Rank outsiders Sweden stormed into the World Cup’s round of 16 thanks to a 3-0 win against Mexico, from which El Tri just scraped through.
The Scandinavians’ 95th-minute loss to Germany on Saturday made them unlikely qualifiers at Ekaterinburg Arena. Especially as Mexico had won both their previous Group F fixtures – and in some style.
But after a goalless first half, Janne Andersson’s men burst into life. Full-back Ludwig Augustinsson lashed in on 50 minutes, skipper Andreas Granqvist converted his second penalty of the tournament and defender Edson Alvarez produced a clumsy own goal.
This result sent Sweden into ecstasy as table-toppers and left Mexico requiring an upset from South Korea against the holders, which the Taeguk Warriors duly ensured with an incredible late triumph in Kazan.
MEXICO WILT UNDER SWEDEN PRESSURE
The bombardment of Ekaterinburg will be a day that lives in infamy for Mexico.
There was no element of surprise. This is how Andersson’s Sweden play.
They are compact in defence and then get the ball forward with haste, either in the air or on the ground. Direct and straight to the point in a bludgeoning 4-4-2 formation.
It forces errors like the miskick that led to Augustinsson breaking his international duck, defender Hector Moreno’s wild slide on Marcus Berg for the penalty and Alvarez’s stumble for his own goal.
Sweden only needed 33 per cent of possession to wreak havoc. Goalkeeper Robin Olsen, alone, pumped 29 long balls up the park.
It is a style that famously did for grandees Italy in the play-offs and pushed Germany to the brink at the weekend.
It will also unsettle whomever awaits in the knockouts.
KNOCKED OFF THE TOP OF THE TRI
Mexico came into this match in first place and with dreams of making national history by advancing with three group-stage wins.
They left Ekaterinburg battered and chastened – but still, somehow, in the competition.
Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio sprung a huge surprise and at the 51st time of asking when in charge, named an unchanged side.
But this break from the norm can’t account for Wednesday’s chasing.
The towering Swedes exposed pre-tournament injuries to prominent centre-backs Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo.
Profligate Raul Jimenez could not be trusted up top, meaning a jaded Javier Hernandez – whom sweated nervously about a first-half handball in his own penalty box – wasn’t rested. When winger Hirving Lozano fired blanks, no-one else was able to fill the void.
The only helping hand came from the Koreans. A seventh entry into the World Cup’s knockouts for Mexico now looks far less magnificent.
BERG MELTS, BUT WHO NEEDS ZLATAN?
Russia’s varied television studios and corporate gigs are the only fields being stalked at present by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Veiled by characteristic bombast and typical self-aggrandisement, an unique form of encouragement was provided pre-match for the former team-mates of Sweden’s absent record top-scorer.
“In the beginning, the first games was different because I felt I can do it much better than them, obviously,” he told ESPN. “And still I feel that.”
These words from the international retiree ring hollow when applied to the existing collective.
Sweden found a way past South Korea, showed encouraging spirit in the late, harrowing defeat to Germany and blew Mexico – this World Cup’s feel-good story – away.
But the great man’s aura hung over successor Berg during each one of his 10 scoreless attempts on goal in Group F.
Prolific in qualifying with eight strikes and at Al Ain where he notched 34 times in 31 run-outs, his usual touch must be rediscovered if childhood dreams are to be realised of matching the 1994’s generations charge to the semi-finals.
Marcos Rojo emerged as the shock saviour as his stunning late volley sent Argentina through to World Cup 2018’s round of 16 at Nigeria’s expense thanks to a 2-1 win.
La Albiceleste’s tortured spell in Russia saw them come into the Group D showdown at Saint Petersburg Stadium needing victory to stand any hope of avoiding a first group-stage elimination since 2002. Lionel Messi’s stupendous control of Ever Banega’s superb chipped pass and expert finish into the top corner in the 14th minute appeared to offer salvation.
But the Super Eagles started the stronger in the second half and drew level on 51 minutes when Victor Moses calmly stroked home a penalty after Javier Mascherano’s pull on Leon Balogun. This result was enough, at that stage, to see them advance to their second-successive World Cup knockout stage.
Argentina toiled from this moment and didn’t register another attempt on goal until the 80th minute. Then the unlikely figure of centre-back Rojo stormed onto Gabriel Mercado’s cross and found the bottom corner in the 86th minute to spark scenes of unmitigated joy.
They now face France in the knockouts.
MESSI FINALLY RECEIVES SOME SUPPORT
Moments laced with genius changed everything for Argentina.
On this occasion, Messi was not a one-man band. For once, the burden was shared.
Rojo – fortunate to not concede a first-half penalty for a high boot – appeared from nowhere to offer salvation when everything appeared lost.
Questions remain plentiful about whether La Albiceleste can ever deliver the World Cup glory absent from Messi’s career.
It is now up to embattled head coach Jorge Sampaoli to show he can answer them when the defining tests appear in the weeks to come.
He finally knows that he has the players capable of delivering success. Whether they did this for him, or in spite of him, will be found out in the challenges ahead.
Sampaoli’s charges came into this anticipated contest on the back of widespread reports of mutiny. They had been sparked by Thursday’s 3-0 humbling served up by Croatia.
