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 Sunday, in case you missed it…
MAIN TALKING POINTS
Kolarov’s free kick the difference for Serbia
One moment. Sometimes that’s all it takes. One moment when someone decides to step up, and takes the game by the scruff of the neck, settling the matter with an individual act of brilliance. On Sunday in Samara, that person was Aleksandar Kolarov.
In a cagey and tactical affair that never caught on fire from an attacking perspective, it was Kolarov who injected a much-needed shot of inspiration into the match, scoring on a gorgeous, curling free kick that sailed over Costa Rica’s defensive wall and left Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas with no chance of a save.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from fellow dead-ball specialist Sinisa Mihajlovic – the last Serbian player to score from a direct free kick at the World Cup since 1998 – Kolarov found the back of the net from 25 yards out, becoming the third player at this tournament to score from a direct free kick. That makes it sound like scoring from a free kick is a formality. It’s not. It was done only three times at the previous World Cup in Brazil, underscoring the significance of Kolarov’s unbelievable strike on this day.
Mexico stuns Germany
The biggest shocker of the tournament thus far unfolded in Moscow where Mexico struck a blow for CONCACAF pride by knocking off Germany, the World Cup holders and the overwhelming favourite coming into this competition. The Germans suffered their first World Cup defeat since dropping a 1-0 decision to Spain in the 2010 semifinals, and they become the third consecutive reigning champion who failed to win its opening match.
A lot of media focus will be on Germany and its lacklustre performance, especially in the first half when Die Mannschaft looked pedestrian in midfield. Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos were far too deliberate in their buildup play. Overall, the Germans struggled to contain Mexico’s blistering counterattack – Hirving Lozano, in particular, gave the German defence fits with his pace. Also, Joachim Löw’s side pressed forward far too high at times, leaving massive gaps at the back for Mexico to exploit, which they did.
So, Germany is off to a poor start, and have to quickly recover. But let’s not lose sight of what Mexico did on this day. The CONCACAF kingpins upset the World Cup champions, forcing them onto the back foot with their speedy play in transition during the first 45 minutes, and then defending brilliantly throughout the second half. Germany was still vulnerable to the counter, and Mexico had a number of odd-man rushes that they didn’t convert – either they couldn’t make the final pass, or the wrong option was explored. If not for that, the damage could have been far worse. This wasn’t about what Germany failed to do, it was about what Mexico did. A deserved win for El Tri.
Brazil sputters vs. Switzerland
Four years after that humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany (and a 3-0 humbling at the hands of the Netherlands in the third-place game), Brazil began the healing process on Sunday. The South American heavyweights boast all almost-impeccable record in World Cup openers, winning 17 of their previous 19 – the last time they lost was to Spain, in 1934. The team’s pedigree, coupled with their rebirth under new coach Tite, led many to pick them as one of the favourites coming into this competition.
But it appears it won’t be entirely smooth sailing for the Brazilians, as evidenced by this result against the Swiss. The five-time w$orld champions were off to the races right from the opening kickoff, and when Philippe Coutinho scored a spectacular long-range effort early in the game, it appeared as though we’d be treated to another classical display.
That goal was the turning point – for the Swiss. Coutinho’s strike sapped the life out of Brazil, and at the same time ignited a fire under Switzerland, who did not crumble, but rather went toe-to-toe with their counterparts. By staying compact and defensively organized, the Swiss frustrated Brazil to no end. Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami handcuffed Neymar for the first 60 minutes, the world’s most expensive player unable get going as he hung on to the ball far too long. He was also guilty of slowing the play down, when the thing Brazil needed most was to move the ball forward quickly. Steven Zuber’s equalizing goal in the second was just reward for a Switzerland side that pulled off a tactical masterclass.
Mexico’s win over Germany was an upset. But the result was very much doubt right, even after the Mexicans took the lead in the 35th minute. Could the Mexicans hold on? Would Germany come back? Full of drama and tension right until the final whistle.
