The last two matches in the Group Stages kicked off with this tie going for the title of ‘Weirdest of the Weird’. Both teams had the same points, results, goal difference etcetera (England with a better disciplinary record) and were assured of progress. The issue was, who wanted to finish first? There was wholesale changes for each side, which always throws the cats amongst the pigeons when it comes to predicting a winner but the winner would then end up in the tougher half of the draw which includes: Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and Mexico. In essence, the loser would really be the winner as, waiting in the other half of the draw is: Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Colombia; some tough teams there, sure, but not a patch on the other side you would think. So what does a boss do, tell the ‘reserves’ not to impress him, not to go for it? Like we said – weird.
The only way of ‘winning’ without actually scoring a goal and not throwing the game was for England to keep their yellow card count down. Do that, don’t outscore Belgium, and second place would be theirs with pride intact. The only charitable thing to say about the first half was that no-one died. No-one really tried either as this played out a bit like a pumped-up friendly. Belgium had the better of the ‘exchanges’ but the difference in quality between Belgium’s first team and the 11 that took to the pitch was quite pronounced. It was harder to tell with England but certainly, Eric Dier was doing little to usurp Jordan Henderson’s starting position in England’s first team. It was honours-even going in at the break.
Somehow, five minutes into the second half, one of the teams bothered to score. To the great relief of many England fans, it was Belgium who scored first. Januzaj made a fool of the recently returned Danny Rose and curled the ball past Jordan Pickford in the England goal. The goal resulted in what was arguably the best moment in the match when Michy Batshuayi smashed the ball into his own face via the post!
The deficit effectively gave England players the opportunity to get themselves a World Cup goal without wrecking their chances of getting that coveted second place in the group. Marcus Rashford tried to take advantage of this quirk but put it wide when it would have been easier to square for a compatriot.
That was about as good as it got in 45 minutes of a fairly turgid display for England. Belgium outplayed them to a huge degree, showing England’s midfield how to do their job properly. In fairness, the non-appearance of Harry Kane amounted to a tacit admission on the part of the England that the win wasn’t foremost in their thoughts.
The match ended with Belgium taking the win and finishing top of the group. For their efforts, they must play Japan in the Round of 16. England, for their ‘efforts’, must play Colombia in the Round of 16. If they manage to put the South Americans to the sword, the draw is appreciably less difficult than the route that Belgium must traverse.
England have a great potential route to the semi-finals and you can bet on them to reach the last four with our best-rated bookmakers:
Sengal 0-1 Colombia
It was the final round of games in Group H and three teams – Japan, Senegal and Colombia – were in control of their own destiny. Poland, a team rivaled only by Egypt for their abject performances in this tournament, were going home. Japan and Senegal topped the group on four points with Colombia sitting a point behind. The South Americans needed a win whereas anything other than a loss would do for Senegal.
Aliou Cisse, one of the stars of Senegal’s World Cup team from 2002, had shipped some criticism at home for what a few perceived as a conservative attitude to his team set-up. Given that just a draw would do for them here, it was expected that he might be even more pronounced toward that disposition but instead he began with two attackers and Sadio Mane; his thinking clearly shaped by the fact that to sit off Colombia all game without keeping them honest at the back would be to invite disaster. It was the attitude of the warrior rather than the bean counter and precisely what a match of this magnitude deserved.
Just over a quarter of an hour into the game, Colombia’s defence was cleaved open all too easily and Sadio Mane was put through, whereupon he was taken down by Davinson Sanchez. Following an impressive season for Tottenham Hotspur, the young defender was expected to impress this summer but has been worryingly inconsistent. In this case, the referee adjudged him to have fouled Mane and a penalty was awarded. In real time, it looked as blatant a penalty as you could hope to see but, after the customary consultation with the Vicar of VAR, the referee reversed his decision as, on closer slow-motion inspection, it appeared that Sanchez had in fact pulled off an excellent tackle. The incident seemed to shake Colombia, though, and it was apparent that they were unsettled by the verve and fight of Senegal.
They showed little of the confidence and control that had served them to such devastating effect against Poland. It then became terribly apparent that this lethargy might have been down to the fitness – or otherwise – of James Rodriguez. The star of the 2014 World Cup was replaced just half an hour into the game, clearly suffering from the injury which had plagued him in the build-up to the tournament. It was an awful blow to the spirit of the Colombian team, to be robbed of their conductor in a game of such import.
Senegal, for their part, were making most of the running and creating the vast majority of the chances but couldn’t make the final ball or shot count. Still, they were organized and bullied Colombia across the pitch, tactically getting it right to deny their opponents the space and time required to get Radamel Falcao and Cuadrado into the game. The half came to a close at 0 – 0, the same scoreline for the corresponding game between Japan and Poland.
Realising the necessity of it, Colombia began the second half with a far greater sense of purpose and urgency. In a way, this approach also suited Senegal as the pace they possess was perfectly suited to get in behind Colombia on the break. The biggest winners overall were the neutrals watching it as the game came alive, the excitement levels ratcheted up even if, for all that, neither side were creating chances in the penalty area. With half an hour left, word came through that Poland had taken the lead against Japan – a result that would suit both as the spoils of qualification would be theirs to share.
Eventually, a touch of quality broke out in the danger zone. With a quarter of an hour left, a corner was whipped in and Yerry Mina, the Colombia centre-half, scored his second goal of the tournament by heading powerfully home from eight yards out. As it stood, Colombia would go through and Senegal would be packing their bags; Fate was enjoying this afternoon of table turning. As you might expect, Senegal began to fight for their lives. With 10 minutes left to play, there was a period of intense attack and defend replete with outstanding tackles from Colombia’s rearguard that lesser referees might have blown up for, and it made for compelling viewing.
Senegal, when in possession, set up in something like a 2-4-4 and fought desperately to keep the flame alight but it wasn’t to be. The Oxford English Dictionary might include a new entry for Cruel: Willfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it – see Senegal’s exit from the World Cup 2018 due to FIFA’s Fair Play Rule. Japan, who qualified in their stead. did so as a result of picking up two fewer yellow cards. Senegal’s exit confirmed the fact that no African teams got through to the knockout stage of this tournament.
Colombia, after the shock and horror of their opening game loss to Japan, qualified in Q1 but have that injury to Rodriguez to mull over. At this stage, we don’t know the severity of it but two things come to mind: one, a player that is taken off after 30 minutes due to an injury that hasn’t been inflicted upon him by an opponent must be concerned about his chances of playing five days later, and two, Rodriguez had no apparent trouble running onto the pitch at full time to celebrate with his teammates. For now, that doesn’t matter. Colombia are through and the dream is alive.
- Group G