Russia Review: Day Sixteen

After a day to rest and recuperate following an exhausting yet brilliant group stage, the knockout rounds were always going to kick-off with a bang on Day Sixteen.

Of the four days we’re about to witness of last sixteen action, this looked to be without doubt the most exciting and hotly anticipated for the neutral. All eyes were on two of the world’s best in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as the pair looked to lead their respective nations to the quarter finals and set up a mouthwatering and almighty showdown between two of the game’s all-time greats in the process.

But having a keen eye for drama – as we’ve already witnessed throughout this incredible tournament – the scriptwriters of Russia 2018 didn’t appear to be on the same page.

Fabulous France hit top form to end Messi dream in Kazan thriller

France seared to the quarter-finals with a dominant display to displace Messi’s Argentina in what was probably the game of the tournament thus far.

A double from Mbappe added to goals from Griezmann and Pavard saw France cruise past Argentina, who had a couple of bright spells, but said spells were few and far between.

France started the game in electrifying fashion, taking the game to an Argentinian side that was supported in abundance by many avid Argentinian supporters, making vast noise.

Kylian Mbappe, who was the poster boy in France leading up to the World Cup, started the game in style. He walked on to the pitch with a smirk on his face and his mood surely remained high as he caused all sorts of problems for the Argentine defence.

In the first ten minutes, he drew a foul on the edge of the box with his extremely quick feet. Griezmann and Pogba stepped up to the set play, with the former’s effort rattling the crossbar.

The free kick was inches away from perfection, as it struck the woodwork, slightly above the top corner. Armani in the Argentina net was rooted to the spot.

Minutes later, Mbappe was the man to break down the Argentine defence that looked shook by the teenager’s pace. The PSG man picked up the ball deep into his own half, and just ran. Past one, past two, past three, past four, penalty.

I’m sure there will be a statistician with a World Cup pace record, but Mbappe’s run must have come very close.

Antoine Griezmann stepped up to the penalty on the exact spot he opened his World Cup campaign against Australia two weeks ago. The Atletico striker neatly tucked away his spotkick and celebrated with his trademark ‘Fortnite’ dance.

Before Argentina could catch their breath, Mbappe was at it again. Paul Pogba, who was excellent in the first half for the most part, measured a lovely lofted through ball over the top which Mbappe’s touch killed dead, inviting a foul just on the edge of the box. Pogba took the free kick but skied his effort, much to the disappointment of his brothers, Mathias and Florentin, who watched from the stands.

Sampaoli’s Argentina looked completely bereft of ideas, with their only chance coming as Messi went to ground in the box. Replays showed it was not a penalty, and an Argentina goal looked miles away.

That was until the ball rolled across the box to Angel Di Maria who was in all sorts of space. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder took a touch, made a glance at goal and unleashed a rocket of a shot. Within the blink of the eye, the thousands of Argentines in the Kazan Arena were sent into euphoria as Di Maria’s strike flew past Lloris to make it level at 1-1.
It was a goal that is a worthy candidate for goal of the tournament, but more importantly for Argentina, it gave them a lifeline heading into the break.

They were given more of a lifeline five minutes into the half, when Di Maria danced through French defenders to win a foul. The free kick was defended but only fell as far as Lionel Messi, who struck an effort which Gabriel Mercado deflected into the French goal.

Argentina, who looked bereft of ideas in the first half, were remarkably ahead.

But not for long. Earlier in the game, we mooted Angel Di Maria’s strike as a contender for goal of the tournament. Benjamin Pavard took this with a pinch of salt, raising the stakes again.

From one full-back to the other; Lucas Hernandez got forward well down the left and crossed. It evaded everyone in the area, but came out as far as Pavard.
The Stuttgart man hit the ball right in the sweet spot on the half volley with awesome technique, firing a bullet into the top corner. France were level and Di Maria’s submission for goal of the tournament was ripped up and topped, thanks to a strike of sheer power and finesse.

And having gained inspiration from Pavard’s wonder-strike, Les Bleus were back in front less than ten minutes later.

Hernandez was enjoying plenty of space down the left flank and was involved again. His cross was hit first-time by Blaise Matuidi, blocked, but fell for the feet of Mbappe.

Every good striker comes alive in the box and reacts quicker than the defenders they face. The 19-year-old did exactly that, bringing it down almost instantaneously, before jinking past his man and firing a low left foot shot in past Armani, who in truth should have done better.

The star of the show then turned it on yet again a few minutes later. France found acres of space in the Argentine half with their opponents pushing for an equaliser, and Olivier Giroud perfectly measured a first time flick to Mbappe who passed the ball into the goal with power past Armani.

France were in dreamland, whilst the Argentines were left stunned, as the television cameras continued to pan to the expressionless face of their helpless hero, Messi.
He and substitute Sergio Aguero had half chances here and there, with the former hitting a tame right-foot shot straight at Lloris late on. It was an effort that summed up Argentina’s campaign as a whole – lacklustre.

The pair did manage to combine to great effect in stoppage time however, as in one final bid to keep his World Cup dream alive, Messi curled a peach of a cross onto the head of Aguero, and the ball was in for 4-3.

Argentina did have one final opportunity to incredibly force the game into extra time, but a driven cross was deflected over and the referee blew for full-time.

The Argentine dream is over for another year and we await to hear news of the inevitable fall-out that will follow, but for France, a free-flowing attacking display – which will possibly go down as one of their greatest ever in a World Cup – has reinforced the view that they could go all the way to Moscow.

Uruguay through to last eight as clinical Cavani punishes Portugal

Uruguay reached the quarter finals of the World Cup for only the second time since 1970 thanks to an Edinson Cavani brace against Portugal.

The South Americans have lost out in the semis on the last two occasions they’ve reached the last eight, but they’ll be hoping to go one better and reach the final in Russia after once again putting on a display of defensive solidity to eliminate the European champions.

Much of Portugal’s hopes, as expected, hinged on their leader Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid star rarely threatened on a night that just didn’t belong to him.
Uruguay first started to look like genuine contenders after trashing the hosts 3-0 in their last group game having struggled in the first two against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but they were off the mark early in Sochi through one man whose tournament has also been a bit of a slow burner.

Cavani scored his first goal of this summer’s World Cup late against the Russians, but picked up where he left off in that game after just seven minutes this evening, with a goal that was carved out solely between two strikers who know each other’s games inside and out.

The PSG forward and Luis Suarez have been playing up top together for twelve years, and when the former pinged a cross-field ball out wide left towards the Barcelona man, he knew exactly what his long-haired compatriot expected from him.

As Cavani got on his bike, Suarez cleverly held the ball up, teasing Portuguese full-back Ricardo Pereira. He waited and waited, and finally, as he saw his buddy bursting into the penalty area, the 31-year-old cut inside and drilled in a venomous cross which Cavani managed to get on the end of and power past the helpless Rui Patricio in rather unorthodox fashion – with his face.

It was a typical Cavani and Suarez double act goal, and one that the thousands of Uruguayan fans inside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi were thrilled by.

