito, and a minute later, Ritsu Doan got on the end of a parried effort, and stuck it in the back of the net. A few minutes after that, a long ball found substitute Takuma Asano, and he fired from a tight angle to send Japan into a state of delirium. The Japanese would hold on to complete a seemingly unlikely win, and send Group E into chaos. If Spain were to beat Costa Rica, then the next set of fixtures would become crucial for Germany, with defeat possibly proving curtains for them.

Football tends to be fairly predictable. The cream tends to rise to the top. This is true of club football, and international football. There are hiccups along the way, as Saudi Arabia and Japan both demonstrated, but would Costa Rica also go ‘off script’, and defeat the 2010 world champions Spain, in Group E’s other game?

The answer was an emphatic no. In 2014 Costa Rica escaped from a group that featured three former World Cup winners. Here, they were completely outclassed by a far better Spanish side. The Spanish were three goals to the good by the break, and would eventually run out 7-0 winners. Gavi would become Spain’s youngest ever World Cup goal scorer, and Ferran Torres would score twice. It was ridiculously easy for Spain, who would now have bags of confidence ahead of facing the Germans. Meanwhile, Japan would be eying up Costa Rica with a view to getting another win.

Group F’s other fixture pitted 2018 semi-finalists Belgium against Canada. The Belgians boasted the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and a host of other good players, but Belgium’s fabled ‘golden generation’ is getting old, and how would they cope in what was surely their last World Cup as a team? Well, for the part of the first half I watched, Belgium were distinctly second-best. Canada created chance after chance, and even had a penalty saved, and Belgium looked rattled. However, football matches aren’t won by chances created. They are won by goals.

Belgium struck, against the run of play, thanks to a ball hoofed towards the Canadian box, that was collected by Michy Batshuayi, who fired in from the left. It was undeserved, but that’s football. Canada lacked the quality in the final third, and Belgium did. What did I say earlier, about cream rising to the top? That was the demonstration. In the second half, Canada continued to make some chances, but continued to fail to take them. It was frustrating to watch, for the opportunities were at times glorious.

Was the difference experience? Was it about the sort of domestic football the players are routinely exposed to? The composure in front of goal from Canada was completely lacking. The crosses, the attempts… there was no certainty, no calm in that arena. Belgium were far from their best, but they were fortunate enough to not need to be. They held on to win, and from victory comes momentum. They now led Group F, though much improvement would be needed ahead of their next game.

Group G got underway on the 24th, with Switzerland taking on Cameroon. I missed most of this game, which ended 1-0 to Switzerland, but what I saw was a Swiss side very-much prepared to break with pace on the counter, and a Cameroon side lacking in quality in the final third (a recurring theme of this World Cup). Group H got underway a bit later, with two-time winners Uruguay facing South Korea.

I missed the start, but tuned in in time to see Uruguay strike the inside of the post from a corner, in the face of South Korea energy and vigour. I had to go collect my daughter before the game’s conclusion, but my understanding is it was an entertaining game, that ended 0-0.

Portugal played Ghana in Group H’s other fixture of the day. Portugal had Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks, but he was coming into this tournament off the back of having his contract with club side Manchester United terminated, for an explosive interview he gave, right before the World Cup. The 37 year-old would most likely be gracing the World Cup for the final time, and his ego would not accept anything less than a stellar tournament.

Ghana had the dubious distinction of being the lowest-ranked side in Qatar, and yet they did not wilt in the face of Portuguese pressure. Ronaldo might have put the ball in the net on half an hour, but his goal was disallowed for a foul, and it remained game on. The match reached the halfway stage goalless, and the World Cup was staring at the possibility of yet another 0-0. Ghana went close to taking what would be considered a surprise lead in the second half, fizzing a low shot just beyond the post.

Yet again, quality finishing was absent. The final ball just wasn’t quite there. Portugal looked flat, and needed to step things up a notch. Ghana were fortunate to keep all their players on the pitch, when right-back Alidu Seidu put his head into the face of Joao Felix. Just after the hour mark, Ronaldo went down under a challenge in the penalty area, and the referee pointed straight to the spot. Ghana protested, and the replay suggested it could be a case of Ronaldo going to ground quite easily, though the opportunity was presented to him by the physical challenge. VAR was not called upon, so Ronaldo would have his chance from the spot.

He slammed the ball home. It was never really in doubt, and in doing so, Ronaldo became the first player to score in five World Cups. He had his 118th international goal, in 192 matches. Portugal had the lead. Would this give them the confidence to push on, and secure the result? Well, Ghana weren’t giving up, and a powerful long-range shot stung the ‘keeper’s hands. A few moments later, Ghana levelled, from an altogether much closer range. They had been pinging the ball quite nicely, and got it down the left side. They cut it back, and Andre Ayew tapped the ball in. Game on!

Ayew was playing quite well, so it was somewhat mystifying as to why he was subbed, and a moment later, Portugal were back in front. It was a quick counter-attack, and Felix sliced the ball home from the right-hand side. Just a moment later, it was 3-1, and Portugal were suddenly having fun. The pace, positioning and movement of the Portuguese attack was devastating, and da Conceição Leão scored with a great, balanced effort from the left, to get his first goal for his country. Suddenly, Ghana were looking very vulnerable, and Portugal were feeling feisty. Was there a way back for Ghana?

Well, on 88 minutes, a ball played in from the left reached the head of Bukari, who steered his header into the net. There followed a bit of tetchiness, involving a few argumentative players and robust tackles, and Ghana had nine minutes of added time to find an equaliser. Portugal were attempting to waste that time, but officials at this World Cup aren’t tolerating any form of time-wasting, so such efforts would merely see that time added on to the added time!

It seemed that the game was heading to a Portuguese win, but Ghana were nearly gifted a glorious goal from a Portuguese goal kick. The ‘keeper wasn’t aware that a Ghanaian player was behind him, and if not a last-second slip, Ghana would have levelled. Instead, Portugal claimed a vital early win. Ghana could take encouragement from their second-half showing, but they had no points to show for their efforts. Portugal would be pleased to win, but defensively, they were dodgy.

