That happened fast – Tuesday heralds the start of the second round of games as a buoyant Russia march on to St Petersburg where they’ll face an Egypt side poised to throw in Mohamed Salah from the start.
The hosts could not have dreamed up a better script for their 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia on opening night while Egypt, at their first World Cup in 28 years, were sunk by a last-gasp Uruguay goal on Friday.
SALAH SHOULDERS THE BURDEN
Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov has boldly proclaimed his side are ‘ready to stop Salah and we will’. Save for a Sergio Ramos-style armbar, far better teams were unable to stump up any answers last season following his move to Liverpool.
That one answer may be enough. Russia will have watched very closely just how Neymar, still not at the peak of his powers after fracturing his metatarsal, was systematically roughed up by Switzerland on Sunday.
And it worked. Switzerland were cynical without being brutal and no player came close to seeing or deserving their marching orders for their skin-tight treatment of Brazil’s superstar.
With the greatest respect to Salah – he is no Neymar. Nor are his colleagues anywhere near the ilk of Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus.
Salah’s greatest weakness has always been his physicality and it’s fair to wonder if he can out-sprint those Russian homing missiles all game.
The Moscow Times’ front page screamed ‘Aging and inexperienced: Why Russia’s World Cup squad is doomed to fail’ ahead of the opening game against Saudi Arabia, which turned out to be a rather ingenious example of reverse psychology.
Few Russians were fooled, though. Despite the drubbing there are obvious flaws that will come apparent against Uruguay in the final group game, if not Egypt.
A seriously slow defence, an attack devoid of much inspiration save Aleksandr Golovin or the injured Alan Dzagoev and a squad that, as the excoriating headline suggested, lacks much experience outside the safe space of Russia.
Egypt are a considerable step up. Hector Cuper’s team is exceedingly well-drilled defensively and goodbye Mohammad Al Sahlawi, hello Mohamed Salah.
A second victory in two though would outstrip the most optimistic Russian’s expectations heading into the tournament and it’ll all but assure their place in the Round of 16. It doesn’t really matter if they’re first or second as it likely means elimination to either Spain or Portugal.
On Tuesday we’ll find out whether Russia are simply better than what their countrymen thought they were or if the Saudis made them look that way.
TWO MOHAMEDS, ONE GOAL
If Salah’s return to raise the game of his team-mates then Mohamed Elneny is the man who Egypt need to hang onto the Liverpool star’s coat-tails the most.
The Arsenal midfielder had not enjoyed the smoothest of build-ups to the World Cup as, stretchered off in tears against West Ham, he feared his summer over in April.
Those fears were put to rest quickly though the Uruguay clash was only his second start since that day and, while he was solid enough, did find himself overpowered at times in Ekaterinburg. That 90 minutes should have done his fitness a world of good.
According to Egypt legend Mido, fellow pundit Arsene Wenger told him after the game that Elneny “is loved by everyone, is always smiling and wished he had 20 players like him” when he was managing Arsenal.
The Pharaohs only have one Salah, and Elneny has an extremely important job in both shielding the defence and recycling the ball to their main man at every opportunity.
Entrusted with the captain’s armband, Harry Kane rose to the occasion, scoring an injury-time winner to lead England to a 2-1 win over Tunisia in their first match at the World Cup.
He scored their opener as well, before rescuing them when England looked headed for a draw.
Here’s how Kane and his teammates rated.
Jordan Pickford 6 – Made a game attempt at keeping out Sassi’s penalty, diving the right way and getting close. Had one hairy moment when he dashed towards the corner flag but did his job.
Kyle Walker 6 – Aghast to be at the centre of England’s first World Cup drama. Guilty of giving the referee a decision to make perhaps, but can question whether the rules were applied equally elsewhere. The incident appeared to stifle the rest of his contribution.
John Stones 7 – Might have scored the Three Lions’ first of the tournament had his powerful header not been pushed into Kane’s path. Made at least one important interception and a timely block and can be content with his evening’s work.
