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Diary of the 2018 World Cup: Round of 16 aka “Getting Real Now!”

July 5, 2018

They (whomever “they” are) say things happen in threes.  For instance, the Round of 16 in this 2018 FIFA World Cup’s knockout stage was Three-tastic! Three 1-1 contests ultimately decided  by “Kicks from the penalty mark” as penalty shootouts are officially called on Page 55 of the FIFA “Laws Of The Game” … Three goals in the opening 10 minutes of those games … Three second-half stoppage-time goals … Three of the eight matches won by the higher ranked team in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Rankings … Three of the FIFA Top 10 ranked teams remaining in the Quarterfinals (Brazil, Belgium & France) … Three times Neymar should have been carded for simulation (at least) … Three ways to say Switzerland has #GoneFishing …

I could go on! Instead, a look back at other facets of what transpired from my ongoing World Cup Diary, before assessing each of the Quarterfinal games tomorrow and Saturday. While the bracket appears imbalanced, with four of the five highest ranked remaining teams on one side, underestimate the supposed relative minnows (Croatia, Sweden and host Russia) at your own peril. As always, click the links to see highlights and more …

6/30

France 4:3 Argentina – This thriller lived up to the billing, and was the result I expected, if not the score. A quick descent from hero to goat for Marcos Rojo in the 13th, France’s Antoine Griezmann coolly slotting home the penalty kick that wunderkind Kylian Mbappé drew from Rojo, a sign of things to come as Mbappé tore the Argentinean backline to shreds all day long … Second half, Les Bleus’ laconic play let Argentina grab a 2-1 lead in the 49th, Gabriel Mercado deflecting Messi’s shot past a wrong-footed Hugo Lloris and creating the first pressure France had faced all tournament. Argentina appeared to have taken control of the match, a script that held all of seven minutes until Benjamin Pavard unleashed a wicked curveball from the corner of the box, and Mbappé flipped that script with two world class goals in a four-minute span that justified straight away his status as the Most Expensive Footballing Teenager in the World … As the inquest begins, let’s remember, Argentina struggled in qualification for this World Cup, having to go to the Intercontinental Playoff and beat Honduras in a home-and-away tie. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are who we should have thought they were. Despite appearing in three major tournament Finals (One World Cup sandwiched between two Copa Américas), it never seemed Argentina could build a coherent squad around their generational talent, too many cooks spoiling the soup #FueronAPescar. As for France, if the second half version shows up the rest of this tournament – maybe with a little tightening on defense – the rest of the world has no chance.

Uruguay 2:1 Portugal – Edinson Cavani’s early “facer” (not so much a header) in the 7th, from a near perfect cross by Mr. Bitey, put the Fighting Ronaldos on the back foot. Uruguay had a 594-minute competitive match shutout streak end when Pepe’s header leveled the match for Portugal in the 55th, seemingly grabbing the momentum for A Seleção das Quinas. But Cavani said “Not Today!”, scoring an even better goal off an even better pass from Señor Chompers seven (7) minutes later (seems to be a theme today, 7 minutes) to put La Celeste up for good. I thought Fox’s John Strong was going to run out of breath at the end, but I never thought a tying goal was coming … Key to me was Uruguay’s midfield outplayed Portugal’s despite ceding 60% of the possession … Portugal only have themselves to blame, their service so bad, cross after cross flailing, their offense reduced to Ronaldo having to chase down the ball himself and take desperate shots. Clearly not their best effort; In fact, it’s been pretty much downhill from the Spain game #FoiPescar.  

Everyone after these games was pointing out how the best two players in the world were sent home, but last I checked, this was a team sport, and the better teams won that day. It appears Cavani won’t be available for Uruguay tomorrow, so The Celeste will have an uphill climb against a France squad starting to find their form; Suarez The Impaler can’t do it all by himself. Uruguay’s best chance will be to score the first goal and rely on their rock solid defense to frustrate the French attack much like Portugal did in the 2016 Euros Finals. I’m just not seeing it, I think France is just starting to roll.