The final game of Group G would feature the World Cup’s most successful side. Brazil, five time winners, came into the tournament with the belief that they could win it yet again. In their ranks, they had talented talisman Neymar, young starlet Vinícius Júnior, and the experience of Thiago Silva. Would they be able to overcome a stubborn Serbian side? Would the weight of expectation bring down Brazil, who had only reached the semi-finals once since they last won in 2002?

It seemed the early flow of the game saw Serbia give as good as they got. They were unafraid, which made sense. Serbia would have nothing to lose by trying, and everything to gain. The demands upon Brazil would reach to the stratosphere. In a World Cup defined by some early shocks, Serbia had no reason not to try. Brazil had more of the ball, and created more chances, but nothing definitive. At half-time, the game was 0-0.

At the hour mark, it was still level. Neymar had a good opportunity from a cross into the box that he swung at and sent wildly wide. Sandro then struck the post with a curving shot from distance. Brazil were growing into the game, and on 62 minutes, Neymar produced the magic. He dribbled into the box, Vinícius Júnior collected the ball, fired in a shot from the left that Milinkovic-Savic could only parry, and it fell to Richarlison to tap in. Now Serbia would have to have a go. This stretched the game, and with Neymar through, he ended up on the deck (for once, not a dive), the ball spilled to Vinícius Júnior, and he slipped as he shot, sending his effort miserably wide.

Serbia did continue to try. They also left themselves stretched, but wayward passing from both sides kept the game in the balance, at least until a good, close-range finish from Richarlison on 73 minutes virtually ended Serbian hopes. The ball got punted to him, he put the ball into the air, and volleyed it home.

Brazil were enjoying themselves. They struck the post again, and had control of the game. A Brazil side having fun is arguably more dangerous than a focused, determined side, and here, they were demonstrating all the flair and dazzling footwork that has been their hallmark. They claimed victory, and moved to the top of Group G.

The Second Fixtures

Group A and Group B would complete their second set of games on the 25th. First, Wales would play Iran in Group B, then the hosts Qatar would face Senegal in Group A. Also in Group A, the Netherlands would play Ecuador, and then finally, England would do battle with the USA in Group B.

The key question of the first game was whether or not Iran would improve. It was fair to say they’d been very poor against England, and Wales had finished brightly against the USA. Both sided needed to win, but 0-0 was becoming a popular scoreline. Iran in particular weren’t interested in a draw, and looked spritely in the opening ten minutes. However, Wales nearly drew first blood. Connor Roberts swung a decent cross in from the right, and Kieffer Moore connected, and the ‘keeper saved it, whilst Moore got a boot to the face for his troubles. He was ok to continue, but his miss would nearly prove crucial. A poor ball from Roberts was seized upon by Iran, who played a quick sequence of passes to put the ball in the net, but the goal was ruled out for offside.

Wales had a reprieve, but Iran continued to break with urgency. The Welsh needed to up their game, and play at a similar intensity. Iran were looking the most likely to score. As we reached the half-hour mark, the game began to open up a little more, with Wales trying to assert themselves, and Iran continuing to break quickly. Wales had enjoyed 68% possession, but Iran had matched them for chances created. Iran were looking considerably more organised than they had against England, and Wales were struggling to put together a seriously penetrating move. Would this prove yet another game of two halves from Wales?

It needed to be, from their point of view. The game was goalless at half-time (how many times had that happened already?), and Iran had created the better chances. Gareth Bale had been largely anonymous for Wales, and the rest of their attacking potential had been muted.

The second half saw a trio of early, quick chances for Iran. The first two struck the post, whilst Hennessey pulled off a desperate reflex save for the third. It was yet another warning for Wales, and you began to wonder if luck was shining on them. The Welsh were huffing and puffing, and Iran were growing in confidence. Iranian fans were making a huge racket, surging their team on, and Wales seemed to lack composure. Hennessey came to their rescue again to deny Saeid Ezatolahi from a sharp low shot, and it definitely felt that Wales were on borrowed time. That said, with seven minutes remaining, Ben Davies forced Hossein Hosseini to tip the ball over the bar, and then, moments later, Hennessey was sent off. He had come out of his area to intercept the ball, but clobbered Mehdi Taremi. VAR overturned the initial yellow card, and now Wales would face real pressure. Torabi fired just inches wide, and Iran could smell blood.

Hennessey’s red card was, out of interest, the first red card of the 2022 World Cup.

It took until the eighth of nine added minutes, but Iran finally, finally made the breakthrough. Rouzbeh Cheshmi fired from just outside the area, and his rocket of a shot slammed into the back of the net. A couple of minutes later, they broke forward again, and had so much space to kill the game off. Ramin Rezaeian ran onto a pass, took the ball into the area, and dinked the ball over Danny Ward to send his teammates and supporters into raptures. Iran won 2-0, and brought their World Cup to life, whilst virtually killing off Welsh hopes.

The result put Group B into a state of turmoil. After two games, Iran had three points, Wales had one. England had three points, but had only played once, and the USA had one point after one game. A USA win would definitely create chaos, whereas an England win would see them into the knockout stages, with the only question being whether they’d top the group.

Before that particular fixture, Qatar would face Senegal in Group A. The hosts had gotten off to a poor start against Ecuador, and desperately needed a win to keep their hopes alive. Senegal also lost their opener, against the Netherlands, and thus also found themselves in deep need of victory.

I tuned it with 35 minutes gone, in time to see Senegal get lucky not to concede a penalty. It was a clumsy challenge, but it didn’t even go to VAR. A moment later, Senegal carved Qatar open, but didn’t have the quality to score. The game swung in Senegal’s favour with a defensive blunder in the box, when Boualem Khoukhi failed to clear the ball, and instead accidentally set up Boulaye Dia, who drove the ball home from 12 yards. At half-time, Senegal enjoyed a vital 1-0 lead.

