Germany failing to make it out of the group stages was the biggest surprise of the opening round, but they weren’t the only side to struggle as Argentina, Colombia and Spain waited through the final minutes of the third match day to officially qualify for the knockout rounds. The struggles of the traditional soccer powers gave an opportunity for bubbling sides like Belgium and Croatia to stamp their mark in Russia.
Highlighted below are the one match that shaped each of the 2018 World Cup groups.
Group A: Uruguay 3 - Russia 0
There was little intrigue when Uruguay and Russia met for the final match of the group stage round. Both sides qualified for the knockout phase in their previous match at six points apiece with only the round of 16 seeding to play for. While Russia were tabbed as the surprise team in the tournament after beating Egypt 3-1 in their previous match, there were questions of how they would play against a bigger side in lieu of their 3-0 loss against Spain in the European Championships semifinals in 2008. Taking points off a South American stalwart would have continued their growing momentum and solidified their position as value favorites in front of their home crowd.
Instead, it was business as usual from Uruguay as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani each made history by scoring in three separate World Cups. Oscar Tabarez stated that while his side could have won by more goals, he was happiest to not concede. What was an opportunity for Russia to show their threat in the knockout rounds ended with Uruguay displaying their signature traits and positioning themselves as dark horse favorites instead. With five goals scored and none conceded in their opening three matches, center back Sebastian Coates put the Uruguay formula for the 2018 World Cup in proper perspective: as long as they defend, Suarez and Cavani will score.
Group B: Spain 3 - Portugal 3
There was a sense of inevitability as Cristiano Ronaldo capped his hat trick with a freekick goal in the 88th minute to tie the match 3-3 against Spain. After going down 2-1 at halftime with a David De Gea mistake, Spain were firmly in control through goals from Diego Costa and Nacho. Their performance up to Ronaldo’s heroics was even more impressive when considering Julen Lopetegui’s sacking a day before the start of the World Cup, to which interim manager Fernando Hierro reminded us after the match that Spain are a “mature” side with a distinct style that runs like clockwork. In keeping their high expectations regardless of manager, Gerard Pique disappointedly stated that their opponents had three goals off just three chances, then added a customary complaint at Ronaldo’s diving.
Off-field controversies from both sides threatened to overshadow the match itself. As Spain fired Lopetegui after leaks of an agreement to take over Real Madrid after the World Cup, Ronaldo reached a settlement on his tax evasion case with the Spanish government on the morning of the opening match. Through the distractions, Pique referenced the 1989 Michigan basketball team that won the NCAA tournament with Steve Fisher as interim head coach. But Group B was more difficult than it originally appeared with a stingy Iranian defense holding off both Portugal and Spain until the final match day, to which Dani Carvajal described Iran’s style of defending with 11 players in their own half “a betrayal” (Ricardo Quaresma and Ronaldo also criticized the loyalty of Iran manager Carlos Queiroz). But after that opening match that foreshadowed how exciting the group stages would be for the rest of the tournament, it was only appropriate that Spain and Portugal finished tied on points at the top of the table.
Group C: Denmark 1 - Peru 0
With France heavily favored to top the group, the second place finisher would come down to Denmark, Peru or Australia taking points off the other. Making their first appearance in the World Cup since 1982, Peru set the tempo in the opening match and were rewarded with a penalty kick at the end of the first half. But playmaker Christian Cueva skied the chance, giving Denmark halftime to regroup. Sure enough, it was Christian Eriksen who lead Denmark’s counter attack and played in a pass for Yussuf Poulsen’s goal in the 58th minute. Although it was just one match, Denmark’s 1-0 win over Peru set the pecking order for the rest of the group.
In a common theme throughout teams advancing into the knockout rounds, Denmark manager Age Hareide praised his side’s defense in pointing out that the result was their fifth straight clean sheet since March. In the eight matches since a 5-1 win over Ireland, Denmark scored five goals while conceding just two. They held as stingy a ratio in their three group stage matches, scoring two goals while giving up one on their way to five points. There’s a clear formula in place as they take on Croatia in the round of 16: keep a clean sheet first and foremost, and let Eriksen win a match.
Group D: Croatia 3 - Argentina 0
While Argentina keeper Willy Caballero\'s pass straight to 24-year-old Croatian striker Ante Rebic symbolized the disastrous lack of quality in Jorge Sampaoli’s side, Croatia’s second goal highlighted their overall dominance in the match and the group stage round regardless of opposition mistakes. It was a trademark Luka Modric moment that we’ve seen throughout his time at Real Madrid, receiving the ball on top of his box, hesitating and shifting the defense with body feints before unleashing a perfect shot inside of the right goalpost. The third goal, in which Ivan Rakitic snuck past four Argentine defenders begging for mercy in an offsides call, was cruel by comparison.
Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong narrative in highlighting Sampaoli losing control of his side. Instead, the real story is of a Croatia team finishing the group with three wins, seven goals scored, and just one conceded. Modric described their play against Argentina as the perfect match, and said that his teammates had entered in “some kind of euphoria” filled with “great belief” for the rest of the tournament. In contrast to the pained prematch expressions of Messi, manager Zlatko Dalic said he wanted to reduce his side’s stress rather than drill tactics in the days leading up to the clash between the two group favorites. Filled with self-belief and quality, Croatia may be the most overlooked top side in the knockout rounds.
