Day 2 started slowly but then produced the greatest group phase game in World Cup history so to briefly recap;
Uruguay win ugly, Iran stun Morocco
It’s fair to say the daytime fixtures yesterday weren’t the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Uruguay fluffed their lines and produced a woeful performance against Mo Salah-less Egypt. The Egyptians were compact throughout but lacked a spark without their main man and Uruguay laboured aside from brilliant centre back Diego Godin. With Suarez firing blanks it was Godin & Ederson Cavani who dragged Uruguay closer to goal with Cavani denied by the woodwork only minutes before Jose Gimenez rose for the decisive header on 89 minutes.
Morrocco vs Iran was never likely to be game of the tournament but Morrocco looked technically excellent but without any composure in front of goal- they were summed up perfectly by an inventive early free kick that completely opened up Iran’s defence but the move ended in a fresh air kick on the edge of the box. Iran are the reincarnation of Greece at major tournaments- tough defensively, well-drilled and dangerous from set pieces and 5 minutes into injury time Aziz Bouhaddouz rose for a header to secure Iran’s first World Cup since downing the USA in 1998.
Spain Dazzle and Ronaldo comes to the party
Who needs a manager when you’ve got Spain’s talent? After a crisis riddled week Spain put it all together against Portugal last night with a stunning team display of passing and incision, the only problem being CR7 was equal to it.
For all his brilliance Ronaldo has never quite shone at the World Cup, until now. For all his egotism and vanity there was something almost childlike about watching him belt out his national anthem and inspire his teammates. He started by cleverly winning a penalty and dispatching the resulting spot kick. But Spain soon settled into their passing game whilst Portugal countered at lightning pace. Spain equalised when Diego Costa outmuscled Pepe (who went down like a sack of spuds) and brilliantly worked the angle for the equalizer.
In a match that had everything we then saw something completely unexpected when David De Gea spilled a speculative Ronaldo shot into the net for 2-1. Spain cane out fighting for the second half and a smart David Silva free kick let in Costa for the equalizer. Moments later a flowing Spanish move left Nacho in oceans of space to blast a stunning strike and make amends for conceding that penalty 3-2.
Spain were dominating possession and seemed set to see out the win until Gerard Pique gave away a daft free kick on the edge of the box with 2 minutes to go- you just knew what would happen and Ronaldo had his 51st career hat trick 3-3 it finished.
Anyone who didn’t love this game can only be described as soulless, this was simply the best group game in World Cup history, it also gives CR7 that signature World Cup game he’s never quite had until now.
Day 3 Previews
France vs Australia
The French are a team of contradictions, they have awesome talent but a slightly underwhelming manager trying to put the pieces together. Their forward power is immense yet they continue to rely on Oliver Giroud. Paul Pogba’s poor season in Manchester is a huge worry for France but I suspect he will shine given a more roving role rather than the tactical straight-jacketing he’s received from Jose Mourinho.
Australia meanwhile have a talent pool so shallow they’re still reliant on 38-year-old Tim Cahill. This is a mismatch but if France aren’t clicking the hard-working Socceroos could prove a frustrating opponent. There again if M’Bappe and Griezmann start well this could be a blood bath.
Prediction: France 3-0 Australia
Argentina vs Iceland
The most intriguing tie of the round sees the thunder-clappers take on Messi. Argentina look woefully unbalanced and continue to struggle in finding players to fit around their diminutive magician whilst defensively they’ve already lost their first choice ‘keeper and the back 4 are creaking badly.
There’s much more to Iceland than that famous win over England- they drew with eventual Champions Portugal on their Euro 2016 bow and won through qualifying by topping a tough group that included Croatia & Ukraine. They don’t have the quality to match Argentina on paper and desperately need Gylfi Sigurdsson to find form after a tough season at Everton. This could end up any score but I suspect Argentina will struggle to gel and it will all come down to Messi.
Prediction: Argentina 1-0 Iceland
Denmark vs Peru
Peru return to the World Cup after a 36 year absence and start against a young Danish side who could prove a dark horse for a deep run in Russia. The Danes are hugely dependant on Christian Erikkson for inspiration but the team full of running and drive is perfectly set up around him.
Peru meanwhile are sharp defensively and in veteran forward Jefferson Farfan have potentially this years Roger Milla. Both these teams will fancy beating Australia and will defend against France so winning here could make or break their campaigns. But I fancy Erikkson to be the difference and could see Denmark having a good tournament.
Prediction: Denmark 2-1 Peru
Nigeria vs Croatia
The evening game isn’t so much must win as must not lose in the tough looking Group D. Croatia remain an enigmatic team filled with talent but often looking less than the sum of their parts. Their main problem is fitting playmakers Rakitic & Modric into the same side. But with no shortage of firepower in the Kramaric-Perisic-Mandzukic front line I think they’ll score goals.
Nigeria are a nicley balanced side with a decent defence, compact midfield still lead by John Aobi-Mikel, pace on the flanks and a bit of invention up front via Alex Iwobi. That said they don’t quite have the star power of previous Super Eagle sides and this match could turn into Nigerian defence versus Croatian passing. I can see it being a slog but Croatia should have just enough.
Prediction: Nigeria 0-1 Croatia