The second half had barely got underway when Senegal took command of the tie. A powerful header by Famara Diedhiou, from a well-delivered corner, soared into the net, and the hosts were staring at the ignominy of being the first host nation to go out after two games. The sad fact was, Qatar lacked quality, and it was being horribly exposed by Senegal.

Over the course of major tournaments, I have had a knack of missing goals when I’ve gone to the loo. This curse struck again, and I missed Mohammed Muntari score Qatar’s first ever World Cup goal. With the deficit reduced, could they somehow save themselves from elimination? No. Moments later, a lovely move down the right brought Senegal into position to cut the ball to Bamba Dieng, who booted the ball cleanly and comfortably into the back of the net. The game ended 3-1, and if Netherlands avoided defeat to Ecuador, Qatar would be out.

The ITV feed for Netherlands vs Ecuador was erratic, to say the least, so by the time I got it up and running, the Dutch were a goal up, after around 15 minutes. As it stood, Qatar were definitely not going to qualify for the knockout stages. It would also set up a tense showdown between Ecuador and Senegal. I learned that the goal was quite a good one, by Cody Gakpo. Ecuador were not giving up, and appeared to be having some joy down the left side, but couldn’t quite find a killer ball into the box. Key man Valencia tested the ‘keeper with a stinging shot from the edge of the box, but the final ingredient – a goal – continued to prove elusive. In football, you must score when you’re on top, but this World Cup has seen a distinct lack of that particular attribute.

Valencia was the guy trying to make magic happen for the South American side. He had a few half-chances, but right on the stroke of half-time, a different Ecuadorian player scored – or so he thought. Estupiñán believed he had diverted in a wayward shot from outside the box, but the goal was ruled out for offside. Estupiñán himself had been onside, but Jackson Porozo, who was arguably obstructing the ‘keeper’s line of sight, was judged to be in an offside position, and the goal would not stand. Estupiñán remonstrated with officials, but to no avail. At half-time, the Netherlands held a 1-0 lead.

Within minutes of the second half, Ecuador had the ball in the net again. A fizzing shot from Estupiñán could only be parried into the path of Valencia, who poked in his third goal of the tournament. Ecuador were in a vibrant mood.

Despite a strong performance from Ecuador, the game finished 1-1, and Group A hung in the balance.

From Group A, it was back to Group B, and England versus the USA.

England’s World Cup record against the USA was pretty poor. In 1950, an expectant England lost 1-0 to a US side filled with part-timers. In 2010, England stumbled to a draw. Would it be third time lucky for the Three Lions?

England could expect a different form of game to the Iran match. The USA were expected to press more, and bring more pace to their attack. England would have to be patient, and not try to force things. In an ideal world, they’d want to keep the ball, and force the US to chase the game. It would be a case of avoiding risky passes and hopeful, hoofed long balls. The first moment of real danger came via Saka and Kane, who’s close-range effort was deflected wide for a corner. A couple of half-hearted chances came England’s way, and then the USA created their first half-chance, headed wide from an awkward angle. It was a warning that the USA were not to be underestimated. At this level, complacency loses matches. England were given another warning, when the USA blazed over from short range following a good cross. As the game approached the half-hour point, the USA were growing in confidence. England needed a spark. Instead, Pulisic was striking the post, following a good, fast attack.

The USA were definitely in control, but as the half drew to a conclusion, England fired a warning of their own. Shaw got into the box down the left, played the ball to Saka, and Saka skied it. A moment later, better play from England led to Mount hitting a hard shot that Turner could only turn away for a corner. At that, the half concluded.

The second half began in a similar vein. England were too pedestrian. There was nowhere near enough desire or pace. So many passes went backwards. Where was the moment of magic England needed? When would some of our talented attacking midfielders be unleashed? England looked bereft of ideas, and the USA were looking more and more dangerous. Eventually Southgate brought on Grealish, and surprisingly, Jordan Henderson, who wasn’t a player I expected to see. We just weren’t in the races, and yet, with 15 minutes to go, Foden, arguably our brightest attacking talent, was still warming up the bench. Instead, Southgate hooked Saka for Rashford.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Mount. His passing was poor. Given Foden’s electric form for Man City, why, with ten minutes to go, was he not on the pitch?! Why was Mount still on it?!

England nearly snatched an undeserved victory in the dying embers. Kane pumped a header narrowly wide, from a great ball in from a Shaw free kick. It would have completely unfair on the USA. The final whistle blew to signify a 0-0 draw, and for England, there were some serious lessons to learn, along with some all-too familiar problems. Southgate seemed to have an aversion to bringing on his most potent players. Sterile, sideways passing and a sluggish pace would never yield results.

On the 26th, Groups C and D would resume. In Group D, Australia played Tunisia, and needed to bounce back from a thrashing at the hands of France. I didn’t see the game (was on a train or three), but Australia did indeed win, 1-0, to keep their World Cup dream alive, and virtually end Tunisian hopes.

Up next was Saudi Arabia against Poland in Group C. The Saudis had stunned the world with their heroics against Argentina. How would they fare against a Poland side that needed three points quite badly?

In football, as I have lamented before, there is one great truth. Take your chances whilst you are on top. Saudi Arabia dominated possession, and created more opportunities, but there are no awards (or points) for possession and chances. It’s hard to say if they were panicking in front of goal, or lashing at the ball in anger, but whatever the reason, they failed to retain their composure in front of goal. Players like Messi, Mbappe and Ronaldo would take an extra touch, or position themselves, and then shoot. Saudi’s players just put their laces through the ball, and blazed over on multiple occasions.

Poland led via a first-half goal from Piotr Zielinski, but a few minutes later, Saudi Arabia had a penalty. Salem Al Dawsari stepped up to take it, but Polish ‘keeper Wojciech Szczesny saved it, then saved the follow-on effort from Mohammed Al Burayk. In the second half, Szczesny continued to make a good save or two, and Saudi Arabia continued to boot the ball over the bar, in a game that from a neutral perspective, was frustrating. Then came the killer blow.