First half chances were few and far between after that barring a couple of free-kicks for either side. Suarez tried to recreate his low effort against the Russians, albeit from a greater distance, but was denied by good Patricio goalkeeping, whilst Ronaldo was also in the mood for a bit of group stage nostalgia, but his effort was fired straight into the wall.
Portugal were struggling against a famously resolute Uruguayan defence, but finally found their moment ten minutes into the second half.

Uruguay were eliminated at this stage four years ago against a classy Colombian side and their misery was compounded that day by a stunning James Rodriguez strike which later went on to win the goal of the tournament accolade, but the way they conceded tonight couldn’t have been any more different.

Oscar Tabarez’ side were asleep. A quick short corner from Portugal saw full-back Raphael Guerreiro with plenty of time to pick out a cross, and that he did. His ball in was met by the head of centre half Pepe, who managed to ghost in unmarked and power a low header past Fernando Muslera. Game on.

That was the first goal Uruguay had conceded in 2018. They needed to respond.

And boy did they.
It took Cavani seven minutes to fire Uruguay ahead at the start of the game, and it took him the same amount of time to restore their advantage. A long ball forward from the back broke kindly for midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who picked out his striker with a perfectly weighted pass, and Cavani did the rest – caressing the ball with sheer power and accuracy first time into the corner. It curled well beyond Patricio’s reach, and Portugal were stunned.

Fernando Santos’ European champions struggled considerably after that, and the best opportunity they had to level the tie for a second time fell to Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva twenty minutes from time.

The impressive Guerreiro floated a ball in from the left which Ricardo Quaresma was unfortunate not to get his head to. Muslera came rushing out, but spilled the ball, and it broke to Silva. Unfortunately for him and the millions of Portuguese back home willing him to fire it home, it was blazed over with the goalkeeper way off his line.

Following that lucky escape, Uruguay were comfortable. The Atletico Madrid pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez dealt with anything and everything Portugal could throw at them in the latter stages, and the South Americans survived, setting up an intriguing quarter final tie against France in the process.

Player of the Day – Kylian Mbappé (France)

Edinson Cavani’s brace may have single-handedly sunk Portugal, but the man of the moment on Day Sixteen is a different kind of two-goal hero – someone at the other end of the spectrum, with his whole career ahead of him and the world at his feet.

Heading into this summer’s tournament, one of the most exciting young prospects fans couldn’t wait to see on the international stage was Kylian Mbappe – as you’d expect, for a teenager who French side PSG valued at close to 150m euros.

The striker racked up his first World Cup goal in his country’s narrow 1-0 win over Peru, and despite previously impressing at club level for both AS Monaco and his current Paris-based side, it was this afternoon that a star was born, as the boy became a man and officially announced himself to the world.

At the age of 19, Mbappe already possesses all the attributes football scouts across the globe are frantically looking to find in a striker. He has pace, he has power, he has skill, he has that clinical touch. He has it all, and to have that at his tender age is quite remarkable. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was a freak of nature.

Mbappe terrorised a slow and lackadaisical Argentina side for fun all afternoon, and could probably have done it all over again an hour later.

He breezed past players effortlessly, won free-kicks, and has now shown he can even score goals and win games against the very best. Without a shadow of a doubt, this 19-year-old has what it takes to go right to the very top.

His two goals this afternoon make him the first teenager to score a World Cup brace in 60 years. The last man – or boy, if you’d prefer – to do it? None other than Pele himself. Not bad company to be in.

Brazil’s mesmeric legend may have trumped Mbappe for now, with his brace coming in a 5-2 World Cup final victory against Sweden in 1958, but who’s to say with more performances like today that PSG’s young and hungry striker couldn’t repeat the feat?

He sits on three goals heading into France’s quarter final date with Uruguay; just two behind the current leader in the golden boot race – England’s Harry Kane.

If the French go all the way, he could be key, and become the first teenager in history to win world football’s most prestigious goalscoring award.

Now that would be a record he could boast about to Brazil’s all-time great.

Russia Review: Day Fifteen

Being the final day of the group stages this summer, Day Fifteen was always sure to throw up some surprises, drama and goals.

History was also made, as for the first time ever, a team was eliminated from the World Cup by nature of the fact they had received more yellow cards than their group rivals over three games.

Some were left ecstatic, others devastated, but the competition is really starting to take shape and heat up as Day Fifteen completed our line-up for the knockout stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Mina goal sees Colombia top group

Senegal become the first team to crash out of a World Cup on the fair play rule, as their accumulation of yellow cards ultimately cost them, whilst Japan advance.

Despite this, it could be said Senegal’s loss was on the pitch as Colombia won in a game that the African side were the better team.

Aliou Cisse’s side were denied a first half penalty when VAR judged that Davinson Sanchez of Tottenham had made a legal lunge on Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.

The referee originally pointed to the spot but VAR replays worked again, showing that Sanchez had won the ball in spectacular fashion, with one of the tackles of the tournament.

In truth, Jose Pekerman’s Colombia struggled to maintain possession at all, with their only chance of the half being from a set play which Juan Quintero forced a good save. The River Plate man has been one of Colombia’s brightest stars in Russia.

A blow for Colombia was to follow, when star-man James Rodriguez limped off with a muscle injury. The 2014 golden boot winner entered the tournament with a niggle and it would seem he has not been able to shake this off.

A Poland goal in Volgograd meant both Senegal and Colombia were going to progress to the last 16, but this wasn’t one for peace treaties, with the Colombians looking to add to their chances of progression, not relying on elsewhere.

Pekerman opted against sending on defensive minded players, doing the opposite.

His decisions paid dividends in the 74th minute when Barcelona’s Yerry Mina towered high and headed the ball into the net.

As it stood, Senegal were out by virtue of their yellow card tally.

This is how the game ended, with Senegal’s six yellows to Japan’s fourth ultimately costing the African side. They will also rue their impotency in front of goal in a game which they dominated.

Colombia celebrated in front of many travelling Colombians in good voice. Pekerman’s side will play England in Moscow on Tuesday.

Japan lose but progress via fair play rule

Japan lost to Poland but qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup by virtue of a better disciplinary record than Senegal.

The Japanese looked to be heading home after Poland opened the scoring in Volgograd, but events elsewhere changed this – namely Yerry Mina’s goal for Colombia, which put Japan back into the qualification spots on the fair play rule.

Nishino of Japan rested four players for Japan – all four have scored at the tournament so far. In fact, every Japanese goal scorer at the World Cup thus far was rested. That list included star-man Takashi Inui, who had been talked about as Japan’s greatest hope of success should they progress – an outcome that was very realistic pre-match, but also an outcome that could have easily not come to fruition.

It was a first half which Japan dominated. Muto ran the show and had to force a couple of saves from Lukasz Fabianski in the Poland goal.

Despite this, the best chance of the half fell the way of Poland, when Kamil Grosicki headed an effort at goal which was spectacularly saved by Eiji Kawashami in the Japan goal. The save was a fantastic sprawling dive to claw the ball out, with goal-line technology confirming it was saved on the line.

Rafal Kurzawa delivered a well measured free kick that the Japanese defence stood and watched. Southampton’s Jan Bednarek arrived and passed the ball home with a powerful volley.

At that point, Japan were out.

The damage could have got worse, but for Lewandowski who could not hit the target as he went through on goal. The Bayern man has had a nightmare of a tournament and played like a man ready to pack his bags and go home.

