Friday, June 29, 2018

And Then There Were 16

HALF THE TEAMS ARE OUT, THE OTHERS TIP-TOE INTO THE NEXT PHASE

The first round, fiery and goal-filled, is over.

Was it as good as USA '94 or BRAZIL 2014? Maybe not, but at least everyone scored and most had a good time.

It will be remembered largely for VAR's debut and Germany's exit.

I trust it will not be recalled fondly for the Denmark v France farce, the soporific closing minutes of Japan v Poland or tonight's surreal England v Belgium clash in Kaliningrad, all no-stakes contests which prove FIFA has not yet got everything about the format right.

The prize for Belgium, whose B-team deservedly beat England's second string, is a dubious one of an easier Round of 16 game but harder tasks thereon and one less rest day.

Few if any could get excited about watching this non-event whose only bearing on the World Cup will be as a part of the debate when England or Belgium lose.

Unsurprisingly, Roberto Martinez was less than cock-a-hoop at Adnan Januzaj's exquisite strike.

Danny Rose seemed to be the only England player pressing for a promotion until he let the former Man United prodigy beat him to score.

Jordan Pickford was finally tested and aerobatic as he is, also showed in leaping but missing Januzaj's shot, how he lacks big-match experience at this level.

The debates in England go on as to whether Gareth Southgate erred by not playing a stronger side but the tone is calm because the consensus is that the Colombia/Sweden/Switzerland route to the last four is easier than Japan/Brazil/Mexico.

Should England lose to Colombia of course there will be those insisting we should have played Japan and blaming Southgate for picking a B-team to face Belgium; damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Yes, Colombia have been worse than England, despite winning their group. They only played one good match, the 3-0 win against Poland, but James Rodriguez, instrumental in those shining goals, limped off injured today against Senegal.

Falcao's strength and shooting, Juan Cuadrado's pace on the wing, Jerry Mina crashing the box for set pieces and Juan Quintero's passing are still reasons to beware Los Cafeteros.



But their defence let Japan, a short-passing side, in twice and allowed Senegal to boss the first half today. Colombia have been relentlessly inconsistent since the last World Cup and in this one have blown hot and cold again.

Against a fit and on-form James, England might have rued not fielding a stronger side tonight. As it stands they must be favourites going into Tuesday's clash in Moscow.

* Belgium on the other hand, should beat Japan and then be confident on the back of four straight wins of taking on a fitful Brazil or Mexico, who showed fatal flaws for the first time against Sweden.

Of the other suspects, I wonder why no-one is tipping the only other countries who came out the first round with maximum points to go all the way: Croatia and Uruguay.

Either we are ignoring them as second-string teams or there really are no outstanding nations at this tournament, so far perhaps.

* A fond farewell to the last African team Senegal who were edged out by Colombia today despite dominating them for 45 minutes.

When Cameroon terrified England at Italia '90 we all thought that Africa was on the march in world soccer. Ghana ought to have made the last four in South Africa 2010 of course but had the worst luck.

If anyone is to break the African duck it should be Nigeria but they keep tripping up at the World Cup too, shining one match, collapsing the next.

With so many talented Africans playing at the highest level in Europe, one wonders what is going on with the domestic associations' long-term planning and tournament preparations.

*Speaking of talented Africans, I hope we hear more of Nigeria custodian Francis Ozuho. The Deportivo La Coruna man looked truly commanding between the sticks, aged only 19.



Another impressive goalkeeper was South Korea's Cho Hyun-Woo, whom little was known about before the tournament. The 26 year-old Daegu star has never played in Europe but after a man of the match performance as his nation knocked out Germany, expect his agent's phone to be ringing now.

* Group D (Croatia-Argentina-Iceland-Nigeria) was my favourite because it was so tight until the final whistles, Group F (Germany-Mexico-Sweden-South Korea) had the most excitement because the world champions were shockingly imploding and Group H (Colombia-Senegal-Japan-Poland) the most interesting clash of styles, an Asian-Euro-Latin-African punch only the World Cup can blend.

* Son Heung-Min's sprint through no-man's-land before slotting into an empty net after Manuel Neuer's Rene Higuita impression remains the starkest goal so far, schoolboy football unleashed.



* Korea and Peru's celebrations at winning while already having been eliminated summed up the joy of our beloved game. Even Poland, awful hitherto, were happy as larry today when they beat Japan. And don't forget Panama, who lost all their games, finished with the worst goal difference of -9 but go home delighted at having scored twice.

* Spare a thought for those VAR decisions which did not benefit the victims. The technology is working fairly well and might even remove the scourge of shirt-pulling from the game, but the grey areas in the game's rules mean even camera replays are open to a referee's interpretations.

* Bad luck too to Iran and Senegal, for whom a win and a draw was not enough to qualify for the Round of 16. Four points however was enough for Argentina and Japan to get out their groups.

LAST SIXTEEN

France v Argentina
Uruguay v Portugal
Brazil v Mexico
Belgium v Japan

Spain v Russia
Croatia v Denmark
Sweden v Switzerland
Colombia v England

FIFA Regional Representation

UEFA: ⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽
CONMEBOL:⚽⚽⚽⚽
AFC: ⚽
CONMEBOL: ⚽
CAF: 0
OCEANIA: 0

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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