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10 big talking points from the first round of World Cup matches

Germany Mexico

1. The hosts are sticking around

Even Russia’s own media and fans were fearing that they’d become only the second host nation ever to exit at the group stage. But thanks to a comprehensive opening day 5-0 victory, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men looked primed to stay at their own party – a view they confirmed with that follow-up victory over Egypt.

Sure, regular whipping boys Saudi Arabia might not have provided the most difficult of challenges (some understatement, we must say). But Russia, looking far from the disorganised mess that many anticipated, did enough to suggest they could cause tougher opposition problems. Aleksandr Golovin was magnificent, while super-sub Denis Cheryshev grabbed two goals off the bench and got another from the start against Egypt. Even Vladimir Putin will be happy with this.   

2. Iceland’s remarkable rise continues

Iceland may no longer be considered plucky minnows, but their first ever World Cup game against 2014 runners-up Argentina still looked like a tall order. Once again, however, the Nordic nation proved just how effective good organisation can be. The smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament were compact throughout and shut down Lionel Messi in open play – they had just 22% possession – in a superb display which frustrated the South Americans throughout.

Iceland may be all about super-efficient teamwork, but the 1-1 draw did create two specific heroes: Alfred Finnbogason for scoring his homeland’s first-ever World Cup goal, and Hannes Halldorsson for saving a penalty from the game’s biggest superstar.

3. Ronaldo 3-0 Messi

In stark contrast to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo had the opening game of his dreams. The man newly dubbed El Comandante single-handedly steered Portugal to a well-earned point in one of the most enthralling encounters the World Cup has ever seen.

Ronaldo did need a spot of luck to net a hat-trick in the 3-3 thriller – a terrible fumble from the typically dependable David de Gea, a penalty which was followed by one of his trademark smirks. However, his vital third goal in the 88th minute – a stunning 25-yard free-kick which curled over the Spanish wall into the right-hand corner of the net – was the work of a genius. The gauntlet to Messi has well and truly been thrown down.       

4. Germany are far from invincible

Four-time winners Germany hadn’t lost their first World Cup game since a shock defeat to Algeria in 1982, and their last four openers were won by scorelines of 8-0, 4-2, 4-0 and 4-0. However, Mexico upset the odds to win 1-0 with an immaculate display which suggested the North Americans may finally advance past the second round.

Meanwhile, Germany manager Joachim Low may well be more concerned with his side’s performance than the result. Highly vulnerable to the counter-attack, impotent in front of goal and generally lacking the sharpness we’ve come to expect, the holders looked a shadow of their 2014 vintage. 

5. England may have lost ‘the fear’

Whereas the so-called Golden Generation regularly suffered at the first sign of pressure, the newer, less experienced England refused to panic. Admittedly, Gareth Southgate’s men initially looked to be slipping towards a disappointing draw with a relatively lethargic second-half performance against Tunisia, yet their more patient approach eventually paid off.

The winner came in the 91st minute, scored by the man who appeared to have wandered into a game of rugby league, so often was Harry Kane manhandled by England’s opponents.

Of course, the Three Lions should have had the match wrapped up by the half-hour mark, with Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli all fluffing glorious opportunities. But if England can improve their shooting prowess, their rampant opening spell – and apparent lack of the dreaded fear – suggests they could well surpass rather humble expectations.

6. VAR is working – sort of

Sure, there’s been the odd dodgy decision. Argentina should probably have been awarded a second penalty against Iceland for a trip on Cristian Pavon, while Kane was robbed of at least one blatant spot-kick. But for the most part, the much-debated introduction of VAR to the World Cup has been fairly seamless.

The game hasn’t suffered from the relentless American Football-style interruptions many feared, while correctly awarded penalties for France, Peru and Sweden would have otherwise been missed. We still don’t quite understand why the VAR officials need to wear the full referee kit, but for now its debut should be considered a relative success. There's nothing wrong with the technology, but there are still issues with how it's being used by officials. 

7. Own goal bonanza

We’re less than a week into the tournament, and 2018 has already seen more own goals than 16 of the previous 19 World Cups. Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz got the ball rolling with a desperate, decisive diving header in the 95th minute against Iran.

Paul Pogba was then stripped of his match-winning strike for France as the goal was later attributed to Australia's Aziz Behich, while Nigeria’s Oghenekaro Etebo inadvertently knocked Luka Modric’s cross into his own net against Croatia.

Senegal’s opener against Poland was attributed to Thiago Cionek, then Ahmed Fathy inadvertently opened the scoring for Russia against Egypt, meaning Russia 2018 has already seen five own goals. Only France '98, with six, has more.

8. Set-piece specialists

Spectacular free-kicks from Cristiano Ronaldo, Aleksandar Kolarov and Aleksandr Golovin, plus a cunning one from Juan Quintero. Coolly taken penalties from Ferjani Sassi, Andreas Granqvist and Mile Jedinak. Well-directed corner kicks from Keisuke Honda and Xherdan Shaqiri which directly led to headed goals.

Approximately 57% of all goals scored in the first round of games came via set-pieces, and dead-ball situations have dominated the tournament so far. In fact, only three matches have failed to provide a goal via one, and two of those (Argentina vs Iceland, Peru vs Denmark) featured a missed spot-kick.

The use of VAR has been credited for the rise – although both David de Gea and Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary have claimed that the match ball itself is the likelier culprit.  

9. Bug spray is a must-have item

From the searing heat of USA ’94 to the vuvuzelas of South Africa 2010, each host nation usually serves up their own distinctive nuisance, and Russia 2018 is no exception. This time around it’s the army of midges and mosquitos plaguing the city of Volgograd.

Despite covering themselves from head to toe in bug repellent, England stars were seen constantly swatting away the pesky insects during their victory at the Volgograd Arena – and this is all after local officials deployed a number of helicopters to spray pesticides over the offending area. Iceland and Nigeria, the next two teams to brave the city, may want to start thinking about playing in beekeeper suits.  

10. ITV can’t stop dropping the ball

As always, the BBC’s World Cup coverage remains the slickest on the box, but ITV’s general ineptness has provided the most entertainment. Things started badly when streaming coverage of the opening game was briefly interrupted by an online betting ad.

Patrice Evra then got social media into a tizz with his incredulous clapping in response to England Women’s Eni Aluko making an insightful contribution as a pundit. Throw in commentator Sam Matterface’s bizarre reference to Mel and Sue, plus the garish Russian palace setting, and ITV are not enjoying a tournament to remember for the right reasons.

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