The main event
Commiserations, friends: today marks our final Tetris, the sole remaining quadruple-consecutive-match extravaganza which has made the start of this World Cup so immersive and compelling. That’s the sad news. The joyous news is that today is also the day that things get really serious – most particularly in Group H.
South Korea, who drew 0-0 with Uruguay last week, take on Ghana, who managed to be both promising and shambolic in a 3-2 defeat to Portugal. A positive result there – either way – will make things especially interesting, but even if it’s a draw, Portugal v Uruguay is a clash of such prodigious dimensions it makes even Sam Allardyce look insubstantial.
Given the attacking talent at Fernando Santos’ disposal, the other Selecão should be title contenders. They have a fine young goalkeeper in Diogo Costa and are solid at the back, while boasting offensive options as varied as João Cancelo, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Rafael Leão and João Felix.
Have we forgotten anyone? Well, that depends. It’s easy to look at Portugal, see a side nowhere near as fluidly cohesive as it should be, and cite Cristiano Ronaldo’s inflexibility as a major reason why; or, in other words, to say Santos must be brave and pick on merit, not reputation. But conversely, it’s also not that difficult to look at the slower pace of international football and understand why the experience and calmness of one of the greatest players ever is deemed essential.
Interestingly, Uruguay are in a similar situation. Their centre-back pairing of Diego Godín and José María Giménez is of sumptuous nastiness, and in front of it can be found the already-excellent and fast-improving Rodrigo Bentancur alongside Federico Valverde, one of this season’s most devastating attacking players. In attack, the coltish, brutish Darwin Núñez will definitely start but Luis Suárez – another ageing superstar who can be useful in front of goal but otherwise trends towards anonymity – may not.
Regardless of who’s picked, we’re set for a tense and juddering encounter. In the second half of their match against Ghana, Portugal looked to have found some kind of balance, the introduction of Leão’s pace and intelligent running helping create space for Fernandes’ incisive passing.
Similarly, in the closing stages of their opening match against South Korea, it was Uruguay who doing more to force a winner – especially once Suárez was replaced by Edinson Cavani who, though he is the same age, has aged better. Ultimately, it’s impossible to predict an outcome with any authority, and that’s exactly as it should be. As Alex Trebek used to say, let’s play jeopardy! DH
Misadventures on the mic
“Expect the USA to play the same system,” announced Martin Keown confidently as Croatia kicked off their match against, erm, Canada. Not the best start from the Beeb’s endearingly oddball co-commentator, whose North American buddies did him an immediate solid by diverting attention away from the slip-up with a dazzling goal. After a gentle detour into his England career in which Keown bemoaned having been picked for two World Cups without getting on the pitch (a fair enough qualm, though perhaps not one shared by Tony Adams, Sol Campbell or Rio Ferdinand) came his two-penneth on protective face masks: “I used to just get on with it.” After attributing Croatia’s first goal to somebody called “Kramavic”, the real highlight was Marko Livaja’s strike, which brought a gloriously mixed metaphor from our man in the gantry: “That had Croatia DNA written all over it!” Live broadcasting: not as easy as it looks, kids. AH
Costa Rica restore defensive pride
In the run-up to the World Cup, Costa Rica established a reputation as masters of the low block. In 12 games this calendar year they had conceded six goals, largely down to the heroic goalkeeping of Keylor Navas and the granite centre-back pairing of Óscar Duarte and Francisco Calvo. It seemed a bit out of character, then, when they were absolutely wellied by Spain, passed into oblivion in their joint-record heaviest defeat. Following up with a tight 1-0 win against Japan might make them seem wildly unpredictable, but really it’s a return to the norm. With one shot on target, one goal and three points from 180-plus minutes of football, they are remarkably efficient for a side that began the tournament with a 7-0 defeat. WM
USA v Iran: not a fixture that needs any extra needle. But that’s what Tuesday’s fixture has been given – and by the bucketload – following a remarkable demand by Iran that their opponents are given a 10-game ban for “offending the dignity” of their country. The furore comes after the US Soccer Federation posted an image on social media of Iran’s national flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic. The federation explained that it did so in “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights”. The graphic has since been deleted from social media, but the the semi-official Tasnim news agency has reported a legal adviser at the Iranian football federation has requested their Group B rivals are banned in accordance with section 13 of Fifa rules. The Iran flag has become a point of contention at this World Cup, with fans who oppose the regime in Tehran waving the lion and sun flag instead. AH
After decrying the “nightmare” of the defeat by Saudi Arabia, the Argentinian newspaper Olé greeted Saturday’s victory as “a colossal relief” – and a rescue job by Lionel Messi. Unsurprisingly the other papers have followed suit, largely overlooking Enzo Fernández’s late golazo in favour of placing the focus squarely on the man wearing No 10. Página 12 hailed the win as a “strength of hope”, Clarín called it “a triumph to get excited again” and Tiempo described the side as having won “the first final”. In Mexico, meanwhile, there will be no public holidays doled out, Cancha describing the team as “on the canvas” with one point from two matches.
