Russia Review: Day Nineteen

Each day at the 2018 FIFA World Cup has seen stars born on the global stage, and Day Nineteen was no different.

The day centred around two proud European countries making their long-awaited return to the last eight of the World Cup, but it wasn’t without its drama as we witnessed tensions running high, spectacular saves and yet another penalty shootout.

This latest chapter at Russia 2018 saw certain heroes writing their names into World Cup history.

Solitary goal sees Sweden trump Switzerland to last eight place

Sweden set up a quarter final meeting with England thanks to a narrow victory over Switzerland in St Petersburg.

A second half deflected effort from Emil Forsberg was enough for Sweden to overcome the Swiss and set up their first quarter final match since 1994.

The first half was the typical opening period of a knockout tie. It was a sparring match at best, with neither side prepared to seriously commit men forward in attack, fearful of the opposition.

Switzerland bossed the possession, but failed to find an opening through a stubborn Swedish defence.

The best chance of the half fell the way of Sweden, who capitalised on a zippy ball in the box to release an effort that forced a brilliant reflexes save by Yann Sommer.

Blerim Dzemaili came close for the Swiss when his shot culminated a brilliant passing move for Vladimir Petkovic’s side, but ultimately the Bologna midfielder blaised his effort high and wide of the target.

Albin Ekdal of Sweden miss judged a cross late in the half and opted to volley the effort which would have been better headed.

Despite the end to end nature of the half, neither team had any clear cut chances and it was goalless as the whistle went to signal the end of the opening period.

Sweden were happy with the scores level, looking assured on and off the ball, whilst also creating chances on the counter attack.

Emil Forsberg, who was tipped as Sweden’s best creative threat in Russia, was on top form. The Leipzig man danced through defenders at ease all afternoon and was unlucky when he picked out Toivonen in the box, who fluffed his lines.

Forsberg may have been unlucky on that occasion, but it was evident he had luck on his side a few minutes later.

The ball rolled to Forsberg on the edge of the box. He eased past Granit Xhaka who committed himself too early, before striking the ball goalwards.

His effort cruelly deflected off the Swiss defender Manuel Akanji, completely wrong-footing Sommer to put Sweden in the lead.

Emil Forsberg is the third generation of Forsberg’s to play in the Swedish team after grandad Lennart and dad Leif.

From here, Sweden looked incredibly solid, with Switzerland creating nothing. Despite this, the crossing abilities of Xherdan Shaqiri and Ricardo Rodriguez are deadly so they had to be careful.

With seconds to go, Sweden broke through and had a three against one advantage bearing down on goal. The ball was slipped through to Martin Olsson who should have scored, but went down easily under a challenge.

The referee pointed to the spot and showed a red card to Michael Lang of Switzerland, however overturned the decision and awarded a free kick.

The set play was fired over but Sweden didn’t care. The full time whistle went which signified that Janne Andersonn’s side had reached their first quarter final since 1994.

In the first tournament of the post-Zlatan era, Sweden have been a much more collectively solid defensive unit, still possessing a goal threat going forward.

England will know that Sweden are no walkover in the next round.

England end penalty curse to crush Colombian dream and reach quarters

England won a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time in their history to reach the quarter-finals, despite initially conceding a stoppage time equaliser against Colombia.

In what was an eventful and aggressive game, tournament top scorer Harry Kane gave his side the advantage from the penalty spot shortly before the hour mark after being hauled down in the area from a corner.

The Three Lions appeared to be heading for their first tournament knockout victory in 12 years when goalkeeper Jordan Pickford showed great reflexes to keep out a speculative volley from Mateus Uribe.

Colombia did get their equaliser from the resulting corner as Yerry Mina headed in, but after leading in the shootout, the South Americans missed two penalties in succession which allowed Eric Dier to send England through.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between during the match, and particularly in the first half. The closest England came was through a Kane header after a good move down the right, but the Spurs striker at full-stretch could only loop his effort over David Ospina and the crossbar.

The major talking point of the opening 45 minutes came however when England won a free-kick in a dangerous position.

Whilst the busy American referee Mark Geiger was organising the Colombian wall, tensions were running high as midfielder Wilmar Barrios took the opportunity to leave a number on England’s Jordan Henderson.

The Colombian glanced towards his marker, before planting his head into the Liverpool man’s chest and then moving in an upward direction towards his chin.