To give Poland their due, they’d twice struck the woodwork, so the threat was there, and then came an absolute gift. Abdulelah Al Malki gave the ball away to Robert Lewandowski of all players, right on the edge of the Saudi box. Lewandowksi, one of the the game’s most accomplished finishers, demonstrated the sort of control and confidence that Saudi’s forwards lacked, and tucked away the ball for Poland’s second. That was that, and the Saudis would have to wonder what might have been.

Group D’s second game of the day would pit France against Denmark. The Danes had a surprisingly good recent record against the French, but here, on the biggest stage, the French would win out against their stubborn resistance, thanks to one man – Kylian Mbappe. The superstar scored twice in the second half – either side of an Andreas Christensen header – to secure victory for France, and confirm their place in the knockout stages. In scoring his goals, Mbappe joined a very exclusive club, becoming only the second player under the age of 25 to score seven or more goals at World Cups. The other? Pele. Mbappe is in illustrious company.

The final same of Saturday would see Argentina seek to kickstart their campaign, following their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. In their way were a Mexico side that almost always reached the knockout stages, but Mexico needed a win of their own, following their draw with Poland. As with the France game, I didn’t get to watch it, but I saw Messi light up proceedings with a good goal in the second half, to give Argentina the lead. A late (and good) goal from Enzo Fernandez sealed the win, and kept Argentine hopes in their own hands.

On the 27th, the early matchup put Japan against Costa Rica in Group E. Japan had pulled off quite the shock of their own against Germany, whilst Costa Rica had collapsed to a 7-0 defeat against Spain. Surely Japan would win, to put one foot in the knockout stages?

If there was one expression that could sum up the 2022 World Cup, it would be ‘lack of quality’. Japan created more chances, but did not take them, and as with Poland versus Saudi Arabia, they were punished for it. Costa Rica drew first blood on 81 minutes, scoring with their first shot on target in nearly two matches. German fans would no doubt be cheering as much as Costa Ricans, for a Costa Rica victory would greatly enhance their own chances of going through. The game ended 1-0 to Costa Rica, to open up Group E quite nicely. Such were circumstances, that even a Germany defeat to Spain would not be terminal for their chances.

Group F resumed with Belgium battling Morocco. As is befitting games at this World Cup, it was 0-0 at half-time. It remained 0-0 after 70 minutes. After 73 minutes, it was 1-0, to Morocco.

The goal, from Abdelhamid Sabiri, was one of those rare cross-cum-goal moments. He whipped the ball in from the left at a freekick, and the ball missed everybody, including Belgium ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois, as it curled into the net. Morocco had a goal rightly disallowed for offside in the first half, but there was no question of this one.

The game got its second goal in the second minute of added time, and it was, slightly incredibly, another for Morocco. They had wanted it more, and Belgium’s golden generation hadn’t shown up. Zakaria Aboukhlal received the ball in the box via a cut back from Hakim Ziyech, and rifled the ball into the top corner of the net, at Courtois’s near post. A few moments later, the ref called time on proceedings, and Morocco had only their third ever World Cup victory, against the team ranked second in the world. On paper at least, this would be recorded as another seismic shock.

It was certainly shaping up to a World Cup where nothing could be taken for granted. Teams that were getting utterly crushed or limping to draws, were then turning it up next time around. Some big teams with glittering stars had found themselves with an awful lot to do. The only team after two games to look particularly certain of themselves were France.

Group F’s next game featured Croatia, against Canada. Canada had played well against Belgium, but failed to take their chances, and lost. Against Croatia, they scored their first ever World Cup goal, and the fastest of the 2022 tournament. Left-winger Alphonso Davies headed home with authority from a cross, but after that, Croatia showed their experience and quality. By half-time, the Europeans were 2-1 up, and late on, Andrej Kramaric (scorer of their first) added a third, to more or less kill the game off. Canada were pretty much out, and the showdown between Belgium and Croatia had the potential to eliminate one of those two sides. It was 4-1 at the death, to reaffirm the gulf in quality.

The final game of the night belonged to Group E, in a clash of the heavyweights. Four-time world champions Germany (most recently in 2014), against 2010 champions (and Euro 2008 and 2012 winners) Spain. A Spain victory would not doom the Germans, whilst a German win would leave all four teams in Group E level on points. Nonetheless, a Spanish victory would leave the Germans bottom of Group E after two games, and with just over an hour played, Spain struck. Substitute Alvaro Morata got on the end of a fizzing low cross from the left, and stabbed the ball in at the ‘keeper’s near post.

It wasn’t like Germany didn’t have their moments. A big one fell to Jamal Musiala, who beat the offside trap, but Spain ‘keeper Unai Simon was able to palm away the powerful strike. By this point, time was starting to run out for Germany, who couldn’t keep the ball. Spain had enjoyed 64% of the possession by the time we had 15 minutes to go, and the Germans were chasing shadows.

However, it’s time for another great football truth. The Germans, even when they don’t seem to be playing particularly well, often find a way to reach the sharp end of a tournament. They have a long, historic World Cup pedigree. With seven minutes of normal time remaining, Niclas Fullkrug pulled Germany level with a decent short-range strike, filled with venom.

With the score tied, who would fancy having a go at winning it? Well, Spain continued to control the ball, but what we have repeatedly said? The most important currency in football – the only currency really – is goals. There would be no more goals to come by, and so Group E hung in the balance, but Germany still faced an exit from the competition if they failed to beat Costa Rica (and even if they won, they could yet go out, depending on the Japan/Spain result).

On Monday the 28th, Group G and Group H would complete their second round of matches. The early kick-off was between Serbia and Cameroon in Group G. Both sides had lost their opening matches, so it was vitally important for both sides to get a result here. Cameroon took the lead on 29 minutes via a Castelletto goal, but two added-time goals from Serbia (Pavlovic and Milinkovic-Savic) put the European side in the ascendency at half-time. Serbia increased their advantage early in the second half, and the game seemed over.

