From contentious VAR decisions to an ex-film producer saving a Lionel Messi penalty, Day Three of Russia 2018 did not disappoint, dishing up yet more drama for the watching world.
VAR helps France to first win
Opening up Saturday’s four-match frenzy were France, who kickstarted their World Cup campaign with a battling three points against an organised and aggressive Australia.
Despite the attacking trio of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé starting, it was Paul Pogba who carried his country over the line, with a lob that hit the underside of the bar and bounced in by a matter of inches with ten minutes remaining.
That goal gave France a much-needed win to start life in Russia, after the Aussies had earlier pegged them back.
The French started the game in Kazan as expected, with a high tempo on the front foot. Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan was forced into three saves inside the opening six minutes, keeping out Mbappé, Pogba and Griezmann.
But it was Australia who nearly took a shock lead – star man Aaron Mooy whipped in a free-kick which was nearly diverted in by France’s Corentin Tolisso, but the 23-year-old’s blushes were spared as his goalkeeper Hugo Lloris got across quickly to save.
And after that, the Socceroos – backed by close to 10,000 Aussie fanatics in the stadium – grew into the game and caused more problems.
French coach Didier Deschamps had food for thought with it goalless at the break, but Les Bleus finally got their chance in the second half.
Pogba played an inch-perfect through ball to Griezmann, who went down under the challenge of full-back Josh Risdon. France were awarded the spot-kick, but not before a VAR referral, despite replays showing the Australian got the slightest of touches on the ball.
Griezmann duly converted to put France ahead, but it was a lead that didn’t last long as Australia soon hit back with a penalty of their own.
A free-kick wide left was curled in dangerously by Mooy, and defender Samuel Umtiti blatantly handled the ball under no pressure; gifting the Aussies the perfect opportunity to draw level.
Captain Mile Jedinak kept his cool to slot home, and it looked like Australia were heading for a hard-earned point.
But a moment of Pogba inspiration won it – a quick move culminated in him lobbing Ryan via a deflection off Aziz Behich, with the ball hitting the bar before bouncing over the line and out.
Technology was utilised again to award the goal, but this time with no controversy, as France held out to give themselves the perfect start.
Messi penalty saved as Iceland steal draw
In their debut game at the FIFA World Cup, Iceland managed one of the biggest upsets the tournament has seen in recent history, as they held a star-studded Argentina to a draw at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
Superstar Lionel Messi saw a second-half penalty dramatically saved as Heimer Hallgrimsson’s side answered all questions that La Albiceleste threw their way.
The game started at a high tempo, with Iceland missing the best chance of the opening stages, when Birkir Bjarnason fluffed his lines and couldn’t hit the target from close distance.
Argentina dominated the possession from start to finish. Jorge Sampaoli’s side registered 78% of the ball overall, and were rewarded for their early dominance with a goal from Sergio Aguero.
The Manchester City frontman released a bullet of a shot with his left foot into the top corner, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
From here, the neutral would be forgiven for thinking Argentina would have it easy. With their dominance of the ball, many thought it would be a long afternoon from Iceland.
Yet, this is Iceland. This is the team who historically knocked out England from Euro 2016 two years ago, and the same team who held Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. This is the nation of the population of Stoke-on-Trent, who managed to qualify for the biggest tournament on earth.
Within minutes, Iceland were level. Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason capitalised on poor defending from Argentina, to score the equaliser from close range just four minutes after Argentina had took the lead.
As the game ticked on, Argentina looked likely to get a winner. Lionel Messi came close on a couple of occasions, as did Aguero, however Iceland defended with resilience.
The dreams of a historic draw looked to be over when Hordur Magnusson committed a foul in the box to concede a penalty. Lionel Messi stepped forward but was denied by a stunning block from Halldorsson just after the hour mark.
Jorge Sampaoli threw all in his armoury at Iceland, introducing Gonzalo Higuain and Boca Juniors attacker Cristian Pavon.
Messi persevered however as the game drew to a close, it looked as though Argentina’s only tactic was to give the ball to Messi. Iceland allowed no space for the Argentinian’s, meaning Higuain and Aguero were rendered ineffective.
Whatever Argentina threw, Halldorsson was at arms’ length to prevent. A curling effort from Pavon was spectacularly saved by the goalkeeper, who will take all the plaudits in Iceland’s heroic draw.
The ex-film director came up with a blockbuster performance, as he re-wrote the script in Moscow. With the quality in Argentina’s side, Iceland were never meant to get anything, and no one could have blamed them if they didn’t. However, Iceland had belief from start to finish, and were rewarded with a historic point.
A win against Nigeria on matchday two in Volgograd is a realistic possibility – this would give Hallgrimsson’s team a real chance of progressing in their maiden campaign.
Proud Peru can’t penetrate Danish defence
Denmark got their World Cup off to a winning start with a backs-against-the-wall victory against Peru, who themselves missed a penalty.
