6 days, 16 matches and 38 goals since Russia kicked off the 2018 World Cup in Moscow last Thursday, and this edition’s festival of fun has got off to an extremely promising start.
Not many would have foreseen the host nation’s exhilarating start at the Luzhniki stadium last week, and albeit against relatively weak opposition in the form of Saudi Arabia, their impressive 5-0 victory was a pleasant surprise for many neutrals who may have expected a cagey, tense opener.
Notching two goals and an assist, CSKA Moscow’s Aleksandr Golovin was a constant thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side as he provided two pinpoint crosses for Russia’s first and third goals before adding a delightful free-kick in the 94th minute to crown an excellent performance.
The 22 year-old is the subject of interest from numerous Premier League clubs this summer, but for now he will hope to steal the headlines and guide his country through their group.
Another star of the opening game was Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev. Following Alan Dzagoev’s injury, Cheryshev was introduced as a first half substitute, and his pace immediately caused Saudi Arabia problems down the left-hand side.
Just before half time, his audacious flick to evade two defenders before lashing the ball into the top corner gave Russia breathing space, and his outside of the foot curler in the closing stages was another beautiful goal.
Whilst Dzagoev was no doubt an important player for the Russians, his injury may prove to be a blessing in disguise as Cheryshev’s pace and skill make them far more threatening when going forward.
A day later, two dramatic late goals gave Uruguay and Iran wins over Egypt and Morocco respectively before the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi hosted the most intriguing fixture that the group stage draw produced.
Euro 2016 winners Portugal faced Spain in an encounter that many hoped would be a thriller – and it didn’t disappoint. That game had it all.
A hat-trick from one of the world’s best in Cristiano Ronaldo, a goal of the tournament contender from Nacho, late drama, controversy, and overall, exciting football.
Spain had sacked their manager, Julen Lopetegui, just two days before their campaign began, after Lopetegui joined Real Madrid without consulting the national side.
Whilst it may seem ridiculous that Lopetegui didn’t notify his current employers of the fact that he would be taking on a new job, it was even more ridiculous that the decision was taken to sack him so soon before the World Cup, especially as key players such as Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta pleaded with the Spain president to keep Lopetegui in his job.
Nevertheless, former Real Madrid centre-back Fernando Hierro has taken the reigns, and after two days of pure chaos, their tournament couldn’t have begun any worse when Cristiano Ronaldo was tripped in the penalty area and struck home to give Portugal the lead inside just four minutes.
The impressive Diego Costa then struck back for Spain, before a shock error from the usually outstanding David De Gea gifted Portugal the lead again when he allowed Ronaldo’s shot to slip through his fingers.
Costa fired them level once more in the second half before Nacho’s outrageous strike put them 3-2 ahead, but in the 88th minute, that man Cristiano Ronaldo confirmed his hat-trick with a stunning free-kick.
Whilst a draw in their opening game was not what the Spaniards would have hoped for, their performance was more than promising.
Defensively, the three goals they conceded did not point to any ongoing problems that could potentially resurface; a penalty was needlessly given away, their goalkeeper uncharacteristically made a huge mistake and they conceded a stunning free-kick. These are not long term problems, and assuming that De Gea is back to his best for the remainder of the tournament, with Ramos and Pique in front of him, Spain’s defence should not be a worry. And neither should their attack be.
In Diego Costa, they have a man who provides them with a different way of scoring goals.
Usually, Spain rely on beautiful passing moves to carve chances open, but Costa gives the side another dimension, as demonstrated with his first goal, a goal that Spain would never have scored before he was in the team.
Sergio Busquets picked the ball up midway inside his own half and immediately got his head up and looked for Costa over the top. The striker shrugged off Pepe before bullying the other Portugal defenders and typically lashing the ball into the corner. Classic Costa.
Add this to the brilliance of Isco, Iniesta and David Silva, who can pick almost any defence apart with their skill and vision, along with the pace of Iago Aspas and the threat of Marco Asensio from the bench, and Spain look capable of scoring freely at this tournament.
Despite their managerial mayhem prior to the tournament, Lopetegui has laid the foundations of a potential winning side, so there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way.
And, even though they only picked up a point, Spain arguably looked the most impressive side in the competition thus far – other big names such as France, Germany, Argentina and Brazil all struggled, and despite their undoubted quality, none of those sides seemed to gel in their openers.
France relied on a strange own-goal to overcome Australia in a 2-1 victory, and it remains to be seen whether or not Didier Deschamps can get the best out of his talented squad, especially when it comes to players like Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele, who both have unquestionable talent but both endured a season of inconsistent performances for their clubs.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Germany’s 1-0 defeat to Mexico as the world champions couldn’t find a way past a good-looking Mexican side.
Hirving Lozano, who looks a real talent, gave Mexico the lead in the first half, and the often cool and collected Germans were unable to claw it back and ended up slumping to a loss.
The Germans should still be a strong force this year though; they always are – but is this one tournament too many for Joachim Low?
Lionel Messi and co. were also extremely underwhelming as Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw with a resolute Iceland side that successfully nullified the threat of the little number 10.
Tightly marked for 90 minutes, Messi struggled to find space at all and was unable to weave his magic.
He had a shot from just outside the area which curled narrowly wide, but his clearest chance came from the spot as he was gifted the opportunity to put his team 2-1 in front.
Messi’s penalty record has been poor in recent years and his penalty on the day was even poorer as the Icelandic goalkeeper Halldorsson comfortably pushed it away.
Argentina face Croatia on Thursday facing problems that have stayed with them throughout Messi’s entire international career – how do you get the best out of him?
For now, it seems unlikely that they ever will, but it will be intriguing to see if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and turn Argentina into contenders – at the moment, they are far from challenging for the trophy.
Brazil were the final ‘big’ team that failed to perform. They were by no means awful in their 1-1 draw with Switzerland, but they lacked a cutting edge. Still, with Willian, Jesus, Coutinho and Neymar about this should not be a problem, and they are still among the favourites.
Finally, regarding England, Gareth Southgate’s side deservedly claimed a 2-1 win over Tunisia courtesy of a brace from Harry Kane, and although they had to wait until stoppage time to get the winning goal, Southgate’s men were the superior side.
Not only should England have been awarded two clear penalties, they spurned countless opportunities through Jesse Lingard and John Stones.
Defensively, England weren’t really tested and only gave away a goal because of Kyle Walker’s careless foul, so it is still unknown as to whether or not their new-look defence can keep out the top teams, but going forward, England show promise.
As we know, Harry Kane is a hugely important player for the team and his goals could prove pivotal if England are to go deep into the tournament, whilst pace will not be an issue with Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford in the squad.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s cameo appearance was also promising, so going forward England could be a threatening team.
Each team has only played one game so far and it is extremely hard to tell who will be lifiting the trophy in Moscow on the 15th July, but Spain could be the real deal – or will football be coming home?