The 2018 World Cup: Centre Holds It
Deep down, perhaps the biggest surprise is that it took so long for it to turn up. Many of the predictions for the second round of the 2018 World Cup had been focused upon the fact that these excitement levels couldn’t possibly be sustained indefinitely, and that the second round was likely to be the point at which the cost of losing would start to outweigh the benefits of winning. Even then, though, it took us twenty-four hours to get to where we all felt by the end of yesterday’s matches. France, Argentina, Uruguay and Portugal got us through Shithouse Saturday with barely any true shithousery going on, preferring instead to play extraordinary, expansive and inventive football instead.
It took the arrival of the hosts in this stage of the competition to actually get the sense of a war attrition to any respectable levels. Russia packed their defence, rode their luck (but only a tiny bit), and were doubtlessly very pleasantly surprised when Spain offered up little by way of a plan, in terms of how to unpick it all. In the first place it had taken them just eleven minutes, but it took a little luck to get them over the line, when a cross from the right saw Sergei Ignashevich tangle with Sergio Ramos and the ball to squeeze away and over the line. Ramos, a man who clearly sees basic human dignity through lenses marked “win” and “lose”, wheeled away as though he’d scored the winning goal in the final himself. A replay confirmed that the unfortunate Ignashevich had got to the ball and diverted it past his own goalkeeper.
When Russia found an equaliser, their luck was in. It’s not that there was any question that Gerard Pique’s connection with the ball was handball – what was it doing up there in the first place? – more that to be gifted a penalty kick just before half-time is a slice of luck of epic proportions. Artem Dzyuba converted a penalty kick which made the Luzhniki Stadium erupt but the rest of the world roll its eyes a little. There has been constant innuendo surrounding the Russian team and its possible links to doping and, whilst nothing has been proved, this suggestion will doubtlessly continue for so long as Russian outrun every other team in the tournament to the extent to which they have. With a couple of minutes to play, Spain claimed a penalty kick for holding in the penalty area. VAR looked at it and concluded that no, this was not a penalty kick, and Russia survived. In the resulting shootout, Akinfeev saved from Coke and Aspas and Spain were out.
What a curious World Cup Spain have had. Sacking their manager barely two days before they were due to be playing their first match against Portugal seemed to spur the players, but after their three-all draw in that opening match they only really realised increasingly diminished returns and, whilst there will be many who will will rue their absence from the latter stages of the competition, it is more than worth remembering that they only won one of their four matches in Russia and probably would have had it even tougher had they ended up playing Uruguay at this stage instead. More than a little lucky to get through the group stage, it’s difficult to make a case beyond the specifics of one or two incidents to suggest that they didn’t deserve their elimination yesterday.
Yesterday, they shattered the tournament record for the number of passes in one World Cup finals match, but passes in and of themselves don’t win matches, and what Spain seemed to be missing was the co-ordination to convert all those passes into something a little more concrete. Russia sat back and defended, because they didn’t really need to do anything else. Of the hundreds and hundreds of passes that Spain strung together, only fourteen of them made their way to Diego Costa, who himself was withdrawn from the match with ten minutes to play. With his departure, any serious expectation of a Spanish goal seemed to wither away completely. The Russians felt that everything was on their side for a shootout, and they were right. We can ask ourselves whether they need to improve to progress still further in this competition, but perhaps they don’t. If no-one can unlock their defence and they’ve got a decisive advantage for penalty shootouts, who knows? Perhaps they can somehow drag this motley and unfancied bunch of players to the semi-finals or beyond.
Croatia and Denmark at least temporarily heard our groans from the first match of the day and offered us two goals in the first four minutes as compensation before slumping into a familiar, sleepy pattern. The goals came from two bouts of defensive wobbliness, for Mathias Jorgenson after barely ninety seconds for Denmark and a response for Croatia a couple of minutes later from Mario Mandzukic, and thereafter the nerves started to creep in. Denmark had barely set the competition alive in the group stages of the competition – having already played out a match against France that will be difficult to dislodge as the worst of the tournament – but what was interesting was the extent to which the nerviness extended to Croatia as well. Croatia had sailed through the group stages, possibly the most accomplished of all thirty-two entrants, but last night it felt as though they were transfixed by the occasion and what was at stake.
So it played out that, for much of the match, to the extent that it felt possible that either team was going to score again, it was this limited Denmark team that seemed the more likely to score. Deep into extra-time, though, came a long-awaited moment of drama when Ante Rebic rounded Kasper Schmeichel and was brought down by Jorgenson, who somehow escaped a red card and saw justification for his cynical foul follow when Schmeichel saved a weak penalty kick from Luka Modric. It wasn’t a move that boded well for what was now the inevitable forthcoming penalty shoot-out. If there is such a thing as a bad penalty shootout, then this was probably it. Each goalkeeper saved two kicks before Nicolai Jorgensen saw his kick saved by the Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, allowing Ivan Rakitic to score and send Croatia through to the quarter-finals, albeit by the skin of their teeth.
If this can be what happens to such an accomplished team as Croatia once the possibility of a quarter-final place opens up, it doesn’t say much for how the rest of at least this round is going to play out. There has been much talk this morning about how this win will have “laid a ghost to rest” for Croatia. The ghost, in this case, is their European Championship quarter-final defeat against Turkey in 2008, when a last minute equaliser scored by their opponents was followed by defeat in the resulting penalty shootout. It is, perhaps, to be hoped that this ghost will remain… wherever ghosts are sent to when they’re laid to rest. We would all benefit substantially from a Croatian team playing their quarter-final match with a little less fear than they approached this one with, after all. With the “favourites” continuing to tumble from the competition like skittles in a bowling alley, though, it seems unlikely that this will happen, for now, at least.