Group E: Switzerland 2 - Serbia 1
Group E mimicked Group C with one heavy favorite in Brazil and second place determined by teams taking points off each other. Serbia came into the match first place in the group with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica, but Switzerland had the better opening match result in drawing Brazil 1-1. Serbia’s goal five minutes in appeared to solidify the side as potential dark horses lead by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Yet the Swiss responded with two of the best goals in the group stages. First, Granit Xhaka unleashed a curler into the right corner from outside of the box. Then, with Serbia aggressively pushing forward in the 90th minute, Xherdan Shaqiri took Dusko Tosic one on one from the halfway line and slipped the ball under keeper Vladimir Stojkovic to take all three points and tie Brazil on top of the group.
The quality and excitement of the actual match is now overshadowed by political implications taking center stage. Shaqiri and Xhaka were each fined for their post-goal celebration. Swiss manager Vladimir Petkovic responded that one should “never mix football and politics”. Thus, in focusing back onto the pitch, Shaqiri’s match winning moment was a reminder of his breakthrough four years ago in Brazil. His career has stagnated since, inconsistently stumbling from Bayern Munich to Inter to Stoke City. But he is still just 26 years old. Switzerland will need his pace and incisiveness in the open field to advance against Sweden in the round of 16.
Group F: South Korea 2 - Germany 0
By the time Korean sub Ju Se-Jong’s long range shot trickled towards Germany’s open net before getting finished by Son Heung-Min, the shock began to set in. Needing a win against South Korea to replace Mexico in the knockout round, Joachim Low threw on every attack for defense sub he had with Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Julian Brandt coming on for Leon Goretzka, Sami Khedira and Jonas Hector. Instead, the defending champions finished last in their group with three points, scoring just two goals and conceding four. Toni Kroos’ match winner in the 95th minute of their previous game against Sweden was, at the time, the goal of the group stages considering the stakes. Instead, we’re left to wonder if there was a more “pointless moment of match-winning genius”.
There was discord throughout the German national side before the World Cup started as Low left Leroy Sane off the 23-player roster. In hindsight, and in scoring just two goals in the group stages, there were deeper issues than Sane. It is probably time to move on from the likes of Manuel Neuer, Muller and Khedira. While admitting that his side didn’t deserve to go through to the next round, Low also said he didn’t think German football would be entering a dark ages either. We prematurely anointed Germany as 2018 World Cup champions after they won in 2014 due to the amount of their early-20’s talent. But in searching for the decisive goal against South Korea, they looked out of chance creating ideas other than adding more attackers, and eventually Neuer, in the opposition half.
Group G: Belgium 5 - Tunisia 2
It was never a question of whether Belgium or England would qualify from Group G alongside Tunisia and Panama, rather in what strategic order when looking forward to potential round of 16 matchups. Belgium were coming off a 3-0 opening match win over Panama that was closer than the scoreline indicated. That match took a Dries Mertens volley to finally open up a stingy Panama defense. But once Eden Hazard scored a penalty in the sixth minute, there would be no nervous moments trying to break down the bus against Tunisia. Romelu Lukaku was criticized by Hazard for “hiding” during the Panama match. The striker responded with a hat trick this time around as Belgium scored five goals in a World Cup match for the first time in team history.
The goals highlighted the potential of Belgium’s attack and showed why they came into the tournament building momentum as favorites. More impressive than scoring nine goals in the group stages, Roberto Martinez’s side conceded just two. They’ve won 12 out of their last 13 matches, scoring 52 goals while giving up eight. Lukaku himself is on 17 goals in his last 11 matches, failing to score only against Portugal in that span. In contrast to other sides built on defending and taking their chances through counters, Belgium have the confidence to outscore any remaining side left in the tournament.
Group H: Colombia 3 - Poland 0
Upset 2-1 against Japan in their opening match, it appeared as if Colombia would join Argentina and Germany as a side that captivated us four years earlier but was uninspired this time around. Manager Jose Pekerman even admitted that his side were tired in their first match. Yet the 3-0 win against Poland exhibited their attacking traits from Brazil and showed how directly Colombia could play when on form. Juan Quintero’s through ball to Falcao gave Pekerman’s side breathing room after Yerry Mina opened the scoring with a header, but it was James Rodriguez’s crossfield bending pass from inside his own half to Juan Cuadrado that showed their swagger and confidence. The result also knocked Poland out of the tournament and lead up to a final matchday in which Japan went through over Senegal due to the fair play rule.
But the joy was in James’ performance as he once again invoked the playmaking ability that lead to a Real Madrid transfer from the 2014 World Cup. He limped off against Senegal in the final matchday as Colombia topped the group, and his return against England in the round of 16 is in doubt with Pekerman expressing extreme concern over his availability. In assuming the responsibility of other playmakers in the knockout rounds, Colombia will go as far as James takes them. It’s difficult to imagine how they can create enough chances to get past England without his creativity, which would be a let down as we saw how good Colombia could be with James and Falcao at their most confident.