Henderson was left floored and with his head in hands, but despite teammate Harry Maguire calling for the referee to review the decision for himself, Geiger took advice from his VAR officials before brandishing the yellow card to Barrios.

And if they weren’t already, Colombia’s intentions were made clear at half-time.

Whilst jogging off the pitch, England’s Raheem Sterling was barged into by an opposition coach who then proceeded to claim the forward had been aggressive towards him. The fourth official witnessed the incident, and warned the perpetrator to watch his conduct, but despite Colombia’s best efforts, England kept their cool.

But if the first half was bad, the second was even worse.

Geiger had picked up on the Colombian aggression, and finally punished them ten minutes after the interval.

Kieran Trippier floated a corner towards the back post, and with ex-Aston Villa man Carlos Sanchez almost rugby tackling Kane to the ground, the referee had no choice but to award England the penalty.

A three-minute melee ensued as the Colombians protested their innocence whilst even scuffing the penalty spot in an attempt to hinder Kane’s chances, but England’s captain refused to be phased, as he became the first Three Lions player to score in six successive internationals since 1939.

The Tottenham man stepped up against his North London rival Ospina, and as the goalkeeper dived the way his opponent had sent both Panama penalties, Kane coolly placed it down the middle to give England the lead – and justice.

Dele Alli could have made it two not long after, but he failed to keep his header from another dangerous Trippier delivery down.

England were looking comfortable and keeping their calm in a bid to see the result through, but on an evening of very few opportunities, Colombia’s big chance came with just over five minutes remaining.

Sloppy play from Kyle Walker saw the Manchester City man gift possession away to lively substitute Carlos Bacca, but after shifting the ball right and finding Juan Cuadrado with time and space in the box, the Juventus winger blazed it high and wide – spurning what looked to be his team’s best chance of an equaliser.

But as the game appeared to be petering out in added time, an unexpected moment of true inspiration nearly forced the game into an extra 30 minutes.

A long ball forward was headed away by John Stones, but as Jesse Lingard and Henderson both went to collect the loose ball, substitute Uribe came flying in with an unbelievable volley from 35 yards that caught our everyone – except Pickford.

The Everton keeper reacted quickly to produce a spectacular save, as jaws dropped across the globe in awe at what was very nearly the goal of the tournament to keep Colombia’s dream alive.

But in typical England fashion, Pickford’s brilliance wasn’t to be admired for long.

Cuadrado curled the resulting corner in, and towering above the masses in the box was 6 ft 5 centre half Yerry Mina, who powered a header into the ground and in off the bar to score his third of the tournament, despite Trippier’s best efforts on the line to keep it out.

England were stunned and greeted by an eruption of sheer elation inside the Spartak Stadium, as the thousands of Colombian supporters celebrated their astonishing late show. They weren’t finished yet.

As the game entered extra time, Southgate’s men struggled to recover and deal with the disappointment of throwing the game away so late, and Colombia looked the more likely despite failing to create any openings of note.

The Three Lions did respond however during the second period and went closest through Danny Rose who burst forward from full-back and fired a low, first-time shot across the goal and inches wide, but the game seemed destined for penalties and that’s exactly where it went.

Fans across England were left staring the daunting prospect of another failed penalty shootout in the face, and as Henderson was denied by a brilliant Ospina save after a perfect first five spot-kicks, the words “here we go again” will have been muttered in more than one London living room.

Uribe, who was so unfortunately denied by Pickford late on, stepped up to take Colombia’s fourth, and like Radamel Falcao and Cuadrado before him, went for sheer power.

But despite this, he was kept out again – not by Pickford, but this time by the crossbar, as his effort cannoned back out.

England were given a lifeline, and up stepped their set-piece specialist Trippier, who may have still had the Colombian equaliser on his mind after failing to stop it on the line.

The Spurs man bravely put all that behind him however, and lashed a right foot effort into the left corner of the goal and England were all-square again.

AC Milan’s Bacca came forward for his side’s fifth, and as was the case with Uribe – despite making a positive impact from the bench – he was left wondering what might have been as Pickford guessed the right way and got a strong left hand to the strike and make it match point England.

Jamie Vardy was meant to be his side’s final penalty taker, but having sustained a slight groin injury, the responsibility rested with Eric Dier.

But despite having the nation’s hopes on his shoulders and the heartbreak of years gone by weighing him down, Dier kept his nerve to hammer his shot low into the bottom left corner and send England fans everywhere into jubilation.

