It was fun while it lasted but the 2018 World Cup finally caved and served up its first goalless draw in Russia.
France and Denmark were happy to play out a drab 0-0 at the Luzhniki Stadium, a result that was met by boos ringing around the venue at the final whistle.
It took just 22 minutes for the first Mexican wave to initiate a semblance of activity around the stadium that had to wait 39 minutes for the first shot on target – there would only be a further three, rather tame ones, for the rest of the encounter.
The result saw both sides advance to the Round of 16 with Peru beating Australia in the other Group C fixture.
Here’s what we learned from the encounter.
With France already qualified for the knockout stages, Didier Deschamps rung the changes for his side’s final group game, making six in total. Captain Hugo Lloris made way for Steve Mandanda while Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi – both on yellow cards – were dropped so as to remove the danger of suspension for the Round of 16.
Thomas Lemar and Steven Nzonzi came into the fray with Kylian Mbappe starting on the bench. Presnel Kimpembe replaced Samuel Umtiti in central defence while Djibril Sidibe came in for Benjamin Pavard at right-back.
With Les Bleus failing to impress in the opening couple of games, this fixture was still significant for many of the fringe players who were afforded an opportunity. Like those ahead of them in the pecking order though, they flattered to deceive.
Mandanda came off his line to smother Christian Eriksen on one occasion but had little to do beyond that. Lemar did try to affect play and looked like one of the more lively attacking players but his final ball was lacking. Meanwhile, Sidibe and Kimpembe weren’t able to stand out either.
Heading into the knockout stages, at least a selection dilemma will not be one of Deschamps’ primary concerns.
DOUR DESCHAMPS DISPLAY
It seems criminal that perhaps the most blessed side in terms of attacking talent at the World Cup has produced its first 0-0. Apart from the scoreline the sheer conviction to steer clear of anything approximating to an attack was astounding.
The fact that Olivier Giroud played the entire 90 minutes and ended up with fewer touches than any other starter on both sides, speaks volumes of France failure to penetrate the opposition’s box. Even Mandanda in goal had 32 touches to Giroud’s 24.
To Lemar and Griezmann’s credit, both did try to take on defenders and look to conjure openings but when either of them attempted to do that, they weren’t afforded support around them. The lack of forward runners and movement in general was perplexing. They only got behind the Danish defence once when Dembele broke down the right in the first half but wasn’t able to find a team-mate with his cross.
Given France’s strength in attack and their higher profile as one of the tournament’s serious contenders, the bulk of the criticism for this underwhelming display will naturally be directed towards them but Denmark have no excuse for their part in it as well.
Age Hareide’s side only needed a draw to confirm their progress and played for it. However, with Peru leading for much of their clash with Australia, they were aware that even a defeat would’ve seen them through. Despite that, they refused to attack, mustering just one shot on target in the entire game, a chance that also featured their only key pass.
Given the lack of adventure they exhibited in the preceding two games as well, this was an opportunity to break free of the shackles and test a subdued French side. As it stands, there’s little for them to take encouragement from heading into the knockout stages where they will face an impressive Croatia side.
Brazil’s spot in the last-16 is far from secure and they will require at least a point against Serbia if they are to advance from Group E on Wednesday.
The Spartak Stadium will host this fascinating battle and with that in mind, we compare and contrast some of the key players for both sides.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic v Paulinho
Europe’s elite sides will no doubt be getting their message across to SMS with the €100-million-man one of the most sought-after playmakers in Russia.
Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid are among the clubs said to be monitoring his movements for Serbia this summer and they will be deeply impressed by his showings so far.
Operating as a No10 behind striker Aleksandar Mitrovic in a 4-2-3-1, the 23-year-old Lazio star was brilliant in their tournament opener with Costa Rica, repeatedly breaking through the lines with physical presence and poise.
Intricate footwork hallmark his precocious talent but a hulking frame will make him a nightmare for a potentially fragile Brazil.
As he proved last season, Milinkovic-Savic’s performances match the occasion and they don’t come much bigger than this.
Paulinho, Milinkovic-Savic’s closest opposite in this clash, perhaps best illustrates the contrast between these two sides. Where the Serbian star wraps power and craft into his sizable physique, pocket-sized Paulinho’s energy and predatory instinct mark him out.
The 29-year-old was Brazil boss Tite’s first major shake-up when he took charge, immediately installing the reinvigorated Barcelona midfielder despite the protestations regarding his ‘anti-Brazilian’ style.
However, he provides crucial balance to the flair around him and has shown an eye for goal with seven plundered under Tite’s stewardship. He has, though, been poor in Russia. A taxing season with the Blaugrana may be catching up with him, and Brazil need him to step up against Serbia’s midfield.
Aleksandar Mitrovic v Gabriel Jesus
Mitrovic is a menace. The Serbia forward has continued the fine form which saw Fulham promoted back to the Premier League last season as he was chief tormentor against Switzerland.