However, Cameroon were determined to show they had some fight left, and goals from Aboubakar and Choupo-Moting, in the 63rd and 66th minutes, brought the match back to life. Would either side go on to find a winner?

There were some hairy moments for Cameroon, with a combination of brave keeping and the offside flag keeping them level. Ideally, with the Eagles facing Brazil in their final game, they could have used a win. Serbia would also have desired a win, as there was no certainty of them beating Switzerland. However,, both sides had to settle for a draw, in an even, exciting game.

In Group H, Ghana faced South Korea, and needed a win, following their 3-2 defeat to Portugal. South Korea had drawn with Uruguay in their opener, and would fancy their chances. In the opening ten minutes, the Koreans pushed more, and had a number of early corners. Despite their early control of the game, Korea found themselves a goal behind after 24 minutes. Mohammed Salisu got on the end of a good ball from a a free-kick on the left, and whilst there was a little bit of a question mark over the ping-ponging of the ball (and whether it struck a hand) in the box, VAR confirmed the goal.

There was no doubt about the next goal, and it was a second goal for Ghana. A good ball in from Jordan Ayew on the left was met by a glancing header from Mohammed Kudus, and the fight appeared to be draining from South Korea. The Koreans continued to enjoy more of the ball, but lacked that final, killer ball to unlock Ghana.

As is typical of my luck, I had some things to do early in the second half, and thus missed Korea’s comeback. There were two goals in a matter of minutes from Cho Gue-sung, to level the score, though with just over 20 minutes to go, Kudus put Ghana back in front. A win would be an enormous tonic for either side, whilst a draw would slightly favour Korea, but as the game edged ever close to its conclusion, Korea continued to trail, despite exerting more pressure. 10 minutes of added time would provide a particularly stern test. Korea had their chances, including passes flashed across the Ghanaian goal, that went agonisingly close. However, it was not to be, and Ghana, the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup, had an important win. Korea had a red card for their manager, as they passionately remonstrated with officials over what they felt should have been a corner at the very end.

Was it a corner? Well, it appeared that technically, it was. However, the referee blew for full-time, before it could be taken. Korean coach Paulo Bento was incensed, and perhaps he had a point?

In terms of the football, Ghana took all the points. It moved them, at least temporarily, to second in Group H.

In Group G, Brazil had the chance to really grab the Swiss by the horns. A win would guarantee their place in the 2nd round, and virtually secure their place as group winners. However, the only team to string two wins together so far had been France, which underscored how difficult the World Cup was proving to be.

In the early exchanges, Switzerland were demonstrating how difficult they could be. They passed the ball quite neatly, and were not wilting in the face of Brazil’s formidable reputation. They were keeping Brazilian magic in check as we reached the midpoint of the first half. However, Brazil did supply a serious warning, with a looped ball in from the right, and a low shot that Sommer had to palm away for a corner. A powerful run from Casemiro ended with a 35-yard screamer… into the ‘keeper’s arms.

Brazil were starting to take control of the game, but an organised Swiss side was restricting them to long range efforts. The Europeans were not ruffled, and had seen a decent amount of the ball for good measure. They even threatened a bit, with Ruben Vargas finding the ball in the box, but he couldn’t get a shot away. They broke with a bit of menace, but the recurrent theme of a lack of quality scuppered their forward action.

Towards the end of the half, Brazil began to win some corners, though there was a brief technical hiccup with the floodlights, to unsettle everyone. The problem corrected itself pretty much instantly, and the Swiss survived the mini-onslaught. Strangely, there was only a minute of added time, and the score was level at… yup, you guessed it, 0-0 at half-time.

Just as Brazil had fired warning shots, the Swiss did the same, provoking a goal-mouth scramble early in the second half. They were making it clear they were not to be underestimated (after all, they knocked France out of Euro 2020). Brazil though, did serve a reminder of their quality – a beautiful ball in from Vinícius Júnior nearly found Richarlison in the nine-yard box, but the forward couldn’t quite connect.

Brazil thought they had gone ahead when Vinícius Júnior swept the ball home following a good move, however the move was adjudged to be offside, and the status quo returned.

Eventually, the cream rose to the top. On balance, Brazil had created more, had more possession, and looked the better side. It took a deflected effort from Casemiro on 83 minutes, but the deadlock was finally broken, and the Swiss offered little in way of a response. In victory, Brazil became only the second side of the 2022 tournament to win both their opening matches, and joined France in the last 16. The Swiss would have it all to do against Serbia in their last game.

The final game of the Group H, and the second round of fixtures, was between Portugal and Uruguay. Up front, the talented-yet-no-longer-at-the-height-of-his-powers Ronaldo for Portugal, and Darwin Nunez for Uruguay. It was another game that was goalless at half-time, but shortly after the second half began (and after a pointed pitch invader brought a rainbow flag onto the pitch), Ronaldo got on the end of a ball whipped in from the left by Bruno Fernandes, and directed it goalward with his head (the replays seemed to suggest Fernandes might be able to claim the goal, but for the moment, it was credited to Ronaldo, for his ninth World Cup goal, bringing him level with Portuguese great Eusebio).

Ronaldo then went down injured, maybe with a knock to the ankle, and Cavani lashed wildly at a good ball into the box, failing miserably in his effort to equalise for Uruguay. Uruguay had half an hour to get back into the game, otherwise they’d have to beat Ghana, which wasn’t a given. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s goal was credited to Fernandes, which to a point was academic, but to Ronaldo, probably a big deal.

I couldn’t help but feel that Ronaldo was showing his diva side. He has had a tendency to go to ground quite easily at times, and he did so again when he ran into a Uruguayan player. The ref wasn’t fooled. Of course, Uruguay weren’t innocent of such moves themselves.

