After each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.
Here’s what happened on Monday, in case you missed it…
MAIN TALKING POINTS
Does Sweden need Ibrahimovic?
Sweden on Monday played its first World Cup match without Zlatan Ibrahimovic since 2006, and while the Swedes were able to pull out the win over South Korea, you can’t help but wonder if they would benefit from having Ibra in the squad.
There’s a lot to be said for team unity and cohesion, and this Sweden side has clearly moved on from Ibrahimovic – it didn’t need him to survive a tough qualifying group that included France and the Netherlands, or to beat Italy in the two-game playoff that allowed it to stamp its passport for Russia.
But the Swedes lack legitimate game-breakers, and someone who can offer a bit of class and inspiration going forward. They came into this game goalless in over 300 minutes in international play, and for a while it looked as though they wouldn’t be able to break down a plucky yet modest South Korea team. The Swedish attack was persistent, but it was also plodding and predictable, and ultimately needing a penalty decision to go its way in order to earn the win. It was a job done for the Swedes, though there has to be internal concerns about how they are going to score.
Belgium comes alive after laboured start
On paper, Belgium versus Panama was a huge mismatch, a game pitting one of the World Cup favourites against a nation making its World Cup debut. The Panamanians looked to be defying the odds when the headed into the halftime break tied at 0-0, using their systematic pressing game and physical brand of defending to keep the Belgians off the scoresheet. Eventually, though, Belgium’s class showed itself as the Red Devils exploded for three goals in the second half.
Why did it take Belgium so long to break the deadlock? First, credit has to be given to Panama for making it incredibly difficult for the Europeans to get a stranglehold on the game, despite dominating possession.
The larger issue, though, was that Romelu Lukaku was barely involved in the attack – the Manchester United forward was completely isolated up front, and had just seven touches of the ball in the first half. Dries Mertens’ spectacular volley shortly after the restart opened things up for Belgium, who began to get the ball to Lukaku with more regularity. Incredibly, Kevin de Bruyne’s assist on Lukaku’s goal in the 69th minute was only his second successful pass to the forward in the match.
Kane comes to England’s rescue
Harry Kane bailed out England, scoring the game winner in a tense affair that saw Tunisia come within an eyelash of securing a credible draw. The English came flying out of the gate, carving out a pair of chances in the first five minutes before Kane scored off a rebound in the 11th. England poured on the pressure, but Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard all squandered quality opportunities from inside the box and failed to add to their advantage.
A comical foul by Kyle Walker allowed Tunisia back into the game, and Ferjani Sassi cooly converted from the penalty spot. Gareth Southgate’s team struggled to create much after that, as Tunisia bunkered down, and rarely ventured over the halfway line in the second half, comfortably dealing with England’s limp attack. English persistence paid off when Kane found himself unmarked near the post in injury time and headed home a pass from Harry Maguire to stun the Africans into submission.
A tame effort by England overall after what was a bright start in which the Three Lions had you believing they were going to run rampant. But a win is still a win, and credit to Kane for taking both of his chances with aplomb.
Spare a thought for Tunisia, though. The Africans could have easily folded after conceding that early goal and when starting goalkeeper Moez Hassen had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Instead, they buckled down and worked their way back into the game, equalizing from the penalty spot before going into the break. From there, they made it incredibly uncomfortable for England, keeping a compact shape and defending with great organization in an attempt to take a point. They nearly pulled it off.
Belgium was pretty to watch on the day, its well-oiled attack being tested by a resolute Panama defence. This was an interesting tactical battle that was eventually settled by some world-class build-up play and finishing by the Belgians.
In the 47th minute, a headed clearance by Panama inside its penalty area fell to Mertens, who hit a sweet shot from an angle from around 12 yards out that dipped into the far upper corner.
In the 20th minute, South Korea failed to clear its defensive lines, and the ball fell to Marcus Berg inside the box. Berg should have buried the chance from in close, but goalkeeper Hyun-Woo Cho threw himself across the box deny the Swede.
The passion with which players from Panama, which is making its World Cup debut at this tournament, belted out the national anthem prior to kickoff was incredibly inspiring.
THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Lukaku will garner the majority of headlines after scoring a brace in Belgium’s opening win. However, De Bruyne was very influential, his sublime passing and vision fuelling the Red Devils’ attack against a Panama side that did everything it could to slow him down.
“We need to dare to do even more. We need to dare to attack.” – Sweden coach Janne Andersson
SIX PACK OF STATS
• Andreas Granqvist’s goal was the first penalty scored by Sweden at the World Cup since 2002, when Henrik Larsson converted against Nigeria.
• Monday marked Sweden’s first win in its opening match at the World Cup since 1958 when as host nation they beat Mexico 3-0.
• Mertens is the first Belgian player to score in two different World Cups since Marc Wilmots (1998 and 2002).
• Only three Belgian players have scored two goals in a World Cup match: Lukaku (2014), Marc Wilmots (1998) and Wilfried Van Moer (1970).
• England’s Kane scored his first goal at a major international tournament with his 15th shot overall (13 in the Euros, two in the World Cup).
• Sassi’s goal was the first penalty conceded by England in regulation time at a World Cup since 1998 (Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta).
Stats courtesy of Opta
1) Romelulu Lukaku, Belgium: After a quiet opening 45 minutes, the Manchester United forward bagged a second-half brace to guide his country to an emphatic win.
2) Harry Kane, England: The Tottenham star scored two goals, including the game winner in injury time to rescue the Three Lions against Tunisia.
3) Marcus Berg, Sweden: The Swedish striker was a thorn in the side of South Korea’s defence, as he dangerously lurked in and around the penalty area throughout the game.
LOOKING AHEAD TO TUESDAY
Group H: Colombia vs. Japan in Saransk (8 a.m. ET) – Radamel Falcao will finally make his World Cup debut for Colombia in Russia. The veteran goal scorer missed out four years ago due to injury. And although he hasn’t scored much for his country in recent times, he did bag 24 goals for French club AS Monaco this past season.
Group H: Poland vs. Senegal in Moscow (11 a.m. ET) – Two marquee forwards will go head to head in this one. Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski scored 16 goals for Poland in in the European qualifiers, more than any other player. Sadio Mane of Senegal is coming off a 20-goal season for Liverpool.
Group A: Russia vs. Egypt in Saint Petersburg (2 p.m. ET) – The hosts are in firm control of Group A after a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in their opener. Egypt is a bit more desperate after a 1-0 loss to Uruguay. Mohamed Salah sat out that game. Will he play this time around? Can Russia take a huge step towards a second-round berth?
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
Writing in The Independent, Michael Cox offers this in-depth tactical breakdown of Mexico’s upset win over Germany on Sunday:
“The real battleground was on the [right] flank, where Germany’s Joshua Kimmich played an absurdly attack-minded role: overlapping Thomas Muller regularly, and sometimes making diagonal runs into centre-forward positions. He offered an attacking threat in the first half, crossing to the far post and nearly tempting Mexico right-back Carlos Salcedo into an own goal, and later chipping into the path of Timo Werner, who tested [Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo] Ochoa after a quick turn. He also attempted an extravagant bicycle kick from on the penalty spot, hardly the natural positioning of a right-back.”