Man, don’t you just love the Fifa World Cup. Whatever you feel about Qatar and all the politics of this tournament, you cannot deny it has thrown up some quality football.
Players look up for it, tactical geniuses are at work and there’s no shortage of quality goals. Let’s not forget some highly entertaining fans, the long added time to combat wasting time and high scoring games.
Saudi Arabia and Japan set the tournament alight with their shock 2-1 wins over Argentina and Germany, respectively.
Tactically they both turned a one goal deficit into a win. Japan changed to a back three and made an attacking sub and the tide turned. There is no world in which those jubilant celebrations and fast football doesn’t delight any football fan, unless you’re German.
It’s high time the football world acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s head coach, Hervé Renard, and not just for his sartorially crisp white shirts.
The man has previously taken Zambia and Ivory Coast to Afcon glory and took Morocco to the 2018 Fifa World Cup after some 20 years. He has now masterminded a win over Argentina with a stifling high-line and a cracker of a second goal. These are just some of the standouts of the tournament so far.
Let’s break down each group, players to watch, and what to look forward to in the next round of games.
The Netherlands and Ecuador have looked really strong so far, both recording 2-0 wins over Senegal and hosts Qatar, respectively. They now meet this weekend in what should be a mouthwatering fixture. Ecuador will be sweating over Enner Valencia’s fitness after he went off injured in the first game. La Tri’s skipper is looking busy and a real threat, scoring a penalty and an excellent header.
The Dutch, with goal-scoring wonderkid Cody Gakpo, will look to assure qualification. They have a stellar defence that most teams would struggle to break down, including Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Nathan Aké (who comedian Trow Hawke described as having the poise of an apex predator, but the eyes of a kindly woodland creature) which will be tough to breakdown.
Senegal have a must-win clash against Qatar lined up. After their loss to the Dutch, Ismaïla Sarr looked like their biggest threat and the Lions of Teranga will surely look to him to pick up some points.
This group looks like it’s already in the bag for England but this is football and you never know what can happen. After an assured 6-2 win over Iran and a draw between Wales and USA, a win will see England qualify when they take on the USA.
Star players so far include Bukayo Sako, who nabbed a brace in the 6-2 win over Iran and looked electric. I was impressed with Welshman Ethan Ampadu, he put in a solid shift in the draw against USA and put in a few crunching tackles.
Both the USA and Wales will hope their talismans, Christian Pulisic and Gareth Bale, will bring the goods. Iran have a tough encounter with Wales.
The group is England’s to take, the “it’s coming home” brigade will be in full song. How the second unfolds will be interesting to watch.
Saudi Arabia set this group on fire. The win against Argentina sparked wild scenes in Saudi Arabia. One fan went so far as to remove the door in wild celebrations.
But hysteria aside, this group is open. Mexico and Poland drew 0-0 in their opening game, which means it is there for anyone. Argentina take on Mexico in a must-win game and Poland take on Saudi Arabia.
Key players to watch are Saudi’s match winner Salem al-Dawsari, who can clearly strike a ball and do a couple of flips, and Argentinean superstars Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martínez. Mexico’s talismanic goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is known as the World Cup man for his stellar performances in these tournaments, and for Poland, the inevitable Robert Lewandowski.
Holdingchampions France cracked on with a 4-1 over Australia, leaving the most recent jinx of the former champions crashing out in the group stage in doubt. Despite Australia’s strong start, Les Bleus hit back hard, including a brace from Olivier Giroud, a man for the big occasions. The French will take on Denmark, who looked tired in a languid performance against Tunisia.
Tunisia will take on Australia, who will no doubt be licking their wounds after a 4-1 loss to France in a game where they didn’t play too badly at all.
With Denmark and Tunisia on one point each and Australia yet to get off the mark, all three teams will be eyeing second spot realistically.
Keep an eye on Wahbi Khazri, who is likely to return to the starting lineup for Tunisia. Australia’s Mathew Leckie is always a goal threat. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s tenacity and his recent penchant for goals will make him good to keep an eye on for Denmark. Meanwhile Olivier Giroud equalled Thierry Henry’s goals for France on 51 goals, becoming joint-top scorer for Les Bleus.
The next big shock of the tournament came when Japan defeated Germany 2-1. The Samurai Blue cut down Die Mannschaft with some excellent attacking play. This Japanese team has character and will always play till the end. After they narrowly lost in 2018 to Belgium, it was only a matter of time until they pulled off a scalp. More importantly, this team and fan base continue to win the hearts of everyone; they leave the stadium and change rooms clean.
They take on Costa Rica, who will be desperate for a win after a 7-0 bashing from Spain.
Probably the game of the weekend will see Germany take on Spain. For the Germans it’s a must-win encounter or they risk elimination. Spain, fresh from a 7-0 win over Costa Rica, will look to dominate the ball and knock Germany out. Lick your lips, folks, this one will be tasty.
Look out for Japan’s Takumi Minanmino, a real solid player on his day, and Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican talismanic goalkeeper who will hope to inspire his teammates from the goalpost. I have a feeling the youngsters in midfield will be the ones to watch for Spain and Germany. Pedri and Gavi for Spain and Jamal Musiala for Germany are exciting talents.
This has been one of the most exciting groups. Despite Belgium narrowly beating Canada, they were very lucky. Canada missed a penalty, but were the better team overall. Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne won man of the match, which even he questioned.
Belgium move on to tackle a tough Moroccan team, who were unlucky to not beat Croatia. Morocco can hold their heads up high with a spirited performance against Croatia. They had the run of the game but unfortunately could not find a winning goal.
Croatia can never be discounted with that midfield of theirs. They need a win against Canada, who also look really exciting.
This group is one to watch _– fast attacking football and very tough to call.
Watch out for De Bruyne, who might just earn a man of the match this time, and Hakim Ziyech, who is a different beast for his country with that left foot. For Croatia, you can never discount Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. Those three can really boss a midfield. Canada’s Alphonso Davies will look to make up for his penalty miss and, with his pace and skill, he might be in for a stormer.
Switzerland and Cameroon played to a solitary goal loss for the African team. Rather than a slick passing game, the Indomitable Lions chose to get the ball to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting quickly, often going long. In the end it didn’t pay off and they fell short. The Swiss winner came courtesy of Cameroon born Breel Embolo.
Meanwhile Brazil and Serbia brought the first round of games to an end with a win for Brazil with Richarlison’s second a contender for goal of the tournament.
Up next for tournament favourites Brazil is Switzerland and Cameroon take on the Serbians.
Naturally Neymar, who was fouled a crazy amount against Serbia, will be the one to watch. But keep an eye on Vinicius Jr and Raphinha. Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka is in the form of his life.
Cameroon will hope Chuopo-Moting will hit the target with service from the excellent André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Serbia will hope their strike force of Dusan Tadic and Alexander Mitrovich will fire them to a win.
Can we even discuss this group without talking about Cristiano Ronaldo? The Portuguese star scored in his fifth consecutive World Cup, becoming the first to do so. He did it in a 3-2 win over Ghana, who put up a valiant effort.
The other game in the group saw Korea Republic take on Uruguay, which finished in a tame 0-0.
Portugal take on Uruguay next, hoping to seal qualification, while Ghana hope to get three points against South Korea.
Watch out for Ronaldo, who’ll try to lead from the front, while Luis Suarez and Darwin Nunez will look to get Uruguay firing.
For Ghana, Mohammed Kudus looks highly impressive with his first touch and ball control. Korea will look to talismanic Son Heung-min, who is capable of brilliance.
Heat up the popcorn, gather the drinks, call the friends and strap in. Round two of fixtures promises a lot.