Having successfully lulled us into a false sense of security in the opening couple of days, VAR made its ugly presence felt on this third day of the World Cup 2018.
It’s a system that has its pros and its cons, its supporters and its opponents and it’s unlikely the events of this particular day will change hearts or minds in one direction or the other. But as somebody who thinks the introduction of goal-line technology was an innovation far enough, the muddle and confusion that VAR creates was laid bare, delivering nothing that was promised.
In the opening game of the day, France were given a penalty some 15 or 20 seconds after the incident, the referee stopping play to consult on the decision with the ball now well into France’s territory after Australia had cleared. That in itself is bizarre, for what if the Aussies had broken quickly and got themselves in on the French goal. Do you stop it then? Do you wait to see if the Aussies score?
If they do, do you potentially chalk off their goal and give France a penalty? And do you do that when the game’s between England and Russia? And if you do, can you build a new prison in time to put everybody in after the riot’s finished?
As it was, the stoppage wasn’t at a finely balanced moment, but the decision to override the ref’s first instinct to ignore the penalty had more of the tightrope about it. VAR was supposed to be used only in correcting clear and obvious errors. Was that the case there? Was it really a blatant penalty? No, though Antoine Griezmann’s finish brooked no argument, a perfectly taken spot kick.
Lionel Messi’s? Not so much. Argentina also profited from a contentious penalty decision that again was surely not obvious though, in the interests of squaring things up, they were then denied a clear and obvious spot kick when Cristian Pavon was chopped down and no penalty awarded. I’m really not sure how this is helping.
Messi missed his penalty and cut an ever more frustrated figure as the 90 minutes against Iceland wore on, surely aware that his inability to pick open their blanket rearguard contrasted very sharply with the way Cristiano Ronaldo took on Spain single handed the night before.
The harsh comparison was completed in the dying seconds when Messi lined up a free-kick, albeit from further out than Ronaldo’s, and clunked it into the wall rather than the top corner.
Once more, Messi looked uncomfortable in playing for Argentina where, unlike with Barcelona, he is expected to do pretty much everything. For Ronaldo, that scenario is perfect, he loves the thought of being the one man team where for Messi, for all his extravagant skills, he’s an ensemble man, a team player, one who does not relish the limelight in the same way.
When both are finally retired, it might be that difference that most defines them and, perhaps, puts Ronaldo on a marginally higher pedestal. There’s time to change that perception, but it has to be done here and now for Messi.
Iceland were understandably thrilled with a well deserved draw. For all that they have a way of playing that’s all about smothering the opponent, they are far less frustrating to watch than Australia were in employing similar tactics against the French.
That’s to do with their willingness to pour forward in numbers when the chance is there, to really try to hit on the counterattack and to hit back when they’ve been wounded. Had they let Argentina stay a goal up for long after Sergio Aguero’s thumping opener, then they would have been in big trouble but, just as they did against England in 2016, they hit back almost immediately and were on terms inside four minutes. From there, they always looked well placed to get their draw.
Australia, on the other hand, always looked to be holding on and the difference in the mentality between them and the Icelanders can be seen by the fact that despite having twice as much possession – 45% in their game to the Icelandics 22%, they only managed six shots to Iceland’s eight.
Ok, maybe France also defend better than Argentina do, but much of that is down to an Australian side that lacked in ambition. Even after they were gifted an equaliser by Umtiti’s comical decision to punch the ball as it sailed into the box, Mile Jedinak scoring the penalty, they rarely convinced.
That made two of them actually for though France probed, they did it without conviction. Didier Deschamps may have to dispense with his desire to field Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele and instead recall Olivier Giroud as a focal point around whom Griezmann can dance. Had Paul Pogba not started and finished a decisive move to win the game ten minutes from time, Deschamps would have had some stinging criticism to deal with.
VAR was back in the Peru – Denmark game, this time more positively, the referee missing a clear penalty when Christian Cueva was hauled over just before the break. That was ultimately overruled and the penalty given, but only after another interminable delay.
If we are going to have VAR, can’t the watching panel of referees simply make the decision with the benefit of their multiple angles and pass it on to the ref to save this hanging around that so changes the free flowing character of the game? That, after all, is one of the things that makes football unique, special, that the action can flow for five, ten minutes at a time without a single break.
Cueva’s miss proved disastrous for Peru for well though they played in the second period again, easy on the eye and with good technique, they lacked the clinical goalscorer they needed as they created chance after chance.
Denmark, on the other hand, were reduced to clinging on as much of the football was played in their half but a combination of poor finishing and desperate defending kept then in the game, giving them the opportunity to tuck away their one chance and claim the here points, Christian Eriksen’s beautifully weighted pass setting Yussuf Pousen away to slot in the winner. Denmark will have been disappointed with their overall display, but they look well set to advance with France now.
For all the reservations about VAR, we could have done with it interfering with the dreariest of fixtures between Nigeria and Croatia, an untidy fixture decided by two untidy goals for the latter. A horrible deflection off Oghenekaro Etebo for an own goal in the first half set Croatia on their way, the game settled by Luka Modric’s second half penalty after Mario Mandzukic was unnecessarily wrestled to the ground by William Troost-Ekong.
After coming into the tournament full of positive intentions and hopes for a proper run at things, the Nigerian side looked lifeless and completely out of sorts, leaving themselves all kinds of problems to resolve in next to no time.
For Croatia, this victory was the very embodiment of doing just enough to win. They’ll have impressed nobody with their football but that won’t bother them. All too often they’ve stormed into tournaments, put themselves among the early favourites only to find they’ve peaked too early. This time, a slow burning fuse might just be the way to go a lot deeper into the competition.