The main event
We should know by now to fill in World Cup wallcharts with pencil rather than pen. France made a mess of their defence in 2002 and also crashed out at the group stage – again after appearing in the final four years earlier – in 2010. England were so bad in 2014 that they were eliminated after two games. Some effort that, Roy. Germany, who don’t do these things, did do those things in 2018. Defeat in their final game left them bottom of a group featuring Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.
Belgium are certainly making a strong case to be this year’s great underachievers. The world’s second best side, according to the Fifa rankings, got away with one when edging out Canada 1-0 in their opening game. The Canadians, who lost 4-1 to Croatia next time out, had 21 shots to Belgium’s nine and dominated the xG count: 2.6 to 0.8.
It didn’t take a genius to work out that all was not right with Roberto Martínez’s team and Morocco did what Canada couldn’t and stuck their chances away to win 2-0. Belgium can still get out of the group but, with Morocco unlikely to come unstuck against Canada, the Red Devils will likely have to beat 2018 finalists Croatia to do so.
To flip a quote from USA head coach Gregg Berhalter, the “Golden Generation” tag has increasingly led to Belgium wearing their shirts as straitjackets not capes. An ageing side under pressure to finally deliver which contains star players either not fully fit (Romelu Lukaku), past their best (Eden Hazard) or just a bit miffed with everything (Kevin De Bruyne) is a recipe for failure.
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Germany also put themselves in a precarious position after losing to Japan. But after fighting back to draw with Spain, Hansi Flick’s side have an obvious chance to sneak through the back door. Opponents Costa Rica were the big wallchart wreckers in 2014 when topping a group featuring England, Italy and Uruguay, but their current team (average age nearly 31) is the oldest in the tournament. Germany may need a two-goal margin of victory to qualify but that’s surely in reach against a side who’ve hardly created a chance in two matches.
Spain hammered Costa Rica 7-0 in the most 1958 scoreline of this World Cup so far. Thursday’s rivals Japan can still affect the expected balance of power in the group but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the Samurai Blue’s loss to Costa Rica will end up being a huge source of regret. DT
Deschamps’ changes will not help young stars
With qualification already assured for France, Didier Deschamps could be forgiven for making nine changes for the final game in Group D against Tunisia. Nine! Eduardo Camavinga, the Real Madrid midfielder who was bizarrely deployed at left-back, looked completely lost and was bullied and nutmegged into submission by the Tunisian attack. On just the 20-year-old’s second international start, Camavinga was not the only Frenchman to endure a torrid day – Mattéo Guendouzi and Youssouf Fofana also toiled – with the latter caught out of position for Wahbi Khazri’s winner. Deschamps may have some fresh legs for the knockout stages, but he will also have several young players in his squad completely stripped of their confidence. MBu
Arnold’s rules leave delirious fans to do celebrating
“No celebrations, no emotion, sleep, no social media.” Graham Arnold may have succinctly described the strict parameters for the Socceroos after securing World Cup knockout football for the first time since 2006, but it was the complete opposite to what was happening at that exact moment all over Australia. There were plenty of celebrations, emotions, social media posts and not a lot of sleep as Australia swept past Denmark to qualify for a meeting with Argentina, prompting riotous scenes in Melbourne and Sydney at 4am local time. Not that the Australia players will know much about that with their social media ban, while somebody presumably told goalscorer Mathew Leckie that his comments in his own post-match interview – “we’ll make the most of it tonight” – risked the wrath of Arnold. MBu
There was widespread relief after the Italian protester who invaded the pitch during Portugal’s win over Uruguay, holding a rainbow flag and with a shirt saying “Respect For Iranian Woman” and “Save Ukraine”, was released from a police station in Qatar. “I’m free. It was a difficult night,” Mario Ferri told Spanish radio outlet OndaCero. “But then at four in the morning, [Gianni] Infantino came and he defended me. He helped me get out so as not to risk any controversy, controversy about my message about peace, and then I was freed. Qatar decided there were no consequences.” It highlights the double standards that visitors to this World Cup receive in comparison with the plight of the more than 6,500 migrant workers who died in Qatar between 2011 and 2020. Ferri, an Italian, received a personal visit from the Fifa president “so as not to risk any controversy”, whereas many families from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were simply informed before the World Cup started that their relative had died, via a phone call from the on-site duty manager. MBu
Germany anxiously waits to find out whether a win over Costa Rica will be enough to avoid a second consecutive group stage exit for the four-times champions. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Michael Horeni pinned the problem – perhaps a bit harshly – down to one man at the centre of it being past his prime: “When Germany was still a big tournament team, there Thomas Müller was a great tournament player. And since Müller is no longer that, the national team is no longer a tournament team.”