The final stages of the match were played at walking pace, with both teams happy with their stakes despite Japan being wary of the other game.

Japan qualify via the fair play rule, being the first team to do so, with the rule being introduced for this World Cup as a tiebreaker.

Japan now play Belgium on Monday in Rostov-on-Don.

Januzaj lifts Belgium to top spot

Belgium topped Group G with a narrow win over England, in a game which saw both teams make a combined 17 changes to their starting line-ups.

With both sides already through and dead-level on identical points and goal difference, it appeared that Gareth Southgate’s men would finish in top spot by virtue of their better disciplinary record.

But Adnan Januzaj’s curling effort early in the second half won it for the Belgians, who will now face Group H runners-up Japan in the last 16.

In truth, it was Belgium who looked the more likely throughout, and the Red Devils came close on a number of occasions in the first half.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had to be on his toes to tip away a long-range effort from Youri Tielemans, and he was nearly left with egg on his face minutes later after letting the ball slip away from his grasp, but Gary Cahill was on hand to spare his blushes and clear off the line.

First half bookings for Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker appeared to show Belgium’s intentions, but that was blown out of the water early in the second as Januzaj lit up Kaliningrad.

The ex-Manchester United winger picked it up in space on the right hand side before playing a one-two with Tielemans. He then cut inside onto his left foot by bamboozling full-back Danny Rose, before curling a beauty past the unfortunate Pickford who got his fingertips to it.

England’s best opening came with a quarter of the game to go as Jamie Vardy held the ball up well before playing his strike-partner Marcus Rashford in one-on-one, but the attacker’s effort brushed Thibaut Courtois and went wide.

Both sides had chances here and there to add to the game’s tally, but ultimately Januzaj’s strike was enough for the three points in what was a largely uneventful match.

Belgium will face Japan on Monday night in Rostov, whilst England will take on a dangerous Colombian side in Moscow on Tuesday, in a game which will conclude the round of 16.

Tunisia end 40-year wait for win

Tunisia recorded only their second ever World Cup win with a come-from-behind victory against tournament debutants Panama.

The North Africans’ first success came in 1978 in a 3-1 victory against Mexico where they also trailed, but their second came at the expense of minnows Panama who go home from their maiden World Cup without picking up a point.

Panama took the lead for the first time in a World Cup game after just half an hour thanks a slice of good fortune.

After a good spell of pressure, captain Roman Torres teed up Jose Rodriguez, whose shot from distance took a wicked deflection off the unlucky Yassine Meriah and spun in past the wrong-footed goalkeeper to spark wild scenes on the pitch and in the stands.

Fakhreddine Ben Youssef came close to a quick response, glancing a header inches wide, but he got his side’s equaliser early in the second half.

A nice move saw the ball go wide for Wahbi Khazri, and the Sunderland man played a neat first-time ball along the floor for Ben Youssef who fired in from six yards.

Khazri then swapped roles from provider to scorer as he put the Tunisians in front 15 minutes later with his second goal of the tournament.

Another nice passage of play culminated in full-back Oussama Haddadi crossing along the floor, taking the goalkeeper out of the game, and captain Khazri was able to side-foot home from a couple of yards out to ultimately win the game.

Panama did think they’d levelled it up five minutes later, but referee Nawaf Shukralla had already blown for a foul by the time Edgar Barcenas had fired a brilliant 25-yard effort in.

The Tunisians held out for a historic win, but for Panama, the wait for a World Cup victory goes on, and it may do for quite some time.

Player of the Day – Davinson Sanchez (Colombia)

On another day, a day without VAR, the ‘Player of the Day’ may have gone the way of a Senegalese player.

The African nation dominated, especially in the first half, but stern defending from Colombia thwarted their chances.

At the heart of that defence was Tottenham Hotspur defender Davinson Sanchez.

Whilst Yerry Mina will get the headlines for the goal, it was his defensive partner Sanchez who was the better defensively, which ultimately saw Colombia over the line into the Last 16.

The talking point of the first half was when Sadio Mane danced through on goal, only to be tackled by Sanchez. The referee pointed to the spot and it seemed as though Senegal were going to be rewarded for their dominance.

VAR reviews said otherwise. They showed a phenomenal recovery pace, culminating in a lunge that defines the term ‘last-ditch tackle’.

It wasn’t just the tackle though, as Davinson Sanchez kept the Senegal attackers at arms length all afternoon, which saw Colombia over the line to advance to the knockout stages.

Russia Review: Day Fourteen

As Russia 2018 turns two weeks old, it’s only fitting that we see our first major upset of the tournament, and Day Fourteen delivered just that.

All giants have to fall at some stage, but nobody quite expected this global heavyweight to do so in such a manner.

The holders are out on another day of high drama at this World Cup through a result that sent seismic shocks reverberating their way across not only the country or the continent, but the globe.

Holders halted by super South Korea

​​Defending champions Germany were humiliated and eliminated in the opening round of a World Cup for the first time since 1938 after being stunned by a spirited South Korean side.

The Germans’ shock defeat means that of the last five World Cups, the holders have been dumped from the competition at the group stage on four occasions.

South Korea also bowed out despite their two dramatic stoppage time goals due to Sweden beating Mexico, but the Asians appear to have made friends for life across the globe as they finally gained revenge for the semi-final defeat to Germany in their home tournament of 2002.

A cagey opening 45 minutes was one to forget, however the second half was anything but as news of an early Sweden goal filtered through – piling pressure on the Germans.

South Korea’s goalkeeping hero and man-of-the-match Hyun-Woo Cho made his first big save just minutes into the half to deny Leon Goretzka. The midfielder was found unmarked and eight yards out by a floated Joshua Kimmich cross, but his free header was brilliantly palmed away by Cho to safety.

The young full-back seemed to be one of the biggest German threats with his crossing from the right, and he found substitute Mario Gomez with another delivery but this time the header was straight at the goalkeeper.

With Sweden doubling their lead, there was a real sense of urgency from supporters that Germany needed to attack, but in truth there was very little response from Joachim Löw’s uninspiring side until late on.

Marco Reus and Saturday’s saviour Toni Kroos both fired shots over in the final ten minutes, but the big chance fell to defender Mats Hummels.

Mesut Özil curled in a beauty of a cross from the right and found the big defender who had ghosted into the area unmarked, but he misjudged the flight of the ball in an attempt to head it, seeing it fly high and wide of the target off his shoulder from six yards out.

The board from the fourth official showed six minutes of added time, but the late twist wasn’t to favour the Germans.

Captain Heung-Min Son whipped in a poor corner for South Korea, but Germany failed to deal with it as the ball broke for an unmarked Young-Gwon Kim who fired in off Manuel Neuer from inside the six yard box.

The defender wheeled away in celebration only to be faced by the linesman’s offside flag, but replays told a different story.

After consulting with VAR, American referee Mark Geiger saw that the touch which carried the ball through to Kim was actually from the unlucky Kroos, and the goal stood, which sparked wild celebrations in Kazan – despite the fact South Korea knew they were heading out.

German faces said it all, although they continued to launch everything at their opponents with a fair chunk of stoppage time still remaining.