RB Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen scored the game’s only goal, and despite the Peruvians giving everything offensively, they couldn’t find a way through a stubborn Danish defence, inspired by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Peru started brightly, urged on by 40,000 supporters inside Sarank’s Mordovia Arena.
They peppered Schmeichel’s goal with a number of early efforts – the exciting Carrillo forced a fine save with a low, venomous left-footed strike, whilst captain Simon Kjaer had to be alert to block a Jefferson Farfan attempt.
The first half was petering out, but moments before the break, Yussuf Poulsen appeared to take Christian Cueva’s legs from under him, and the referee went to check the call with VAR having originally waved play on.
Gambian Bakary Gassama eventually pointed to the spot, and up stepped Cueva.
But the pressure got the better of the playmaker, who blazed the chance over the crossbar, meaning the score remained goalless at the interval.
Peru kept up their intensity in the second half, but ultimately paid the price, as they were caught on the break – space opened up for Spurs’ Christian Eriksen who picked out Poulsen, with the striker keeping his composure to fire past Pedro Gallese.
The Peruvians refused to let their heads drop however, and brought on their controversial captain Paolo Guerrero in a bid to level proceedings.
The 34-year-old had an instant impact, heading an effort straight at Schmeichel and later on seeing an audacious backheel roll agonisingly wide.
Poulsen became a hero at the other end of the pitch by heading a teasing Carrillo cross away from danger after it had eluded Schmeichel, and Farfan was also foiled by the former Premier League winner.
Peru continued to throw bodies forward, leaving themselves susceptible to Danish counter-attacks, but ultimately neither side could find the game’s second goal. It ended with Denmark victorious, and the Peruvians’ wish of a dream return to World Cup football after 36 years in ruins.
Cool Croatia ease to victory over Nigeria
Croatia end the day on top of Group D as they comfortably dispatched of a poor Nigeria side in Kalilingrad, winning by two goals to nil.
Luka Modric’s penalty was ultimately the moment which put the game out of sight for Nigeria, as the Real Madrid star tucked home from 12-yards in what was the fifth penalty of the day.
Croatia dominated the ball from start to finish, however for the first half an hour Zlatko Balic’ side failed to create any real dangerous moments.
After some perseverance, the Croats found themselves a goal to the good at the half-time interval thanks to a goal that will go to the dubious goals panel. Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic rose high to win a header which ended up in the goal after a couple of deflections.
Although the scores remained tight, Croatia never really looked in doubt. Nigeria had a couple of sighters from distance and a few dangerous corners, but the goal of Danijel Subašić was never seriously threatened.
The closest either team came to scoring was when Eintracht Frankfurt winger Ante Rebić found himself in space in the box, only for his effort to sail wide of the target.
Despite the lack of application, Croatia needed a second goal to feel comfortable. That goal came from the penalty spot when Mario Mandzukic was clumsily fouled in the box. Luka Modric didn’t need inviting twice, and calmly tucked away the penalty, firing Croatia to three points.
His Madrid team mate Mateo Kovacic had a chance to extend Croatia’s goal difference late on as he went through on goal, but failed to take the opportunity.
Noting the draw in the other game in the group, Croatia end matchday one on top, without really being extended.
Luka Modric was good, although he never really needed to be at his best. Nigeria lacked application from start to finish and questions over where a goal may come from will rightfully be asked. Croatia were not at their best, but still easily walked past Nigeria to take top spot.
Next up, Balic’s Croatia play Argentina, in a game where a draw would give Croatia one step in the knockout stages.
Player of the Day – Hannes Halldorsson (Iceland)
Every evening, we choose a ‘Player of the Day’. Going into ‘Super Saturday’ of the World Cup, many around the world tried to guess who would steal the plaudits and publish their name on back pages across the world on Sunday morning. A few names were on the minds: Messi, Aguero, Griezmann, Mbappé, Modric.
No one would have predicted Hannes Halldórsson of Iceland. No one except a few Iceland fans, who were more than entitled to optimism heading into their first ever World Cup.
Whilst Lionel Messi gets paid millions to star in adverts for multinational brands such as Adidas and Pepsi, Hannes Halldórsson turns to directing adverts and the like to make money on the side of his footballing career.
Yet, the gap in lifestyles was not evident when the two squared up on the pitch. From twelve yards, Lionel Messi had the chance to fire Argentina into the lead just after the hour mark – a goal that would’ve most probably ended Iceland’s hopes of a debut World Cup game point.
Halldórsson saved Messi’s penalty in style, which was the start of half an hour of resilient, aggressive Icelandic defending.
It seems unfair to single out Halldórsson, as every single Iceland player gave 110% effort against some of the best players in the world.
Halldórsson, who plies his trade for Randers FC in Denmark, made several other impressive saves to deny Jorge Sampaoli’s side, including a tremendous reaction save from Cristian Pavon.
The part-time film director came up with a performance of Hollywood standard, and re-wrote any script that said that Argentina would easily defeat Iceland on matchday one.