What looked like a straightforward one-two finish for Spain and Portugal in Group B was ripped wide open last Friday as the two European powerhouses shared the spoils while Iran rocked Morocco with a 95th-minute winner.
Expect Iran to pack bodies behind the ball with the knockouts now a genuine possibility but Spain, despite their Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped frustrations, looked as slick as ever in that 3-3 thriller with Diego Costa’s added snarl.
Below are some of the players who could well come to the fore in Wednesday’s clash in Kazan …
DAVID DE GEA v ALIREZA BEIRANVAND
David De Gea’s form has not come into question since he was the fresh-faced and wide-eyed 20-year-old replacement for Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United.
While he is adored by all who walk Sir Matt Busby Way, De Gea’s own journey with Spain since filling Iker Casillas’ long-worn shoes two years ago has not been appreciated quite so much in his homeland.
The former Atletico Madrid keeper has made two mistakes in quick succession – a mishandling of a tame shot in a warm-up game against Switzerland before that rather high-profile blunder to the delight of Ronaldo last Saturday.
A favourite of deposed coach Julen Lopetegui, his recent blunders are not a true depiction of his form in a Spain jersey. There is a feeling though that the 27-year-old is naturally placed under more suspicion because he has spent almost his entire career in a foreign country.
“I think that the players who leave Spain are not paid as much attention as those who stay in Spain and people forget about us a little,” De Gea noted last year. A national darling may survive a third blunder but this expat may not.
There’s no such troubles weighing down on the shoulders of opposing goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, to whom the pressure of a World Cup is nothing compared to the challenges life has thrown at him.
Born to a nomadic family, Beiranvand fled to Tehran as a teenager and cycled through menial jobs and a spell sleeping on the streets.
How the Persepolis stopper must have reflected on his journey that has taken him to St Petersburg and on to filling a huge role in Iran’s smash-and-grab victory over Morocco.
The 25-year-old made a fine save from a goalmouth scramble and, most importantly, was the reassuring presence Team Melli needed at the back.
Morocco lacked any semblance of physicality up front, however – it’s time for Beiranvand to get up close and personal with …
DIEGO COSTA v SARDAR AZMOUN
Diego Costa. Football’s most-feared Rottweiler certainly isn’t the traditional face of a Spain side but he’s added a growl to a unit that has done little but purr.
There was some debate over whether Iago Aspas or Rodrigo, two nimbler No9s ostensibly more suited to La Roja’s goals by a thousand passes mentality, but all talk has been squashed by Diego’s big boots.
Scratch the surface of his two-goal display against Portugal and it is interesting to note that Costa didn’t win a single aerial ball but found a team-mate with nearly 90 per cent of his passes.
Okay, he only made 16 – but it is clear that Spain did not feel the need to change stylistically to accommodate their razor-edge and Costa assimilated himself only too well.
During the warm-up games Costa noticeably slowed down play at times (though he did provide a sumptuous assist for Aspas versus Tunisia). At the World Cup the Atleti hitman has started fast and furious.
His counterpart, Sardar Azmoun, ploughed a lone furrow in the absence of ingenuity behind him but he nevertheless fashioned those scraps into a promising performance.
However, when he was dished up his one, golden chance the 23-year-old failed to convert, looping a rebound over the bar after his initial effort was saved.
Nevertheless many of Azmoun’s 23 international goals so far have come via his head and he made his presence known by winning seven aerial duels against the Atlas Lions.
It’s a statistic that a diminutive Spain need to be keenly aware of as surely Team Melli’s only mode of attack is to pump balls up to their star man and bypass a midfield battle that they will have lost before the game even starts.
SERGIO BUSQUETS v MASOUD SHOJAEI
One’s the best No6 of his generation, the other is a journeyman veteran who plays in Greece – only a World Cup would throw two players of such contrasting careers together.
If Shojaei can get close to Busquets though – and plenty of ‘better’ players may as well be on a different planet when facing him – Iran could hope to somewhat stifle Spain’s midfield.
The 34-year-old was chief heel-snapper for Iran against Morocco and broke up plenty of promising passages of play as Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda meandered into his path.
La Roja will be far more surgical with their passing triangles in midfield – they are a trigonometry teacher’s dream – but Shojaei is adept at playing the enforcer.
Indeed, he only made 15 passes in the opener before Carlos Queiroz withdrew him in the 67th minute while on a yellow card.
Busquets made nearly four times that amount versus Portugal and drew three fouls as players the calibre of Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho struggled to stem his flow.