Ultimately it backfired however, as Neuer – fancying himself as an attacking midfielder – lost possession in the final third.

He was challenged by substitute Se-Jong Joo who then hammered a long, hopeful ball upfield, and who was there to get on the end of it? Their talisman, Son.

The Tottenham man ran through from his own half to get on the end of it in the nick of time and tap home into the empty net, condemning Germany to their darkest hour.

Fingers will no doubt be pointed and questions asked in the German camp over what went wrong after the many previous successes enjoyed under Löw, but all-in-all it was a historic day for football, and the country of South Korea in particular.

Seventh heaven for Mexico as Sweden soldier on

Both sets of supporters were partying in Ekaterinburg this afternoon as both Mexico and Sweden secured their places in the knockout stages after the latter’s 3-0 win.

The Mexicans were nearly left with egg on their face as they needed just a point to secure a last 16 spot for the seventh successive World Cup, but they were left thanking their lucky stars as South Korea’s famous win spared their blushes.

Sweden on the other hand knew they had to win, and came racing out of the blocks in a bid to take an early lead.

Emil Forsberg caused problems for Guillermo Ochoa with a powerful free-kick and striker Marcus Berg hit an overhead kick just wide from a corner before the big talking point of the half.

As Mexico looked to break from a Swedish corner, Javier Hernandez appeared to brush the ball with his arm in the area, and referee Nestor Pitana was urged to take a second look through VAR after initially waving the appeals away.

He stuck by his original decision, but it didn’t matter too much for Sweden who finally found themselves ahead early in the second half.

Claesson mishit a Berg pass from 12 yards out, but it fortunately spun away to unmarked full-back Ludwig Augustinsson on the left who volleyed past Ochoa to send the Swedish supporters into madness with his first international goal.

And just over ten minutes later they had a golden chance to go two up.

Forsberg played in Berg who ran into the area before being brought down by defender Hector Moreno, and the Argentinian referee made no hesitation in pointing to the spot.

Captain Andreas Granqvist stepped up, as he did against South Korea in their opening game, and fired high into the corner to put Sweden on the brink of the last 16.

Mexico’s misery was then compounded with 15 minutes to play, as the Swedes put the result beyond all doubt.

Substitute Isaac Thelin flicked on a throw which was then diverted into the net by Edson Alvarez’ arm whilst under pressure from Ola Toivonen, in a moment that summed up the Mexicans’ afternoon.

Their supporters in the stands then had a long wait praying that Germany wouldn’t find a winner against South Korea, and fortunately for them they were let off the hook, as a loud roar erupted around Ekaterinburg when the news filtered through that the holders had been stunned by two South Korean stoppage time blows.

Paulinho and Thiago Silva send Brazil through as Serbs eliminated

Tite’s Brazil eased to the Last 16 with a convincing victory over Serbia, who crash out of the 2018 World Cup.

The joy in Moscow comes with schadenfreude, as the Germans exited the tournament earlier in the day. Fears of a projected Last 16 meeting with Germany, who thrashed Brazil at their host World Cup, can now safely be placed away as a mere fear, not reality.

Goals from Paulinho and Thiago Silva were enough for Brazil, in a game where the pre-tournament favourites were in control of for the majority of the evening.

Serbia started the brightest, peppering the Brazil area with crosses looking to target the under-sized Brazil defenders.

Marcelo left the field of play unexpectedly complaining of illness, to be replaced by Filipe Luis.

As the first half ticked on, Brazil looked the more likely. Neymar, who is evidently not fully fit yet, took his way to get going but when he did it was a delight to watch. It took him 25 minutes to claw his first moment of brilliance, when he danced around the Serbian defence and combined with Gabriel Jesus in narrow spaces to force a shot.

A few minutes later, the Neymar-Jesus combination nearly created a goal again. The former whipped in a delightful pass inside the full back. Jesus squared up to goal, leaving his man for dead on the cut inside, but ultimately saw his right-footed shot blocked.

The goal was coming, with Brazil’s midfielders and attack starting to combine more and more often with easy on the eye football.

It arrived on 35 minutes, product of a ‘Made in Barcelona’ goal assisted by Coutinho and neatly finished by Paulinho with a deft chip.

The goal was just what Tite’s system is set up for. Paulinho, playing as a central midfielder, is given the license to make darting runs in behind the defenders, as the false nine in Gabriel Jesus makes a decoy run to create the space in behind him.

Coutinho picked a dream of a pass over the top, Paulinho perfectly timed his run and dinked it over the on-running Vladimir Stojkovic.

Neymar had chances to kill the game dead early in the second half, but Stojkovic was on duty to make a couple of smart saves.

For about five minutes, Serbia started to assert themselves and on another day, could have drawn level and blown the group into a state of uncertainty.

Aleksandar Mitrovic missed two very good chances – the second of which being a header which he directed straight at the very grateful Alisson Becker in the Brazilian goal.

Sergej Milikovic-Savic and Nemanja Matic were completely dominating the Brazil midfield at this stage, which was often just populated by Casemiro alone. Tite reacted to this by sending on Manchester City’s unsung hero Fernandinho, who helped gain back control.

Within minutes, Brazil found themselves 2-0 up. Mitrovic tried to hold Miranda as Neymar’s corner flew in, bringing the Brazilian defender to the ground. This created space for Thiago Silva who bulleted his header into the near post from close range.

Brazil eased to victory from here at walking pace and top the group, setting up a tie with Mexico on Monday in Samara.

Switzerland qualify for last 16 despite late penalty drama

A draw in Nizhny Novgorod was a result that both teams go home happy with. It was a point that the Swiss needed to qualify for the next round whereas it was two goals and a point for Costa Rica, after a disappointing World Cup.

Knowing a draw was enough for Switzerland, they started the game in a relaxed manner, playing some attractive football.

Their evening got better just after the half-hour mark, when Breel Embolo knocked down a cross to the advancing Blerim Dzemaili, who arrived unmarked to smash the ball into the net.

Costa Rica answered questions in the 56th minute, finally getting on the 2018 World Cup scoresheet.

It was the hero of qualification who got the goal – Kendall Waston. The Vancouver Whitecaps star leaped the highest from a corner and powered his header home.

Despite being already out of the tournament, Costa Rican players and fans celebrated with euphoria. After the 2014 World Cup successes, 2018 has been rather underwhelming for the Central American side.

With minutes to go, Switzerland looked to have snatched a point from the hands of Costa Rica, when Behrami crossed to Josip Drmic, who finished emphatically.

The Swiss goal to put them ahead did not affect the group standings, with Switzerland needing a couple more goals to dent Brazil’s goal difference.

Despite this, there was one final twist. Joel Campbell, who has been stricken by injuries this season, was brought down inside the box.

Costa Rica’s main man Bryan Ruiz stepped up to take the penalty. His effort struck the crossbar and bounced out of the net. But Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had not reacted in time – the ball crashed into him and rebounded into the goal.

Switzerland will face Sweden on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.

Player of the Day – Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

Ronaldo? Kane? Lukaku?

When deciding a player of the tournament thus far, goal tallies may carry weight, but the performances of Philippe Coutinho for Brazil have caught the eye three times. A goal in both prior games, an assist and delightful performance today – he is certainly up there.

