I thought that, for a change of pace, I would frame my review of the opening matchday in the World Cup in the form of answers to questions I had about the various teams, before commenting on whether my predictions have changed for their prospects. In order of matches played:
Q: Can Russia harness the power of home support to improve their recent lackadaisical performances?
A: So it would seem. While the home crowd in the Luzhniki were quiet at points, they certainly appreciated the goals and the win, and the hosts were able to avoid anything too negative emanating from the stands. But the ease of the task was a considerable contributor to that. They will still struggle against remaining opposition.
Q: Can Saudi Arabia translate their greater attacking focus in qualifying into goals during the Finals?
A: Not in the first game anyway. The Saudi’s huffed and puffed for a time, and had an astonishing 62% possession by full-time but Al-Sahlawi lacked any kind of decent service, and his team generally looked out of their depth both in terms of general quality and in fitness levels. They were unable to muster a single shot on target all game, and this was, on paper, the easiest game they had. The wooden spoon awaits.
Q: How will the Uruguayan youth get on in their first World Cup?
A: They struggled for a while, but then again sos did the veterans. Uruguay as a whole seemed incapable of breaking Egypt down, but in the end it was 23 year old Gimenez scoring the winning goal from 33 year old Sanchez’ cross. You would expect they will play better next time.
Q: If Salah plays, is he fit? And if he doesn’t, can Egypt cope?
A: He didn’t, but they did cope for a while, though the lack of cutting edge upfront was obvious. They may regret not putting him on even for the 20, or even 10, minutes. With him on, they should bounce back still.
Q: Can Jahanbakhsh replicate form on the big stage?
A: Not really. Iran got away with the win, but Jahanbaksh got just one shot on target before going off injured. His status remains unclear. Iran have given themselves a shot, but the really hard part is next.
Q: Will Herve Renard be able to maintain his usual defensive solidity on the biggest stage?
A: He nearly did, in fairness. Iran were limited to just two shots on target, and it was only an unfortunate fluke of an own goal that decided it. It’s likely to be a mortal blow to Moroccan chances.
Q: How will Spain cope with the sudden turmoil in their management structure?
A: Despite the final result feeling like two points lost, rather well I would say. Spain came from behind twice, and were just a few minutes and one moment of genius from claiming a very impressive win. Once the disappointment fades, this game will stand to them. They should win the group.
Q: If you took away Ronaldo, how good are Portugal really?
A: Not very. Friday’s game was Ronaldo’s moment, arguably his greatest tournament performance ever. But for him – his movement, his finishing, his set-piece ability – there is no way Portugal would have got anything from this game. If he keeps playing to this level, advancement is inevitable.
Q: Will they pull together if things don’t go smooth?
A: Needing the better part of an hour to score against Australia, and then conceding within minutes with a hare-brained penalty infringement might be considered as “things don’t go smooth”, but France did pull together, and they did get the win, even if they never really looked stellar doing so. You’d fancy this to be a wake-up call.
Q: Will the new coach’s more reactive philosophy pay dividends?
A: No, not really. One lone shot on target – the penalty – illustrates Australia’s defensive mindset, but they just weren’t good enough to see the game out after equalising. They’ll struggle to get anything here.
Q: If Eriksen plays, is he fully there? And if he doesn’t, do Denmark lack bite?
A: He played, and played well, master-minding Denmark’s midfield play and providing the crucial assist for the only goal, after welcoming his first child into the world on Monday. It’s a huge result for the Danes, who can look forward to progression now.
Q: After all the fuss, does Guerrero live up to the hype?
A: He only played a half-hour, providing some counter-attacking impetus, but he didn’t have the time or the space to provide the kind of impact Peru needed. The result leaves them needing something spectacular against France, that may not come.
Q: Will the rest of the team step-up and take the pressure off Messi?
A: Emphatically no. At times it was like ten men waiting for the eleventh to do something, anything, to break Iceland down, and Messi couldn’t do it. If they slipped here, they can slip elsewhere, though they should still pip Croatia.
Q: Will the strength of the spirit make up for the injuries to the squad?
A: Emphatically yes. The draw may now be Iceland’s new defining result, where they contained an attack that finished runner-up four years ago, and looked threatening at the other end with their counter-attack. Disciplined, committed, all-in: Iceland can win this group.
Q: Will the strength of the midfield show itself on the field?