They may have been trailing, but England had finally won a penalty shootout. For some it was surreal, for others it was simply the feeling of relief, but after all the talk of the gamble taken in resting players against Belgium and finishing second in Group G, Southgate’s army had passed the Colombian test, and will now fancy their chances of reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.

Player of the Day – Jordan Pickford (England)

Gareth Southgate’s England side have been breaking all sorts of records and rewriting history at this summer’s World Cup.

Most of these have centered around Harry Kane. The striker has already equalled Gary Lineker’s record number of goals scored by an Englishman at a single World Cup (six), whilst also becoming only the third Three Lions player to score a hat-trick in the competition and the first to score in six consecutive England appearances since 1939.

England also claimed their biggest World Cup win ever against Panama and have finally won a penalty shootout on football’s greatest stage, largely thanks to a young man making history of his own.

At the age of 24, Everton’s Jordan Pickford is the youngest goalkeeper to ever play for England at a major tournament.

For the most part of his time in Russia, Pickford has had relatively little to do, but the pressure was ramped up after his side’s defeat to Belgium, with Thibaut Courtois criticising his opposite number after failing to keep out Adnan Januzaj’s winner on the night.

But Pickford knows how to deal with pressure. Following relegation with Sunderland despite having a terrific breakthrough season individually, the local boy earned a £30m move to Everton, and continued to impress.

He was named the Merseyside club’s Player of the Season for his performances, and on Tuesday night showed exactly why he’s so highly-rated in Liverpool, as well as the rest of the nation.

Despite Colombia creating little, Pickford was alert and on his toes deep into stoppage time to keep out a speculative yet brilliant 35-yard volley from Mateus Uribe with a huge left-handed save.

There was nothing he could do from the resulting corner as the South Americans forced the game into extra time, but as penalties came around, Pickford proved his worth again and showed the nation that Gareth Southgate had made the correct decision in making him his tournament number one ahead of both Nick Pope and Jack Butland.

Pickford may not be the tallest of goalkeepers at 6 ft 1, but was clearly an imposing figure for the Colombians. Uribe hit the bar when he could’ve given his side match point in the shootout, and then the man from the North East kept out Carlos Bacca emphatically, with a save that will be spoken about for generations should England continue their journey and go deep into the tournament.

Having represented England at all age groups from u16 right through to the senior team, Pickford is silencing any critics he has had, including Courtois, and should England progress into the semis past Sweden and Belgium fall to Brazil, maybe the Chelsea shot-stopper will be wishing England’s latest hero had caught Januzaj’s effort – as he claimed he would have done.

Russia Review: Day Eighteen

Drama, underdogs giving valiant efforts, beautiful football on show – we may as well copy and paste this every day, as Russia 2018 continues to excite on the daily.

Day Eighteen saw two more knockout games, both of which featured heavyweights that were tipped to go far in Russia before a ball was kicked. But as we saw with Day Seventeen, and many days before that, being a heavyweight means nothing.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be for todays underdogs, but the heavyweights were certainly made to work for their results.

Welcome to Day Eighteen of Russia 18.

Brilliant Brazil breeze past Mexico to secure spot in last eight again

Tournament favourites Brazil booked their place in the quarter-finals for the seventh World Cup in a row with a routine win against Mexico.

Second half goals from Neymar and Roberto Firmino did the business for the five-time winners, whilst Mexican fans were left wondering what might have been after being eliminated at the round of sixteen stage yet again.

With a number of big names and past champions falling over the past week, it wouldn’t have been wrong to suggest that some Brazilians may have been a little more cautious than usual heading into this match against a Mexican side that had proved just how dangerous they can be during the group stage, despite their disappointing defeat to Sweden.
In a bid to shore up the midfield after that poor defensive display, coach Juan Carlos Osorio opted to go with 39-year-old Rafael Márquez in holding midfield, as the veteran, appearing in his fifth and final World Cup, started in what he hoped would not be his final game as a professional footballer after announcing his retirement earlier this year.

ITV commentator John Champion described the pre-match scenes in Samara as full of samba and sombreros, and he wasn’t wrong, as both sets of fans passionately sang their respective anthems to fuel the atmosphere for a hotly anticipated match-up.

And as play got underway, it was the Mexicans who started brightly, as Osorio’s side looked to trouble the Brazilians with their fast-paced attacking tempo which caused defending champions Germany so many problems in their opening game.

Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela were the main threats on either flank, and the Mexicans’ best chance in the first half was created by the latter, who picked out midfielder Hector Herrera on the edge of the box.

