The main event
As incredible as it seems, only 10 days into this condensed World Cup we are about to wrap up two of the groups. Which means today we get matches played simultaneously, and we might need an abacus on hand to work out group permutations, especially if the scores keep changing and swinging as rapidly as Serbia, Cameroon, South Korea and Ghana managed yesterday.
In the evening Group B concludes with the highly politically charged rivalry of Iran v USA and the highly politically charged rivalry of Wales v England. Things are out of Wales’ hands. They must beat England for the first time since 1984, and hope that neither the US or Iran can conjure a win. England will progress providing they avoid a four-goal defeat, something Wales have never managed against their nearest neighbours. Surely, surely, Gareth Southgate will adjust his starting XI and give the likes of Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips some minutes?
But Iran v USA is where the fire is. With Iran’s FA protesting about Team USA’s social media insulting their flag, and the political situation remaining tense in Iran amid the ongoing protests, Carlos Queiroz hardly defused the situation on Monday. While calling for less politics at the World Cup, he took a swipe at the US, saying: “You talk of human rights, racism, kids dying in schools with shootings, we have solidarity with all those causes. But here our mission is bring smiles to all people for 90 minutes.” Both sides know a win will send them through. For the US, it would be their third consecutive escape from a World Cup group. For Iran, their first venture into the knockout rounds at the sixth attempt. A draw will be enough for Iran – unless Wales win. You will definitely need two screens and some strong nerves for this.
Before then the Netherlands will almost certainly qualify by avoiding defeat against hosts Qatar, while Ecuador and Senegal shoot it out for second place. A draw will suffice for Ecuador, who have an identical record to the Netherlands . If they both win by identical scores, then its down to their their disciplinary records – currently the Dutch sit top with one yellow card compared to Ecuador’s three. Senegal lost out on the round of 16 to Japan on fairplay in 2018 in Russia – the only time the ranking criteria has ever had to be applied before.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s coach Félix Sánchez has been in post since 2017 and worked in the country’s football set-up since 2006, but you imagine he is thumbing his Arabic phrase book so he can spot when the crowd starts singing “you’re getting sacked in the morning” later today, assuming the hosts put up a third insipid display at their own, very expensive, party. Kick off times shift to two matches at 3pm GMT, and two matches at 7pm GMT, and that is how it will stay until the end of the group phase on Friday. MB
Cameroon and Serbia thrill to give tournament that summer feel
If World Cups are about classic games and classic goals, Serbia’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Cameroon had it all. A clash of continents and styles and a wild comeback: this game felt like the heady days of summer tournaments after the barrage of goalless draws in the first week. Whether it sparks a prolongued goal rush and a move away from safety-first tactics in Qatar remains to be seen, but there were two very different goals that showed football at its finest. First came Serbia’s third, Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Andrija Zivkovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic knitting together a sublime passing move that ended with the Fulham forward scoring his first goal in Qatar. Ten minutes later Vincent Aboubakar offered a lesson in the striker’s art, bursting off the shoulder of the last defender, turning inside the recovery tackle and momentarily transforming his right foot into a sand wedge to lift the most delicate of finishes high over the onrushing goalkeeper to complete a memorable comeback. This is what we have been waiting for. RB
Son’s pain reminds that clubs must pick up the pieces
South Korea are not quite out, but the plight of Son Heung-min throws forward the question of a mid-season World Cup. Rather than a summer of physical recovery, a holiday to dull the psychological pain of an early exit, Son must soon throw himself into the Premier League with Tottenham. His facial injury has hindered him but his desperate chasing back loose balls and raging at teammates reflected the burden certain players carry for their country. His corners were especially poor. The flip side, meanwhile, is that club managers such as Crystal Palace’s Patrick Vieira may feel the benefit of Jordan Ayew’s greater confidence after assisting both of Ghana’s first-half goals. As might Nathan Jones at Southampton with the excellent Mohammed Salisu, supplier of many a last-ditch tackle and header after his early goal. JB
When considering this competition, the human-rights abuses inflicted by the government of Qatar are sometimes obfuscated by those keen to draw attention to the iniquities of other nation states. What brings things into sharper clarity, though, is the migrant workers who have died so we can enjoy the football. The official death count on World Cup sites stands at three work-related and 37 non-work related, but it’s almost impossible to give a precise total – a truthful one could be far higher – because relevant information has been suppressed by the authorities. Between 2010 and 2019, 15,021 foreigners died in Qatar, and a Guardian analysis discovered that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died since the tournament was awarded. As the competition intensifies, we mustn’t forget that the delight it brings us comes at a terrible price. DH
Serbia’s difficulties against Cameroon didn’t go down well with the press at home. Serbian tabloid Informer wrote that the team “played from brilliance to despair and back again several times”, complaining they had put themselves “in a very bad situation before the match with Switzerland”. The sports desk at Kurir wrote that at one point “the only question that was asked was: how many more goals will we score? At least that’s what we all thought. But it’s unbelievable what happened to Serbia’s game from the 64th to the 66th minute”, the crucial minutes when Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting turned it around for the not-quite-entirely-Indomitable Lions.
