A triumph for cliché lovers
There's a reason you never write them off. Just when it looked like Germany's 2018 World Cup fate was out of their own hands, suddenly it is again. Astonishingly, Joachim Low's team saved themselves from the brink of early elimination thanks to Toni Kroos's wondrous free-kick routine in the 95th minute which ended a match of toil and suffering.
Ola Toivonen had given Sweden a stunning half-time lead with a glorious chip to match the occasion, but Marco Reus levelled things up two minutes and 30 seconds into the second half. It still didn't look like it would be enough, especially not when the hapless Jerome Boateng was sent off with the second half wearing on.
But then came Kroos's time to shine – the same Kroos who endured a torrid first game against Mexico. The same Kroos who gifted possession to Sweden for their opening goal in Sochi. This was the Kroos who was so exceptional in 2014 as Germany became world champions. The Kroos who fired home from a ludicrous angle to give Germany three points that mean they're not sweating on a Mexico-Sweden draw in the final game.
Low did everything he could to stop this from going the same way as that Mexico defeat. Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira were dropped for Marcos Reus and Sebastian Rudy, Jonas Hector returned from illness in place of Marvin Plattenhardt, while one enforced change saw Antonio Rudiger coming in for Mats Hummels. But this was another out-of-sorts performance. Luckily for them, just not one out-of-sorts performance too many.
Eden and Rom run riot
The game that England could have had against Tunisia? Quite possibly. Belgium tore the north African side apart in a thumping 5-2 victory, and the margin of victory could have been much wider. This was a match of seven goals and 39 shots – 23 of them for Roberto Martinez's team, but 16 for the defeated Tunisians who will go home after the group stage.
They got their first via Eden Hazard's penalty – won by the man himself – after only six minutes, and then a second via Romelu Lukaku 10 minutes later. Both were magnificent, ended with two goals each and looked razor sharp against a Tunisian defence that was anything but.
Michy Batshuayi could have scored four times despite only coming on with 22 minutes remaining. After three big misses and an apparent curse, he finally rounded off Belgium's scoring in the 90th minute.
This, then, was Belgium's mighty arsenal of attacking talent coming together and demolishing an opposition side at this World Cup – as it did in the second half against Panama, when they scored three times. But there's a 'but'...
Belgium: entertaining but flawed
We didn't really learn anything new about this Belgium team. Anybody who loosely follows football knows what they have at its disposal, but that doesn't change perceptions about their biggest flaws either.
Roberto Martinez may have guided the Red Devils through qualifying and recently friendlies easily, but their opposition has mostly been weak. The last two top-15 nations they've faced are Portugal (0-0, June) and Mexico in November, when they conceded three times in a pulsating 3-3 draw. In March 2017 there was another 3-3, this time against Russia. And that's the thing: defences generally win World Cups, and Belgium's doesn't seem to match such a profile.
England will take heart from watching Tunisia score twice against them in Moscow. The first came from the head of right-back Dylan Bronn after Belgium's non-existent defensive line was beaten by a free-kick; the second when the game was sewn up, as Wahbi Khazri tapped home unmarked inside the box.
Glass-half-empty Three Lions fans will understandably look at the attacking riches Roberto Martinez can call upon with trepidation, but perhaps they should instead be focusing on how England can hurt Belgium in return. In reality, Martinez is not known for building defensively sound teams and there are obvious weaknesses in this one too: namely, Yannick Carrasco playing at left-full-back and the possibility of an unfit Vincent Kompany returning. There will be space to exploit.
Two sides to Chucky
Hirving Lozano was a common pre-tournament pick for players to watch at this tournament (including from FFT, we should say) off the back of a thrilling 17-goal debut season for PSV.
The 22-year-old's livewire, match-winning display against Germany in Mexico's opening game justified the hype, and against SouthKoreain El Tri's 2-1 win he showed again why he's one of world football's most talked-about young players – but perhaps also why expectations should be tempered at the same time.
His most decisive contribution in the first half actually came in his own penalty area, when he hurtled back to deny Lee Hong an almost certain goal with a heroic block. That preceded a string of haphazard finishes and the odd lost ball at the other end, but he ploughed on and looked a huge threat on the break for Mexico – never more so than when he drove forward from deep, hurdled a challenge and fed Javier Hernandez for the killer goal. So far, so good.
Martinez to make changes
Then again, England's final game against Belgium could be a very strange and unpredictable one indeed. Post-match, Red Devils boss Martinez was quite clear in declaring that he will make "major changes" against the Three Lions, having already qualified. "If we could have seven days to prepare for that game and then another seven days before the following game, then we would start with the same starting XI," he said.
Lukaku could have 'possible' ligament damage, Hazard picked up a calf issue and Dries Mertens sustained an ankle knack. At this point it's not clear how bad each of those injuries is, but players are unlikely to be risked regardless – should England beat Panama as expected, their match will effectively be something of a free hit (and, cynically, the loser may well end up with an easier pathway to the final).
Gareth Southgate will likely share Martinez's viewpoint and rotate: it's good for fitness, but also good for morale to use your 23-man squad. As an unused substitute throughout 2002 and for half of England's matches at France '98, he will know that better than anyone.
Russia makes for penalty paradise
Mexico's penalty was the 14th awarded at this World Cup – which is already one more than in 2014. A spot-kick has been given in 13 of 29 matches at Russia 2018 (45%), in fact, when no tournament since 1966 had ever seen penalties in more than 29% of matches (in 1978). The current record is 18 (set in 1990, 1998 and 2002).
That astonishing upturn is almost certainly down to VAR, which has had a hand in five of them so far this summer (for the record: France vs Australia, Peru vs Denmark, Sweden vs South Korea, Egypt vs Russia and Australia vs Denmark). On the flip side, only one awarded penalty has been reversed (Neymar vs Costa Rica).
There's debate about whether the technology is working – but it's definitely having a major impact.
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