He scored a brilliant header to open the scoring and was dominant in the air throughout, winning a game-high eight aerials to both win possession high up the pitch and provide a threat in the box as Serbia went wide with their attacks, crossing the ball 17 times.
The 23-year-old does not possess pace or guile, but he works hard, is always on the move and anything inside the box will be finished without fuss.
On the other side, Neymar is the star for Brazil and naturally attracts the most attention but that fact can’t mask just how big of a fixture this is for Jesus.
The calls for Roberto Firmino to replace him as the spearhead are growing louder, especially after the Liverpool forward made another big impression with a crucial cushioned header in the build-up to Philippe Coutinho’s late opener against Costa Rica.
The Manchester City man has so far struggled with the supply into him stifled by the knock-on effect of Neymar’s negligence. He’s cut an isolated figure but perhaps the debate of Jesus or Firmino should turn into Jesus and Neymar.
Brazil need more numbers in the box and with Paulinho failing to make inroads, perhaps it’s time for Tite to form what could be a deadly duo.
Nemanja Matic v Casemiro
For onlookers who appreciate the art of defensive midfielders, a sub-plot in this clash will be two of the best in the game going head-to-head.
Matic was a generally excellent anchor in his first season for Manchester United and has only got better in Russia, making well-timed interceptions and tackles as highlighted in the lead-up to Mitrovic’s goal against Switzerland.
He’s an asset in launching attacks, but the 29-year-old’s defensive nous will be of more significance to blanket Brazil’s plethora of attacking options. Lateral movement to screen the back four will be a feature of his game as he seeks to break up their advances.
Casemiro, though, will be the man charged with setting the tempo while also tempering his own gallivants into the final third.
While he’s emerged as one the finest DMs on the planet with Real Madrid, the Brazilian does have bad habits and if he doesn’t maintain a sense of calm, Serbia may be able to profit.
Mexico and Sweden face off in their World Cup Group F clash on Wednesday with a spot in the Round of 16 on the line for both sides.
It’s a must-win game for Sweden, while Mexico will want to cap a stunning showing in the group stages with a result which will see them top their group ahead of both Sweden and Germany.
Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of the game.
ALL IN THE HEAD FOR MEXICO
Mexico played with great verve in their famous win against Germany, and matched that against South Korea, dominating a game they really should have won by more than the eventual 2-1 scoreline.
Can they produce a third straight performance of the same ilk and quality? Sweden will be a tougher nut to crack, with a well-organised defence and a team wary of being hit on the counter. Mexico will not be able to catch them by surprise, so if they win it will be after going toe-to-toe with their European foes.
It will help this is a must-win game for Sweden, while Mexico will top the group with a draw. Still, the weight of expectation will come with its own challenge for El Tri, one they will have to manage the entire game – and especially if they fall behind.
If that does happen, Mexico will need to keep their heads for entirely different reasons. There is still the slightest chance that they don’t qualify for the last 16 – if they lose to Sweden and Germany win their game, all three sides will be on six points and it will come down to goal difference – so Mexico will have to avoid panicking.
Regardless of how the game’s going, the game will test their mental fortitude.
CAN SWEDEN SHOW MORE ATTACKING IMPETUS?
Sweden have made a name for themselves as a hard-working, spirited side, but on Wednesday they will need to find a more expansive version of themselves. The easiest way to guarantee qualification for the last 16 is by winning with a two-goal margin or more, which means Sweden will have to be more attacking than they usually are.
It’s something they’re quite capable of – their qualifying run for this tournament saw them score 26 times in 10 games, including an 8-0 win over Luxembourg and a 4-0 and 3-0 wins over Belarus.
It’s one thing beating up on a couple of European minnows, however, and entirely another trying to rack up the goals against a side that has been one of the best in this tournament.
This could be a game where their lack of star power hurts them – Sweden don’t seem to have a player who can take a game by the scruff of its neck and dominate it, at least not from an attacking sense. Coaxing that sort of performance out of one or more of his squad will be manager Janne Andersson’s toughest task against Mexico.
MEXICO’S GOLDEN GENERATION CAN ACHIEVE CROWNING MOMENT
Hirving Lozano may have stolen all the headlines for Mexico as their country’s next big young hope, but in truth this is a veteran side, with players like Chicharito, Carlos Vela, Miguel Layun, Hector Herrera, and Andres Guardado all having experienced big games for their national teams.
Mexico have been a fixture in the last 16 at recent World Cups, so they’ve been in high-pressure situations together, and it would be a stretch to say that this is the biggest game they’ve faced together.
Yet as they usually enter last-16 ties as underdogs, this game will provide a different sort of pressure. They have an opponent they would normally be expected to find tough, but not on current form, and not based on the way they’ve raised expectations at this tournament.
Chicharito especially has struggled to live up to the hype at football’s biggest tournament, even as he’s embarked on a glittering career that’s taken him to the top of his country’s scoring charts as well as great success at club level. He’s only scored four times at a World Cup, at three different tournaments, but in Russia he’s been a driving force in attack.
Mexico will need that sort of performance from him and his colleagues to see this through.