With around 18 minutes to go, Uruguay turned to Luis Suarez. Suarez has long been a big part of Uruguay’s goal machine, but he might be described as another play who was beyond his peak. Nonetheless, if he could provide a moment, just one, he might be the key. Instead, another sub, Maxi Gomez, nearly provided the moment, cracking the ball against the post. Suarez himself nearly poked the ball in at the near post from a freekick from the left, but instead fired it wide.

Time was ticking away, and that favoured Portugal. There were signs that Uruguay were being a bit frantic. They wanted to avoid a do-or-die clash with Ghana, yet anything less than a win would place them in precisely that position. With five minutes to go, they remained a goal behind.

As the game moved into added time, Portugal were awarded a contentious penalty. The ball struck the hand of a Uruguayan defender as he slipped over, and the decision to grant the penalty was infuriating to Uruguay (and, I dare say, to many a neutral). VAR convinced the ref to award it, and it was yet another controversial moment for the system. It a confident penalty from Bruno Fernandes, and Portugal had all but sealed the win. Portugal would be the third side to win both their group games, and Uruguay had to move beyond their sterile, tame football, if they were to progress.

Matchday Three

We came to a series of deciders. In every group, teams faced crunch clashes. Following the games would prove tricky, as the groups would now kick off their matches at the same time, to avoid teams gaming their results.

Group A would conclude with the Netherlands against eliminated hosts Qatar, and Ecuador against Senegal. It was technically possible for the Dutch to go home, if they were (somehow) horribly beaten by Qatar, and Senegal and Ecuador drew. As I was doing the school run, I missed most of both of these 3pm kickoffs, but tracked them via the BBC Sport site. The Dutch eased past Qatar, to confirm a miserable World Cup for the hosts, whilst Senegal took a first half lead against Ecuador, thanks to a penalty from Sarr. Caicedo equalised on 67 minutes for Ecuador, but responded for Senegal, three minutes later. Senegal held on to book their place in the last 16, but who would they face from Group B?

The big news, from an England perspective, was that Phil Foden, one of our liveliest, brightest talents, would start ahead of Saka. Mount was out, Henderson was in, in the middle of the pitch, and Kyle Walker replaced Trippier at right-back. Sterling made way for Rashford. Wales continued to put faith in Bale, Ramsey and Moore. It would be easy to forget that there was another crunch match in Group B – the USA versus Iran – that would potentially impact how England and Wales needed to play. Part of me was tempted to try and watch both games at once, but I feared I would become confused by the effort.

The Iran/USA game started out quite lively. Iran looked to get forward, though their decision-making in the final third left a bit to be desired. The USA weren’t shirking from the fight, and looked like they could break with pace. The England/Wales game was slower, which did not surprise me. However, England did produce a big early opportunity, when Rashford was played in on goal, but Ward came out quickly, to snuff out the chance.

The USA had some moments against Iran too. The Americans flashed the ball across the Iranian goal, but it was scrambled away. The USA then had a scare at the other end, with Iranian players getting into good positions, but not quite able to find that lethal final ball. Meanwhile, England were starting to play the ball about more fluidly, more dangerously, and were winning set pieces deep in Welsh territory. Rashford blasted a shot with venom, and knocked Neco Williams for six as a result.

We drew to the half-hour mark, with both games being goalless. The Iran/USA game continued to be arguably quicker, but clear-cut chances in either game were at a premium. The status quo would suit both England and Iran, so the USA and Wales had some work to do. Weah had scored a lovely finish against Wales for the USA, but when the ball came to his feet in the box, he blazed it over. Foden missed a tricky shot (the ball had gone slightly behind him) from within the box, and his England teammate Rashford tried a bicycle kick that went wide.

Then we had a breakthrough on 38 minutes. The USA scored against Iran. A ball played into the box found the on-rushing Pulisic, who poked the ball in, but collided heavily with Iran ‘keeper Beyranvand. He was down in the Iran goal for a little while, then limped his way around the edge of the pitch. The Americans thought they’d scored again, in the sixth of five minutes of added time, but a deft finish from Weah was ruled out for offside.

At half-time, England and Wales were level at the all-too-familiar score of 0-0. The USA led Iran by a goal to nil. These scores, if they did not change, would see England top Group B, and meet Senegal in the next round. The USA would square off against the Netherlands, unless Iran could come back at them.

Wales lost Bale at half-time, and the pundits were wondering if this might negatively impact Wales. Brennan Johnson, sometimes described as the future of Welsh football, replaced him.

Early in the second half, Foden demonstrated exactly why England fans have wanted him to play. He went on a darting run, and drew a foul from the Welsh, right on the edge of the box. Rashford stepped up, hit the ball sweetly, and it swerved into the far corner, beyond the reach of Danny Ward. England had the lead, which on balance, was deserved, and the Welsh faced a mountain to climb. It got worse for them a minute later. Another display of pace was rewarded. A great ball from Kane on the right found Foden, who had the simple task of prodding the ball into the net. England now had complete control of the game.

Would this change the complexion of the Iran/USA game? Well, barring an England collapse (not out of the question), it meant the winner of that game would be certain to follow England through. The USA continued to lead, but a draw would be enough for Iran, and the longer the game went at 1-0, the more anxious the USA might become.

At around the 65 minute mark, Iran missed two good chances in as many seconds, with their forwards narrowly failing to get on the end of a cut back, then curling the ball narrowly wide. At more or less the same time, Rashford was slipping the ball between Ward’s legs to get England’s third of the night, and his third of the World Cup. It was pretty much game over in the England/Wales contest.

It should have been four for England. Bellingham got played in but didn’t get off a good shot, and Foden couldn’t get on to the rebound. Four might have been harsh on Wales, but it would have been a reasonable reflection of England’s second-half performance.

The USA’s continued 1-0 edge over Iran was also reflective of their performance. They were dominating possession, and had created far more opportunities. With ten minutes to go, Iran had yet to muster a shot on target. Such a performance was hardly going to get them through, yet despite needing only one goal, Iran were not going for it, when they well and truly had to.

