On an afternoon and evening of high drama at Russia 2018, we saw late goals galore, one nation’s World Cup dreams given a real shot in the arm with an impressive victory, and a 45 minute spell which saw one country go from last 16-certainties to staring down the barrel of elimination.
Day Nine, like all those before it, did not disappoint for the neutral.
Late goals earn Brazil hard-fought win in dramatic game
Brazil managed maximum points against a tricky-to-beat Costa Rica side in a game that Tite’s side easily could have slipped up.
It was a game full of drama – VAR decisions and missed chances for Brazil made it look like Costa Rica were going to gain a historic point against the five-time champions, but it wasn’t to be.
Goals in injury time from Philippe Coutinho and Neymar were enough to seal the victory, as the favourites to win the tournament celebrated in samba style at the expense of Costa Rica, who are eliminated.
It took Brazil a while to get going in St Petersburg, with the best chance of the half falling early on for Celso Borges of Costa Rica.
The Deportivo midfielder found himself in space on the edge of the box with the ball rolling towards him at pace, but he failed to direct his effort goalwards. Brazil fans in the stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.
After about twenty minutes of sparring and no chances, Brazil stepped up the pressure.
Gabriel Jesus saw his goal ruled out for offside after a brilliant turn and finish, before Coutinho was denied by Keylor Navas with a spectacular save.
Brazil created more and more chances in the opening period, but failed to break down a resilient Costa Rica defence.
The right hand side was completely nullified, with Chelsea man Willian failing to affect the game and third choice right-back Fagner starting ahead of the injured Danilo.
Tite responded to the lack of threat on the right by sending on Juventus’ tricky winger Douglas Costa. The skilful nature of his game was helpful for the Brazilians, who were now less predictable. Gabriel Jesus looked the more likely to score and came agonisingly close early on the second half as his effort rattled the crossbar after he hung in the air and headed towards goal.
Neymar came close on a number of occasions, but Real Madrid goalkeeper Navas answered all questions thrown his way, making some excellent saves.
It seemed it was going to be a frustrating afternoon for PSG’s star-man Neymar, who had the best chance of the game as he went through on Navas’ goal, ultimately firing wide of the mark from close range.
His match got even more frustrating with ten minutes to go, when the referee Björn Kuipers dramatically overturned his own penalty decision.
Neymar was tugged at in the box, but made a meal of it and used theatrics to throw himself to the ground. The referee consulted VAR and changed his mind.
Costa Rica were given a lifeline through VAR. It seemed they were going to hold on for a point against a very star-studded Brazil, who brought on the likes of Roberto Firmino.
However, the goal finally came for Tite’s Brazil, in the first minute of additional time. A mixture of impressive touches from Firmino and good strength from Jesus led the ball into the path of Philippe Coutinho who poked the ball home for his second goal of the tournament.
Minutes later, Brazil added another goal as Neymar tapped home from short distance.
A valiant effort by Costa Rica, especially their goalkeeper Navas, was ultimately punished as the Central American side are now eliminated from the tournament.
For Brazil, they gained a victory which was deserved, but one they had to throw everything at. Next up for the favourites is a game against Serbia in Moscow, where a victory will send them to the knockout rounds.
Super Eagles spread wings in Iceland win
An Ahmed Musa-inspired Nigeria bounced back from their poor performance last week with a crucial win over Iceland.
The Leicester City striker, who has spent 2018 on-loan in Russia with CSKA Moscow, scored a second-half brace to give his country’s hopes of progressing to the last 16 a much-needed boost.
Nigeria and Musa came to life in the second half, but the first was one of the least memorable 45 minutes of the tournament so far, with neither side creating any notable chances.
Iceland’s famous ‘Thunderclap’ was out in full force, as the rest of the stadium watched in awe at the great support which intimidated Argentina into dropping points last Saturday.
The second half started with vast attacking intent from the Nigerians, who came close in the first few seconds from distance.
Before long, the Super Eagles did get a goal to put them ahead. A quick break from an Icelandic corner saw Victor Moses of Chelsea in a lot of space on the right flank, before playing a delightful cross into the on-running Ahmed Musa. The striker took a brilliant touch to kill the ball dead then, almost in slow-motion, dispatched in style, hammering the ball past a helpless Hannes Halldorsson.
The space Moses had to create the goal was not the first or last time he found himself in such a position. Nigeria boss Salisu Yusuf switched to a 3-5-2 formation for this one, allowing his side to play better on and off the ball. The Chelsea wing-back hugged the touchline and was a menace all game, causing all sorts of problems for the Icelandic defenders.
Wilfried Ndidi then came close from distance, as did newly announced Stoke midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo, with both looking to give Nigeria a two goal lead.
Musa was left frustrated as he crashed an effort from the edge of the box against the bar, but he and his team did finally get their second with another beauty moments later.
The pacey striker latched onto a long ball down the line from Kenneth Omeruo and breezed past the ageing Kari Arnason. He then cut into the box, rounded Halldorsson and fired in past two defenders on the line to spark wild celebrations.
