The 2018 World Cup: No Saviours Here
No one man, it turns out, can carry a nation. Last night in St Petersburg, Mo Salah returned for Egypt following the shoulder injury incurred during the Champions League, only to find a Russian tidal wave sending him and his team to the edge of elimination from the 2018 World Cup. Three goals in fifteen minutes blew Egypt away last night, as Russia ensured that only a series of unthinkable results could now prevent the hosts and Uruguay from qualifying from this group, most likely with a game to spare.
With such expectations resting on his shoulders, it’s unsurprising that Salah should have cut something of a forlorn figure last night. And he did at least weight in yet another penalty kick awarded with seventeen minutes to play, a goal which felt almost cruel in some respects, breathing the feint possibility of a comeback to end all comebacks through the stadium which was never going to come. Egypt play Saudi Arabia in their final match, they may at least get some degree of consolation from that.
What, though, of Russia? Their five goal haul against Saudi Arabia last week was partly ascribed to a shockingly poor performance by their opponents, but last night they were pacy, direct, and patient as the minutes ticked by with the score still goalless. It took an own goal scored two minutes into the second half to get them going, but further goals from Denis Cherysev and Artem Dzyuba put them beyond reach before Egypt could find a way to settle back into the second half. They will play – almost certainly – Spain or Portugal in the next round of the competition, though. At this stage, we’ll see how optimistic hopes are that they can somehow find a route through to the latter stages of the competition.
The hosts’ sudden improvement in just about every department has, of course, raised some eyebrows. It’s been a month since it was claimed that Russia had been ignoring positive doping tests, and such a turnaround in form has led to the beginning of whispers that something about this Russian squad doesn’t feel right. For now, this story – at least to the extent of affecting this actual tournament – remains somewhere on the spectrum marked “conspiracy theories”, but it’s likely that they will only amplify should the Russian team continue to progress through this tournament with the ease that they’ve demonstrated in their first two matches.
The day had started with a surprise that wasn’t a surprise. When the USA hosted the World Cup finals in 1994, huge numbers of headlines were written when Pele picked Colombia as his tip to win the tournament. We all know the tragedy that Colombia’s involvement in that competition ended with, of course, and four years later they were again eliminated from the competition at the group stages. The last tournament in Brazil was the first time they’d qualified since 1998, and also marked their best ever performance in the competition when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Brazil.
So, where does this optimism come from that Colombia are a “dark horse” for this tournament come from? It took a little less than three minutes for them to have Carlos Sánchez sent off for deliberate handball yesterday and a further three minutes to remove him from the pitch. Presumably these were stalling tactics designed to put Japan’s Shinji Kagawa off his penalty kick, and they almost worked. His kick was poor, along the ground and almost straight down the centre of the goal. Fortunately for him, though, David Ospina dived far too early, and Japan had an early lead.
Juan Quintero levelled for Colombia six minutes from half-time, but Yuyo Osaka’s header with seventeen minutes to play won the game for Japan. Colombia brought on James Rodriguez to try and pull something from this match, but Rodriguez, who has been injured, looked off the pace and the substitution therefore carried an air of desperation about it. There are positives that they can take from their performance – a certain strength of character in getting themselves back into the game in the first place and the knowledge that they tied the game if the conceded penalty is removed from the equation – but a defeat is a defeat at this early stage of the tournament, and they now most likely need four points from their last two games to get through to the last sixteen.
The good news for Colombia is that one of the teams they have left to play, Poland, look eminently beatable. Poland were surprisingly off the pace during their match against Senegal yesterday, which ended in a two-nil win for Senegal for which Poland’s defence were arguably the main architects. Eight minutes from half-time, a heavily deflected shot – so heavily that it was officially awarded as an own goal against Thiago Cionek – gave Senegal the lead, but it was the manner in which the second goal was scored which may well prove to be Poland’s obituary in this tournament should they fail to recover from this early setback.
Eighteen minutes into the second half, Grzegorz Krychowiak hit a back-pass which fell into the gap between defender Jan Bednarek and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. At that precise moment, Senegal’s Mbaye Niang was waved back onto the pitch after having received treatment for an injury, nipped between them all and nicked the ball, running it into an embarrassingly empty goal. Senegal, playing in their first tournament since their only other appearance in the finals in 2002, were good value for their win, and even Krychowiak could only manage a partial redemption by pulling a goal back for Poland with five minutes left to play. Robert Lewandowski was shackled to the point of becoming an irrelevance, and the dark horses now seem likely to have to scramble their way through to the next round, with it feeling a little as though they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place had they applied the same amount of diligence to building their team as they put into gaming the FIFA rankings to end up as the seeds in this group.
Senegal, meanwhile, have the most dapper dressed manager of the tournament in the form of Aliou Cissé (sorry, Gareth Southgate, but there’s just no competition here) and a team built upon a compact defence and quick breaking from midfield seems reasonably well-positioned to match the quarter-final appearance that their 2002 entry resulted in. Should they qualify, they will play someone from England’s group in the second round, and who could say in all conscience that the hairs on the back of their necks don’t stand on the end at the possibility of Senegal facing off against Belgium? They’re not through yet, and Group H looks like a group in which anybody could beat anybody else, but this was a perfect start for the team ranked by many as Africa’s strongest and their confidence can only grow from such a win.