The Porto man was in space and had the opportunity to hit a first-time effort, but was eventually crowded out by a panicking Brazilian defence after showing indecisiveness in the situation.

That was the wake up call for Tite’s men, and they stepped up the pace themselves afterwards.

Neymar was the first to test Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa. After the goalkeeper lofted a ball forward, full-back Filipe Luis won a header, which left his opposite number Edson Alvarez out of position.

The PSG star found himself in space down the left, but as 20-year-old Alvarez initially recovered, the £200m man sent him packing with some sensational skill to carve the chance, but his effort from a tight angle was saved well by Ochoa.

Striker Gabriel Jesus was next to test the man between the sticks. His quick feet in the area saw him dance around the Mexican defence, before firing a left-foot shot which Ochoa had to be alert to in order to keep out.

Neymar hit a free-kick high and wide from long-range, but besides that, Mexico were largely comfortable, and went into the break content with their efforts in the first 45 minutes.

But that satisfaction didn’t last too much longer, as Brazil came out all guns blazing in the second half.

The warning signs were there early for Mexico. Poor defending in the opening three minutes saw the ball break in the box for Brazil’s star of the group stage, Philippe Coutinho, but the Barcelona playmaker’s effort was straight at Ochoa.

Whatever Tite told his troops at half-time seemed to have worked. They were knocking hard on the proverbial door, and it didn’t take much more pressure to finally barge it down.

Neymar started it. In an illustrious Brazilian move, the 2014 poster boy started off wide left and changed direction with pace, heading towards the edge of the box before being faced by three Mexican defenders.

He played a simple yet effective backheel into the path of the impressive Willian, taking said defenders out of the game, and the Chelsea man plotted his route to the byline.

He breezed past Hugo Ayala who was slow to react, and whilst the rest of them were focused on him, Willian picked his head up and played a delightful ball across the box, and who was on the end of it? The man who started it all, Neymar.

It was typical Brazil. Tite’s men at their fluent, Braziliant best, and Mexico needed to respond. But despite that, it was the leaders who continued to charge.

Midfielder Paulinho spurned a huge chance minutes later after another superb move culminated in full-back Fagner picking him out in the box, but his first-time strike was easy enough for Ochoa to parry away.

Less than five minutes later, Ochoa was called upon again. Willian was in the thick of the action once more, showing great feet to beat Carlos Salcedo, but his powerful effort across goal was brilliantly kept out by the busy Mexican keeper.

The clear-cut chances dried up after that, but Brazil didn’t seem to mind. The South American giants never appeared under pressure and comfortably controlled the game, and they crowned a dominant display with just two minutes left on the clock.

With Mexico starting to commit bodies forward, Neymar was released into space down the left hand side and was bearing down on goal – a sight no opposition player or supporter in football wants to see.

He carried the ball forward, eventually getting himself into the area. The earlier goalscorer tried to bag his second by catching Ochoa out with a toe poke, but the goalkeeper did well to get a touch to the effort.

Unfortunately for him however, despite his best efforts the ball could only be flicked into the path of substitute Firmino, who was on hand to tap in his first World Cup goal for Brazil and seal his side’s safe passage through to the quarters.

No such surprises in the early game of today. Brazil deservedly and expectedly through to the last eight, and as they appear to be shifting through the gears with the tournament progressing, it seems as though it will take something special to stop them adding a sixth World Cup crown to their already illustrious trophy cabinet.

Belgium come from two down in dramatic fashion to break Japanese hearts

Roberto Martinez’s Belgium came back from a two goal deficit to defeat Japan in the last minutes of a thrilling encounter in Rostov-on-don.

Japan, who found themselves in dreamland as they were two goals to the good on the hour mark, could not withstand the threat of a star-studded Belgian side that had to revert to aerial tactics to overcome Japan’s defence which lacked height.

Goals from Premier League players Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli were enough to help Belgium to a lucky victory over the Asian side that won over the hearts of the watching world with a brave performance against one of the early favourites to win the tournament.

The first half was one of Belgian dominance, but Japan looked dangerous when they did attack, which was very rare.

Kevin De Bruyne littered the Japanese goal with crosses, a couple of which were very unlucky. The best of the bunch was an inswinging ball into Vincent Kompany, who returned to the starting lineup for Belgium after a muscle injury. The Manchester City captain athletically threw himself towards the ball, but could not quite direct it goalwards.