A: Yes, but they had such limp opposition to oppose them, the domination of Modric and company was as inevitable as the tides. The other teams in the group may prove much harder.
Q: Will Uzoho’s lack of club game time prove critical?
A: Not especially, with the Nigerian keeper not really at fault for the opener, and blameless for the penalty. It doesn’t matter, as Nigeria are going nowhere playing like this.
Q: Well, was it a fluke or not?
A: Kind of? Costa Rica didn’t play especially badly on Sunday, but lacked a cutting edge up-front. But for a very special piece of set-piece skill, they would probably have walked out with a point. Better attacking opposition should put paid to their hopes.
Q: When the chips are down, how will Serbia react?
A: The chips were never really fully down, were they? Serbia played to a decent level, got the only goal, and were more than good enough to see the game out without too much discomfort. But they’d need to step things up big time to edge past the Swiss.
Q: Is samba soccer back?
A: In brief little bursts maybe, but for large stretches of the game, especially in the second half, it was 2014 all over again, with Brazil labouring against a tough Swiss defence not adverse to going in hard. Perhaps they will learn from this and improve.
Q: Will the lack of an obvious forward threat be critical?
A: In a way. Switzerland came from behind to claim a point, but arguably could have gotten more from the game, especially in the second half where they were able to assert themselves a bit more. But they showcased why they are the team to beat for at least second place.
Q: If he plays, is Neuer up to scratch? Is he doesn’t, is it a serious issue?
A: Neuer played, and he was relatively blameless for the goal, but his standard solidity did not help Germany in a performance where they showcased defensive frailties that were altogether abnormal. You’d imagine this is a once-off: if not, it’s Spain in 2014 all over again.
Q: Will they match the intensity of the 2014 group performance, or have they regressed?
A: On the basis purely of tournaments, they’ve improved if anything. Sunday was a showcase of how to properly implement a reactive counter-attacking game, and they should really have scored a few goals. They now stand a very good chance of topping the group.
Q: Will the solidity of the back make up for the loss of Zlatan?
A: A 1-0 win and a clean sheet. I’d say so. But better attacking forces await in this group, and Mexico just showed their quality.
Q: Have the defensive issues been sorted in time?
A: To an extent. The ROK conceded from a penalty and kept the Swedes out otherwise, but it was their problems further up the field that ruined them, as they registered no shots on target. They aren’t going anywhere but home.
Q: Are they as good as they think they are?
A: In the last half an hour at least. Panama didn’t have the legs to keep up their resistance, and Belgium’s star-studded attack was not going to be denied this most basic of tests. A stroll to top spot is on the cards.
Q: Can they muster anything up?
A: Yes, for an hour or so. Unfortunately for them, game last 90 minutes. The flight home will be a good bit longer.
Q: Are they mentally ready for this challenge?
A: Yes and no. England kept going at Tunisia and were rewarded in injury time, but their attacking focus in the second half was terrible, and indicates they aren’t in a position to be considered serious contenders, even if second place in the group remains a lock.
Q: Are the injury problems too much to overcome?
A: If they have any ambitions of getting out of this World Cup group, then yes. Tunisia’s midfield was decent on Monday night, but the defence was a real touch-and-go operation, and the attack was anonymous. They now need to beat Belgium, and that isn’t going to happen.
Q: Has the stuttering from qualifying stopped?
A: Based on the first two minutes, when they self-destructed spectacularly, no. Based on the rest of the first half, where they exerted dominance on the game and equalised, yes. Based on the second half, where they fell away and let Japan dictate things, no. Columbia have some work to do, but should still qualify.
Q: Is the aging spine of the team up to this level anymore?
A: While it is not altogether fair to judge Japan on the basis of a game where they played 88 minutes against ten men, they did appear to be up to this level, dominating the second half and weathering periods of Colombian control. A 28 year-old and 29 year-old scored the goals. With this result, Japan have given themselves an unexpectedly great chance to progress.
Q: Can Lewandowski replicate his club form?
A: Not in the first game, with the star man as frustrated as the rest of the Polish side, the closest he got being a free kick early in the second half. A huge game to come against Columbia will decide their fate.
Q: Will Mane create the service that he needs to?
A: He didn’t have to. Senegal’s two goals came from Polish errors, though Sane was useful throughout. Lucky here, Senegal still stand a decent chance of progressing as it stands.