It was a memorable day at the World Cup in Russia as Groups E and F drew to a close. Neither pre-tournament favourite in each group – Brazil and Germany – was guaranteed qualification and both would have to assert themselves to book a place in the last 16. Sweden, who had gone so close to holding the Germans to a draw, were tasked with beating group leaders Mexico in order to reach the knockout stage. Switzerland were in with a solid chance of qualification with four points in the bag and a fixture against bottom-of-the-table Costa Rica, while Serbia had the unenviable task of trying to beat Brazil to claim a spot in the knockouts.
Permutations aside, it was a simple task for each of the sides involved – win and get through, lose and pack the bags for home. As it turned out, the drama occurred in the early fixtures as two explosive second halves shaped the tournament for both Sweden and Germany in Group F. The later kick-offs saw Brazil get close to their samba best and Costa Rica earn their first World Cup point courtesy of a fight back against Switzerland. The Costa Rican’s late show means that so far, Egypt are the only side to exit the competition without a single point for their troubles.
Brazil 2-0 Serbia
Brazil went into this game knowing that a win would send them through to the knockout stages, but the same was true of Serbia who could secure dramatic passage to the last 16 if they could beat the tournament favourites. It led to a cagey opening to the game but the first 45 minutes soon settled into a rhythm of Brazil possession and Serbian defending. The Serbs were happy to sit back and for most of the time looked to be comfortably keeping Brazil at bay. When they did break out, Serbia tried to attack Brazil down the flanks – a weakness that has been pointed out ad nauseam – but failed to find the skill or composure in the final third to cause the Brazilians too many problems.
Brazil had been criticized for their sluggish displays in the opening two matches, but there were flashes of the samba beat as the half wore on, with Neymar and Coutinho pulling the strings in midfield. An early blow saw Marcelo limp off injured to be replaced by Filipe Luis, but it did little to disrupt the flow as Brazil grew into the half. The ease with which Neymar goes down has spawned many an internet meme, and the PSG playmaker is being overshadowed in Russia by his Barcelona replacement Coutinho. It was the latter whose through ball was deftly finished by Paulinho as he lifted it over the ‘keeper and into the back of the net. Brazil went in at half-time a goal to the good and it was a fair reflection of the balance of play.
Serbia were caught between two stools – push forward and risk going further behind or keep it tight and hope for something on the break. With Switzerland also 1-0 ahead at half-time in the other group match, it was clear that the Serbs would need to beat Brazil and for the first 15 minutes of the second half they began to take the game to Brazil and at times, had the former world champions on the ropes. Aleksander Mitrovic had two very presentable chances with his head but managed to fluff his lines on both occasions and that was about as close as Serbia came to turning the game around.
Thiago Silva rose majestically to head in a Neymar corner on 68 minutes and that sapped the energy from Serbia, effectively finishing the tie. From there on in confidence coursed through the veins of this Brazil side and they began to play with the sort of swagger we usually associate with the South Americans. Brazil’s players seemed keen to get Neymar on the scoresheet and were giving him the ball at every opportunity but the closest he came was towards the very end of the game where, after being put through in the penalty area, his shot was smothered by the Serbian ‘keeper.
The other match in group E saw Switzerland twice go ahead and Costa Rica twice hit back for a point. Their first World Cup goal from Kendall Waston meant that every team in Russia had found the net at least once. Their second – from a penalty deep into injury time – earned the point but spare a thought for Bryan Ruiz. The Costa Rica forward stepped up to take the penalty knowing that if he scored he would equal the record for most goals scored at a World Cup for his country. His fiercely-struck spot-kick hit the bar, bounced down and hit Swiss ‘keeper Sommer on the back, before nestling in the back of the net. Unfortunately for Ruiz, it goes down as an own goal and his chance to equal the record went begging.
Brazil finished top of the group and their second-half performance gives hope that they can find the form to take them all the way. Back the Brazilians to lift the World Cup and grab a bonus with our top-rated bookies below:
South Korea 2 – 0 Germany
The final round of games in Group F were full of permutations; there was even a slight chance that Mexico, top of the group with two wins, might not qualify should they lose heavily to Sweden.
In lieu of being able to outplay Germany, South Korea were intent on outworking them and, when the opportunity presented itself, making the most of any set-plays that came their way. This nearly bore some beautiful fruit in the 20th minute when a free-kick that was smashed at the German goal seemed to flummox Manuel Neuer as the great man spilled the ball but was alert enough to get up and swat it away. There was a price to pay for South Korea’s close, physical attention of Germany as two of their players picked up bookings before 25 minutes were played.
Germany weren’t making inroads. They spent much of the first half playing across the lines rather than playing through them; yes, South Korea were set up well defensively with most of their men behind the ball but Germany’s tempo was too slow to drag any of them out of position. The European side dominated the possession and passing statistics but it was all sterile stuff. What they would have done for the Thomas Muller of four years ago, the strange, skinny fella who used to pop up in the most unexpected but lethal places. The Muller of today appears to have lost that talent and as a result, was sitting on the bench.
Any hope of the Germany of old turning up in the first half were not realized. Worryingly for Germany fans, this was very much the blunt, rudderless Germany of the opening game loss to Mexico. With the corresponding fixture also scoreless going in at half-time, Germany were progressing to the Round of 16 as it stood but the situation was far more precarious for them than their performance suggested.
This thought appears to have become more apparent to Germany at half-time as just minutes into the second half, Leon Goretzka saw a header palmed away by Jo Hyeon-woo following good build up. Germany were buzzing and not long after, Timo Werner blazed just wide. Just then, word filtered through that Sweden had taken the lead against Mexico – a result that would send Germany home were both score lines to stay the same. If you thought that would have honed their sense of purpose, it seemed to have the opposite effect and they continued in their scattergun approach, if somewhat more frantically. Thomas Muller and Mario Gomez were brought on to add to the firepower.
All of sudden, there were gaps everywhere; gaps that South Korea energetically exploited at a rate of knots. With 20 minutes of play left, it was impossible to know how this game would end up. If the game remained scoreless, Germany would be out of the World Cup in the group stage for the first time since 1938. It seemed an impossibility that they wouldn’t progress but everything about this performance suggested that their tournament was done.
South Korea’s legs began to go and their threats petered out which ceded ground to Germany but the Champions couldn’t make anything happen. Mesut Ozil crossed to Mats Hummels but the centre back mistimed his jump terribly and the ball hit his shoulder rather than head. Toni Kroos kept shooting and kept missing. Muller shouted and pointed but little else.
Then, in the 92nd minute, the unthinkable happened and Korea scored from a corner. Yes, VAR was called upon but no, that counted for nothing. Germany were shell-shocked and had six minutes still to wrestle it from the fire. Everyone, including Neuer, was up in the Korean end of the pitch and, with moments left, the German ‘keeper was dispossessed 20 yards out – from the Korean goal! With the ball turned over, it was launched up the pitch and Son Heung-min drove the nail into Germany’s heart with a second goal.
From the beginning of the first half, Germany oozed the same lackadaisical mentality that bedevilled their approach in their loss to Mexico – it was as if they had learned nothing. Or perhaps, more damningly, they were unable to learn anything with the players they had. Whatever the reasons, there is no getting away from the reality that Germany, the reigning World Champions, finished bottom of their group and were going home early for the first time in 80 years. The red carpet will not be rolled out for them on their return.