Japan also had chances. Thibaut Courtois had to be on guard a couple of times as the Asian side looked to get shots off at the earliest opportunity, but the first half ended goalless with Japan the happier of the two sides.

Akira Nishino’s side found themselves at a level more than happy three minutes into the second half as Genki Haraguchi fired them into the lead with an arrowed finish. Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen completely misjudged an interception allowing the Hannover winger to go through on goal and neatly tuck the ball into the corner from a tight angle.

It was a game that lacked in quality in the first half, but this goal set the ball rolling for what was to be one of the second halves of the tournament. Seconds after Haraguchi’s opener, Eden Hazard rattled the post with a measured effort from the edge of the box.

Belgium responded well, but minutes later the Japanese were in dreamland. Takeshi Inui curled a venomous strike into the bottom corner of Courtois’ goal, to fire Japan two goals ahead.

The Betis midfielder was Japan’s best player, as he was in the group stages, causing the Belgian defence all sorts of problems all evening. He was the main man going forward and looked the most likely to do the damage, which is exactly what he did with his sensational goal.

The headlines were written. Japan were going to be the first Asian team to reach the quarter final of the World Cup since Korea did so in the Japan/Korea World Cup of 2002. Roberto Martinez in the Belgian technical area was to be widely criticised and scrutinised around the globe for his sides dismal exit.

But, this is the World Cup. There is a twist and turn around every corner. Martinez looked to the sky in hope of help, but it was his substitutions that did the business for Belgium. He sent off Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini who changed the game for the better.

After ten minutes of probing, including a massive Lukaku miss, Belgium were back. After a sliced clearance, Jan Vertonghen lobbed the goalkeeper Kawashima with a header at the back post. It can be described as one of the more fluky goals of the tournament, but Belgium did not care, they had one goal back.

The Red Devils continued to litter the Japanese goal with chances, as the likes of De Bruyne and Hazard measured shots from the edge of the box, but Yoshida and Shoji were brilliant and blocked a plethora of shots with last ditch lunges.

It became evident that there was a way to beat this Japan side. Whilst Maya Yoshida is over six foot, from the defence forward, Japan had no players that were anywhere near six foot. Belgium, on the other hand, had height in abundance – Fellaini, Lukaku, Kompany – three of the biggest aerial threats in both the Premier League and world football.

So, what did Belgium do? Cross, cross, cross. Within minutes, this method paid off. Marouane Fellaini headed home an equaliser from close range. If used correctly, there aren’t many super subs better than Fellaini, for his sheer aerial dominance.

Japanese hearts were broken, but it looked like they were going to hold on. Kawashima, who has been criticised before in the tournament, was having a good game.

The Metz goalkeeper made a brilliant double save to deny Hazard and then Vertonghen, which looked to be the last Belgian chance of the match.

Japan were holding on, but they did have the odd foray forward. Thibaut Courtois had to be on his toes to deny a near Axel Witsel goal then a Keisuke Honda free kick from distance.

The Chelsea goalkeeper had to be on his toes a minute later, but for different reasons, as he sprinted to Roberto Martinez to celebrate the last minute winner that his side scored at the other end.

Keisuke Honda, who won the corner, declined to keep the ball in the corner and see the game out through to extra time. His cross was defended well and the ball ended up with the one player you don’t want the ball at the feet of in these positions – Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City star took a glance up and was probably in awe at his findings – all he could see was the green of the pitch. Japan had committed men forward and left themselves extremely exposed at the back.

De Bruyne drove forward at pace, picked a pass to the advancing Thomas Meunier, who squared the ball into a box populated by one Japanese player and two Belgians. Romelu Lukaku dummied the ball through his legs and it fell to Nacer Chadli, who passed the ball into the goal for the winner.

Belgium players and fans were sent into euphoria, as they celebrated the dramatic win with the last kick of the game.

Roberto Martinez was tasked with getting the best of the golden generation, yet with half an hour to go, it looked as though his side were going to be eliminated at the hands of Japan, who have never won a knockout game.

Despite this, it was his substitutes that ultimately won Belgium the game, to setup a tie with Brazil on Friday in Kazan.

As for Japan, they can hold their heads high, for a courageous effort. They played the whole World Cup with a lot of heart and were a fun team to watch, and taught the rest of the world (ahem, England!) that no one should be written off at this years World Cup.

Player of the Day – Willian (Brazil)

“It’s just like watching Brazil!”

