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Thrills, spills and one of the great World Cup performances: Why this could unravel into a truly epic group stage

The Independent logo The Independent 20-06-2018 Miguel Delaney
TOPSHOT - Argentina's forward Lionel Messi reacts after his penalty was saved during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Argentina and Iceland at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on June 16, 2018. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images) © Catalyst TOPSHOT - Argentina's forward Lionel Messi reacts after his penalty was saved during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Argentina and Iceland at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on June 16, 2018. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

It was, according to those around the Argentina camp, one of the few talking points on Sunday that perked up a very despondent Lionel Messi. The Barcelona star wasn’t the only big player to underperform, and his side were far from the only big-name team to fail to win their opening game.

“This is a proper World Cup,” Philippe Coutinho asserted in Rostov-on-Don after his own Brazil had toiled to a 1-1 draw against Switzerland. This is also the theme of that World Cup’s opening round of games. Most of the top-tier sides have either failed to win, or failed to really convince.

Even beyond Messi’s penalty miss in the 1-1 draw against Iceland, Argentina had been so typically flaccid up front but fragile at the back. A complacent Germany meanwhile looked a team without a midfield structure in the 1-0 defeat to Mexico, while Brazil suddenly seemed like a side without any conviction in their hugely underwhelming 1-1 draw with Switzerland. England and Belgium both won but while experiencing some difficulties in a rare lopsided group, while France were similar against Australia.

Such journeyman displays aren’t the only elements of Russia 2018 that have come as a jolt. Because, when the draw was made for this World Cup, it did seem like the opening round would be entirely predictable, with the big boys clearing a path before an epic latter stage.

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That is now all up in the air, and it is from is another alluring aspect of the opening round of games at a World Cup. For all the discussion that we now know too much about the football world for anything about this great tournament to be novel, the first 16 matches are something of a voyage of discovery in their own right, as months of questions and debate about the sides are finally answered in a frenetic spell of football. Theories are thrown out, as reality is revealed.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group G - Tunisia vs England - Volgograd Arena, Volgograd, Russia - June 18, 2018   England's Harry Kane celebrates scoring their second goal    REUTERS/Sergio Perez     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Catalyst Soccer Football - World Cup - Group G - Tunisia vs England - Volgograd Arena, Volgograd, Russia - June 18, 2018 England's Harry Kane celebrates scoring their second goal REUTERS/Sergio Perez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Except, in this case, that reality has only given rise to even more questions. The most pertinent of those is now not even whether the top sides can finish top of their group, but whether they can qualify at all. It is genuinely unprecedented for so many of the most favoured teams to drop points so early.

As to why that is, and what the answer to that most pertinent of questions will be, that is what is really interesting about this World Cup and why it has been so entertaining.

Because, when these kind of upsets have happened in the past – as at 1990 and 2002 – it is usually down to defensive football frustratingly taking hold at a tournament. That was what happened at Euro 2016, but it has not so far been the case in Russia. In fact, the overly defensive sides have generally been punished with late goals.

Sure, the relatively low goal average may be around 1990 and 2010 levels, but that has not come from tight games. It has instead comes from an entertaining profligacy, that has only made those games more gloriously entertaining and intense.

a person in a red shirt is throwing a ball © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

The matches involving Mexico and Peru are the best examples of this. The Mexicans should have had so much more than the one goal that still stunned Germany, as they squandered so many exhilarating counter-attacks, while Peru have probably been the most gloriously chaotic side of the World Cup so far.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group F - Germany vs Mexico - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - June 17, 2018   Mexico's Hirving Lozano celebrates scoring their first goal            REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Catalyst Soccer Football - World Cup - Group F - Germany vs Mexico - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - June 17, 2018 Mexico's Hirving Lozano celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Future generations looking back at Russia 2018 might pass their eye over that 1-0 defeat to Denmark and presume it was a run-of-the-mill group game, but it was anything but given the running in it.

That has generally been the case for these opening games as a whole, other than Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Egypt, and Iran’s over Morocco. And they were two matches that still felt like part of a slow build-up to the tournament, before Spain, Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo really set the tournament off by setting the tone with that 3-3. It also means Russia 2018 already has one of the great World Cup group games, and one of the great World Cup individual performances.

Such patterns in general meanwhile reflect how this World Cup has a lot of solidly good sides. Those who have now made life difficult for the big teams are not the obstructive and frustrating teams of 1990 or 2002, making up for a lack of quality with a lot of defending. They look willing to go at it.

All of Serbia, Croatia, Switzerland, Peru, Morocco and Iceland – who admittedly did sit deep against Argentina, but crucially did have the adventure to come from behind – are respectively going to make life even more difficult for Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal.

And this is where real intrigue lies, where there is so much life in this tournament. Can these top sides turn it up enough to turn things around and produce final tables that we would have expected? Alternatively, can sides like Serbia and Mexico – two specific teams who have really underperformed at World Cups over the last few decades – hold their nerve? That’s even more enthralling.

a man holding a ball: kolarov.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited kolarov.jpg

Switzerland’s Stephan Lichtsteiner was quite generous to the big sides in his comments, having been anything but generous in his team’s 1-1 draw with Brazil.

“It’s not easy for a big team in the first game, you don’t have the feel [for the tournament],” Lichtsteiner explained. “Maybe it’s an advantage to play a big team first. Maybe they don’t know us that well, they don’t have the feeling for the tournament.”

That doesn’t quite apply to everyone, and there are different reasons for the differences so far between reputation and results. Germany evidently have tactical issues, and maybe a large touch of complacency, while Brazil still seem to have something of a psychological issue, as well as a surprising physical fragility. France, meanwhile, have a problem in Didier Deschamps. Going against all that, Spain did look exceptional for long spells of their match with Portugal and – for about 40 minutes of their match put together – probably reached the highest level of the World Cup so far. They were also really only denied a win by two outliers: a David De Gea error, and Ronaldo.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 19:   Artem Dzyuba of Russia celebrates scoring a goal to make it 3-0 during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Russia and Egypt at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 19, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images) © Catalyst SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 19: Artem Dzyuba of Russia celebrates scoring a goal to make it 3-0 during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Russia and Egypt at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 19, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)

They won’t have that in every game, but then they still don’t have the three points. That is another way their 3-3 draw has only made this World Cup more thrilling.

The fact that so many big teams failed to win – regardless of the individual circumstances – means that we are almost mathematically guaranteed for more groups to go to the wire than any tournament since USA 94.

That is why, even if it is far too early for any conclusions, it is not too early for these opening games to have far-reaching significance. They have likely set up an epic group stage. That should now really perk everyone up.

Photos: FIFA World Cup 2018 — Best goals from round one of group fixtures

Watch: How Messi - world's highest-paid football player - spends his millions

(Video by TIME)


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