In fact, he is the first player to have a goal contribution in every group game for Brazil since a certain teenager in 1958 – Pele. If you needed reminding, Brazil went on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

Brazil at times have looked to lack a spark from midfield, but Coutinho is the man to provide that.

His assist tonight was sublime, timing the pass to perfection and weighting it even better, dropping it right on the mark for Paulinho to poke it past Stojkovic.

With 91% passing accuracy, 50 passes completed and 3 key passes, the Barcelona midfielder showed that with six months under his belt training at the Catalan club, he is showing the creative abilities of great Barcelona midfielders.

His link up play with the likes of Neymar and Jesus was sublime, and he was unlucky not to score a goal with a couple of long shots.

Going forward, Coutinho could be a vital cog for Brazil, but perhaps Tite will consider bringing in one of Fernandinho or Fred to give Casemiro a helping hand in the defensive phase, giving Coutinho full freedom.

Russia Review: Day Thirteen

We’ve seen goals, drama and VAR decisions aplenty, so what could Day Thirteen possibly serve up that was unique to its past counterparts?

Unfortunately, one of those things was a first goalless draw of the tournament. But for every dull affair comes a dramatic tale, told this time through the eyes of Argentina’s marvellous magician.

We may be saying a fond farewell to the colourful and atmospheric Peru who the planet have fallen in love with, but Day Thirteen belonged to another – one team, and one man in particular.

Danes through with France after bore draw

France and Denmark cemented their positions as first and second place in Group C after playing out the first goalless draw of this summer’s World Cup.

Both sides only needed a point to achieve their respective aims and were greeted with a chorus of boos from around the Luzhniki Stadium at full-time after an uninspiring game.

The first half started slow, and got even slower when positive news for Denmark came from the group’s other game in Sochi.

Denmark did have a half-chance on around 30 minutes however – ex-Cardiff City striker Andreas Cornelius was given the nod ahead of the rested Nicolai Jørgensen and looked handy up front. He played a beautifully weighted low cross into the middle which Christian Eriksen seemed destined to get on the end of, but a combination of goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and defender Lucas Hernandez was enough to clear the danger.

France came close moments before half-time as Antoine Griezmann got onto the end of a long ball over the top and teed up Olivier Giroud, but he fired over and the offside flag was then later raised.

Les Bleus were left frustrated at the end of the half as Griezmann then went on an impressive run from a Denmark corner, leading the French charge, but he was cynically brought down in the Danish half and the referee didn’t allow time for the free-kick to be taken, signalling an end to a dull first 45 minutes.

Despite second spot looking all-but assured for Denmark, they started the second half brighter.

Eriksen saw a long-range free-kick spilled by Mandanda who recovered just in time to deny Cornelius the chance to tap in, and the pair then combined again minutes later as Tottenham’s playmaker fired a powerful volley just wide.

Liverpool target Nabil Fekir came on for France with a quarter of the game to go, and looked the most likely route to goal for his side.

Within moments of coming on he fired an effort from outside of the area into the side netting and then with just under ten minutes remaining he produced a curling shot which was beat away by Kasper Schmeichel.

The game petered out after that as boos rang around the 78,000-strong Moscow crowd, with both sides content to play out the draw, which extends Denmark’s unbeaten run in international matches to an impressive 18 games.

Both teams will know they need to improve however in their next matches, with the Danes looking to reach the last-eight of a World Cup for only the second time and France searching for their first back-to-back quarter-final appearances since 1986.

Peruvian pride sends Aussies packing

Eliminated Peru were in record-breaking mood against Australia as they scored their first World Cup goals since 1982 whilst winning in the competition for the first time in 40 years.

The South Americans’ 2-0 success means Australia bow out of the competition, but even a win for the Socceroos would have been in vain due to Denmark’s draw with France.

Peru had been guilty of failing to take chances in their opening two games which ultimately saw them knocked out before today’s match-up, but they showed more of a cutting edge against the disappointing Australians.

After just 18 minutes, captain Paolo Guerrero brought down a long ball from midfielder Yoshimar Yotun before crossing to the back post. He found an unmarked Andre Carrillo – one of the Peruvians’ stars of the tournament – who smashed a brilliant volley across Mat Ryan and into the far corner to spark wild scenes in Sochi.

That early blow meant the Aussies needed to score at least two goals in response to stand any chance of making the last 16 for only the second time in their history, but they lacked inspiration.

Tom Rogic registered one of only two shots on target in the whole game after a mazy run but it was easily saved by goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, and Christian Ramos was then the Peruvian hero after preventing a Robbie Kruse pull-back from finding Mathew Leckie a couple of yards out.

Then five minutes into the second half, the game was well and truly up for Australia.

Edison Flores paced his way into the box before looking for Carrillo. His pass was blocked, but spun away to the fortunate Guerrero, who took his moment by volleying in off the leg of defender Mark Milligan.

Aziz Behich came closest to a response when he half-volleyed wide from a corner, but even the entrance of Tim Cahill – appearing in his fourth World Cup – couldn’t spark an Aussie comeback.

Christian Cueva hit the post late on as Peru searched for a third to crown it, but ultimately they didn’t need to, as the South Americans comfortably beat Australia in the first meeting of the two sides, with both wondering what might have been after elimination from the tournament.

New Argentinian savour Rojo sends Albiceleste to knockouts

Argentina and Lionel Messi progressed to the Last 16 of the World Cup by the skin of their teeth on Tuesday after an 86th minute striker from defender Marcos Rojo gave them a 2-1 win over Nigeria to eliminate the African nation.

Jorge Sampaoli’s side looked to be heading home after Victor Moses’s penalty cancelled out a brilliant effort from Lionel Messi in the first half, but the half-volley from defender Rojo shattered the hopes of a nation.

The Argentines started much better than their last two games, zipping the ball about the pitch in style and finding a way to get Lionel Messi on the ball as much as possible.

Messi fired Argentina into an early lead on 14 minutes with his first goal in Russia. Ever Banega, who was restored to the team for this one, found him with a sumptuous pass over the top and the Barcelona forward obliged in true Messi style, taking two deft touches, before firing the ball into the far corner with his right foot.

Not long later, Messi hit the post with a free-kick that goalkeeper Francis Uzoho got a slight touch on.

Gonzalo Higuain, who was preferred over Aguero for off-the-pitch reasons, missed his first of many chances when Messi slotted him through on goal with the young Nigerian goalkeeper, who came out on top.

At half time, Argentina were heading through.

However, the tables were turned five minutes after the restart when Javier Mascherano grappled with Leon Balogun in the box from a needlessly conceded corner. After reaffirming with VAR, the referee awarded Nigeria a penalty.

Victor Moses coolly sent Armani the wrong way to bring the scores level and put Nigeria into the last 16, as it stood.

Nigeria had chances to win it, perhaps none more than Ighalo who fired wide of Armani’s goal from close range. The ex-Watford man missed again a few minutes later, when he struck his shot straight at the River Plate goalkeeper.

Gonzalo Higuain had (what seemed) the chance of the match when the ball rolled across to him, but he sent a shot sailing into the stands. Running in behind him by the penalty spot gearing up to shoot was Messi, but Higuain took the chance and couldn’t dispatch.

