Ronaldo and Portugal advanced after a tough match. Photo courtesy of Nike, Inc.
The final round of group stage matches began on Monday to determine which teams would advance to the knockout stage as group winners. Because of the qualifying implications, every set of group games will be take place simultaneously.
Uruguay 3-0 Russia
Samara Arena, Samara
Uruguay vs. the host nation for all the marbles in Group A. With the South Americans being the more talented side, Russia would need to be disciplined to win the group with a win or draw. Uruguay could only top the group with a win. Iury Gazinsky, the player who scored the first goal of this World Cup, fouled Uruguay midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur just outside the box, nine minutes in. This would lead to a free kick opportunity and the game winner as Luis Suarez put La Celeste up 1-0 in the 10th minute. Edinson Cavani shot from range with the ball deflecting off Russia’s scorer Denis Cheryshev for an own-goal in the 23rd minute. The task would get more difficult as defender Igor Smolnikov picked up his second yellow in the 36th minute to leave the home side with 10-men the rest of the way.
Uruguay dominated the second half, outshooting the Russians 13 -2. Edinson Cavani would score his first of the tournament in the 90th minute to cap off a successful group campaign for the two-time champions.
Analysis: This was a much more polished Uruguay side, growing with confidence in each game. They were the class of the group and were expected to be given the level of their competition. Still, they saw out a perfect run when and will now prepare for their first big test against Portugal. Given the form of both sides, Uruguay should be the favorite but a great night from Cristiano Ronaldo could always complicate the occasion. Still, the likes of Cavani and Suarez with peak confidence should have Uruguay dreaming of a long run in the rest of the tournament.
For Russia, this has been a successful run in the tournament. The hosts came in with uncertainty and a losing streak but have fed off the home fans to win their first two matches and advance to the knockout round. Given Spain’s complication against Morocco, there is no reason for the Russians not to feel confident about their chances to pull the upset. A match against a more talented side like Uruguay was a great test to prepare for their knockout round opponent. Next time, however, losing will mean elimination so the host nation must be more disciplined because that’s what hurt their chances with Uruguay.
Notable stat: Uruguay did not concede a single goal during the group stage - the fifth time they accomplish this at a World Cup. Croatia are the only other side with zero goals against with one group match left to play.
Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt
Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
There was nothing on the line but pride for two sides already eliminated. Saudi Arabia was looking to win its first World Cup match since USA 1994 while Egypt was aiming for their first win ever at the tournament. The Saudis were better in attack on the day but the first goal would come from the most talented player on the field. Mohamed Salah would receive a long pass and just tip it over the goalkeeper and two defenders to put Egypt up 1-0 in the 22nd minute. Saudi Arabia were awarded a penalty in the 40th minute but Fahad Al Muwallad would fail to convert, as Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El Hadary got a hand on the shot. Another penalty would be called in favor of Saudi Arabia in first half stoppage time after Referee Wilmar Roldan consulted video review. Salman Al Faraj would convert to tie the match 1-1.
Saudi Arabia were once again the more attacking side in the second half but would be unable to break the deadlock until the final stages. Salem Al Dossari, nicknamed “The Neymar of the Gulf” by fans, would convert the last opportunity of the match to give Saudi Arabia its first World Cup win since June 29, 1994.
Analysis: This match had plenty of meaning for two sides looking to exit the tournament on a high note. Saudi Arabia played better overall and, barely, leave with a result that shows that. Whether the manager Pizzi will stay in charge will be the question for Saudi Arabia moving forward. The Saudis have rotated their share of managers within the last year and would benefit from a consistent management to make some noise at the 2022 World Cup, to be hosted next door in Qatar.
The same concerns go for Egypt, who have had consistency after Manager Hector Cuper took over in 2015. The seven-time African champions will feel gutted to be winless in three World Cup appearances. Putting that aside, just returning to a World Cup after an 28-year drought was success enough. Exporting more players to top leagues and getting them minutes could see them return in 2022.
Notable stat: Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, at 45 years and 161 days, became the oldest player ever to feature at the World Cup.