Harry Maguire 7 – Emerged from some dicey moments at the back, including a loose pass just after Tunisia’s equaliser which almost caused major trouble. Charged up field with confidence and regularity in the second period and used his presence to help set-up Kane’s winner.
Kieran Trippier 8 – Offered a lively outlet on the right and a dangerous set-piece taker too. A little too gentle when striking a promising free-kick but looked thoroughly accomplished and played his part in the winning goal.
Ashley Young 6 – Helped provide the opener with a well-taken corner and might have laid another on for Lingard had the latter summoned a better finish. Wasted a late free-kick and was occasionally left scrambling defensively.
Jordan Henderson 6 – Played an imperious pass over the top in the opening seconds and continued offering classy distribution during England’s strong start. Could not maintain those lofty standards and failed to rally the midfield when the game broke down.
Jesse Lingard 5 – The ball followed the Manchester United midfielder in the first half and he really should have finished one of a hatful of chances which came his way. Touched one effort against the outside of the post but this was his day to be the star and he erred.
Dele Alli 7 – Dynamic from the first whistle and centrally involved as England pieced together two goal-worthy opportunities in the first few minutes. Appeared to be struggling with a first-half knock before shaking it off. Tried to pick the lock but substituted with 10 minutes to go.
Raheem Sterling 6 – Scuffed a big chance at the far post at 0-0 and struggled to turn his electric pace into viable end product in his advanced attacking role. Was selected as the most expendable when Gareth Southgate decided to change things.
Harry Kane 9 – England’s captain got their night off to the perfect start when he sidefooted home and ensured it ended in celebration not recrimination when he turned his last-gasp header inside the near post. Manhandled in the box at least twice but never lost his cool.
Marcus Rashford 6 – Given just over 20 minutes and made some bright runs but when offered a sight of goal he chose to dummy not shoot.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek 7 – Offered an energetic presence for the last 10 minutes, cutting in from the right on a couple of occasions and raising the tempo.
Eric Dier N/A – A late addition to see England over the line in added time.
His two goals led Belgium to a 3-0 win over Panama in their opening game of the tournament.
Here’s an in-depth look at the performance that makes him our Hero of the Day.
Lukaku had a listless first half as he was starved of any meaningful service – he actually had fewer touches than both goalkeepers in the first 45 minutes. But he sprung to life in the second half, scoring twice as Belgium put the game to bed.
His movement, always one of the Manchester United striker’s best if underrated qualities, was superb, and the 24-year-old showed the scoring prowess that has taken him to the top of Belgium’s scoring charts, earning three vital points.
Movement – His movement was sublime, as he kept stretching the Panama rearguard with his runs across the back-line and into space behind the defence. Even when the service from his teammates was lacking, Lukaku made sure to get into dangerous positions.
Finishing – When he was finally found by his teammates, Lukaku finished expertly. His header for his first goal was perfectly placed, but he topped that with his second goal, running into space and clipping the ball into the net.
Perhaps it was a deliberate ploy to stay up front regardless of how peripheral his role was, but Lukaku didn’t do enough to get on the ball in the first half.
He is a player who at times drops deep – and with the calibre of teammates that he has, not to mention his own burgeoning playmaking ability, he can be lethal just by creating spaces for others and pulling defenders out of position. He didn’t do that enough.
69th minute, GOAL: Lukaku manouevered himself into the perfect position to round off a flowing Belgium attack. Kevin de Bruyne found him with a sublime cross, which Lukaku headed home expertly.
75th minute, GOAL: This goal showcased Lukaku at his best, He ran into space behind the defence, latched onto a smart pass from Eden Hazard, and clipped a superb finish into the goal.
A sublime, match-winning performance from Lukaku, who led the line with distinction. He didn’t get discouraged when he wasn’t getting enough chances to score, and when those chances came, he put them away superbly.
The striker might be disappointed to miss out on a hat-trick, but two goals in a World Cup game – equalling his previous total at the World Cup – was an excellent performance, and it made sure Belgium took all three points from what was looking like a tricky opener.
RATING – 9/10