The internet reacts
On the back of their shock dethroning of Germany, Japan fans went into their Group E meeting with Costa Rica in high spirits – and in full regalia.
In the end, what they witnessed was something of a sickener: their side dominated the game without scoring before Keysher Fuller’s late gut-punch of a winner blew the group wide open. But while the mood was dampened among the Japanese fans, they made sure not to abandon their famed habit of clearing up the stands after the final whistle, the shock result lending a note of melancholy to the wholesome tradition.
It was a decidedly mixed day for Canada fans, who got to see their nation’s first-ever goal at a men’s World Cup finals – only for Croatia to hit back with four goals, destroying John Herdman’s claim that his team would “eff Croatia”. Andrej Kramaric, who got two of those goals, offered the quote of the day in response.
Cameroon v Serbia (Group G, 10am GMT, ITV1) Both teams must recover from opening defeats and find their first goals of the tournament. Since the glory of their run to the quarter-finals in 1990, Cameroon have not made it out of the group stages while Serbia have never reached the knockouts. Will Dragan Stojkovic play both his star forwards in Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic? They spent just 17 second-half minutes together as Brazil ran away with the game in Serbia’s opener. Rigobert Song, the Cameroon coach whose tracksuits have made him a cult hero, must find a way to get service to Eric Choupo-Moting and Bryan Mbeumo in attack. JB
South Korea v Ghana (Group H, 1pm GMT, BBC1) André Ayew has a simple plan for Ghana as they look to recover from losing to Portugal. “We need to stay calm, relax and increase our performance,” said the captain. “We need to try and score more and concede less.” Portugal’s defence was given a scare during that 3-2 win but also found great gaps in Ghana’s defence. The Koreans could not yield a shot on target against Uruguay but dealt well enough with the physical challenge of the South Americans. The masked Son Heung-min was something of a passenger, when so much usually relies on him, and the probable absence of Napoli’s Kim Min-jae in defence is another big problem for coach Paulo Bento. JB
Brazil v Switzerland (Group G, 4pm, ITV1) Neymar will miss the rest of the group stage at the very least, allowing Brazil’s gang of attacking talents the chance to show what they can do without their crown prince. For the moment, Richarlison, following his two goals against Serbia, takes on the burden. Antony replaced Neymar against Serbia but has suffered from “flu-like symptoms and vomiting” – as have Lucas Paquetá and Alisson – so perhaps Gabriel Jesus might yet be selected. Murat Yakin, the Swiss coach, is a lifelong fan of the Brazilian national team, inherited from his 89-year-old mum who idolised Pelé. “They won’t get any weaker,” he said of Neymar’s absence. JB
Portugal v Uruguay (Group H, 7pm ITV1) Monday’s primetime viewing will likely see Cristiano Ronaldo, 37 and Luis Suárez, 35, both currently clubless, lead the frontlines ahead of younger attacking talent. On Saturday, Ronaldo treated his teammates to a slap-up meal at the Tatel de Doha restaurant on Al Maha Island, a flashy joint he has a business interest in. Danilo Pereira’s injury, suffered when playing in central defence against Ghana, leaves Fernando Santos short, and Pepe, 39, may step in. Uruguay did not manage a shot on target against South Korea in their opener. JB
Player to watch
Bryan Mbeumo In Cameroon’s pedestrian 1-0 defeat to Switzerland , the Brentford forward was their most dangerous player. His ability from set-pieces and ingenuity in open play caused problems for the Swiss defence despite Cameroon’s general unwillingness to attack. Last season, Mbeumo created seven goals and scored four of his own in 35 Premier League appearances. With more ambition, a team that will have Eric Choupo-Moting or Vincent Aboubakar up front should be a greater threat but they need to give their creative talent greater freedom. WU
And finally …
Martin Boyle was ruled out of Australia’s campaign with an ACL injury, but remains in high spirits. So much so he has been appointed as the team’s “official vibes manager”, a job title coming with enormous pressure to curate a genre-defining tropical house playlist. “We’ve moved him into the staff now … he’s just one of the most fantastic blokes you will meet in your life,” explained Graham Arnold, the Socceroos manager. Arnold brought Boyle, wearing knee brace and walking with crutches, into the team huddle to celebrate their crucial 1-0 win against Tunisia. If that doesn’t give them good vibes then, probably, nothing will. WM