7/1

Spain 1:1, 3:4 Russia – Hijuela. Not sure why it didn’t occur to me before, but this had to be the most daunting road game for Spain since “Tiki-Taka” became a thing. It took all of one minute into Russia’s National Anthem at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for the game to feel like “Rocky IV: Soccer Bugaloo.” … Bit of a surprise that La Roja started without Andres Iniesta, as if Manager Fernando Hierro was taking the training wheels off for Spain’s next generation in the midfield, just to see if they would ride or crash (Hint: They crashed) … As most of Spain’s opponents do, Russia kept 10 behind the ball and crowded the midfield, waiting to counter. It worked, as Gerard Pique might’ve had his Baby Mama on his mind when he gave up a stupid handball in the box in the 41st. I thought the stadium was going to lift off into planetary orbit after Artem “Zubaz” Dzyuba blasted home the ensuing penalty to tie it up. The 2nd Half, for me as a Spanish partisan, consisted of yelling various obscenities at the television in two languages. Spain played with the apathy that often comes with arrogance … Isco, Marco Asensio and Koke were hot garbage; Verging on the pedantic, Iniesta coming on for David Silva and Dani Carvajal for Nacho was like for like, lacking tactical nous and impact, while Iago Aspas was just as feckless as Diego Costa. Only Rodrigo, the last Spanish sub, provided a spark that failed to light a fire. More of the same going into extra time, only with less energy, and the rain in Moscow fell mainly on plain Spain. Spot kicks decided it, Koke choked, and Akinfeev kick-saved Russia into the Quarterfinals.  The End. #HanIdoAPescar

Croatia 1:1; 3:2 Denmark – At a local pub, I’d barely taken a first sip of my beer, said “Hello!” to my mates, and Denmark scores. Another sip, another handshake, Croatia equalizes. Both goals were the product of pinball and confusion in front of the 6-yard box … From there, the tempo faded and the match settled into a tight scrum, many chances gone begging, through to extra time into the 114th minute when Croatia’s Ante Rebic was brought down in the box on a breakaway. First of all, how did Rebic not get a foot on the ball after he deked the goalie? Second, how was that not a straight red card for the goal-scorer Jorgensen, who on every replay I saw denied Rebic a clear goal-scoring opportunity? All the refs blew that call … Third, I’d ask how Luka “I Live On The Second Floor” Modric flubbed that penalty kick, but this one’s easy: Modric telegraphed, and Kasper Schmichael got away with leaving his line early to make a great save, securing the Danes to spot kicks on Spot Kick Sunday! (Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!). Schmichael again kept hope alive for Denmark, matching Danijel Subasic save for save until the 5th round when Ivan Rakitic snuck one by and sent Croatia on to the Quarters against the Hosts in Sochi. Shootouts don’t favor the favorites, so it was impressive to see The Mad Phat Croats overcome their setbacks and underwhelming play (and for Modric to redeem himself in the shootout) to find their way. Denmark was always going to be a tough out, and they lived up to that #DeErGåetFiskeri.

Only the second time in World Cup history where two games on the same day went to penalties, the other being the 1986 Quarterfinals where France bested Brazil and West Germany survived hosts Mexico. I’d say that’s crazy, but that’s just been this World Cup. Croatia and Russia is probably the least anticipated match for neutrals of the four Quarterfinals, but I think it will be a sneakily entertaining affair, as the best central Midfield in the World, Croatia’s Modric and Raketic face a supremely confident Russia side playing with house money (Literally, since they are the “house”). No result would surprise me, but I’ll ride with Croatia here.