World Cup-winning veteran Lothar Matthäus is in more optimistic mood they will do better than at the group stage in 2018. Writing in Bild Sport, he says: “We have players who weren’t there at the time. The national coach’s name is Hansi Flick and not Jogi Löw. And Costa Rica is not as strong as South Korea.” And Nico Horn wrote for Die Zeit from Doha that, perversely in a way, Germany “are still last in their group, but have the best chance of progressing. They now have to win against Costa Rica and hope Spain beat Japan. Two results that should actually occur if everything goes normally.” MBe
The internet reacts
Soccer may not be the biggest spectator sport in the US, but with joint-hosting rights for the next World Cup in the bag, there is heightened interest in the men’s team’s performance this time around – going all the way up to the commander-in-chief. US president Joe Biden’s social media team posted a behind-the-scenes clip of him being informed of the US v Iran score, and then announcing it at a political event in Michigan on Tuesday night. MBe
Croatia v Belgium (Group F, 3pm GMT, BBC1) “We’re too old, no chance.” De Bruyne’s World Cup prophecy, delivered to the Guardian, has haunted a disjointed Belgium. “We probably also attack badly because we are too old,” seethed Jan Vertonghen, 35, after the defeat by Morocco. Belgium almost certainly need to win to qualify so urgently require some of the spirit-in-adversity that Croatia have thrived on. Luka Modric and co are no spring chickens, but have form for getting results when it matters and only require a draw to go through. It will be intriguing to see which midfield maestro, De Bruyne or Modric, runs this game. AR
Canada v Morocco (Group F, 3pm GMT, BBC2) A draw with already eliminated Canada guarantees safe passage to the knockout stage for the buoyant Atlas Lions, who have taken four points from the two top-ranked sides in this group. But Canada outplayed Belgium in defeat, then Alphonso Davies gave Croatia a scare before his side succumbed. John Herdman’s team will likely attack with intent again, so Morocco – the most impressive African side so far – should be warned against sitting back and trying to settle for that crucial point. AR
Japan v Spain (Group E, 7pm GMT, ITV1) A point would take Spain through, but a victory guarantees top spot and Luis Enrique’s slick young passers are unlikely to get bogged down with nefarious thoughts of a draw potentially hurting Germany’s chances. Expect Spain to hog possession and play for the win. Yet Japan can take heart from the fact that they beat Germany (when expected to lose) and lost to Costa Rica (when expected to win). An underdog role may suit Hajime Moriyasu’s side – and a point will be enough if Germany and Costa Rica draw. AR
Costa Rica v Germany (Group E, 7pm GMT, ITV4) Germany need a first win – preferably by at least a two-goal margin – to stand a chance of progressing. Does that mean playing Niclas Füllkrug up top after Kai Havertz then Müller failed to make an impact as false 9s against Japan and Spain, respectively? Costa Rica are, in a way, the most efficient team at the World Cup: one shot on target and one goal. A victory means they qualify, a draw will be enough if Spain beat Japan, but Los Ticos will need to raise their game after two unconvincing displays. AR
Player to watch
Jamal Musiala The brightest young talent in German football displayed his mesmerising dribbling skills in the draw with Spain but did not always deliver the end product to match. With goal difference potentially a deciding factor in Group E – they need to get on top fast. This is where Musiala can be vital, his close control and dynamism bringing unpredictability to the attack. If Bayern Munich’s 19-year-old showcases his best form, he can be the player to unlock the Costa Rican defence. AR
And finally …
Ghana are plotting sweet revenge for Luis Suárez’s handball in 2010 when they face Uruguay in Friday’s spiciest group decider. So who better to help them in their mission for cathartic vengeance than one of the nicest men in football: Chris Hughton. The former Newcastle and Brighton manager, whose father was born in Ghana, has taken on the role of technical director for the Black Stars in Qatar, watching games from the stands and consulting with the manager via a two-way radio. “He takes a lot of things out of my head for me to concentrate on the team,” said Otto Addo, Ghana’s coach. “And on the tactics, he’s also given advice … he’s done a great job so far and he’s a big help to me.” Lovely stuff. AR