The group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup perhaps did not get off to the most exciting of starts, but things have really ramped up in the last few days.
It is now time to slowly start saying goodbye to the groups, as the final round of fixtures kicked off today. Groups A and B went out with a bang, effectively giving us a taste of the knockout football that is to come.
The Group A decider pitted Ecuador against Senegal. The winner was promised progression to the knockout stage, but a draw would also do for Ecuador.
Often, in such scenarios, we see teams playing for a point right from kick-off and adopting a very conservative game plan.
Gustavo Alfaro’s side made it clear that they would be doing nothing like that right from kick-off, as they adopted a high defensive line and let the game get stretched end-to-end in the early exchanges, leading to six shots in the first 12 minutes for the two teams combined.
Ismaïla Sarr looked to be the brightest spark in a Senegalese attack that desperately needed a goal, and he provided just that close to half-time.
He had been running rings around Ángelo Preciado throughout the half, and he got the better of the Genk full-back again in the 42nd minute.
As he entered the box, he was wiped out by the onrushing Piero Hincapié, which meant that a penalty was awarded to Senegal. The Watford man stepped up to take it, coolly slotting it into the bottom corner.
Ecuador made a couple of attack-minded changes at half-time as the tables were turned and they became the side in need of a goal.
Senegal were nonetheless able to contain them from open play, but a set-piece led them to equalise in the 67th minute through Moisés Caicedo. Hardly had their fans finished their celebrations when the African champions restored their lead from a similar situation, with Kalidou Koulibaly applying a controlled finish.
As one would expect, Ecuador threw the kitchen sink at the game in search of a late equaliser, but their efforts went unrewarded.
Still, they can take a lot of heart from their performance in Qatar, and given the age profile of their squad, this is just the start of what could be a golden generation for them. For Senegal, this will be just their second knockout appearance at the FIFA Men’s World Cup.
Group A: Netherlands 2-0 Qatar
The other Group A game was not half as exciting, but that is unsurprising given that it featured a side that had all but qualified and one that was already eliminated.
There still was some incentive for both sides — the Netherlands were playing to top the group while Qatar were searching for their first World Cup points.
The hosts gave a decent account of themselves for the first 25 minutes and kept the scores level, but they were then decisively breached by Cody Gakpo, the player who has been the breakout star of the tournament so far.
Frenkie de Jong scored a second for the Dutch early on in the second half, and that effectively sealed their win. Topping the group was important because it all but ensured that they would avoid facing England in the round of 16.
The group stage schedule was, of course, released before a ball had been kicked at the 2022 World Cup, so Iran-US was already being touted as the showpiece of this day.
However, it would have taken a very brave person to predict that this game would also be a de facto knockout game where the winner would make it to the Round of 16.
Iran’s win over Wales meant that a draw would work for them as well, so to no one’s surprise in particular, Carlos Quieroz set his side up to defend in a deep 4-4-2 block.
Therefore, the US spent most of the first half trying to break it down, and they quickly realised that an effective tactic would be to drop one of their midfielders to one side of the centre-backs in possession, where they would get time on the ball to pick out dangerous forward passes. Indeed, that is what led to the creation of the opening goal in the 38th minute.
Iran posed next to no attacking threat in the first half, but they knew that would have to change if they were to stay in the tournament.
They switched to a 4-5-1 system at half-time and started looking better going forward, finding crossing opportunities with relative regularity. As the match wore on, the US defence sunk deeper, and they even switched to a back-five for the last 10 minutes of normal time. It was not pretty, but they got the job done at the end of the day.
So, Iran’s record of never making it past the group stages of a FIFA World Cup continues, but they should be proud of their performances and how close they came. The USMNT celebrated their return to the biggest stage by qualifying for the knockout stage yet again.
Like Group A, the Group B game between first and last had little on the line, so it was not the game you should have been watching if you had to pick.
Gareth Southgate fielded a semi-rotated line-up for this match, although Harry Kane started up front once again.
Behind him, the England manager refused to play Phil Foden centrally as he was shifted out to the right – his previously-stated reasoning was the 22-year-old does not play such a role for his club side.
Funnily enough, it was Jude Bellingham who started as the attacking midfielder, a position he has not played at Borussia Dortmund either.
The first half was particularly drab as England laboured to break down the Welsh defensive block. Thankfully, there was something for some fans to cheer about early on in the second period, as Marcus Rashford converted the tournament’s first direct free-kick before Foden doubled his side’s lead from the left soon thereafter.
A little later, the Manchester United man rounded off a comfortable win with his second of the night at the end of an individual effort from the right wing.
With that, England made sure they advanced to the knockout phase as group winners. They will be facing Senegal in the round of 16.
👀 Looking Ahead
It’s Groups C and D’s turn to take centre stage tomorrow and decide their Round of 16 participants, so here are the matches:
Australia vs Denmark (18:00 AST):
Group D is the one that starts us off, and the crunch fixture there sees Australia take on Denmark. The equation is simple – the 2020 European Championship semi-finalists must win to stay in the competition.
Tunisia vs France (18:00 AST):
France are already through, so Tunisia will be hoping they rest some of their star players. Jalel Kadri’s side are still in with a chance of making the last 16 if they win with a good enough margin, but that is a very tough ask against the defending champions.
Poland vs Argentina (22:00 AST):
After their crunch win over Mexico, Argentina have another huge game against Poland. The winner is sure to go through while the loser will quite possibly be eliminated, but a draw would allow Poland to progress while Argentina would be in big danger.
Saudi Arabia vs Mexico (22:00 AST):
Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina still leaves them with a decent chance of making the knockout stage, but they will have to beat Mexico to be sure of it. Gerardo Martino’s side are still in with a slender chance of progressing, so they will not be keen to give anything away easily.
Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob.
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