A phrase we have become accustomed to hearing, but one which hasn’t quite had the same meaning in more recent times.

Memories and tales from mesmerising Brazilian sides of years gone by have been passed down from generation to generation. From Pele to El Fenomeno, from the perfect passing side of 1970 to Roberto Carlos’ freakish left boot, the South American nation which prides itself on its fabulous footballing prowess has been spoiled by the game’s gods.

But times have changed.

Brazil have struggled in major competitions by their standards in the past decade. Discounting the Confederations Cup, A Seleção haven’t won a trophy since the Copa America in 2007, and are still waiting to add that much-anticipated sixth star to their crest.

Improvement appears to be on the horizon, but many still aren’t convinced that the current crop of heroes have what it takes.

But one man who majorly contributed to changing that perception today, was none other than wicked winger Willian.

The Chelsea man may not be the most illustrious of names in comparison to the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, but today he ran the show.

An unsung hero in Brazil’s class of 2018, Willian was the man who held the key to unlock Mexico’s defence on a scorching afternoon in Samara. Effortlessly galloping past defenders at will and linking up in a deadly attacking trio that also consisted of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, it was he who found the killer pass for his country’s opener.

The Mexicans simply could not live with him.

There has been considerable talk linking the 29-year-old with a move away from Stamford Bridge this summer, but should anything materialise, it will be Chelsea’s loss if he can continue to perform like this on the biggest stage of all, for the nation which still to this day remains the best of them all.

Russia Review: Day Seventeen

In Russia, another day comes and goes, but the stakes, the drama and the excitement just get higher and higher.

Day Sixteen saw two incredible knockout games, whereas Day Seventeen painted a very different story.

This day showed a different side to the beautiful game, as this day’s particular artist had a different penchant to that of fast, free-flowing attacking football. Instead, he had a taste for tension.

Three glorious goalkeepers, two suspenseful shootouts and one giant’s goodbyes.

​Day Seventeen was very much from Russia with love.

Moscow madness as sorry Spain dumped out by Russia in shootout

Hosts Russia stunned football fans across the globe by reaching their first World Cup quarter final in almost 50 years with a hard-fought penalty shoot-out win against 2010 champions Spain.

Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero, saving two Spanish spot-kicks in his home city of Moscow, on an afternoon where Fernando Hierro’s side simply could not break the spirit of the rallying Russian’s in their home tournament.

Guy Mowbray in BBC commentary joked with the line “from the Politburo to the proletariat” to illustrate the volume of the Russian population watching this one. He probably wasn’t wrong. The support could be felt in the Luzhniki Stadium as thousands of Russian fans passionately sang their anthem pre-match.

Those same fans could be heard every time their side progressed over the halfway line, which was rare in the early stages, as in typical fashion, Spain dominated the possession.
That loud support was silenced not long into the first half however, as Spain took the lead through a Sergei Ignashevich own goal.

Yuri Zhirkov foolishly fouled Nacho, who had his back to goal on the right of the box. Marco Asensio, who started ahead of Andres Iniesta, lofted the ball to the back post in aim of Sergio Ramos.

Ignashevich was so focused on Ramos he forgot about the ball, and inadvertently turned the ball into his own goal. It may well have been a penalty for a foul on the Spaniard had the ball not ended up in the net.

That was the tenth own goal at this World Cup, which extends the record of own goals at a tournament – the previous being just six.

After the first goal, Russia did not change their shape, as they continued to sit with men behind the ball hoping for something to happen on the counter charge. That is exactly what happened just after the half hour mark when Aleksandr Golovin’s finessed effort narrowly missed the target.

And then minutes later, Russia were level.

Gerard Pique conceded a penalty for a sloppy handball in the box. Artem Dyzuba stepped up and slotted home his third of the tournament, past De Gea, who conceded his sixth goal with the seventh shot on target against him.

Russia avoided a couple of late scares in the half at the hands of Diego Costa and headed into half-time level, much to the delight of their supporters.

The second half was one of little talking points, with Spain controlling the game throughout but failing to make any telling passes in the final third.

Andres Iniesta and Iago Aspas were sent on for the former champions as Hierro’s side tried to find a way through the very stubborn defence of the host nation.

The former fired one towards goal with just five minutes to go, but his volley was comfortably saved by Akinfeev. Extra time beckoned.

As expected, the additional 30 minutes saw more of the same. Pass, pass, pass from Spain, but with no reward at the end of it all.