In the middle of spreading protests against anti-Covid measures in the country, Chinese state television has censored World Cup games to remove shots of maskless crowds. The images have caused comment on social media and stoked anger in China, where hundreds of millions remain under strict pandemic restrictions. MB
The internet reacts
The novelty of the Fifa directive that time added on must reflect actual minutes played has fully worn off. It’s now accepted, such that games like Cameroon 3-3 Serbia and South Korea 2-3 Ghana have the public demanding yet more bonus football.
When Greater Manchester’s Anthony Taylor refused to add not much more than 10 minutes onhe met the ire of South Korea’s coach Paulo Bento – soon sent off – and much of the social media multiverse. JB
Ecuador v Senegal (Group A, 3pm GMT, ITV4) Ecuador have been quietly impressive so far in swatting aside Qatar and pegging back the Netherlands, and Gustavo Alfaro’s vibrant young side need only a draw to reach the last 16. Their old warhorse Enner Valencia is joint top of the Golden Boot standings with Kylian Mbappé on three goals and they will be hoping he recovers from a knee injury to face Senegal, who realistically need a win to go through. Aliou Cissé’s side looked understandably toothless in defeat to the Netherlands but their strikers came to the party against Qatar. Boulaye Dia, Famara Diédhiou and Bamba Dieng all scored against the hosts to offer hope that the Africa Cup of Nations champions can continue their ascent. RB
Netherlands v Qatar (Group A, 3pm GMT, ITV1) The hosts are already out, but Louis van Gaal’s side must be careful as defeat could would bring ridicule and the possibility of a humiliating early flight home. The Netherlands need only a draw to progress but they have failed to excite and two-goal Cody Gakpo has been one of their few bright sparks. Memphis Depay could be back to lead the line after a thigh injury has restricted him to substitute appearances so far. “He is an extraordinary player,” Van Gaal has said, and Depay’s return could be crucial in the battle for top spot. The runners-up are looking at a possible last-16 tie with England. RB
Iran v USA (Group B, 7pm GMT, BBC2) Winner takes all from a match that has been dominated by the flag row in the buildup. Both teams impressed in their previous games and will surely go on the attack knowing the loser heads home. Iran will likely start Sardar Azmoun again after he impressed in the dramatic win against Wales, while the USA must find the goals to match their impressive buildup play. Athletic in midfield and mobile on the flanks, Gregg Berhalter needs a goalscorer up top before it’s too late. RB
Wales v England (Group B, 7pm GMT, BBC1) England are in pole position to progress but the feeble goalless draw with USA has renewed the questions marks over Gareth Southgate’s tactics. Is he too cautious? Too wedded to his old favourites? Too reluctant to play Phil Foden? England’s manager said picking Harry Kane against USA was not a gamble and he must decide whether to start his captain against Wales. Wales have been disappointing so far, and Rob Page admitted his team ‘weren’t in the game at all’ against Iran. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have looked off the pace but if they can conjure a shock win and other results go their way, a place in the last 16 will still be theirs. RB
Player to watch
Phil Foden Or player to not watch. Deciding you’re a better judge than Pep Guardiola is a brave move, but Gareth Southgate appears to prefer Jack Grealish to his younger, faster, more prolific, more dynamic clubmate – despite the absence of any compelling evidence in Grealish’s favour. As such, there is no guarantee Foden will get on the pitch fagainst Wales but if he does, the onus will be on him to make himself undroppable. DH
And finally …
If you had a theoretical list of people not to annoy, presumably “angry Mexican boxer” would be on it. It appears that Lionel Messi does not have such a list, as making headlines has been multiple world champion Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez on social media asking “Did you see Messi cleaning the floor with our shirt and flag? He better pray to God that I don’t find him!”
A clip of the Argentinians in the dressing room after their 2-0 victory over Mexico appeared to show Messi moving a swapped Mexican shirt that was on the floor with his boot as he was taking it off. Messi’s former Argentine teammate Sergio Agüero stepped into the line of fire on the No 10’s behalf, responding “you don’t know about football and what happens in a changing room”. That sounds like fighting talk.