That felt like the end – a telling and sad end for the Argentinians.

But, with four minutes to go, Gabriel Mercado crossed from the right and Marcos Rojo thumped a sweet volley into the bottom corner with his weaker foot.

The Manchester United man was now playing left-back, as Tagliafico had been taken off. Why he was in that space in the box is unknown. Of anyone – Aguero, Messi, Higuain – it was Marcos Rojo.

Argentina’s unexpected hero ran and celebrated, Messi erupted and followed him, leaping on his back.

Messi, who carries Argentina so often, was carried by Rojo and paraded around the pitch much to the joy of thousands of fanatic Argentina supporters, including an overjoyed Diego Maradona in the stands.

Argentina are into the last sixteen in dramatic fashion, the late goal covers the cracks that were evident for the majority of the second half.

Jorge Sampaoli will be forgiven on this opportunity for his decisions. His tactics have been widely criticized, rightly, but credit has to be given for picking Ever Banega, who was excellent throughout.

To beat France, though, Argentina will need to be much better. Cristian Pavon and Sergio Aguero are two names heavily asked for by Argentinian fans to start that game.

Perfect Croatians eliminate Iceland

Croatia end their group stages with a perfect record thanks to Ivan Perisic’s 90th-minute goal in a 2-1 win over Iceland, which ultimately ended the hopes of the debutants.

Boss Zlatko Dalic fielded the youngest Croatia team at a World Cup, making nine changes from the side that historically beat Argentina on Thursday. Only goalscorer Perisic and Luka Modric kept their places in the starting team.

Needing just a point to top Group D, Croatia dominated the early stages, creating chances at ease and seemingly playing better due to the lack of pressure.

One of the many changes was Fiorentina striker Milan Badelj, who first clipped the bar with a long-range strike, but made no mistake a minute later.

The 29-year-old fired a superb volley past Halldorsson to give Croatia the lead.

Iceland needed to win to have any chance of progressing, a feat which the nation has never managed before – although have only had two chances in fairness.

They responded well, but struggled to find a breakthrough.

Then, in true Icelandic fashion, they shocked us all when they did find that breakthrough. Dejan Lovren handled a cross in the penalty area and the referee gave a penalty.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, who woefully fired a penalty over against Nigeria, dispatched his shot into the roof of the net in style, sending Kalinic the wrong way.

Iceland, knowledgeable of the score in the other game in the group in St Petersburg, threw everything forward to get the win.

This ultimately costed them, as Ivan Perisic delivered the final blow as he was sent into space on the left, before blasting a shot into the top corner.

The Perisic goal ended both the game and Iceland’s World Cup hopes, who ended the night with a famous thunderclap.

Croatia, who we at PomonaFutbol dubbed as the underdogs of the tournament, advance to a winnable match against the Danes in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday.

Player of the Day – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

At the third time of asking, Lionel Messi delivered.

The Argentina man insisted after the match he was always confident his side would find a way past Nigeria to stay in the World Cup, yet his relief and euphoria celebrating the goal and the full time whistle suggest differently.

His goal tonight was not one of the flashy long-distance piledrivers, but it was still one of the best of the tournament.

Rewind five seconds from the ball bulging the net, Messi is walking across his marker. The defender has him in sight, situation under control. Then, within half a second, he is gone. Messi spins his man at a right-angle and is through on goal. Ever Banega plays the ball over the top, in exquisite fashion, Messi takes a deft touch or two and smashes past the helpless goalkeeper.

Minutes later, Messi hit the post with an excellent free-kick from a position we have seen him score from many times this season. If Higuain’s finishing was better, Messi would have an assist or two to his name.

It wasn’t going Argentina’s way in the second half, but Messi as captain stepped up and rallied his team to victory.

After the game, Marcos Rojo admitted that Messi told the rest of the players that they all have a duty to score, ordering them to shoot at any position. This inspired Rojo to take the shot with all the power he had.

Messi gave everything he had, and his reward is a place in the Last 16. It will be tough, but with this man on form, who knows what may happen?

Russia Review: Day Twelve

From what we’ve seen over close to two weeks of World Cup football in Russia, it’s clear to conclude that VAR adds something different to footballing theatre.

Some are for it, some against, and as the group stages of this year’s tournament begin to reach their conclusions, it’s more important now than ever that referees get their final decisions right.

The rising stakes already bring about a greater level of drama, but even after throwing football’s latest technology into the mix, nobody quite expected what we saw on the second Monday at Russia 2018.

Here is Day 12 in a rather large, VAR-shaped nutshell.


La Celeste spoil Russian party

Uruguay sealed top-spot in Group A with a convincing win over ten-man hosts Russia, who were brought back down to Earth.

The South Americans finish the group stage without conceding goal, enjoying three wins from three.

Star men Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani were both on the scoresheet, whilst Russian three-goal hero Denis Cheryshev put one in his own net, unfortunately seeing a Diego Laxalt effort deflect in off him.

Despite looking unconvincing in their opening two games, Uruguay were anything but against the Russians as they hit the ground running with a goal inside the first ten minutes.

Barcelona striker Suarez stepped up to take a dangerous free-kick from inside the D and hit a powerful side-foot effort low into the corner, giving goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev no chance and seeing Russia go behind for the first time in their home World Cup.

The hosts went in search of a response and had an opportunity through Cheryshev after Artem Dzyuba had nodded a long-ball down into his path, but the winger’s blistering half-volley was fired straight at Fernando Muslera.

And Russia were then made to pay for the missed chance, as Uruguay doubled their lead.

An outswinging corner was glanced away only as far as Laxalt, who took a touch and hit a shot which took a wicked deflection off the unlucky Cheryshev and spun away from Akinfeev into the corner.

Things then got even worse for the Russians ten minutes before half-time as they found themselves a man down.

Having picked up a booking minutes earlier, full-back Igor Smolnikov hauled down the pacey Laxalt with a poor challenge, earning him a second yellow and a spot in the dressing room for the remainder of the game.

The hosts never looked like mounting a comeback after that, and despite missing early chances, Cavani finally got his first goal of the competition in the last minute of normal time.

Captain Diego Godin rose highest to power a header towards goal only to be denied by a strong Akinfeev save, but he could only parry back into a dangerous area, and Cavani was quickest to react to fire in Uruguay’s third.

That crowned the perfect afternoon in Samara for Oscar Tabarez’ side, who now face Portugal in the last 16 as a result.

Meanwhile the party atmosphere around Russia has died down a little following the heavy defeat, and there will have to be significant improvements from Stanislav Cherchesov’s team if they’re to go any further in their home tournament

History-making keeper can’t prevent late Saudi win

Saudi Arabia scored deep into stoppage time to bow out of Russia 2018 with their first World Cup win since 1994.

The Green Falcons had to come from behind and even had a penalty saved by Egypt’s 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary – the oldest player to ever feature in a World Cup match – but they won the game in the 95th minute through a Salem Al-Dawsari volley.

Egypt took the lead midway through the first half when their talisman Mo Salah got in between two Saudi defenders to bring down a long ball and loft it over the onrushing goalkeeper to find the net.