Valencia striker Rodrigo was introduced as the Spaniard’s fourth substitute with the game in extra time, and instantly became his side’s brightest spark in an attempt to win and avoid penalties.

With his back to goal, the 27-year-old let a pass into his feet roll between his legs, and with that he was away.

Rodrigo breezed past his full-back and got around the last man, but his effort from a fairly tight angle was pushed away from Akinfeev. It went back into a dangerous area, but the follow-up effort was blocked, and Russia survived again.

Then with five minutes to go, the big talking point came.

Spain won a free-kick in a dangerous area, and as it was curled in and drifted behind, it appeared that both centre halves, Ramos and Pique, were hauled down. Both players, along with virtually the whole Spanish team were screaming for a penalty in the face of referee Bjorn Kuipers.

After a long conversation with VAR officials, the Dutchman refused to even take a second look for himself, and Russia – again – escaped. That was the last action of the extra period, and penalties loomed for both sets of players.

Veteran Iniesta, who scored Spain’s most famous goal in their 2010 success, stepped up first and slotted his away, with the three men after him following suit.

Koke stepped up for the third Spanish spot-kick, but his weak effort was well saved by Akinfeev diving away to his right. For the first time all afternoon, it was advantage Russia.

Youngster Golovin kept his cool to put the hosts ahead, Ramos replied, but three-goal Cheryshev fired home to make it match point Russia.

Spanish substitute Iago Aspas was next. The Celta Vigo forward had very little impact on the game since his cameo on the 80th minute, but the hopes of his great nation rested with him – on his shoulders, as he had to convert otherwise the Spaniards would be on the plane home.

He opted for the Russian’s tactic of hammering it down the middle, but unlike with the hosts, it didn’t work to great effect.

Akinfeev dived, again to his right, but flicked out a boot in what will become an iconic Russian moment frozen in time, to clear the ball into touch and send the whole of Russia into raptures.

Madness ensued. This incredible World Cup continues to throw up shocks and surprises, and the unfancied Russians’ march goes on.

Spain meanwhile were left floored, and have yet to win a knockout game in tournament football since their Euro 2012 success. Questions will be asked of Fernando Hierro’s side, but in a bid for answers, fingers will be pointed to the bizarre sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui a solitary day before this summer’s tournament kicked off.

Super Subasic spares Modric blushes as Croatia make the quarters

Croatia beat Denmark on penalties to book their place in the quarter-finals for only the second time despite Luka Modric seeing a late spot-kick saved in extra time.

The only two goals were both scored in the opening four minutes, with Mathias Jorgensen netting for Denmark in the first 60 seconds – the quickest strike of the World Cup so far.

Neither side could find a way through following the frantic start, but Real Madrid’s Modric was denied by a stunning Kasper Schmeichel penalty save with just minutes left of extra time after Andrej Kramaric was brought down with the goal at his mercy.

Both sides went into the game having only made the last eight of a World Cup once before, and having witnessed the shock that unfolded before them earlier in the day as hosts Russia knocked Spain out, a wonderful opportunity was there for the taking.

That result made Zlatko Dalić’s side favourites to reach the semi-finals in their section of the draw, but that was blown out of the water just seconds after kick-off against the Danes.

Denmark won a throw on the right inside the Croatian half, and it was launched into the box. Midfielder Thomas Delaney managed to bring it down amidst a scramble and poke it to Huddersfield’s Mathias Jorgensen, and the defender hit a low, weak shot which somehow squirmed under the body of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and into the net.

The AS Monaco shot-stopper should really have done better, and the Croatians inside the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium were stunned. Their side needed to respond, but little did they know they were about to do it in double-quick time.

Full-back Sime Vrsaljko broke forward with purpose down the right and played a neat one-two with Ivan Rakitic. After getting the ball back, the Atletico Madrid man played a cross in which was cleared first time but only against the head of Andreas Christensen, and on his toes to fire the ball past Kasper Schmeichel was striker Mario Mandzukic, who swivelled and finished well to score his first goal of this summer’s tournament.

The breathtaking start wasn’t for the faint-hearted, but the game did settle down after Mandzukic’s leveller. Barring a double save from Schmeichel to deny first Rakitic and then Ante Rebic, the remainder of the first half bared little chances for either side, and the scores were all-square heading into the break.