Spain 2-2 Morocco
Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
A motivated Morocco side would play the game of their lives in their final match of the tournament. Moroccan forward Khalid Boutaib would pounce on a lost ball from Spanish defender Sergio Ramos to put the African side up 1-0 in the 14th minute. As expected, Spain would retaliate in an attack powered by two of La Liga’s most talented midfielders in FC Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid’s Isco. Iniesta would dribble inside the box slide it the ball over for Isco to tie the match in the 19th minute. Iniesta would continue to be the catalyst, setting up Diego Costa for a golden opportunity to take the lead in first half stoppage time. They would end 1-1 at the half.
Morocco’s Noureddine Amrabat would be denied a potential goal of the tournament by the post in the 55th minute as the Africans continued to take it to Spain. The 2010 champs would miss their share of opportunities of set-pieces before they would be punished in the 81st minute. Youssef En-Nesyri, who played this past season in La Liga with now-relegated side Malaga, hit the header to convert a corner for the 2-1 lead. Spain’s Iago Aspas would score the equalizer in second half stoppage time but not without the help of the video review. The score was originally ruled offside until the Video Assistant Referee was consulted and the goal was officially awarded.
Analysis: Spain finished as the best team in the group by a hair and will avoid a potent Uruguay team in the round of 16. It is in the knockout phase where interim manager Fernando Hierro will be tested. Spain dropped points to Portugal and struggled against Morocco. Still, on their best day, this is a side worthy of lifting the trophy and is glad to return to the knockout phase after a forgettable performance at Brazil 2014.
Morocco, though not victorious, can leave with their head high after a hard-fought display. They took on one of the heavyweights and had them on the ropes. They are another one of those sides who had already won just by returning to the World Cup. In Morocco’s case, they returned after a 20 year drought and can feel good about building on this performance.
Notable stat: The draw against Morocco extends Spain's unbeaten streak to 23 matches (15W-8D-0L), the longest active streak of any national team.
Iran 1-1 Portugal
Mordovia Arena, Saransk
This was a match of two teams aiming to book their place in the round of 16 with a win. Portugal had plenty of opportunities to stake their claim on their scoreboard but could not capitalize. Iran’s opportunities came from set-pieces and would have a good chance to equalize in the 34th minute. Ricardo Quaresma would finally break the scoreless draw to put the European champions up 1-0 right before halftime.
The second half would leave plenty to talk about in regards to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). First, Portugal would be awarded a penalty after the referee took a look at the video to confirm if Cristiano Ronaldo had been taken down inside the box in the 50th minute. The FIFA Men’s Player of the Year would be denied by Iranian goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand. In the 80th minute, Ronaldo would be subject of the VAR again to see if a foul on Iran defender Morteza Pouraliganji would earn him a red card. CR7 was instead given a yellow. In the final minutes of the match, the VAR would be consulted again to determine a penalty in favor of Iran. Karim Ansarifard would score in stoppage time to tie the match. Iran would have an opportunity to win but Mehdi Taremi’s would hit the outside netting. Portugal would advance with the 1-1 draw while Iran were eliminated.
Analysis: Portugal were lucky to not have lost this match and be eliminated. They are even luckier to not have lost their best player as a red card would have seen him miss their round of 16 match. The bad news is that, thanks to Spain’s higher goal total, they will be matched with Uruguay instead of Russia. Uruguay will be a tough test and they will need an strong effort to outlast the South Americans through ninety minutes or more, as necessary.
Iran will feel gutted to have been so close to advancing, especially when no one gave them a shot to move out of the group. The win against Morocco - their first World Cup win since France 1998 - set them up for this opportunity and they leave with their most successful campaign to date. They can feel proud of their efforts in a though group as they look to Qatar 2022.
Notable stat: Two penalties were awarded in this match to bring the total to 20 for the tournament, breaking the previous record of 18 (1990, 1998 and 2002).
Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):
Tuesday, June 26
9 a.m. - [Group C] Australia vs. Peru (FS1, Telemundo)
9 a.m. - [Group C] Denmark vs. France (FOX, NBC Universo)
1 p.m. - [Group D] Nigeria vs. Argentina (FOX, Telemundo)
1 p.m. - [Group D] Iceland vs. Croatia (FS1, NBC Universo)
The Athletic Football Show's Robert Mays and Nate Tice delve into the significance of the Houston Texans' offseason. Discussing the direction they believe the team should take to capitalize on the achievements from 2023.
Whether it be the draft or free agency, be sure to watch the video above as the guys layout how the franchise should address their needs for 2024 and beyond.