The 2018 World Cup: Hypertension
It’s interesting, how emotions adjust across the space of a tournament. A week ago, England were reasonably proud of having an attractive and on the whole likeable team travelling to Russia. Expectations were realistic. It can, however, be a thin line between hopes and expectations, though, and something within this equation may be starting to change. So England’s 6-1 win against Panama, their record win in a World Cup finals match and one which took Harry Kane to the tournament top scorer’s position, comes with caveats. So let’s quickly rattle through those and get them out of the way, but bear in mind that these are caveats, and not necessarily criticisms:
- England did not start particularly strongly, and on a couple of occasions allowed Panama sights of goal that better teams might well have made more of than they could.
- They were gifted two penalty kicks by their opponents. It seems astonishing that there are teams who are prepared to take that chance with VAR around… and all of this just to defend a corner? When people say that the art of defending is dead, this may well be what they mean.
- Panama were atrocious, in terms of defensive ability, game plan, and attitude.
- Harry Kane’s hat-trick was simultaneously brilliant, appalling, and hilarious. Those two penalty kicks were ansolutely perfectly struck, but two penalties and the ball bouncing in off your heel… is the most England hat-trick I can think of. And I kind of love them for it.
We all know this, of course, and there was obviously plenty more to it than just this. After a high degree of profligacy against Tunisia in their opening match, England were, to say the least, ruthless in front of goal this afternoon. John Stones has, at the time of writing, scored more goals in this tournament than Lionel Messi. And Robert Lewandowski. And Mo Salah. And Luis Suarez. And Antoine Griezmann. And Sergio Aguero. And Neymar. He’s scored as many as Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho and Luka Modric. His finishing, when it was required, was outstanding. And Jesse Lingard chipped in with a Goal Of The Group Stages contender from outside the penalty area, a curling shot which bounced in off the underside of the crossbar.
Conceding a goal at six-nil up happened to have ramifications, and it was certainly educational to watch the forensic extent to which England’s future chances were pulled to pieces after the match ended. Within minutes, it was confirmed that were England and Belgium to draw their final group match, separating the top two in the group would come down to tournament disciplinary records, and that England were narrowly ahead on that, by two bookings to Belgium’s three. Expectations are starting to rise, just a little. The apocalyptic events of 2014 have not been repeated. But the words “Football’s coming home”, which started appearing online as the tournament started with an almost plaintive scream into the void, have come to symbolise the feeling that’s growing, of a semi-ironic smirk which is simultaneously hopelessly over-optimistic as well.
But there is a small feeling of jitteriness in the air, as well. Expectations may not even have risen at home, but hopes certainly have been. Hence the frantic checking of the rules immediately after the end of the Belgium vs England game. There’s a crackle in the air, even though most of us know that this bubble will still most likely burst at some point. When interviewed after the match, Gareth Southgate’s first comment was that he was unhappy at their performance for periods of the match, and was unhappy that they’d conceded a goal once six-nil up. Gareth Southgate continues to rise in many people’s estimations. His team is slightly ungainly, but it is pleasing to watch more often than not and it has been thus far successful. We can’t ask for any more than that… can we?
The second game of the day was considerably less of a mismatch, and was all the better for it. Japan and Senegal both came into their meeting in Ekaterinburg off the back of confidence-building wins in their opening matches and with the knowledge that winning this one would guarantee their place in the next round of the competition, but Japanese obduracy prevented Senegal from walking away with all three points, despite having taken the lead twice. The opening goal was, all told, a bit of a disaster for Japan’s defence, with a shot from Youssouf Sabaly blocked by the Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who could only paw the ball into the path of Sadio Mane, who allowed the ball to bounce off his leg and over the line.
At this stage, one feared a little for Japan, but they composed themselves, struggled their way back into the game, and, eleven minutes from half-time, Takashi Inui brought them level with a low, curling shot. When Moussa Wague lashed the ball into the roof of the Japanese goal with a little less than twenty minutes to play – a sweeping move which started on the left-hand side and ended with Sabaly driving the ball low across the penalty area for Wague to finish in style from a tight angle. This time, we assumed, Senegal had done enough, but we were wrong, and seven minutes later the Senegal goalkeeper Ndiaye made a hash of coming for a cross, only for the ball to be pulled back for Keisuke Honda to bring them level again. This match was one of the hidden gems of this tournament, so far.
From the middle of the 1970s through to the early 1980s, Poland were consistently one of the strongest teams in world football. Our memories of that period are so dominated by West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands that we often forget that they finished in third place in both the 1974 and 1982 World Cups, but this tournament is only the third for which Poland have qualified since 1986, and on each occasion since 1982 they have crashed out in the group stages, sickly of pallor and looking very much as though they had sold us all a dummy in qualifying for the finals with a degree of comfort in the first place. Talisman Robert Lewandowski tailed off towards the end of the last domestic league season and has barely looked interested at times over the last two matches, whilst elsewhere Poland just looked too stuffed with ballast, during matches. They have certainly lacked inspiration over their two matches so far, and have looked at time as though they were lacking a little in perspiration, too.
The Colombia coach José Pékerman, meanwhile, answered pre-match questions over whether he should pick James Rodriguez or Juan Quintero by picking both players, and the results were electrifying. Colombia have had a tendency to be talked up to excess prior to tournaments, and their opening match defeat against Japan hinted at the possibility that this had happened again, this time around. The tow players combined to set up a cross from which Yerry Mina scored from close range five minutes from half-time, and this proved to be a point at which the dam burst for a lethargic and leggy Poland team. Second half goals from Radamel Falcao and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado sealed the win for Colombia, but that opening match defeat means that they will still have to beat Senegal in their last group match to ensure qualification to the next round. In more than one respect, it’s almost a pity that only two teams can qualify from this group.