The second half didn’t present much to shout about either. Croatia went close twice late on with a header from Ivan Perisic that looped over the bar and a venomous volley from Rakitic that flew inches wide, whilst Martin Braithwaite struck an effort off-target for Denmark in the last minute of stoppage time.

Extra time seemed destined from early on, and that’s exactly where both sides were heading.

Despite Croatia being the favourites with the bookies, it was the Danes who had looked more comfortable throughout. Substitutes Lasse Schone and Pione Sisto fired efforts wide either side of the extra time interval, and this one appeared to be petering out into a penalty shootout, just as the day’s earlier match had.

But that was until the 114th minute of play, when the Croatians broke forward.

Receiving the ball in the centre circle, their talisman Modric took one touch before playing a perfectly weighted pass through towards Kramaric, and after getting the beating of last man Jorgensen, the Hoffenheim forward was away.

One-on-one with Schmeichel, the striker coolly rounded his opponent, but as he was about to pass the ball into the net from 12 yards, the recovering Jorgensen came flying in from behind. With no hesitations, Croatia had a penalty, and finally, their chance to win the tie.

It was the ever-reliable Modric, the man who carved the Danish defence open initially with his superb pass, who stepped up – expecting to lead his side to the last eight. But despite over four million Croatians willing it in back home, it wasn’t to be.

Diving away to his left, the formidable figure of Kasper Schmeichel not only saved, but held Modric’s spot-kick, much to the delight of his nation, and one particularly proud father in the Nizhny Novgorod stands.

Denmark had been gifted a second chance when they seemed down and out, and as the referee blew to signal penalties, they were determined to not let this one slip.

The surprisingly quiet Christian Eriksen was first up from the spot, but like Modric before him, was foiled. It was the first of a number of terrific shootout saves, as Subasic tipped the Spurs man’s effort onto the post.

Schmeichel saved his second penalty of the night as the shootout remained goalless, keeping out Milan Badelj, but four penalties were then scored in succession – the last coming from Modric, who put his earlier demons to bed by fooling Schmeichel and sending his effort straight down the middle with the Danish keeper diving the same way as before.

Both keepers then continued to outdo each other, as Subasic saved from Schone and Schmeichel stopped Josip Pivaric, but after Subasic saved yet another penalty to deny Nicolai Jorgensen, all of a sudden it was match point Croatia.

It was another one of their La Liga midfield magicians, Ivan Rakitic, who stepped up.

With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, the Barcelona man remained calm and collected, and confidently dispatched his penalty to confirm Croatia’s place in the quarter-finals.

Devastated Denmark could have given no more, but a stunning shootout from Subasic was enough. The 33-year-old became only the second goalkeeper to save three penalties in a World Cup shootout, after Portugal’s Ricardo did the exact same to eliminate England on this very day twelve years ago.

And it’s performances such as that which can define not only one game, but an entire tournament.

Player of the Day – Igor Akinfeev (Russia)

Without question, Day Seventeen has been the day of the goalkeeper.

Schmeichel bowed out with pride and Subasic equalled a record, but it was a certain Igor Akinfeev who captured the hearts of the host nation with his two brilliant shootout saves, the second of which being one that has already been carved deep into Russian history.

And there could never be a more beautifully written fairytale.

Now at the age of 32, Igor Akinfeev is Moscow born and bred. He lives and breathes Russia’s capital city. It’s in his blood.

The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper was born less than 20 miles away from the Luzhniki Stadium in a town called Vidnoye, and has been on the books of his Russian Premier League club since the age of five.

During the early stages of his senior career, Akinfeev was regularly linked with moves to the Premier League – Manchester United and Arsenal were just a couple of big names constantly rumoured, but the goalkeeper’s loyalties never once wavered.

He joined CSKA in 1991 and having quashed all speculation of a transfer has now spent an astonishing 27 years with the club. So on his stage in his city, nobody was going to take his moment away from him.

In fairness, Akinfeev had very little to do during the game against the former world champions. Spain had large spells of possession but rarely threatened thanks to the resolute backline in front of him, but when penalties came around, it was always going to be the goalkeeper’s time to shine.

The first save to deny Koke was impressive, but the second and decisive stop with his flying foot to keep out Iago Aspas, was out of this world.

Heading into the tournament, the Russians have potentially been the most pessimistic supporters of any host nation in history. But now? Now they believe that this is well and truly on.

And should they go all the way, that Akinfeev save will be spoken about for decades; stories passed down from generation to generation through Russian families, the same way England fans still today speak of that famous day in 1966.

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.