7/2

Brazil 2:0 Mexico – For added flavor, I watched this on Telemundo, which went as expected: Breathless reverence for Brazil or obvious excitement anytime Mexico did anything positive, that’s just part of the deal. While the other commentators were superfluous at best, the always-enjoyable Andres Cantor has the best “Gooooooooooool” call in the business, and I particularly love hearing “Choooooky Lozano”… I could tell Mexico was in trouble during the anthems, when several of their players had bleached their hair blonde, while Brazil to a man had cleaned up their coiffure, including Neymar cutting off that bowl of spaghetti from atop his head. Brazil was all business, while Mexico appeared to be managing some anxiety. El Tri actually started brightly and had their best chance in the 2nd minute, but like so many forays into Brazil’s box thereafter, found no joy as their collective impertinence got the best of them. One cogent point Cantor’s partner Manuel Sol made was that starting Old Man River Rafa Marquez in central midfield “complicated” Mexico’s efforts to cover Brazil as they took advantage of his relative immobility by launching long runs off the ball from every angle, especially Mexico’s right flank as Edson Alvarez had trouble containing Neymar, causing Mexico to pull Marquez off at halftime for newly blonde Miguel Layun. Not that the halftime adjustment worked; Layun, Alvarez and the rest of Mexico’s defense were caught sleeping on a cheeky give and go six (6) minutes into the 2nd as Neymar circled left and beat them to Willian’s cross in the 6-yard box to put The Selecao up 1-0, hastening Alvarez’s departure soon thereafter. My favorite part was when Cantor said “‘Si Se Puede’, the Mexican fans are shouting!”, only for Neymar seconds later to plunder Mexico’s right flank and set up Bobby Firmino’s goal in the 88th that closed the door on Mexico’s trip to Russia. #NoSePudieron! … Make no mistake: This was a beat down, and Mexico is the same as they ever were, the 7th consecutive World Cup they depart in the Round of 16. CONCACAF Out, without so much as even a whimper.

Belgium 3:2 Japan – ¡Hijuela! In the Fox pregame Clarence Seedorf predicted Japan would press high and not bunker, relying on superb organization to not get caught on the counter, and he was correct, Japan announcing their intent with Shinji Kagawa shooting just wide of Thibaut Courtois’ goal in the 1st  minute … A scoreless 1st half became prologue to the 2nd, as Japan’s high press paid off when a Belgium turnover in the attacking end two passes later became a Japan goal at the other end in the 48th, Genki Haraguchi with a pinpoint strike between Jan Vertonghen’s lazily stretched leg and Courtois’ diving hands. Eden Hazard fired off the post a minute later, only for Japan to go up 2-0 three minutes thereafter on a 25-yard laser beam from Takashi Inui, again generated off their high press. Unbeaten in their last 22 matches, I was convinced Belgium was 40 minutes from a fishing trip. The Blue Samurai had several chances at a third goal before Belgium Manager Roberto Martinez inserted Nacer Chadli and Marouane “With The Afro 6-8” Fellaini in the 65th to jumpstart their rally. First, Fellaini earns a corner kick, which Japan could not clear and eventually launched across the box, the moon ball landing on Vertonghen, who redeemed himself and headed into goal from a crazy oblique angle. Then following Belgium’s next corner in the 74th, Fellaini rose above two Japanese defenders and put his head onto a pirouette cross from Eden Hazard that tied the match at 2. Madness fell over stoppage time … Courtois punched out a 40-yard dipping free kick from Keisuke Honda in the 3rd minute of stoppage, then in a sequence reminiscent of USA-Algeria eight years before, Courtois corralled the ensuing corner kick and rolled Belgium out on the counter. Kevin De Bruyne ran the fast break to perfection, finding a streaking Thomas Meunier 30 yards downfield, who one-touched a cross that Romelu Lukaku perfectly dummied onto Chadli, which he left-footed home for the game winner with the penultimate kick of the match. A comeback for the ages, consummated in ten magical seconds that broke hearts across The Land of Rising Sun. Honorable Japan never backed down, but fortune didn’t favor the brave, as pressing forward late for a winning goal was ultimately their undoing. #TsuriNiItta.

Will this be the tipping point, or the last hurrah for Belgium? They certainly have the offensive firepower to challenge Brazil, but do they have the defensive fortitude to withstand an onslaught from Coutinho & Co.? We’ll find out tomorrow, but it feels like a 5-3 Brazil win to me. Either way, two of the Top 3 ranked teams in the World (according to those dubious FIFA rankings) as well as the two most talented teams left (with the possible exception of France) face each other in a World Cup Final-worthy match. Giddeup!

