Day 12 review: VARcical scenes in Saransk
Groups A & B closed yesterday with Spain advancing to play Russia and Uruguay booking a showdown with Portugal, but the headlines were made by farcical scenes in Portugal’s game with Iran. With both teams holding qualification hopes it was Portugal who made the better start and veteran winger Ricardo Quaresma put them in the driving seat with a sumptuous strike late in the first half. But as the second half unfolded things started to slide out of control, it started with Ronaldo going down for a penalty and after initially waving away Portuguese appeals Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres consulted VAR and awarded a debatable spot kick forcing Iranian ‘keeper Ali Beiranvand into a fine save. But with VAR genie out of the bottle Iran started appealing for anything and Ronaldo appeared to lash out at a defender, VAR was consulted and a yellow rather than red card issued. Then in injury time Caceres lost the plot completely an innocuous ball to hand incident in Portuagal’s box from defender Cedric Soares was correctly waved away but after 2 minutes of standing about Caceres decided to consult VAR and ludicrously awarded the penalty. Karim Ansarifard converted to level the scores and one more would see Iran through at Portugal’s expense and they almost got it with Mhedi Taremi hitting th side netting bit Portugal survived to take their place in the last 16 despite the game seeing a referee lose control like no World Cup game I can remember since the Battle of Nuremberg (see link)
The other game in the group saw Spain’s legion of World Cup, European Championship and Champions League winners looking oddly nervous against already eliminated Morocco. Bizarrely the nerves saw Gerard Pique make an x-rated 2 footed challenge before 2 more legends- Sergio Ramos & Andreas Iniesta got into a mess and let Khalid Boutaib run through to give Morocco a shock lead. 5 minutes later Iniesta then made up for his error by waltzing through Morocco’s defence to set up Isco for a simple finish. Morocco have played enterprising football throughout this tournament and retook the lead with 9 miuntes to go when Youssef En-Nesyeri powered home a header from a corner. But Spain weren’t done and with news filtering through of Iran’s equalizer they retook first place in the group when Iago Aspas beat the offside trap to tap home a late equaliser after the goal was initially ruled out but reinstated by VAR.
Earlier in the day Group A concluded with Uruguay facing Russia with first place in the group on the line. But the game was settled early when Luis Suarez struck on 9 minutes with a low drive from a free kick. 14 minutes later Denis Cheryshev deflected a shot past Igor Akinfeev for 2-0 and when Igor Smolinkov recieved a second yellow card after 36 minutes the hosts were down to 10 and the contest was over. Edinson Cavani poked home a later third to secure a comfortable 3-0 win. Meanwhile a shock was unfolding in Volgograd as Saudi Arabia achieved a surprise win over Egypt. The game had started well for Egypt with Mo Salah collecting his second World Cup goal to give Egypt a 22nd minute lead when he latched onto a long ball and lifted the ball over the ‘keeper. Egypt spurned numerous chances to press home their advantage but needed 45-year-old ‘keeper (who became the eldest performer in World Cup history) to save a penalty to keep their advantage. But right on half time Saudi won a second spot kick and Salam Al Faraj made no mistake to level the scores. The Saudis grew in confidence during the second half and got their reward when Salem Al Dawsari hit an angled drive from inside the box for a 2-1 win.
Day 13 Preview
The only issue to settle here is can Denmark secure second place behind France or can Australia sneak through? Denmark have 4 points and face table topping France who need a point to guarantee top spot. If Denmark lose and Australia beat Peru it will come down to goal difference for second place. France haven’t excelled as yet and seem more likely to look for consistency than make lots of changes so it’s a tough ask for Denmark to get the requisite point. But I suspect they won’t actually need it with Peru although eliminated likely to continue their attacking style of play against Australia and I can see a Peru win.
Predictions: France 1-1 Denmark, Peru 2-1 Australia
Tonight is Argentina’s date with destiny, a win over Nigeria and they could be through! The permutations of this group are complex but on certainty is Croatia are heading into the last 16 as Group winners. With little but pride to play for Croatia will likely rest at least some of their stars against Iceland. Like Argentina only a win will do for Iceland but they achieve that and Nigeria are beaten or draw with Argentina it’s down to goal difference. The widespread assumption here is Argentia will pull it together and beat Nigeria but that’s disrespectful to a Nigeria side who performed well against Iceland and with their pace on the counter Argentina’s wobbly defence could be in trouble. The problem for Iceland is they must come out and attack against Croatia and that’s not their natural game so I can see them struggling against Croatia but expect lots of late drama tonight.
Predictions: Argentina 1-2 Nigeria, Croatia 1-1 Iceland