England and Belgium had a pretty good yesterday at World Cup 2018, but things got even better for them today when the Group H favourites fell apart, such that both of them can already start to feel pretty confident about taking up a place in the last quarter-finals.
Defeat for both Poland and Colombia makes it highly unlikely that both – if either – will progress to the last 16 and that can only be good news for England and Belgium for if those two held few fears, Japan and Senegal, for all their good work today, hold even fewer.
That’s a little unfair in Senegal perhaps for they earned their victory against Poland, albeit that the Poles gave a hopelessly lacklustre display until a brief final flurry. Poland were a little unlucky it’s true, Senegal’s opener coming via a thick deflection off Thiago Cionek, the second more controversial still, M’Baye Niang coming back on the pitch after injury to collect an horrific back pass from Grzegorz Krychowiak and slot home.
For all that they had those pieces of luck, Senegal played with proper conviction and belief throughout, especially in defence where the much vaunted Robert Lewandowski was barely seen, so well was he marshalled by the giant Kalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sane while between the sticks, Khadim N’Diaye was admirably strong and decisive in all his work.
By far the best of the African teams in the first round of matches, not even Krychowiak’s late consolation for Poland could fluster Aliou Cisse’s team. They look better balanced than any of the other sides from the continent, they play with a pleasing ambition and drive and they clearly love the opportunity they’ve got at this World Cup.
As noted yesterday, no outstanding side has emerged yet in this first week and, if they can navigate the group, maybe England and Belgium might yet face an uncomfortable 90 minutes in the knock-out stages after all. For Poland, there are only questions after all their big hitters failed to show. They can only get better after this, but beating Japan and Colombia might be asking too much.
It’s hard to make too much of a judgement of the quality of those two sides after their game was irrevocably unbalanced after three minutes when Carlos Sanchez was red carded after three minutes, handling a goalbound shot after a horrible defensive mix up. Shinji Kagawa duly knocked in the spot kick and a goal up and a man up, Japan were in the ascendant from there.
To their credit, Colombia worked their way back into the game before the break courtesy of a clever free-kick from Juan Quintero, drilled under the wall. Clearly nobody had explained goalline technology to Eiji Kawashima in the Japanese goal, for he managed to embarrass himself by insisting the ball hadn’t crossed the line. By the time he’d finally got it under control, despite it having been so far over, it was virtually in the crowd.
Japan simply played the percentages after the break, keeping possession, moving the ball around, forcing Colombia to chase and, ultimately, getting their reward when Yuya Osako got up well to power in a header from Keisuke Honda’s corner.
Japan will be a little disappointed not to have won by more than 2-1, but they are handily placed to progress now while Colombia will also draw encouragement from coming so close to a point in tough circumstances and by the return from injury of James Rodriguez in the second half. On the day’s displays, you would have to fancy them to beat Poland in Sunday’s second game to send the Europeans home.
It’s not been a classic World Cup thus far – like the group stages in the Champions League, it feels like we’re treading water before things really get started – but the Russians are doing their bit to get things moving, attacking their home World Cup with real gusto, creating the most memorable moments thus far, Ronaldo aside.
Certainly they were favoured by a reasonably weak group, made the more so by the injury to Mo Salah, but the way in which they have comprehensively despatched Saudi Arabia and now Egypt has enthralled a nation that was expecting the worst from them.
The better side throughout, it took a slice of luck to open the scoring at the start of the second half when Egyptian skipper Ahmed Fathy placed the ball unerringly into his own note. From there, the Russians went for the throat in a blistering 15 minutes of football that the Egyptians simply couldn’t cope with.
Denis Cherysev joined Ronaldo on three goals with a lovely, crisp finish to a nicely worked move and if they’re not knocking down statues of Lenin all over Mother Russia and replacing him with Cherysev by the end of the month, something will have gone seriously wrong.
The giant Artem Dzyuba essentially sealed victory with a great piece of control and an emphatic shot to make it 3-0 on 62 minutes, vying with Cherysev for the position of most popular man in Russia – watch out Comrade Putin, don’t get calling any snap elections just now. Then again if you already know the result…
Egypt tried to get back into it by throwing bodies forward and Mo Salah won a penalty which he converted with 17 minutes to go, but there was never any real hope of them getting back on terms. The injury to Salah left him a mere shadow of himself in this game, unable to really threaten the Russians and without him, I’m afraid Egypt have nothing else to pin their hopes on. Their dream is over, barring the most implausible sequence of results in the final three group games.
But for Russia, ranked 70th in the world, the worst team in the World Cup, the dream is just beginning. Momentum and home advantage can be a very heady cocktail indeed.