Already at this summer’s World Cup, we’ve seen a number of crucial VAR interventions, resilient performances from underdogs and dramatic late finishes, and with England kicking off their campaign on Day Five in Russia, we were bound to see more of the same – and we sure did.
South Korea pay penalty against Sweden as VAR delivers again
A VAR decision helped Sweden to victory in their Group F game against South Korea at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
Former Wigan Athletic defender Andreas Granqvist slotted home the resulting penalty to send his nation joint-top of their group alongside yesterday’s shock winners Mexico.
Sweden were competing in their first World Cup since 2006 after coming through a tough qualification campaign which saw them register victories against Italy and the Netherlands, and they carried that momentum into this afternoon’s game.
They went into the game as favourites and should have taken the lead in the first half. Ola Toivonen’s ball to the edge of the six-yard box was met by his strike partner Marcus Berg, but the 31-year-old’s close range effort was brilliantly stopped by Korean goalkeeper Hyun-Woo Cho.
South Korea struggled to create opportunities, even with their Tottenham talisman Heung-Min Son, who was largely anonymous.
But the big chance for their opponents came close to the midway stage of the second half. Viktor Claesson appeared to be blatantly bundled over in the area by first-half substitute Kim Min-Woo, but referee Joel Aguilar allowed play to go on.
He was advised by his team of VAR officials to take a second look at the incident however, and changed his mind – pointing to the spot.
Spectators may have expected one of the strikers, RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg or even set-piece specialist Seb Larsson to take the kick, but no, up stepped central defender and captain Andreas Granqvist.
It was a gutsy call, but one that paid off, as the 33-year-old veteran coolly sent Cho the wrong way to put Sweden ahead.
The Koreans offered little in the way of a response, with their best chance falling to Red Bull Salzburg striker Hee-Chan Hwang, who put a free header wide from ten yards out in the closing stages.
Sweden held out for their victory, on a welcome return to World Cup football after a 12 year absence.
Belgium cruise to Panama victory
There was no fairytale World Cup debut for Panama as Belgium got their campaign started with a routine win in Sochi.
Napoli’s Dries Mertens broke the deadlock early in the second half with a wonderful dipping strike, whilst Romelu Lukaku sealed the win with a brace.
But despite the final scoreline, Roberto Martinez’ side didn’t have it all their own way.
The first half was uninspiring to say the least, despite the Belgians registering a number of early efforts on goal.
Yannick Carrasco saw a side-foot shot roll comfortably into the hands of goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, whilst Mertens had a volley brilliantly palmed away.
There was nearly a nightmare moment for Panama hero Román Torres whose loose backpass was latched onto by Eden Hazard, but the defender’s blushes were spared as the Chelsea attacker could only find the side-netting from a tight angle.
Torres did make amends later on however, sliding in brilliantly to put a Kevin De Bruyne low cross behind for a corner, preventing a Lukaku tap-in.
Penedo made a couple of routine saves and Mertens was left frustrated as a couple of efforts went wide, but he got his goal inside the opening two-minutes of the restart after half time.
The 31-year-old’s cross into the box was headed away but eventually fell back to him, and he hit a brilliant dipping volley that flew over Penedo and in, much to the relief of his teammates and coach.
Most thought Belgium would kick on from there, but Panama looked to respond.
Their biggest chance of the game came just over five minutes later – Carrasco was sleeping at the back and full-back Michael Murillo was played in, but couldn’t finish as Thibaut Courtois smothered the ball.
They had another chance through Édgar Bárcenas who hit a shot just wide, but from then on the Belgians took control.
First, De Bruyne found Lukaku with a stunning pass with the outside of his boot, and the Manchester United striker comfortably headed in.
Then, 15 minutes from time, Hazard ran at the Panama defence and spaced opened up again for Lukaku, who was played in before chipping the onrushing Penedo.
Panama had a go at the Red Devils late on but to no avail. Their wait for a first World Cup goal goes on, whilst Belgium made it the perfect start.
Harry the hero for England in opener
England won their opening game at a World Cup for only the third time as Harry Kane struck late on to secure victory against a tough Tunisia side.
Both goals for the Three Lions came from corners – first, Kane was on hand to turn in a rebound, and then after Tunisia had equalised through a dubious penalty, the Tottenham hitman was on hand again to head in at the back post after a flick on to seal the win.
Gareth Southgate’s side started brightly and could have scored within a couple of minutes in Volgograd. After Tunisia won the ball back following an England attack, Dele Alli nicked in to steal the ball and it fell for Jesse Lingard, but the Manchester United man’s effort was saved by the legs of Mouez Hassen.
Although it didn’t take much longer for England to find their breakthrough. An eleventh minute Ashley Young corner was powerfully headed goalbound by John Stones, Hassen got across to make an almost impossible save, but there was poacher Kane – on his toes at the back post – to take the opportunity and slot home his first World Cup goal.
Tunisia’s Hassen seemed to injure himself making the save and had to be replaced by Farouk Ben Mustapha, but that didn’t seem to bother the Africans.
A cross into the England box was shepherded away by Kyle Walker, but the Manchester City man was adjudged to have caught the face of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, and Colombian referee Wilmar Roldán made no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Midfielder Ferjani Sassi made no mistake from the spot despite Jordan Pickford getting fingertips to his effort, and all of a sudden it was game on.
Kane and England were adamant they should have had a penalty before half-time as replays showed he was wrestled to the ground from a corner, but the referee waved away appeals and no VAR referral took place.
The scores remained level at the break, and as the second half started, England looked slow and lethargic in their build up.
Striker Kane had another penalty shout turned down, and in search for inspiration, manager Southgate introduced two young prospects in Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Both men contributed in a raising of the tempo, and as the game neared its conclusion, England finally got their rewards against the stubborn and aggressive Tunisians.
A Kieran Trippier corner was flicked on by the impressive Harry Maguire, and all alone at the back post was that man again – true striker’s instinct shown by Kane, who twisted his body to nod in a vital winner.
It may be England’s youngest World Cup squad since 1958, but the group managed to overcome the pressure to seal a huge victory, putting them in the driving seat for a place in the last 16.
Player of the Day – Harry Kane (England)
Just a few weeks ago, England manager Gareth Southgate finalised his 23-man squad for Russia 2018.
With a strong focus on youthful exuberance, it has since been revealed that it is in fact the youngest English side at a World Cup since 1958. The team also has the least amount of international caps collectively of any other nation at the tournament.
So who would be the main man, the leading lion to carry the team in Russia?
Step forward Harry Kane.
England’s youngest ever tournament captain also became his country’s first player to score a World Cup double since 1990 with a match-winning performance against Tunisia.
The Three Lions’ captain’s brace also marked his first two international tournament goals, putting his own personal demons of Euro 2016 in France to bed.
Both finishes seemed relatively simple for Kane, but there was something about them that showed a wisdom beyond his 24 years.
England’s frontman took his two goals like a true seasoned pro, getting himself into the right place at the right time on both occasions. The way he peeled away from the Tunisian defence for the winner is the kind of movement English fans haven’t seen from a frontman for years; especially on such a big stage at a tournament.
Kane is one of the most natural finishers England have had in a long time. His incredible form over the past few years has catapulted himself into discussions over who the best striker is in world football.
He’s not short of confidence either, publicly stating his desire to challenge the likes of Ronaldo for Russia’s golden boot.
And with two tournament goals already to his name, who’s to say he won’t do just that, and lead England to even more successes?