48 games,15 days,122 goals and just 1 goalless draw. If that’s not entertaining enough I don’t know what is. The group stage saw the emergence of the trend of the Russian world cup, bridging the gap between the big and small. And this seriously altered every prediction of the knockouts. While teams like France, Brazil and Uruguay topped their group like expected others like Argentina had to be contempt with 2nd place while Germany continued the curse of champion by being knocked out in the group stage. Japan having the same point and goals as Senegal tipped the later to reach the knockout by the method of fair play. The first ever team to do so, Japan only got 4 yellow card while Senegal had 2 more.
All the twists and turn ultimately gave us our 16 teams that battled out for their place in the quarter finals. Here is my take on the major takeaways from the knockouts.
Mbappe is here to stay
The French teenager is not a new face in the football world. His breakout performance for Monaco two seasons back that led the side into semi finals of the champions league brought him to fame. His pace and agility quickly brought comparison to Henry and Cristinao Ronaldo. But World cup was his first major international tournament with France. He showed glimpses of his talent in the group stage however under performed just time like his team. The knockout stage match with Argentina proved to be the perfect stage for both Mbappe and France. The team showed lot of attacking quality mainly lead by Mbappe. He often ran past the aging defense of Argentina and France capitalized on this weakness. The first goal came as result of such a brilliant run from him but unfortunately he was fouled by Marcos Rojo in the penalty box which was converted by Griezmann. However Mbappe got his name in the score sheet twice. First by a quick piece of footwork past the defenders inside the box and the second for a free-flowing counter attack. With his brace he surely have announced himself to everyone in great style.Embed from Getty Images
Best Shootout Ever
The round of 16 this time featured 3 penalty shootouts. The impressive Russian win over Spain, England’s historic win over Columbia. However the shootout between Croatia and Denmark may just be the best penalty shootout that I have ever watched. The game started in an aggressive manner with both teams scoring within first 5 minutes. That pretty much was all the action. Both sides knowing the importance seemed to play with caution. Game moved over to extra time as no goals was scored by either of them. An extra time penalty awarded to Croatia seemed to settle the game but miraculously Kasper Schmeichel saved the shot from Modric.
Embed from Getty Images This rattled Croatia who tried for a win there after. Finally the game moved to a penalty shootout. Christian Eriksen started the proceeding but the Danish talismans shot was saved by Subasic. Kasper Schmeichel came to the rescue again by saving the straight shot by Badelj with his leg. Next two shots from both team went into the net which included a nervous one from Modric ,who proved his quality when it matter.The 4th penalty by Schone for Denmark was saved by Subasic. his counter part soon followed by saving the shot from Pivaric. The 5th and final penalty of Denmark was taken by Jorgensen. Subasic with his presence of mind used his leg to save the shot that was taken straight by the Dane. In the end it all came down to Rakitic and Schmeichel. The Leicester city goalkeeper was superb throughout the game saving 3 penalties that day for Denmark. Yet Rakitic was able to execute his kick with real calm. He sent Schmeichel the wrong way and scored the vital penalty that took his team to the quarter finals. The shootout that saw a total of 5 shots out of 10 being saved by the goalkeepers was arguably one of the best that I have experienced. Even though post match the goalkeepers received criticism for stepping out of line, this game will be remembered for their heroic efforts.
The round also witnessed the departure of the legends and their team. Messi and his Argentina lost to a brilliant and young France team, Ronaldo’s Portugal bow down to Uruguay and shockingly Iniesta and his Spanish side lost to the host Russia. For Messi it was almost a final opportunity to silence his haters who demands world cup for the star so that he is considered as the greatest of all time. In a career that was blessed with goals awards and trophies, an international title especially world cup with Argentina sure would have been great but it never undermines what he has done and how he have dominated the footballing world for the past decade.Same is the story for Cristiano who always gets blamed for being a selfish player. The portuguese proved he is more important to his side than the other way around. 4 out of 6 goals scored by Portugal came from him. In a talented yet highly underperforming side he stood out and often had to create chances on his own. Messi and Ronaldo getting knocked out on the same day thus was a blow for the fans who wished for a quarter-final meeting between the greats. Even though both of them said later that they will not be retiring and wish to play the next World cup it is going to be really hard for a then 35-year-old Messi and 37-year-old Ronaldo to continue their form and fitness.