But Juan Pizzi’s side got their chance to equalise minutes before half-time, as full-back Ahmed Fathi handled in the box.

Fahad Al-Muwallad stepped up to take the resulting spot-kick, but his powerful penalty was brilliantly pushed onto the bar by the history-making El-Hadary.

Saudi Arabia did get a second bite at the cherry minutes later however, as Al-Muwallad was hauled down in the area by Ali Gabr.

He relinquished penalty-taking duties to Salman Al-Faraj, who made no mistake to level the game.

Both teams appeared to be destined for a share of the spoils, but Saudi Arabia changed all that deep into added time.

Abdullah Otayf flicked a low cross into the air, and there was Al-Dawsari, unmarked, to calmly volley across the veteran goalkeeper and into the far corner to spark wild scenes on the touchline in Volgograd.


Quieroz’s Iran crash out despite brave effort

A late penalty was enough to earn a draw for Iran against Portugal in a dramatic, ill-tempered group decider in Saransk.

Unfortunately for Iran, the draw wasn’t enough and despite their best efforts, Portugal advance to the Last 16 despite a nervous ending.

The first half was one of thrills and spills, with both teams looking like scoring due to defensive frailties.

The European Champions, who needed a draw to qualify, went ahead with a brilliant Ricardo Quaresma goal right on half time.

The Besiktas man was widely tipped to be Portugal’s next Luis Figo or Eusebio at the turn of the millenium, as was Ronaldo, both famed the most exciting talents the Sporting CP academy had produced in years.

It never quite worked out for Quaresma, with his career going in the opposite trajectory to Ronaldo. Despite this, Quaresma last night emerged as Portugal’s other hero, with a finish that he claims as his trademark – The Trivela.

In the 51st minute, it looked all settled for Portugal to go on and win the game – and probably top the group on goal difference. Cristiano Ronaldo won a penalty for a trip just inside the box, via VAR. He stepped up, looking confident as ever to match Harry Kane’s tally in the race for the golden boot.

It wasn’t to be. Alireza Beiranvand dived to his left to heroically save Ronaldo’s effort. Iran breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing they were still alive in Group B.

Ronaldo’s miss came as the first penalty to be missed by a Portuguese player at a World Cup – he is known for setting records almost weekly, but this is one he will not cherish.

Ronaldo himself was perhaps fortunate to avoid a red card following an 80th minute VAR review where he allegedly struck the Iranian player in the face – the referee disagreed on the intent and showed the yellow card.

VAR was used many times in the second half, making for a very stop-start game, but adding to the drama nevertheless.

The most contentious VAR decision was to award Iran with a late penalty when Southampton full back Cedric Soares used his hand. After a three minute delay, the referee pointed to the spot.

Ansarifard lashed his penalty into the roof of the net in what was one of the best penalties of the tournament along with Harry Kane’s double against Panama.

Was it too little too late? Iran didn’t think so, as they looked certain to score the winner which would have taken them through when Taremi went through on goal only to hit the side netting.

Portugal survived this massive scare and progress by the skin of their teeth, to progress for the fourth time in their history. Spain finish above Portugal, meaning Santos’ side face Uruguay in Sochi on Saturday.

Late Aspas goal salvages draw for La Roja to send them top of Group B​

With minutes to go in this clash, Spain were going all out for the three points to secure top spot of Group B. This was until news filtered through that Iran had scored a last-gasp equaliser against Portugal.

Spain boss Fernando Hierro held one finger on each hand aloft, signalling the 1-1 score to his players, who then sat back and held out for the draw to top the group.

Although never really in danger of crashing out, first place mattered: Spain now travel to Moscow to face Russia rather than Sochi to play Uruguay, also avoiding the half of the draw which is tipped to include Brazil, Germany and France.

Iago Aspas scored a 92nd minute winner that was given via VAR after it was originally ruled out for offside.

A terrible mix-up between veteran World Cup winners Iniesta and Ramos had allowed Morocco to go through on goal to score via Khalid Boutaib in the 14th minute.

It didn’t last long, however, as Iniesta made amends five minutes later by solely creating a sublime equaliser, passing his way to the byline before squaring the ball for Isco to tap home.

Spain have looked shaky at the back, perhaps not unsurprisingly given the sacking of Julen Lopetegui the day before the tournament began.

Youssef En-Nesyri, who plays in Spain for Malaga, thought he had won it, when he powered in a header from a corner past De Gea.

But it wasn’t to be for Morocco, as Aspas flicked in Dani Carvajal’s drilled cross to equalise.

This game sums up Morocco’s World Cup – very good, but nothing to show for it.

Boutaib’s goal came from Morocco’s 29th shot at the World Cup, as Herve Renard’s side were very wasteful in 1-0 losses to Iran and Portugal.

With luck on their side, Morocco could have done much better at this World Cup.

Spain top the group to set up a last sixteen tie with the hosts Russia in Moscow.

​Player of the Day – Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)

Coming into the Uruguay midfield for the final group game, Lucas Torreira had a big chance to show what La Celeste were missing.

Although they won both prior group games, Oscar Tabarez’s side were criticized for being slow in possession and not eye catching to watch. Although not solely down to Torreira, the Sampdoria midfielder definitely improved the way Uruguay play.

He has not been officially announced, but it is widely agreed that Lucas Torreira will join Unai Emery’s Arsenal after the World Cup – Monday’s performance highlighted the reasons why Emery, and Wenger before him, wanted him so badly.

He covered 10.9km, making 56 passes with a 95% success rate, also winning 3 interceptions and 5 duels. He has the traits of a top deep lying playmaker, whilst also possessing the defensive abilities and also the box-to-box capabilities.

When Russia had possession, Torreira suffocated them, allowing them no time on the ball. Arsenal fans on social media rejoiced at his performance, with a clip going round of him blocking a Smolov cross with his head, whilst he was on the ground, lauding him as a warrior.

This profile of player is something Arsenal have lacked – whilst Ramsey and Ozil are great in possession, and Xhaka is a satisfactory midfielder, Torreira offers something different in his energetic, box-to-box nature.

In addition, Torreira took many set-pieces and corners – his delivery looked rather good. His corner played a part in Uruguay’s second goal of the game, scored by Laxalt.

A brilliant outing for the young Arsenal-bound man.

Russia Review: Day Eleven

If you thought belief was building back in England after Harry Kane’s last-gasp winner against Tunisia, you’d seen nothing.

Day Eleven of Russia 2018 saw England hit Panama for six to set up a final day shootout with Belgium for top spot in Group G, despite the fact the minnows were having a party themselves by full-time for very different reasons.

It was also the highest scoring day of the tournament to-date, so sit back, relax, and enjoy reliving all the action right here with our Russia Review.

Kane hat-trick sees Three Lions roar into last 16

England sealed their passage through to the last 16 after demolishing Panama 6-1 – their biggest World Cup win in history.

The result also means Gareth Southgate’s side have recorded the nation’s best ever start to a World Cup, with England only winning their opening two games in 1982 and 2006 previously.

Harry Kane hit a hat-trick to become Russia 2018’s top scorer, whilst John Stones also scored a brace to claim his first two international goals.

