We have not yet reached the “survive and advance” stage. Not quite. But when Portugal and Spain marched out onto fields in Moscow and Kazan on Wednesday, six hours apart, Chapter 1 of the 2018 World Cup concluded. Chapter 2 commenced.
And as it did, stakes rose. Pressure intensified. Several minutes past 10 p.m. local time, with Spain and Iran locked in a suspenseful stalemate, the realization struck: All it would take was one moment. One moment, even on Day 7, could push a World Cup favorite to the brink. For La Furia Roja, crunch time had arrived.
That looming prospect, of a favorite’s fate being ripped from its grasp, is what distinguishes the group stage’s second round from the first. And it smacked viewers around the globe flush in the face when a loose ball fell to Iran’s Karim Ansarifard 15 yards from goal. Ansarifard sent it hurtling through penalty-area traffic. The Spanish net rippled. And shock spread.
Seconds later, when it became clear that Ansarifard’s shot had flashed past the outside of the post, not the inside, normal breathing rhythms resumed. Butts sunk back into couches. A minute later, Spain was in front, and dreams of an upset had been dashed.
Sometimes luck is all you kneed.
(we'll see ourselves out) pic.twitter.com/B6arwyukFU
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 20, 2018
But that moment … those shockwaves … they didn’t just evaporate into the Russian night. They served as a reminder: That on Matchday 2, after anything less than three points on Matchday 1, a win is paramount; style points are irrelevant; results trump all else.
If the objective had been to extinguish doubt and affirm contender status, Wednesday was a day of losing at the World Cup. Narrow wins (3) and fluky goals (2) outnumbered convincing performances (0) from favorites.
But of course, that wasn’t the objective. Wednesday was about results. And it was a day of winning for those favorites. So it was a day of winners.
Winners: Iberian favorites in need of results
Spain, Portugal and Uruguay snatched three points apiece. And while they didn’t look all that good in the process, the group stage’s second round is no time to get picky – especially for the two Iberian rivals.
Their Matchday 1 draw had been a positive result all around, but Iran’s victory over Morocco had heaped pressured onto the European giants. A draw for either on Wednesday would have left it facing a must-win next week. A loss for either would have left it needing considerable help.
But both claimed victories in contrasting fashion. Portugal clung to an early Cristiano Ronaldo goal for 86 minutes while on the back foot. Spain labored to break down Iran despite endless possession and control, and only did so via a fortunate ricochet.
Each had its own way of failing to impress. Spain dominated two thirds of the field but lacked bite in the final third. Portugal had that bite, but was outplayed elsewhere.
Both, however, have one thing in common: They’ll need only a draw on Matchday 3 to book their respective places in the knockout rounds. And if/when they do, their Wednesday struggles will be forgotten.
Winner: Cristiano Ronaldo
What else is there to say about Ronaldo? His 85th goal for Portugal took him into second place, and first among Europeans, on the all-time international goalscoring charts. He’s atop the 2018 World Cup Golden Boot standings as well.
Cristiano Ronaldo does it again!
He heads home the corner to put Portugal up 1-0 early against Morocco. pic.twitter.com/FDoyvInvt4
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 20, 2018
And he’s the reason Portugal needn’t dominate games like Spain does. He can conjure goals out of nothing. He’s the reason his nation could be a World Cup contender even if it continues playing like it did Wednesday.
Winner: Euro 2016-esque Portugal
Portugal is the only one of the three favorites in action Wednesday whose stock has risen over the past week. That’s because it looks exactly like the team that won Euro 2016 two summers ago. Its defending and midfield play are unconvincing but ultimately successful. Its goalscoring is opportunistic and timely. It doesn’t link dozens of passes together at once or win the ball high up the field; but it doesn’t have to.
Now, that’s not to say Portugal isn’t one bad break away from a loss – it is. That’s not to say it’s a favorite – it isn’t. It very easily could have one point instead of four. Ronaldo’s pace is unsustainable. And the Iran game is going to be a stiff test.
But those of us who expected Portugal to sputter in Group B discounted the validity of the Euro 2016 formula. So far, it’s working again.
For Uruguay, unlike Spain and Portugal, there was little difference between a win and a draw Wednesday. Both outcomes would have put La Celeste through to the Round of 16. But its inferior goal differential means it must beat Russia on Matchday 3 to top Group A, despite its 100 percent record. Only a seven-goal rout of Saudi Arabia would have altered the scenarios.
So the matchup with the Saudis should have been about building for the knockout rounds. It should have been about self-discovery; about searching for an open, free-flowing side to a team that’s inherently cautious, even if just to have that capability in a back pocket.
Instead, Oscar Tabarez benched two of his young, exciting midfielders, Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Nahitan Nandez. After subpar performances against Egypt, it’s unclear if those two will get a second chance. And it’s unclear if Uruguay believers will ever get to see the more expressive, proactive side of the team they thought they’d see.
Even without that stylistic versatility, Uruguay will still be a problem in the elimination rounds. It confirmed its place with a 1-0 win. Its proven ability to win ugly is untainted by group stage struggles. But they’ve nonetheless been disappointing.
Loser: Morocco in the final third
Morocco was the first team officially eliminated from the 2018 World Cup, and its epitaph will drone on about its inability to capitalize on a couple of excellent midfield displays. Its lack of a competent striker proved costly.
There were two related problems: Morocco didn’t finish the chances it did create. But, just as important, it rarely carved out high-quality chances, in large part because talented midfielders rarely had anybody to aim for. Its 15 shots Wednesday amounted to just 0.9 Expected Goals:
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) June 20, 2018
Morocco’s campaign highlighted just how cruel the World Cup can be. Morocco had an identity. It had well-drilled, effective tactics. It executed them impressively. But two set pieces sent it home.
Losers: Moroccan doctors, concussion protocol, FIFA
Nobody follows concussion protocol, because FIFA doesn’t enforce it. Wednesday’s Moroccan fiasco was, as FIFPro said, “yet another alarming example.” More here.
Winners: Lovers of chaos
The best part about Spain’s and Portugal’s 1-0 victories? They bring some fun scenarios into play.
In simultaneous games on Monday, Spain will take the field against Morocco and Portugal will face Iran. If the two favorites achieve identical scorelines again, they’d be tied on all but one tiebreaking measure: discipline.
So if Spain and Portugal win or tie by the same score, the number of yellow and red cards each has picked up during group play would determine who wins the group and who finishes second. If they lose by the same score, card counts would send one through and eliminate the other. (An explanation of discipline scores can be found here.)
And if card counts are even? A random drawing of lots would be decisive.
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