As for Iniesta it was very evident that this will be his last tournament. The midfield maestro didn’t start the game and came of the bench only in the second half. When his side dramatically lost to Russia in the shootout he soon announced his retirement from international football. Iniesta must have hoped for a better performance from his side in his last game yet ends a much illustrious career, that included 2 Euro cups and 1 world cup, in a sad note.
Match of the tournament
With the business end of the tournament approaching and still 8 games left we can expect some amazing games. Belgium vs Brazil and Uruguay vs France are expected to be the great. Also a likely match up of Brazil vs France in semi if both the teams make it past quarter-final will be a mouth-watering match up. Yet I believe the best match of the tournament was between Japan and Belgium. This round of 16 game was considered to be just another game for a goal scoring Belgium side to walk through. Many expected the usual game where the dominant side controls the ball while the opposition stayed back and defended with everyone. Many of my friends decided not to watch it. The game started in a predictable way, Belgium with the bulk of the possession and Japan occasionally having the ball. An eventless first half filled with half chances made me question my decision to stay up and watch it. However the second half started with a bang. The Asian side scored twice within the first 7 minute of the second half. The game got wide open with the Japanese players believing they have a chance to upset the Belgians.
Embed from Getty ImagesThe Belgium team responded suddenly by bringing on both Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini from the bench. The team used their height advantage by putting in more crosses to the box. Lukaku and co got many chances that unfortunately was saved by a resolute Japan. Japan had a 2 goal advantage and could have opted the usual way of ‘parking the Bus’ , yet they decided to stick to the attacking game they displayed throughout. The fast players troubled the Belgium defence at times and soon we were presented with a very open game. However as the game progressed the taller Europeans were too much for the Asians. Jan Vertonghen header 15 foot away from the goal goes up above the Japanese players into the net. The header which obviously seemed unintentional brought new energy into the Belgium side who were struggling to break Japan. Soon another header, this time by Fellaini, helped his side to equalise the game in the 74th minute. The goal again coming because of his team’s plan to utilise their height advantage. Now the game became more open as intense as the scores were level and both team played for the win. Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima made a double save in the dying minutes of the game while Thibaut Courtois made an excellent save from a Keisuke Honda free kick in the additional time. Japanese team won a corner in the last-minute of additional time. Here again rather than moving for the extra time Japan tried to finish the game by scoring. Unfortunately it back fired. The corner went right into the goalkeeper’s hands who passed it quickly to De bruyne. the Man city midfielder was quick in his action and started the counter attack. He found Meunier to his right. Meunier crossed the ball perfectly into the box. Lukaku who was inside the box read the arrival of his team-mate and executed a brilliant dummy. All that was left to Chadli was to score the ball and he did .This was the final action of the game as time ran out for the asian side. The Japan team played with their heart and showed justice to their nickname, Blue Samurai. If it were for a bit of luck and sadly more height, the result could have been different.
The best part of the game came when ,even though they lost,the Japan team showed their sportsmanship and manners by cleaning their changing room and left the place spotless with just a note left saying ‘thank you’. Their fans resonated the same by staying back in the stadium, cleaning the place even when they were heart-broken. The small island nation proved that no team should be considered a push over and made every Asians proud. They earned our respect and love on and off the pitch.
France, Uruguay, Brazil, Belgium, Croatia, Russia, Sweden and England. The eight teams that move on to quarterfinals. The road to final is such a way that one among England, Croatia, Russia and Sweden will be playing the final. This is amazing considering only England and Sweden have previously reached so far. Both team reached the final once ,when England won the cup in 1966 and Sweden had to be contempt with runners-up medal in 1958. Though England are somewhat considered as a great team their performance in have been dismal at the past tournaments and hence we could include them with the other 3 as the underdogs in the final. With the power houses France and Brazil having a tough tie with Uruguay and Belgium things can get interesting. Even though Uruguay are 2 time champions their cups came in the earlier editions of the tournament. Belgium is the only non champion team in that route yet their talent can easily push them to the final. With the pre tournament favorites like Germany and Spain and heavy weights like Argentina and Portugal out, France and Brazil are the favorites to win the tournament. But if something we have learned in this world cup is that there are no big or small teams and chances for upset are at an all time high.Embed from Getty Images