There were fears that England may struggle to break down a stubborn and aggressive Panama backline, but it took them only eight minutes to take the lead as they came racing out of the blocks.

Both goals in the win over Tunisia win came through corners, and it was a similar story here – Stones was left unmarked on the penalty spot and powered a header in from Kieran Trippier’s delivery to fire England ahead.

Jesse Lingard was then fouled by defender Fidel Escobar when bearing down on goal and was awarded a penalty, which captain Kane then stepped up to hammer into the left corner, giving goalkeeper Jaime Penedo no chance.

England were cruising, and it was three with less than ten minutes to go until the break – Having missed a couple of big chances in the Tunisia win, Lingard played a neat one-two with Raheem Sterling before curling a beauty past Penedo from outside the area to claim his first World Cup goal.

That sparked a crazy ten minute spell which saw three England goals – the team’s fourth came when a well-worked free-kick saw Jordan Henderson play a ball to the back-post and Kane nod across goal. It fell for Sterling but his header was saved from point-blank range before Stones headed his second into the roof of the net much to the Manchester City defender’s delight.

England were left furious against Tunisia when captain Kane was denied what appeared to be two stone-wall penalties, but there was no such frustration today as he won his side’s second in first-half stoppage time when Anibal Godoy hauled him down from a corner.

Kane stepped up, and with almost a carbon-copy of his first, completed a five-star first half for England, who went into the break 5-0 ahead.

The Tottenham striker then became only the third England player in history to score a World Cup hat-trick, repeating the feat also done by Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker, but he had a large slice of luck in doing so, as he deflected Ruben Loftus Cheek’s long-range effort in off his heel, spinning it away from the helpless goalkeeper.

That rounded off England’s goal scoring for the afternoon as Kane was substituted immediately after, but the action wasn’t done there as Panama got their moment in the sun at a roasting hot Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.

With just 12 minutes to go, Ricardo Avila whipped a free-kick in and on a plate for the unmarked substitute Felipe Baloy, who volleyed in Panama’s first ever World Cup goal at the age of 37-years-old.

It was a fitting way for the tournament debutants to end what was an extremely difficult game, but for England, they need just a draw against Belgium to top the group on fair play grounds, provided they don’t receive more bookings against their opponents in the final group game in Kaliningrad on Thursday.

Record-breaking Honda salvages Japanese point

Japan twice came from behind against Senegal to earn a vital point in their quest to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup.

The draw sees both sides go into their final matches on four points, meaning a point for each will see them progress to the last 16.

After a positive start, Senegal found the opener after just 11 minutes.

A cross to the back post was headed away by the Japanese defence but only as far as Youssouf Sabaly – his curling effort was saved by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima but he spilled the ball which rebounded off the knee of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and into the net.

Japan levelled however just over ten minutes before the break. Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo brought down a long diagonal ball with a great first touch that took two Senegalese defenders out of the game, before laying it off for Takashi Inui who cut inside on his right foot and bent one into the far corner.

The Japanese then had a couple of opportunities through Yuya Osako and then Inui again who was denied his second by the crossbar, but it was Senegal who scored the game’s third goal to retake the lead.

A nice build-up which involved the impressive Mane saw Sabaly drill a ball into the box. M’Baye Niang failed to connect properly with a backheel from six yards out but in doing so turned the ball to Moussa Wague who hammered a first-time shot into the top corner, making him the youngest African goalscorer at a World Cup.

That goal came with 20 minutes remaining and Senegal may have thought they’d done enough, but Japan responded again soon after.

Goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye was slow in attempting to claim an Osako cross, it drifted to the left side of the area for Inui who played a first time ball along the floor and Keisuke Honda was there to finish off his fourth World Cup goal from six yards out.

That strike means the 32-year-old becomes the first Japanese player to score at three different World Cups, and his tally of four is also the highest of any Asian player in history.

Neither side could find a winner afterwards, meaning both teams now need a point in their respective final group games, with Japan currently sitting top thanks to their fair play record.

Colombian campaign resurrected with classy Poland win

Colombia reacted to their opening day loss in emphatic fashion with a highly convincing victory over a very poor Poland side at the Kazan Arena, which sent the Poles tumbling out of the World Cup.

Barcelona defender Yerry Mina opened the scoring just before half time, with captain Radamel Falcao and winger Juan Cuadrado sealing a more than deserved victory with two quick goals late on as Poland chased the game.

Poland, who avoided playing a friendly for twelve months so they could be seeded at the World Cup, crash out at the earliest opportunity possible.

Against Japan, the Colombians were dealt a massive blow when Carlos Sanchez was shown a red card in the opening minutes. The Japanese won, albeit Colombia gave a mighty effort.

James Rodriguez returned to the starting eleven, following an injury that kept the 2014 golden boot winner out of the clash with Japan.

The match started with a fast tempo, greeted by a barrage of noise from the tens of thousands of Colombian fans, sporting their stylish yellow shirt.

Colombia opted for a very South American style of play – high pressing off the ball and quick passing on it. The Polish were limited to launching long balls towards Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern star was extremely quiet.

The first goal came late in the second half, where James Rodriguez crept into the box, before chipping a delightful cross to Yerry Mina, which the towering defender headed home.

Poland tried to respond, but Colombia held firm at the back and Arsenal ‘keeper David Ospina was on top form.

The second half goals came later in the half in quick succession. Firstly, Quintero slid in Falcao who span his marker before neatly stroking the ball into the net.

That goal comes as the first World Cup strike for ‘El Tigre’, who was injured in 2014, then stricken with injuries for a couple of years after.

Poland threw men forward and were punished, as James Rodgriguez rasped a pass across the field to Cuadrado, who passed the ball home for Colombia’s third.

Jose Pekerman’s men came up with the goods in Kazan, with an eye catching performance reminiscent of 2014.

Los Cafeteros now play Senegal in Samara on Thursday, in which is a crucial game in Group H.

As for Poland, Adam Nawalka’s side will be boarding an early plane home, after two sub-par performances.

Player of the Day – John Stones (England)

In a day where any of the England players could be picked for ‘Player of the Day’, we are opting for John Stones of Manchester City.

The Barnsley-born defender typifies everything of the modern centre-back, with unique passing techniques and brilliant tactical knowledge.

Despite this, his performance against Panama was that of a classic defender – a menace in both boxes with his head, in a style that is reminiscent of Terry ‘Bandage’ Butcher.

Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland will take the credit for the prowess of attacking free kicks that England possess, as the Three Lions have scored six of their eight goals from set pieces so far. Corners is an area that England are evidently very good at and John Stones is exactly the man you want in the box to attack them – and defend them for that matter.

Not just in the box though, the Guardiola pupil showcased his passing abilities again against Panama, as he started many attacks with his Beckenbauer-esque ‘breaking the lines’ passes.

It was Stones who, on Monday against Tunisia, ignored the cries of Jordan Henderson for him to pass backwards to Maguire, instead playing a vital daisy cutter pass forward that ultimately led to the corner that Kane scored from.

Stones raw talents, coupled with his footballing brain taught by Guardiola, are crucial to England and will continue to do so.

John Stones was the best of a very good bunch for England on Sunday and is our worthy ‘Player of the Day.’