On that night, Messi, uncharacteristically, was missing in action. Lost in the dumbfounding switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation that was not fit for purpose.
This followed the opening 1-1 draw against Iceland in which the Barcelona icon had been everywhere, and delivered only a pained second-half penalty miss.
On Tuesday night, they went ahead on 14 minutes as the great man provided the requisite control from a perfect Banega pass of pure beauty. The supreme Sevilla centre midfielder should not had been forced to wait until then for his first World Cup start.
But then, retreat followed and Nigeria knew that only a draw was needed.
Mascherano’s gift was duly taken. Argentina stuttered as ignominy awaited.
The likes of Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain – again guilty of an alarming miss – have all previously stumbled in Messi’s shadow. The great man carried them through qualifying, as he’d done towards four previous final defeats at World Cups and Copa Americas.
Then Rojo arrived. The dream, somehow, remains alive.
662 - Lionel Messi has scored his first World Cup goal in 662 minutes of football, his last previous World Cup goal came against Nigeria as well, in 2014. Relief. pic.twitter.com/471WFjg3Uo— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 26, 2018
SUPER EAGLES RECEIVE STING IN THE TAIL
Nigeria will look back on the second half in Saint Petersburg with clear regret.
But a bright future can still be theirs.
Head coach Gernot Rohr selected the youngest squad present at Russia, with an average age of 25.9-years old.
If chastening lessons can be taken from this elimination when progression was within their grasp, great success lies in store.
Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho, at 21, now must start delivering on the early promise shown at Manchester City.
Anchor man Wilfred Ndidi, also 21, lashed over when put in a promising position during the second half.
In November’s friendly between the sides, attacker Alex Iwobi doubled up to earn a 4-2 victory. At 22-years old, he can come again.
This bunch of players were the first country to secure qualification in Africa.
Next summer’s Africa Cup of Nations is now an obvious – and attainable – target.
MASCHERANO IS AN ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN
Amid the hysteria that will surround this result, exacting questions must be asked of a modern great.
Mascherano has represented Argentina with distinction since his debut, 15 years and more than 140 caps ago.
Away from the obvious incident of the penalty, uncertainty defines the 34-year-old where previously he provided omnipresence.
A loose pass in the first half should have been punished by Iheanacho.
After the penalty, another Foxes-owned attacker in Ahmed Musa skipped by him with impunity to spark danger.
The battleground in centre midfield is unrelenting. Not even the deliverance of three tackles, three clearances and two interceptions against Nigeria could mask present deficiencies.
This Mascherano, now winding down his days in the Chinese Super League with Hebei China Fortune, cannot go toe-to-toe with France’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
Argentina simply do not have a replacement as Lucas Biglia is no alternative. Mascherano best roll back the years.
It was built up as Australia’s valiant effort to reach the last-16 but instead it became a statement about how Peru under-performed in their first two games.
The Socceroos were no match for the already eliminated South Americans, who cruised to a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Andre Carrillo and Paolo Guerrero, ending their opponents’ World Cup journey.
Here are our talking points from the match:
Australia's Tim Cahill says goodbye to the 2018 FIFA World Cup 😢 pic.twitter.com/OKjbG8n9Ca— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
BYE BYE BERT
It will go down as one of the strangest ever coaching non-stories.
Bert van Marwijk, the 66-year-old Dutchman who took the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 2010, was appointed in January after Ange Postecoglou – having guided the Socceroos through a world record 22-game qualification process – threw his toys out of the cot and resigned in November.
Van Marwijk was only ever appointed for the World Cup and indeed his successor, former Sydney FC manager Graham Arnold, was appointed back in March.
A wag at a press conference tried to anoint him “Aussie Bert” but Van Marwijk never warmed to the nickname, nor did the team or country ever really warm to him.
There were some bright results – the 4-0 hammering of the Czech Republic in a warm-up in early June was impressive as was the 2-1 win over Hungary.
He also did manage to bring through the extraordinary talent of Daniel Arzani – and that perhaps will be his lasting legacy – but his reign is over before it really began, full-stopped by a meek surrender against Peru. Good luck Graham.
Peru recorded their first goal FIFA World Cup goal in 36 years in a win over Australia.— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
See how it happened in our 90' in 90" ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/PPsz7gJwYL
THE REGRET OF THE RED AND WHITE
Peru on the other hand will look back on this World Cup and wonder what could have been.
For them the killer-blow turned out to be the head-scratching 1-0 loss to Denmark in their opening game. It was a match they should have won – they had 17 shots to 10 and 53.4 per cent of the possession – but they went down to a Yussuf Poulsen goal, set up by the sublime Christian Eriksen.
It was the same against France where they lost 1-0, Kylian Mbappe bundling home in the first half.
The ease in which they put Australia away showed just how good this Peru team really are.
The Socceroos put up more than a fight going down 2-1 to France and shaded Denmark in their 1-1 draw but Peru were a class above them and played with confidence and control.
If only La Blanquirroja had reached this peak earlier in the tournament and replicated the form they showed in warm-ups – 3-1 over Iceland, a 2-0 victory against Scotland and a 3-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia.
At the World Cup you have to hit the ground running or have a bit of luck – Peru had neither and head home much sooner than they should have.