There were a few unsurprising elements about a generally surprising day: Uruguay are mind-numbing to watch; Group A was the “Group of Life"; that Ambarat continued to have a whale of a tournament; Ronaldo was annoying: and the VAR (or reffing) doesn’t work so well when Morocco’s involved. On to the games, which ended up being first stultifying and then finished with a simultaneous roller-coaster ride.
Uruguay-Russia: I’d imagined a boring one, just because Uruguay has turned out to be more or less the same Uruguay: stodgy on offense, lockdown defense, and pretty good at turning a scrap into a meal on offense, courtesy of you-know-who. And I've still never seen anyone look good against them. They were supposed to be more than that this time, with the younger midfielders, and while there’s talent there, it’s like watching the paint dry. I do admit to enjoying watching Godin organize the defense, and Caceres and the missing Gimenez are really quite good as well, but they’ve largely been a cure for insomnia. They faced Russia without the bright Golovin (on a yellow) and Fernandez (the terrific right back), and suddenly we were seeing the Russia I imagined we’d see. Not a surprise, but so bad that I turned to Egypt and Saudi Arabia at halftime, and that surprisingly turned out to be a pretty entertaining match.
Egypt-Saudi Arabia: Well, Egypt gave it it’s all against Russia but seemed to have a certain amount of life sucked out of them in the process, while Saudi Arabia--well, where were these chaps in the opener? They played a lot of accurate balls, defended quite ably the few times Salah found the ball, and ran with blazing intensity. They were only denied by the 45-year old keeper, heroic on several occasions including stoning a PK, but then found the winner on literally the last kick of the game after some clever build-up. It was a deserved result. Egypt just never got into gear, which was a shame, but the Saudis no longer looked like the worst team I’d ever seen in a Cup, which was my view after the first game. If you saw the first game and didn't watch this, you wouldn't believe it.
Spain-Morocco: The great thing about this game was that Morocco was able to up the ante once more, despite two really frustrating previous performances. I wouldn’t say they were the better team today--as they were in the first two--but they did show the world their quality and will be on everyone’s radar if they can make it back in 2022. Herve Renard, looking all the movie-star ex-pat in a b-grade John LeCarre knock-off, is signed to manage until then https://www.foxsports.com/soccer/video/1263590467891and I hope they keep him around. Ambarat was once again a powerhouse, hitting the woodwork on what would have been a goal-of-the tournament slicer that left De Gea rooted to the turf, and Nirar, the right back (#17), gave the Spanish plenty to consider on the right flank. I recall three calls that might have been PKs against Portugal last game, and here there were two Pique handballs in the box and a tackle that has become the classic straight red, even if the ball was won (as it was). It was an wildly rash, uncharacteristic move from the Barca man, more a Ramos/Pepe-type catastrophe, really, and he was wildly fortunate to escape. It set the Moroccans off and it looked like they would find their way to a retaliatory red, but they calmed themselves down for a strong second half, and had what looked like the winner when the sub En-Nesyri scored. He had looked entirely incompetent seconds earlier on the ball, but clearly his head is his main weapon, as he towered over Ramos to slam in the corner. They were done in, alas, by Iago Aspas’s lovely flick off the quick short corner, a whisker onsides. Premier League fans can't quite believe it given his Liverpool displays, but that was a gem.
Spain haven’t won convincingly, though they’ve had plenty of characteristic possession. They got another good showing from Isco, and Iniesta (whom I’ve criticized) made the first goal in classic fashion, gliding by the opposition without a perceptible move or explosive pace. He’s so deceptive I can’t even seen when he’s being deceptive in the replay--one of the truly unique talents the game has produced. Silva hasn’t really been able to produce much, which is a surprise. While they’re on what is looking like the sweet side of the bracket at this point, they’ve hardly convinced. While Nacho’s goal in the opener was excellent, I find it hard to believe that Hector Bellerin wasn’t given a closer look for right back. Alba is no longer the terror on the left that he became on the Euro 2012 Championship winners. They’re not getting any penetration of note on the wings, and Bellerin might have helped--and if you’re giving away breakaways like they did today, maybe he could catch up. Not a good day for the Spanish backline.
Lastly, no Amine Harit for the second straight game. That’s got to be the big Morocco talking point as he’s the biggest and brightest name. I thought he played quite selfishly in the first game, but a little surprised all the same. Would love to know that story on that. At this point, though, you’ve got a coach and the apparent star player ending on a less-than-happy note.
Finally, farewell to Morocco--you played some of best futbol of the group. We wish you were still in it.
Portugal-Iran: Quaresma. Outside-of-right foot masterpiece. That’s what he does, probably in his sleep, surely in some game on the beach 20 years from now. Great to see the old man getting some glory. Great to see Ronaldo miss the PK. Great to see Iran tie it up. I think the yellow card for Ronnie was fair; he was being a dick but doesn’t rate a red card for me. Through his miss, he gets to have Godin and Gimenez in his jock next game. The two most boring teams in the tournament will match up; maybe some catalytic conversion will happen and it will become exciting. I see lots of flops, time-wasting, and ref-surrounding. Let’s hope I’m wrong.