While Egypt clung on to slim hopes of still being in World Cup 2018 after the Uruguay – Saudi Araba fixture, Morocco became the first team to be officially confirmed as being on the way home, defeated 1-0 once again, this time by Cristiano Ronaldo and ten other blokes from Portugal.
For if Egypt are very much the Mo Salah show, Portugal’s hopes of advancement centre entirely upon their number seven. That’s not to say the rest of the team don’t do a good job in terms of blocking up the opposition, but you’re not going to win any tournament by nil-niling your way through it. And no Ronaldo, no goals for Portugal.
He proved it once again in this fixture, hurling himself full length to nod in Joao Moutinho’s cross after four minutes, thereby deciding the game and re-establishing himself again at the head of the queue for the Golden Boot.
While it might not have had the explosive beauty of the free-kick that secured the draw against Spain, diving into an area where he could easily have got injured shows that the showpony of a dozen years ago has been replaced by a winner, somebody who will do whatever is needed to make the difference and score a goal. In that desire, he is unmatched in the current game.
At the other end of the park, Pepe underlined his credentials to be regarded as a cretin of the highest order, collapsing to the floor in agony after Mehdi Benatia had patted him on the shoulder, but Benatia had plenty of his own reasons to be in genuine agony, missing a couple of very decent chances that came his way.
That though summed up Morocco’s problems for gallantly though they fought, well as they played in flashes, they haven’t got a goalscorer.
Like plenty of other sides that will be taking an early flight out of Russia in the course of the next week or so, they’ll reflect on a World Cup where they were competitive, where they asked questions of more traditionally powerful nations, but where they came up short because of their shortcomings in front of goal. And that’s why Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Harry Kane and their ilk are so revered. They’re the men who get the job done.
The Egyptians were put out of their misery when Saudi Arabia fell to defeat against Uruguay. It wasn’t a game that’ll live long in the memory, though the Saudis will take some comfort from the fact that they were not embarrassed again and only conceded the one goal against an attack comprising Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez.
It never looked as if they were going to succumb to such a battering as they’d taken against Russia in the opening game but equally, Uruguay aren’t the kind of team that much cares about those kind of frills. They have a rock solid central defensive pairing in Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez and they back themselves to keep clean sheet after clean sheet in a fashion not unlike Portugal, though the Uruguayans are far better defensively.
Their rationale, again like Portugal, is if you keep it tight and have a bit of world class up front, they will make the difference. Today it was Suarez’s turn, poaching at the back post after Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais made an absolute hash of coming for a corner, Suarez poking in after 23 minutes to celebrate his 100th cap in style. With that, the game was done for better as Saudi Arabia were, they couldn’t really lay a glove on their opponents.
Saudi Arabia, like all too many “smaller” opponents, are victims of the footballing orthodoxy of the moment, the demand that every team should pass, pass, pass. That’s great if you’re Spain or Argentina and have players that can ultimately spot and play the killer ball.
Nobody can deny the effort, the workrate, the desire and the pride with which they play, but if you’re a clearly inferior side, trying to play the big boys at their own game can only end in defeat because you can’t do it so well.
Mix it up, hit it long, ruffle a few feathers, force the top side to defend for a bit for a change, think of third round day in the FA Cup when the non-league side steams into the pros. They make it uncomfortable and, every now and again, it works.
But now, unless you play the game the way the pundits want you to play it, you are castigated and there are few coaches who are sufficiently thick skinned to take the attacks and do it their way. As a result, the tyranny of possession is, thus far, giving us a lot of one dimensional football and a lot of fairly predictable outcomes.
At least Iran had the intelligence not to get themselves involved in a passing contest – yes, you read that right – with Spain. The final tally was 813 to 228 in favour of the Europeans, though it seemed even more one sided. Instead of trying to use the ball, for the first 54 minutes, on the rare occasions that Iran saw the ball, they tried to smash it about 100 yards up the pitch so they could ensure they had 11 men back in the box again by the time Spain retrieved it.
In fairness, they did their job well, frustrating as some of their antics were to watch at times, but if you have a blanket defence, a team like Spain are always likely to find a way through. This was the perfect example of a team making its own luck, the sheer number of times they got into the box making it inevitable there’d be a ricochet or a deflection in there somewhere. As it was, it came off Diego Costa and into the bottom corner.
From there, Iran did give it a bit of the third round charge and proved that not even a side of Spain’s pedigree like being pushed onto the back foot. Karim Ansarifard put a shot into the side netting and Saeid Ezatolahi had an equaliser chalked off for the most marginal of offsides but in truth, plucky as their attempted comeback was, it would have been the most undeserving of stolen points for the Iranians.
As it is though, they go into their final game with Portugal knowing that victory will have them in the last 16. That’s an outcome few would have predicted a week ago.