England had another chance for four late on, but in added time, defender John Stones, at point-blank range, blasted over from a corner, though in fairness, the miss was academic at that point. The ref blew the whistle to put England into the last 16, and send Wales home. Meanwhile, there was plenty of added time for Iran to make use of, but could they draw level against the USA? In the final moments of added time, they were convinced they should have a penalty, though I for one couldn’t quite see why. The ref did not agree with their protests, and a few moments later, the final whistle sounded. The USA were through, and would play the Netherlands on Saturday. Iran were out. They had just three shots all game, and none of them had been on target. They had only themselves to blame, whilst the USA had controlled most of the game.

Group D was the next to conclude. France had already qualified, but to Tunisia, the game meant everything. A win had the potential to send them into the last 16, but they had to hope that Denmark/Australia ended level. In the end, Tunisia did indeed claim a famous win over the World Champions, but their 1-0 victory was matched by a 1-0 win for Australia, and thus, the Aussies claimed runners-up spot in the group. Group C would be next, with a crunch game between Poland and Argentina. Saudi Arabia played Mexico, in another crunch match.

Towards the end of the first half, Argentina were awarded a highly contentious penalty. It was Messi versus Szczesny, and in a case of justice being done, Szczesny went the right way, and saved the penalty. The scores in both games remained 0-0, and you were left to wonder, who would take this by the scruff? Despite the unjust penalty, Argentina, on balance, had seen a lot more of the ball, and created far more chances, but we have lamented before on how a failure to score can be costly.

It did not take long for Argentina to ensure they would not fall victim to that mistake. A fast, powerful low cross from the right met the deft touch of Alexis Mac Allister, who steered the ball beyond the reach of Szczesny. Argentina, if things remained as they did, would be top of Group C, and would face Australia in the last 16. Poland would still go through if nothing else changed, but they were heavily reliant on the Mexico/Saudi game staying level, which it wasn’t. Argentina were on the ascendency, and goal difference had the potential to play a part, so Poland had to be astute, and at the very least, not concede any more. Mexico had a two goal lead over the Saudis, and their second was a beautiful long-range freekick from Luis Chavez, from around 30 yards out.

Poland had to go for it, didn’t they? Yet Argentina remained the more likely side to score, and Mexico were cruising against Saudi Arabia. Poland’s worst fears were confirmed when Argentina found the net again. The ball fell to the feet of Julian Alvarez in the box, and he fired in a shot with power that the ‘keeper had no chance of saving. Poland were now facing a World Cup exit. One more goal for Mexico, or one more for Argentina, would see Poland go home.

There was also the possibility that discipline could be the deciding factor. With Poland losing 2-0 and Mexico winning 2-0, it would boil down to yellow cards, and that was all that kept Poland in the last 16, with eight minutes of normal time remaining. If the sides wound up tied on discipline as well, FIFA would draw lots. That is how fine the margins were. Mexico did put the ball in the net at the death, but it was ruled out for offside. Poland cleared an Argentine attack off the line as we moved into added time.

Argentina would claim a 2-0 win, to top Group C. Poland had to wait a couple of minutes, to find out if Mexico would find the third goal that would send them through. Instead, in added time, Saudi Arabia destroyed Mexico’s hopes with a great move, that resulted in a lovely goal, and utter heartache for Mexico. With the final whistle, Poland could celebrate their progress, in a demonstrate of how narrow the margins can be.

So, Argentina would play Australia, and Poland would be up against France, in the last 16.

On the 1st of December, Groups E and F drew to a close, but who would enjoy early Christmas cheer? Group F concluded first, with Belgium needing to beat Croatia to go through, whilst Croatia needed to avoid defeat. If Morocco were to lose to Canada, their place would be in jeopardy, but they scored early on when Canada played a woefully weak pass back to their ‘keeper, creating chaos with their defensive line. Morocco doubled their advantage a short time later, and then became the first side to score an own-goal at the 2022 World Cup, when Aguerd accidentally knocked the ball into his own net. Incidentally, he also ‘scored’ the 100th goal of the tournament.

With Belgium needing to win, and being level at half-time, they brought on Romelu Lukaku to break the deadlock. What followed was a combination of horrific luck and agonising (from a Belgian perspective) misses. Lukaku would hit the post, and put numerous chances narrowly wide, in Belgium’s desperate quest for the goal to put them through, but it just would not come. Sometimes the ball would come to Lukaku unexpectedly, and he could only snatch at the chance. It seemed nothing was going his or Belgium’s way.

So it would remain. Belgium, ranked 2nd in the world by FIFA, were unable to beat Croatia, and slipped out of the World Cup. The Golden Generation’s last hurrah was over with a whimper, and a punch to the dugout from a bitter, angry Lukaku. Morocco topped the group, and they and Croatia would play any one of all four teams from Group E.

The equations in Group E were reasonably straight-forward. A Japan win over Spain would send them through. A Germany win would send them through if Japan didn’t win. A Costa Rica win over Germany would send them through. A Spain win would send them through, though they could lose, and still go through, if Costa Rica didn’t win. Like I said, reasonably straight-forward. Oh, a Spain defeat and a massive Germany win would tip goal difference in the Germans’ favour.

Clear as mud? Well, it was clear at half-time. Spain were winning 1-0, thanks to a Morata header. Germany were winning 1-0, thanks to a Gnabry header (and a good header at that). With those scores, Spain would top Group E, and meet Croatia in the last 16, whilst Germany had a date with Morocco. However, this World Cup is not proving conventional about results, and Japan roared back to life in the second half. Firstly, the levelled against Spain, then, in a goal termed controversial, they took the lead.

Ao Tanaka scored from a cut-back by Kaoru Mitoma. Sounds simple right? Wrong. On broadcast replays shown all around the world, the ball looked to have gone out of play. The goal was initially disallowed, but it went to VAR… and by the thinnest of slivers, the curvature of the ball was judged to be in play. Japan led, and Germany, despite leading, were going home. Moments later, it got worse for Germany, as Costa Rica equalised, and a few moments after that, things got even worse for Germany – and Spain – as Costa Rica took the lead.

