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.