After three straight days of glorious uncertainties at the Russia 2018 World Cup, Belgium and England sought to restore an air of predictability to the tournament today, albeit in contrasting styles in Group G.
Belgium rebounded from a flat first half to spank a physical Panama team 3-0, as giant Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku helped himself to seconds in Sochi. England left it later still before cornering Tunisia, as captain Harry Kane scored twice from set pieces in a 2-1 win at Volgograd.
There were little issues for Sweden too, as defender Andreas Granqvist converted from the penalty spot in a 1-0 win over Korea Republic in Nizhny Nivgorod.
It continued a trend of near European dominance in Europe with Germany being the only losers from that continent so far, while Iceland and Switzerland would not mind their draws against Argentina and Brazil respectively.
Who said sport is supposed to bring people together? At this stage, it looks like Russia president Vladimir Putin has stumbled across a novel strategy to resist immigrants: challenge them to a football match—loser go home!
That said, it is Croatia’s Nikola Kalinic who became the first player to be sent home from the World Cup today, after the 30 year old AC Milan striker failed to shake off a recurring back injury that only pops up whenever national coach Zlatko Dalic offers him a corbeaux sweat.
Kalinic declined the chance to make his World Cup debut as a late substitute in Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria. Mr Live Wire cannot confirm that the forward exclaimed: “Allyuh take me for Brent Sancho or wot? Fire fe dat!”
Dalic tossed him out of the team’s camp on the following day.
Even Neisha Wattley—of HDC fame—must be shaking her head at Kalinic’s selfish stance: “That ent making sense!”
Much more was expected from Korea today, who were led by Tottenham stand-out Son Heung-min. But, in the end, the Asia team’s standout was goalkeeper Jo Hyeonwoo, who resisted a barrage of Swedish attacks before eventually conceding to an Andreas Granqvist penalty—awarded after the intervention of VAR.
There have been seven penalties awarded already at the Russia World Cup with five converted. Yet, there were five successful penalties at the Brazil 2014 World Cup after the same number of games as well.
Are we really better off for the stream of interruptions, as referees sprint to the touchline to catch a replay?
Mr Live Wire suspects VAR is to football what predictive text is to typing. Sure, it helps eliminate typos; but that’s little consolation when your boss asks where you are and you reply: “I’m a bit horny, so I stopped at home.”
“… Shit. I meant HUNGRY!”
Belgium, arguably the tournament’s dark horses, didn’t do their pre-tournament billing any harm with a comfortable 3-0 win over Panama. But, for context, we are talking about a Panama team so shy in front of goal that they could not score in Room 201 with a suitcase full of US dollars.
Dries Mertens opened the score with a fine volley in the second half before Lukaku snatched a tidy volley. And there was an assist each for the creative duo, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
Not that Belgium had it all their own way. Hazard was repeatedly foiled by impressive 22 year old Panama right back Michael Murillo while De Bruyne—who played as one of two midfield sentries in front of a three-man defence—didn’t take a single shot and rarely got close to the opposing penalty box.
In his first four years as an international player, De Bruyne scored 13 goals including four at the 2014 World Cup. However, in two years under current coach Roberto Martinez, his only item came in a friendly win against minnows, Saudi Arabia.
And that is how England Premier League teams can shackle De Bruyne: just get City to replace Pep Guardiola with Martinez!
Meanwhile in Volgograd, England, who failed to win a game at the 2014 tournament, turned a corner today—literally—with a Kane double, from corner kicks.
And to think that former England boss Roy Hodgson had Kane crossing the set pieces rather than trying to get on the end of them.
Current England coach Gareth Southgate—the fellah on the touchline dressed like a preppy ‘grammar school’ dean—was not without his own idiosyncrasies, as his makeshift central defender Kyle Walker conceded a soft penalty that almost cost the “Three Lions” two points as Ferjani Sassi temporarily pulled Tunisia level.
“A centre-half facing his own goal when a ball is coming into the box is criminal,” former England defender Rio Ferdinand told the BBC, in classic football-speak exaggeration.
And speaking of much ado about nothing, can we all agree now that Raheem Sterling would not hurt a fly?
The Jamaica-born Sterling was pilloried in the British press for a tattoo of an assault rifle on his leg, which was clearly meant to be ironic. Sterling has not scored an international goal in two years and, based on today’s bustling but ineffective display, the City winger is about as likely to score in Russia as Kenwyne Jones.
The opening round of matches ends tomorrow with Africa’s Senegal bidding to become the first winners against European opposition when they face Poland from 11am.
And the 2018 World Cup should have its first sight of Liverpool star Mo Salah, as the Egyptian hopes to shake off a shoulder injury to face hosts, Russia.
Live Wire cannot confirm whether Putin will spend the night rehearsing his smirk.
2018 World Cup
(Monday 18 June)
Sweden 1 (Andreas Granqvist 65 pen), Korea Republic 0, Group F, Nizhny Nivgorod;
Belgium 3 (Dries Mertens 46, Romelu Lukaku 68, 74), Panama 0, Group G, Sochi;
Tunisia 1 (Ferjani Sassi 35 pen), England 2 (Harry Kane 11, 90+1), Group G, Volgograd.
(Tuesday 19 June)
Colombia v Japan, 8am, Group H, Saransk;
Poland v Senegal, 11am, Group H, Moscow;
Russia v Egypt, 2pm, Group A, St Petersburg.