In the 17th minute, with Brazil on the front foot, the ball fell to the feet of Philippe Coutinho who unleashed a powerful shot from an angle outside the box that bent into the far upper corner. Goal of the tournament thus far! Honourable mention to Serbia’s Aleksandar Kolarov for his left-footed free kick from around 25 yards out that ripped past Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
In the 40th minute, German midfielder Toni Kroos curled a free kick over the Mexican defensive wall that appeared destined for the upper right corner. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa had other ideas, tipping it onto the crossbar and out of play.
Watch your team beat the defending champions
Best. Day. Ever. pic.twitter.com/3twz93PbsC
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 17, 2018
THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
There were many reasons why Germany looked so flat in the opening half, and why they struggled to deal with Mexico’s speed. It was hardly all Sami Khedira’s fault, as he was one of several Germans who looked pedestrian in the midfield. But the Juventus star did put in a pretty poor shift through the opening 45 minutes, offering very little in helping to break up Mexico’s fervent counter game.
Sami Khedira’s game by numbers vs. :
Key Pass: 1
Shots on Target: 0/1
Aerial Won: 0
52 Passes (PA%: 79%) pic.twitter.com/fYrbEVM7HQ
— Khaled Al Nouss (@khaledalnouss1) June 17, 2018
— Gavin Day (@gavinlday) June 17, 2018
“It’s a situation we’re not used to — at all.” – Germany coach Joachim Löw.
SIX PACK OF STATS
• Costa Rica on Sunday named its oldest ever starting lineup for a World Cup match (average age of 29 years and 346 days), beating its previous record by one day (vs. Ecuador in 2006).
• Aleksandar Kolarov’s goal for Serbia was the third scored from a direct free-kick at this World Cup – there were three direct free-kick goals scored during the entire 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
• Mexico’s Rafa Marquez on Sunday became only the third player to play in five World Cups, joining countryman Antonio Carbajal and Germany’s Lothar Matthäus
• Germany on Sunday lost its opening match at a World Cup for only the second time – they also lost in 1982 versus Algeria.
• Since 1966, Brazil has scored 37 World Cup goals from outside the box, 11 more than any other team.
• Steven Zuber has been directly involved in six goals in his last six international starts for Switzerland (four goals, two assists).
Stats courtesy of Opta
1) Hirving Lozano, Mexico: It was a brilliant World Cup debut for the lively Mexican winger, who showed great technique on the game-winning goal, and put in some solid defensive work.
2) Aleksandar Kolarov, Serbia: The marauding left fullback provided width to the Serbian attack. Oh, and he also scored the winner on a marvellous free kick that is an early contender for goal of the tournament.
3) Valon Behrami, Switzerland: An unsung hero who neutralized Neymar for the opening 60 minutes, and provided the Swiss with a steely presence in midfield.
LOOKING AHEAD TO MONDAY
Group F: Sweden vs. South Korea in Nizhny (8:00 a.m. ET) – The Swedes will play their first World Cup match without Zlatan Ibrahimovic since 2006. They hardly missed him in qualifying for Russia, and South Korea is hardly impressive, so look for Sweden to get off to a strong start in Group F.
Group G: Belgium vs. Panama in Sochi (11:00 a.m. ET) – Panama did very well to qualify for its first World Cup. But now the reality of the situation sets in. Their first test? A Belgium side loaded with top talent, such as forward Romelu Lukaku and creator Eden Hazard.
Group G: Tunisia vs. England in Volgograd (2:00 p.m. ET) – The English come into this tournament flying under the radar, and with little hype surrounding them. That might a good thing considering how they’ve flamed out early in recent World Cups. An easy test against Tunisia will help ease them into the tournament, too.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
Danny McDonald of The Boston Globe explains why the World Cup serves as an escape for some Iranians living in the United States:
“Homan Mohammadi, a 26-year-old recent graduate of Harvard Business School who lives in Cambridge, said the Iranian diaspora is far from cohesive. Iranians have different political and social views. He said he thinks most Iranians are opposed to [President Trump’s] sanctions because their families will be affected, but there are also many Iranians who are fed up with their government and are willing to put up with the economic pressure of the sanctions if they prompt internal change in the country. “I think Iranians are looking for something to come together around,” he said. “The people are pretty divided on most issues. Football is definitely one of those things that can bring people together.”