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Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages

By June 29, 2018No Comments

With the group stage of the World Cup in the books, Press Association Sport looks at some of the highlights – and lowlights – it provided.

Best game: Portugal 3 Spain 3

The tournament got off to a flyer with Portugal and Spain serving up a classic. Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines by completing a hat-trick with a stunning late equaliser.

Worst game: France 0 Denmark 0

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
France’s meeting with Denmark was not a classic (Tim Goode/Empics)

After 13 days, this World Cup got its first goalless draw as France, already through, and Denmark, who needed a point to join them, went through the motions in Moscow.

Best goal: Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa was outstanding against Iceland (AP)

There are plenty of contenders after Russia’s Denis Cheryshev set the tone in game one. There have been fine long-range strikes from Nacho, Philippe Coutinho, Luka Modric, Granit Xhaka, Son Heung-min and Jesse Lingard and a great volley from Dries Mertens. But the skill of Musa to control and smash home against Iceland stood out.

Best team: Croatia

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Croatia stunned Argentina (AP)

Zlatko Dalic’s side completed the group phase with a 100 per cent record, their victories including a clinical 3-0 dismantling of Argentina.

Most disappointing team: Germany

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Germany were expected to be one of the strongest teams but are already out (AP)

The holders mounted an unexpectedly dismal defence of the title they won so impressively four years ago. After losing their opener to Mexico, a last-gasp defeat of Sweden offered hope but they slumped out after an insipid display against South Korea.

Best fans: Senegal

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Senegal fans have brought a lot to the World Cup party (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

The host cities have been awash with the colour and vibrancy of all nations but, for sheer joie de vivre, Senegal take some beating. And that’s without mentioning the fact they pick up their litter on their way out of the ground.

Hits: Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku

England captain Kane proved the chief inspiration and match-winner for their opening victory over Tunisia and followed up with a hat-trick against Panama. Five-time world player of the year Ronaldo has also come to the party while Lukaku has shone at the apex of an exciting Belgium attack.

Misses: Timo Werner, Robert Lewandowski, Julen Lopetegui

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Germany’s Timo Werner did not provide the finishing touch (Tim Goode/Empics)

As Germany’s first-choice centre-forward, much was expected of highly-rated Leipzig forward Timo Werner but he simply failed to make an impact. He was not alone, however, as the vastly-experienced Robert Lewandowski proved hugely underwhelming in Poland’s dire campaign. But they did at least feature. Spain sacked their manager Julen Lopetegui two days before their first game after he apparently took the Real Madrid job without their knowledge.

VAR – the star or a step too far?

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
The VAR system has been a big talking point in Russia (John Walton/Empics)

Even the VAR cynics had to agree that the system worked perfectly on Wednesday as South Korea were awarded the first of their two dramatic late goals against Germany after it had been incorrectly disallowed for offside. That followed other successes such as Neymar being caught out after diving to win a penalty, Sweden earning a spot-kick after a foul was missed, Iran rightly having a goal chalked off for offside and Spain being awarded one. Critics will still point out that it missed Kane and Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic being wrestled off the ball while Australia and Portugal harshly had spot-kicks awarded against them for handball.

Best free-kick:

Perhaps the only positive Germany will have to reflect on from this World Cup wass Toni Kroos culring home his brilliant last-gasp winner against Sweden from a set-piece, in a moment of need, daring, and exceptional quality.

Best pundits:

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Former England international Alex Scott has been part of the BBC’s team (Tim Goode/PA)

The depth and quality of TV analysis has probably never been so high, with both main broadcasters backing up their reliable experts with some smart new signings. Alan Shearer continues to talk common sense on the BBC, who have also benefited from the insight of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Alex Scott. Ally McCoist has done a fine job as a co-commentator on ITV, whose studio analysis has also been strong with Roy Keane, Eni Aluko and Gary Neville proving popular.


Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Willy Caballero had a game to forget against Croatia (AP)

There have been a few head-in-hands moments, the biggest being when Argentina’s Willy Cabellero allowed Croatia’s Ante Rebic to volley home after a poor clearance. Manuel Neuer gifting South Korea a second goal in stoppage time by being caught out in the opponents’ half might have been worse but for the fact Germany were 1-0 down and had essentially already been eliminated.

Best save:

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Manuel Neuer kept Germany in their crucial game with Sweden (AP)

Neuer had previously rolled back the years, diving full stretch to keep Germany in their game against Sweden with a fingertip save from Marcus Berg’s glancing header.

Social media highlights:

Germany’s Mats Hummels summed up his country’s sorrow after their elimination with a simple word – sorry. That was a far cry from Kane’s display of sheer joy after his late winner against Tunisia, which earned him more than 24,000 retweets. Elsewhere, Ian Wright’s stunned reaction to a Lionel Messi penalty miss went viral while Jesse Lingard provided some talking points with his photographs of England team-mates racing unicorns in their hotel pool.

The tournament in numbers:

1: The world ranking of champions Germany before the event began.

2.5: Average goals per match after 48 games.

24: Penalties awarded in the tournament – a new record and already 11 more than in the whole of the 2014 event.

252: ‘Attacks’ by Germany in their three games, according to FIFA statistics. It came to little avail.

2,089: Passes completed by Spain in their three games.

Team of the tournament (so far):

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages PLZ Soccer
Harry Kane, having scored five goals, would lead the line

Jo (South Korea); Trippier (England), Gimenez (Uruguay), Stones (England), Cheryshev (Russia); Casemiro (Brazil); Hazard (Belgium), Coutinho (Brazil); Ronaldo (Portugal), Kane (England), Lukaku (Belgium).