Would we really see the 2010 champions Spain, and the 2014 champions Germany, both exit the World Cup at the group stages? What a story that would be, but Germany broke Costa Rican hearts by recovering to win 4-2. The irony was that Germany’s win was enough for Spain to be safe, but not themselves. They needed Spain to do them a favour, and equalise against Japan, so they could progress on goal difference. Spain, despite having the chance to knock Germany out, were pressing for a goal, but Japan were organised, and defended stubbornly.

Perhaps Spain didn’t know the state of affairs in the Germany/Costa Rica game. If they had, would they have eased off to preserve energy? Perhaps. Instead they continued to pass the ball neatly, as is their hallmark, but couldn’t find the killer ball they needed to bypass Japan’s defence. The seconds ebbed away, and with the final whistle, Japan could celebrate being two former World Cup winners, and they topped the group. Japan will play Croatia, and Spain will play Morocco, in the last 16.

At the final whistle in the Germany/Costa Rica game, both sets of fans and players were crestfallen. Costa Rica had briefly been in a position to cause a mighty upset of their own, and Germany were left to rue their shortcomings against Japan and Spain. Germany had now exited the World Cup at the group stages for the second consecutive tournament, in defiance of their formidable reputation. As an Englishman, I can’t say I was took upset to see the Germans go home early, but I didn’t doubt that Germany would be analysing Japan’s second goal thoroughly. German media saved its ire for the German team, lamenting the failure of the players to deliver when it mattered most.

It’s difficult to explain quite how seismic this is. Germany are quintessential World Cup experts. Even when they’ve appeared down and out, they’ve reached the sharp end of major tournaments. Not anymore. Two successive group stage exits at World Cups have shattered Germany’s reputation, and they have work to do ahead of hosting Euro 2024. Japan will face a difficult test against the 2018 finalists Croatia, but their victories over Germany and Spain will give them hope.

The final group stage games finished on the 2nd of December. Groups G and H would end, but who would emerge on the other side? Portugal had already qualified from Group H, so to them, their game against South Korea was largely academic. Their only question was whether or not they’d top the group, but even a narrow defeat to the Koreans, and a narrow victory for Ghana over Uruguay, would keep Portugal top. A draw would keep Portugal top too, but the Koreans would definitely go home in those circumstances.

The Uruguay/Ghana clash had history. Rewind to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and a quarter-final clash between the two nations. A young Luis Suarez stopped a certain Ghana goal with his hands in the penalty area, and Ghana then failed to score their resulting penalty. Uruguay would go on to win on penalties, much to the outrage of Ghana. It was impossible to ignore the history, and some in the Ghanaian camp openly spoke of revenge. Suarez himself was unrepentant, an attitude that would only add to the drama and tension.

Portugal took an early lead against South Korea, thanks to a swift cut-back from the right, and a powerful shot from Ricardo Horta. This left the Koreans with a mountain to climb, and made the Ghana/Uruguay game more of a straight fight.

Football is a funny old game. Recall the controversy around the penalty in 2010? Well, Ghana were the recipients of a penalty here and now, though it looked like a dive to me. Did Andrew Ayew score? No. The effort was saved, and minutes later, Uruguay were not just ahead, but two goals up. Giorgian de Arrascaeta scored twice, and on both occasions, Suarez – the villain in Ghanaian eyes – provided the assist. Now Uruguay were in the position to reach the last 16, but with South Korea equalising against Portugal, the group was still potentially open.

The Korea/Portugal game was 1-1 at half-time, but Ghana and Uruguay had some fairly lengthy added time to get through before the break. Neither time found a goal, so Uruguay maintained their two-goal advantage.

The status quo went unchanged, as both games drew towards a close. Korea were having plenty of chances, but the goal they needed was proving elusive. At least, it was elusive until added time, when Hwang Hee-Chan got on the end of a perfectly-weighted pass from Son Heung-Min, and drilled the ball beyond the ‘keeper’s reach. Suddenly, South Korea were going through, at Uruguay’s expense, on goals scored. Uruguay had to score, but would they leave themselves vulnerable to a Ghana counter-attack?

It finished 2-1 to South Korea in their clash with Portugal, but the Ghana/Uruguay game had seen more added time in the first half, and so was still going. Korean fans would have to wait to learn their fate. Uruguayan fans had their heads in their hands, and were praying to the stars above. Ghana were gone, but they could at least take Uruguay with them, by holding onto the ball, and running down the clock. Indeed, they threatened to score, adding to frayed Uruguayan nerves. Uruguay had a freekick, in the ninth of eight added minutes (yeah, I know), in what would surely be their last roll of the dice…

So it proved, but it failed, with the effort sailing into the ‘keeper’s arms, for the final act of the game. Uruguayan players then turned upon the referee, angrily remonstrating as they headed into the tunnel. They believed they should have had a penalty, but it was denied, and thus, by the smallest of margins, they were going home.

From the high drama of Group H, to Group G. Brazil had already qualified, and would win the group, barring a fairly dramatic goal difference swing, in Switzerland’s favour, not to mention defeat to Cameroon. Switzerland had to beat Serbia to be certain of going through, and Serbia had to win to stand any chance.

The Serbia/Switzerland game was by far the more eventful of the two, and it treated us to something of a rarity at this World Cup, namely lots of first-half goals. The Swiss led, then were pegged back, then Serbia led, and the Swiss then levelled, in the space of a 24-minute spell. The Swiss then took the lead early into the second half, and would not relinquish their lead. Their 3-2 win meant they’d join Brazil in the next round, and Brazil themselves… well… they lost, by a goal to nil, to Cameroon. Brazil had rotated their squad (why wouldn’t they?), but still, they had a strong team. Cameroon’s win was a famous one, but with Switzerland victorious, it wasn’t enough.

So, we had concluded the group stages. We knew our line-up for the Round of 16. It had already been quite dramatic and exciting and shocking. What did the World Cup have in store next?

The Round of 16

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