7/3

Sweden 1:0 Switzerland – A match that had “One-Goal Game” written all over it, The Battle of the Methodical, Clockwork Yellow against the Swiss Metronome, went toe to toe in St. Petersburg. Both teams look lively but cautious in the opening half … 14 shots combined (7 apiece) but only 3 on target in the 1st, Sweden ceding 65% of the possession to the Swiss, which basically held for the entire match … Sweden got the winner in the 66th, Emil Forsberg’s on-target strike on benefitting from Swiss defender Manuel Akanji’s deflection (one of two Swiss replacements for their suspended defenders). A Swiss double switch in the 73rd that brought on Breel Embolo and Haras Seferović for more offense yielded a sustained period of livelier play, but no answer as the Swiss tried to corner kick the Swedes to death, without avail. #BinAngelnGegangen #IlsSontAllésPêcher #AndatoAPescare … Sweden continues their Viking march this Saturday against a familiar Major Tournament foe

Colombia 1:1; 3-4 England – The Round of 16 closed with a heart-stopper in Moscow. Full throttle from the start, neither team afraid of the other, the game eventually devolving into a prolonged schoolyard shoving match … The Hurricane Harry Kane broke the stalemate in the 54th, earning a penalty kick in the face of sustained Colombian provocations and time wasting, and smashing home the penalty in the 57th … Los Cafeteros grew more desperate as the clock ticked away, as American ref Mark Geiger went yellow card happy in a vain attempt to regain control … England also struggled with poise down the stretch, allowing frustration and fatigue to get the better of their efforts, then deciding to run the clock out the last 15 minutes, which predictably backfired. Substituting in Eric “The” Dier “Wolf” for their best creative force Dele Alli almost immediately failed, as Kyle Walker “Kyle Walker’d” Dier’s first pass into a Colombian counterattack, only for winger Juan Cuadrado to go high and wide … Meanwhile without Hamess, Juan Quintero was feeble in his stead, Cuadrado often having to play more centrally to help out, and it was no coincidence that Colombia became more effective after Quintero left the game in the 88th. Yerry Mina brought Colombia to back from the dead in the 93rd, heading a corner off England winger Kieran Trippier’s head at the post and bulging the back of the ole onion bag [© Tommy Smyth]. Riding momentum, Colombia created more opportunities in extra time, but that was mere prelude to the suddenly inevitable penalty shootout. First five kicks were striking perfection, the tension mounting so thick a chainsaw couldn’t cut it, until Colombia’s David Ospina saved Jordan Henderson’s low back-corner-bound bullet, and an all-too familiar feeling crept in … Looking a gift horse in the mouth, Colombia’s Mateus Uribe went off the crossbar to give England a reprieve, then Trippier put the shootout back on schedule with a sure strike. Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Man, and up stepped Jordan Pickford, making an off-handed save on Carlos Bacca’s tepid volley, leaving The DierWolf to exorcise the Ghosts of England’s Shootout Past – his strike barely beating an outstretched Ospina – and Colombia to wonder what might have been #ChokingOnFishAndChips. Not since 1966 has England had as gilded a path to the World Cup Final; A resolute Sweden awaits in Samara.

P.S. – Raheem Sterling is garbage, he hasn’t scored in almost three years for The Three Lions despite never seeing a shot he didn’t like. Start Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Trent Alexander-Arnold, or any hyphenated player Gareth Southgate can call upon next game. Even the Jamie Vardy-Party with a groin strain was an upgrade those last 35 minutes, and he looks doubtful for Saturday.

As Lil’ Wayne once said, “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” You know who has been relatively silent? Sweden. They just keep moving along, and no one suspects them, much like Iceland in the 2016 Euros, and as much as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. As for England, will this unexpected success go to their head? Can Manager Gareth Southgate keep that keel even? Or will the Real “G” be Sweden’s gold shirts moving to the Semis? I can’t wait.

 

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