Wednesday 26 September 2018

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages so far

A look at the highlights and lowlights of the opening two weeks of the tournament.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the stars of the World Cup so far (Adam Davy/Empics)
Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the stars of the World Cup so far (Adam Davy/Empics)

By Andy Hampson, Press Association Sport

The group stages of the World Cup are drawing to a close.

Here, Press Association Sport looks at some of the highlights of the tournament so far.

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 and equalising with a stunning late free-kick.

Worst game: France 0 Denmark 0

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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)

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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

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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: Poland

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Poland have been dismal (AP)

Edged out by Senegal and then thrashed by Colombia, Robert Lewandowski and company are heading home early after a poor tournament.

Best fans: Senegal

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Senegal fans at the 2018 World Cup (File pic)

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: Robert Lewandowski, Jorge Sampaoli and Julen Lopetegui

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Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli has been under fire

After scoring 16 goals in qualifying, Poland talisman Lewandowski hoped to set the tournament alight but he failed to spark. Rumours Argentina manager Sampaoli had lost the dressing room flared up after their shock loss to Croatia but at least he made it to the tournament. Spain sacked Lopetegui two days before their first game after the announcement he would take over as Real Madrid boss after the tournament.

VAR – the star or a step too far?

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The VAR system has been a big talking point in Russia (John Walton/Empics)

The system has caught out Neymar after diving to win a penalty, awarded Sweden a spot-kick after the referee initially missed a foul, correctly disallowed an Iran goal for offside and awarded Spain one. It still isn’t perfect though. 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:

When it comes to star players delivering when their teams need them most, Ronaldo’s free-kick against Spain takes some beating – but Germany’s Toni Kroos eclipsed him when he curled home his brilliant last-gasp winner against Sweden from a set-piece.

Best pundits:

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Former England international Alex Scott has been part of the BBC’s team in Russia (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.

Howlers:

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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 and when Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak gifted Senegal’s M’Baye Niang a goal with a dreadful backpass.

Best save:

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Manuel Neuer kept Germany in their crucial game with Sweden (AP)

Manuel Neuer 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:

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. Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogason showed his sense of humour by referring to the midges in Volgograd while Harry Kane’s display of sheer joy after netting his late winner against Tunisia earned him more than 24,000 retweets.

The tournament in numbers:

0: Shots by Iran in the second half of their clash against Morocco – but they still won, courtesy of a late own goal.

2.6: Average goals per match after 40 games.

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

28: Shots by Peru before they registered their first goal.

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

Team of the tournament (so far):

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World Cup XI. Team of the tournament so far.

Ochoa (Mexico); Trippier (England), Gimenez (Uruguay), Stones (England), Cheryshev (Russia); Herrera (Mexico); Hazard (Belgium), Coutinho (Brazil); Ronaldo (Portugal), Kane (England), Lukaku (Belgium).

Press Association

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