It’s crunch time in the World Cup group stages as we look towards the knockout rounds, and there has already been so much drama in Russia. Germany, the reigning World Champions, were on the brink of being eliminated after losing their opening game to Mexico and trailing Sweden 1-0 at half-time. Marco Reus pulled it back early into the second half, but even though Germany were on the attack for most of the remainder, they couldn’t seem to break Sweden’s defence a second time. It got worse for Germany when Jerome Boateng received a second yellow, but when a free-kick was awarded just outside the box in the 94th minute, you just knew it.
Toni Kroos was the hero, curling the ball into the top corner to set off the celebrations for Germany. It was the last chance, and Kroos took it to keep the Germans in it. Now they will progress to the last 16 if they get a win against South Korea. If the first two rounds have shown us anything, it’s that there are no guarantees, but Germany will be relieved that they still have the chance to become the first nation to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
Argentina were dismantled by Croatia last week and are now in a desperate position at the bottom of Group D. The 3-0 defeat was their heaviest in the World Cup group stages for 60 years, putting Croatia into the last 16. Argentina now need a win against Nigeria, and hope that Iceland fail to beat Croatia. Messi is the man they will look to for the magic, but the little magician has looked stressed with so much pressure on his shoulders and he has not been able to perform at his best yet.
It would be a shame for football if Messi was to bow out of the competition at this early stage, but it would be a victory for the neutral supporter if underdogs Iceland or Nigeria advanced instead. Argentinians are some of the most passionate football fans in the world, and their team is one of the weakest since before Diego Maradona’s era, so it’s time for Messi show us why he is possibly the greatest player of all time.
Brazil are another team that are not guaranteed a place in the knockout stages. It took two very late goals from Coutinho and Neymar to get the win against Costa Rica, and not they will just need a draw against Serbia to progress, but the Serbians will be fighting for a win to put themselves in the last 16. Brazil still haven’t lived up to their pre-tournament hype but will be hoping to hit their stride and make up for the disappointment of the last World Cup. They have a point to prove.
Two teams that are through are England and Belgium, from Group G. England put six goals past Panama with a Harry Kane hat-trick putting the captain in the lead in the race for the Golden Boot. That secured their spot in the next round, while Belgium’s 5-2 win over Tunisia put them through. The two will face each other to fight for top spot on Thursday and it could be one of the games of the group stage. A lot of the players know each other from the Premier League, and it could be an exciting game with plenty of goals as Lukaku and Kane race for the Golden Boot.
Another two sides that made it through after their final group games are Spain and Portugal. For a moment it looked like Spain might be crashing out of the competition, with late goals and drama in both games from Group B. Two VAR decisions at all most the exact same time were deciding the fate of the group. Iran had a penalty call against Portugal and Spain’s equaliser was being contested for offside. The penalty was given to Iran and Spain’s goal was ruled onside. Now Iran had a few minutes to steal a win against Portugal and progress instead of their opponents but the game ended 1-1 and the Ronaldo show will continue.
Before the tournament, it was not clear if VAR was going to cause issues, delays and more controversy, but for the most part it has done its job at the World Cup. Important decisions have been corrected and it has added to the excitement rather than taken from it, but it sometimes it just takes too long before the ref goes to check the replays. If refs aren’t sure they should be quick to check and make a decision or it will slow down the game, and it can take some time to get back up to the entertaining speed again.