Iceland were given a route back into the game through another World Cup VAR penalty with less than ten minutes to go. Striker Alfred Finnbogason got to the ball before Tyronne Ebuehi and was brought down, but after Matthew Conger changed his initial decision and awarded the spot-kick, Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson blazed over, wasting his side’s best chance.
Nigeria were comfortable after that and could have scored again, but ultimately they had already done enough to leapfrog their opponents as well as Argentina, meaning the battle for second place in Group D will go to the wire.
Shaqiri solo effort stuns Serbia
Xherdan Shaqiri scored a dramatic late winner in a thrilling game to sink Serbia and take Switzerland to within a point of the last 16.
The Stoke winger was sent through one-on-one after a Serbian attack, and kept his composure brilliantly to shrug off a challenge and slot the ball underneath goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka also scored a wonder goal, but it was Shaqiri’s goal which completed a superb Swiss turnaround after Aleksandar Mitrovic had headed the Serbians in front inside the first five minutes.
Mitrovic, whose goals helped fire Fulham back to the Premier League this season, could have scored moments earlier but headed an effort straight at goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
He made no mistake when he got another chance though, nodding an inswinging Dusan Tadic cross into the net after Steven Zuber had sloppily lost possession for Switzerland.
Blerim Dzemaili had two big opportunities to draw his side level – first, just minutes after the Swiss went behind, he dragged a poor shot wide after Ricardo Rodriguez beat Branislav Ivanovic and pulled the ball across from the byline.
Then, the attacking midfielder latched onto a nice flick into the area by Zuber, but he couldn’t beat goalkeeper Stojkovic who was equal to the effort.
Tadic was dangerous from set plays throughout and also hit a couple of half-volleys just over in the closing stages of the half, but ultimately his Serbian side could only go into the break one goal up.
Those missed chances proved costly early in the second half, as Switzerland took control with a stunning equaliser.
Shaqiri was on the end of a low cross, but his effort was blocked – it spun away to the powerful Xhaka however, who hit an absolute rocket from 25 yards across Stojkovic and into the far corner to level the tie.
And Switzerland’s momentum only grew from there.
Shaqiri almost fired them in front five minutes later, taking on a couple of opponents and cutting inside before curling a venomous strike which clipped the post and went behind. All of a sudden, Serbia were hanging on.
They had a penalty appeal waved away despite cries from Mitrovic who appeared to be handled by two defenders, and they were left further frustrated as the clock ticked over to 90 minutes.
After committing men forward in search of the three points, Serbia were left exposed at the back. One ball through the middle had Shaqiri in on goal, and he did well to accelerate away from defender Dusko Tosic and put the ball through the legs of Stojkovic.
That goal sparked wild scenes in Kaliningrad, and means that Switzerland need only a draw in their final group game against Costa Rica to advance to the knockout stages, whilst Serbia have it all to do.
At half-time they were heading through, but Switzerland’s second half turnaround means the Serbians will more than likely have to beat pre-tournament favourites Brazil on the final day to progress themselves.
Player of the Day – Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
Rewind just six days, and Nigeria were in dire need of a hero.
The Super Eagles lost 2-0 against Croatia following a dismal display, and seemed to be suffering from a severe lack of inspiration on the pitch.
Today they took on an Iceland side buoyed by picking up their first point in a historic draw against South American heavyweights Argentina, so things didn’t seem likely to improve for Nigeria who went into the afternoon’s game on the back of four successive international defeats.
Step forward Ahmed Musa.
The Leicester City striker didn’t start the game against the Croatians, but grasped his chance with both hands today – scoring two superb yet very different goals to earn his side a massive three points and send the whole of Nigeria into delirium.
For number one, Musa controlled a fizzed-in Victor Moses cross with his first touch by flicking it up into the air, and then with his second smashed the ball as it bounced with great power beyond Iceland’s matchday one hero Hannes Halldorsson.
And number two wasn’t bad either.
The 25-year-old sprinted down the line to get on to a Kenneth Omeruo clearance, and destroyed defender Kari Arnason in a foot-race before rounding Halldorsson. Strike partner Kelechi Iheanacho was pleading for the pass, but with confidence running through his veins and close to 200 million Nigerians holding their breath, the ice cool Musa didn’t need him, lashing his nation into a two-goal lead.
This was the Ahmed Musa Leicester thought they’d signed before loaning him out to former club CSKA Moscow in January. All he was missing was a hat-trick on his first start in Russia since the end of the domestic campaign with his Premier League side, and he could have had it as well, should his venomous curling effort from the edge of the box at 1-0 dipped a little lower rather than cannoning back off the crossbar.
He and Nigeria won’t mind though, as his brilliant brace did the business. Now all they need is a repeat of the result from that famous friendly back in November against Argentina to book their tickets for the global pantomime that is the knockout stages of the FIFA World Cup.