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