Whipping boys avoid the lash
While the World Cup has had some attritional games (cue furious nodding from anyone who sat through Sweden vs South Korea), it’s had plenty of tension – not least because the gap between the favourites and the underdogs has been far narrower than anticipated.
Costa Rica holding Brazil to 0-0 into injury time (before conceding two late goals) is the latest example. Russia may have thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opener but since then we’ve seen Iran run Spain close, Iceland draw with Argentina, Switzerland hold Brazil, France edge past Australia then Peru by a one-goal margin, while even Saudi Arabia redeemed themselves somewhat with just a 1-0 loss to Uruguay.
The gap between the strongest and weakest teams in the tournament appears far narrower than in previous tournaments, hence the distinct lack of thrashings. It’s not helping the competition’s goal rate, but it has meant some incredibly tight games, as the so-called weakest teams have stood tall against the big boys.
Neymar falls foul of VAR
Yep, we’re going to have to mention the video assistant referee system again (Cristiano Ronaldo must be absolutely fuming that this VAR chap is stealing all of his CR7 limelight). VAR once again came into play during the second half of Costa Rica vs Brazil after referee Bjorn Kuipers had pointed to the spot after Neymar had fallen backwards in the area.
The video replays, however, showed that Giancarlo Gonzalez was innocent of pulling down the Brazilian striker. Kuipers duly reversed his penalty decision after checking the monitor, provoking some debate as to whether he should then have then booked Neymar for what looked like a pretty clear dive,
However, as FourFourTwo understands it, the VAR system is designed to help with crucial decisions such as giving (or reversing) penalties. It’s not in place to deliver retrospective yellow cards for simulation, hence Kuipers just cancelling his penalty decision and restarting the game. At least Neymar had the consolation of his goal, seven minutes into injury time, to seal a 2-0 win.
Musa's half to remember
Jaw-dropping individual displays haven’t been a hallmark of this World Cup with one or two notable exceptions (someone had a decent game during Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain if we recall). Yet after a turgid first 45 minutes between Nigeria and Iceland, Ahmed Musa turned it on in the second half.
In a show of pace, skill and lethal finishing that might have shocked those who saw his tepid displays for Leicester City, Musa ran Nigeria’s defence ragged. He scored a superb half-volley just minutes after half-time, thudded the ball against Iceland’s bar with a curling shot, then put Nigeria 2-0 with a fine individual goal as he weaved his way around Iceland’s defence at top speed and fired the ball into the gaping goal.
Nigeria had been desperately poor in their first match against Croatia and not much better in the first half here. But Musa’s display – with the added bonus of a missed penalty from Gylfi Sigurdsson - gave them three points going into their last group match with Argentina with their destiny firmly in their own hands.
Mitrovic the mystery
Rafa Benitez hasn't done much wrong at Newcastle United, but you wonder whether he might be tempted to change his mind on Aleksandar Mitrovic. At St. James' Park the Serbia striker was half-livewire, half-liability, as likely to get a red as a goal, so Benitez sent him away on loan to Fulham – where he scored 14 in 17 as the Cottagers reached the Premier League.
Now he's on international duty with Serbia, nodding them in front against Switzerland and looking a very good option indeed at the vanguard of the 4-2-3-1 formation Benitez has favoured for most of his managerial career: he made Serbia's formation work much better than Switzerland's identical shape. Strength, aerial power, an eye for goal and the ability to bring his team-mates into play; has Mitrovic done enough to prolong his career on Tyneside, or merely to raise the asking price?
Southgate’s considered warning
It was hardly a furious Sir Alex Ferguson-style dressing down of the press pack, but Gareth Southgate definitely let the media know how he felt about the reported leak of the England line-up to play Panama on Sunday. "Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team, it's a disadvantage to us,” said Southgate. "So of course our media has to decide if they want to help the team or not."
Not a full telling off, but we’re becoming used to Southgate as a considered, intelligent fellow who chooses his words carefully. The England boss is more aware than most how the English press can turn on their national team – and the impact that can have.
His mild-mannered rebuke that “our media has to decide if they want to help the team or not” is, you’d imagine, said with an eye on the future. There was a feel-good factor after England’s late but deserved win over Tunisia, however Southgate will want the media to avoid excessive hand-wringing if his side struggle against Panama or Belgium. No line-up leaks, vicious attacks on the players or overreaction to a performance would be ideal. Well, we can all dream Gareth.
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