The 2018 World Cup, Day Four: Once Upon A Time In Mexico
After fifty-six minutes had been played in Samara yesterday afternoon, Aleksandar Kolarov curled an exquisite free-kick over an inadequate Costa Rican wall to give Serbia a one-nil win their opening match of the 2018 World Cup finals. In many respects, this was almost as much as you need to know from another match which followed what is becoming one of the more unusual common themes of this tournament, so far – a tendency for matches to explode out of the traps, only to settle into a rhythm after about twenty minutes have been played. The rhythm doesn’t necessarily have to be an entertaining one. It certainly wasn’t during this match. But it does have to exist, and to be anything like exciting, to be punctuated by something.
Even this game’s ultimate denouement had a stop-start feel to it, after Matic and Ramirez got into a scuffle over the ball in stoppage-time, leading to an arm being flung and the All-Seeing Eye to be brought in to determine whether a red card should be issued or not. It wasn’t, but so it passed that even the few minutes added at the end of a largely stagnant match had to be dragged out unnecessarily. Costa Rica looked but a shadow of the team that impressed so greatly in Brazil four years ago. True enough, they were unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a moment of pure beauty from Kolarov, but in the final quarter of the match, when they needed to step up a gear in order to rescue themselves, they drew blanks. There didn’t seem to be another gear for them to step up to, and it now seems difficult to see them getting through to the next stage of the competition.
There’s a conflation of reasons behind why Mexico beating Germany in their first match of the tournament feels like more of a shock than it is. But let’s be clear for a moment, here. Mexico have qualified from the group stages of the last six consecutive World Cups. Mexico is a country of 130m people which has held the World Cup finals as many times as Germany and which should, by most reasonable measurements, probably be considered something of an underachiever on an international scale.
However, this win came against Germany, and the Germany team that is defending its 2014 World Cup title. Germany – well, West Germany it was, at the time – last lost their opening match of a World Cup finals thirty-six years ago in 1982, when they were beaten by Algeria. They went on to reach the final in 1982, but that’s kind of thing about Germany, isn’t it? No matter what happens to them early in the competition, they usually end up in its final stages regardless. This year, however, now marks something unprecedented for this particular team in recent times. Germany have to fight back after having lost their opening match. They have to swallow whatever criticism comes at them from the German press – and it would be unsurprising if it were savage – and they have to take responsibility for their own inertia yesterday afternoon.
Because there is no papering over the cracks that appeared so visibly in the German set-up in Moscow yesterday afternoon. Mexico were effervescent when counter-attacking and solid when defending. Germany created a lot of chances, but the high line of their defence left them too exposed, and on more than one occasion during the second half Mexico found themselves in positions from which other, more resourceful teams would surely have taken greater advantage. But they won nevertheless, and they warranted it. Hirving Lozano scored the only goal of the game ten minutes from half-time when the Mexican midfield put together a beautiful passing move through midfield, ultimately rewarded with Lozano’s finish against a threadbare defence. But there were other chances besides. Mexico came to sit back, absorb, and counter-attack, and they played it to perfection.
Germany have seldom otherwise been made to look so ordinary in this competition over the last decade or so. But recent results in friendly matches have not been encouraging, with only the odd goal in three against Saudi Arabia and a draw against Spain in March to show for their five matches so far this year. Defeat against Sweden in their next match might well put them effectively out of the World Cup with a game to spare, and unless they sort out defensive positioning they seem ill-equipped to deal with any team that will set back and try to counter-attack, and will remain vulnerable. Even finishing second in the group brings problems of its own – doing so will see them have to play Brazil in the Second Round of the competition, should Brazil win their group. There are stormy waters ahead for Germany, but they haven’t quite sunk yet.
Brazil, meanwhile, laboured their way to a one-all draw with Switzerland in the evening. Philipe Coutinho opened the scoring after twenty reasonably free-flowing minutes, but Brazil didn’t quite get out of second gear and five minutes into the second half Steven Zuber brought scores level for Switzerland. It was a controversial goal, in the time of the Dawn of the Robots. The referee didn’t seem to spot him pushing Miranda in the back, the VAR people – whose job under such circumstances is to report anything that the referee might want to see again – didn’t seem to spot it either. The goal stood.
It wasn’t as though Brazil had come for the one-nil win, but they were still stodgy and laboured in their attempts to reassert their will back upon the game, whilst Switzerland looked variously threatening every time they broke. The Brazil coach, Tite, had hardly picked a defensive formation and the big names were all present and correct, but still Brazil failed to convince, although this didn’t feel as immediately noticeable as it did with Germany earlier in the day. They’ll play better than this and they’ll qualify from this group, but last night they didn’t match up to the sum of their parts. Switzerland will feel extremely grateful for this, even though they were well worth their point as well.