The former Barcelona maestro quite literally uses his head for Costa’s second. Iran will need everything short of a ball and chain to contain him.
Shinji Kagawa delivered a reminder of his quality on Tuesday as he led Japan to a 2-1 victory over Colombia in their World Cup opener.
The Borussia Dortmund playmaker put in a mature, high-quality display, slotting home from the spot and serving as the focal point of his side’s attack.
Here’s an in-depth look at the Japanese No 10’s performance.
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 1
Pass accuracy – 88%
Key Passes – 2
Dribbles – 1
Touches – 54
Entrusted with being his side’s chief creative force, Kagawa displayed the quality that’s made him such a star both in his country and in Europe. As always, he found pockets of spaces to operate and showed excellent vision and passing ability to put his teammates in scoring positions.
Dealt with the high-pressure situation of a penalty – which he had earned – with composure, shaking off the long wait as Colombia protested before striking a coolly-placed spot-kick to score.
Passing – As ever, his passing was clever and incisive, as he created good chances for his teammates. Better finishing from his teammates would have seen Kagawa end up with something to show for in the assists column, which would have been well-deserved.
Composure – Never looks rushed when he’s on the ball, and Tuesday’s game was another example as he helped Japan maintain possession, especially in the second half as they began to dominate the game. His penalty was another indicator of his calmness.
Lacked a little assertiveness at times, particularly in the first half when Japan seemed under the cosh despite having a numerical advantage. Although he was always a threat once he got on the ball, he seemed as if he was waiting for the game to come to him. Given that he’s now a veteran player along with being his team’s biggest star, that’s something he needs to avoid. In fairness, he grew into the game in the second half.
6th minute, GOAL: Kagawa saw his shot blocked by a blatant handball and after a long wait as Colombia protested a red card, he stepped up to slot home a cool, almost casual penalty.
54th minute, CHANCE: Kagawa found Yuya Osako with a clever pass on the left, putting the striker in an excellent position to score. However, Osako’s shot was saved by the keeper.
There was little surprising about Kagawa’s display on Tuesday, because this is what the world has come to expect from him. He wasn’t quite at his unplayable best, but this was a controlled, high-quality performance from a player who still remains somewhat underrated among his colleagues in the playmaking role.
For Japan, however, Kagawa is going to go down as an all-time great, and he showed why against Colombia, popping up everywhere, finding his teammates well, and scoring a nonchalant penalty.
RATING – 8/10
Japan picked up a famous win on Tuesday, beating South American opposition at the World Cup for the first time thanks to striker Yuya Osako’s second-half winner.
They were aided by an early red card to Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez, and at times it looked like they would fail to take advantage of their numerical superiority, but they ended up taking a vital three points.
Here’s how the players rated in their historic victory.
Eiji Kawashima 6 – Looked a little foolish trying to protest the awarding of Colombia’s goal, when he had to have known it crossed the line. Performed well otherwise.
Hiroki Sakai 5 – Struggled to deal with Colombia’s attackers, with goalscorer Juan Quintero and substitute James Rodriguez both giving him a horrid afternoon.
Maya Yoshida 6 – A little shaky defensively, as Radamel Falcao give the Southampton man a tough time. Missed a good chance to score as well.
Gen Shoji 7 – Was Japan’s best defender in the game, dealing well with the threat of Colombia’s physical and talented attackers.
Yuto Nagatomo 7 – Looked particularly up for it in this game, as he marauded up and down his flank with high energy. Had a big impact on Japan’s attacking play.
Gaku Shibasaki 7 – Put in a handful of dangerous crosses to the box that his teammates should have done better from, and was a lively presence throughout.
Makoto Hasebe 6 – Robust in the tackle and a solid defensive presence in general, and did well to maintain and recycle possession when required.
Genki Haraguchi 6 – Didn’t really have the sort of impact he’s capable of. Tidy in possession but his passing wasn’t incisive enough.
Shinji Kagawa 8 – Scored a calm penalty after a long wait, a moment that underlined the confidence he had in his game. With better finishing from his teammates, would have ended the game with a couple of assists.
Takashi Inui 5 – Downright lackadaisical at times, and in general, didn’t seem like he was in the game. It was surprising that he wasn’t taken off when Japan were chasing a winner.
Yuya Osako 8 – An extremely well-taken goal to win the game for Japan, rising above Colombia’s defence to power home a header.
Keisuke Honda 7 – Had an immediate impact after coming on, setting up his side’s winner with a corner kick that caused havoc for the Colombia defence.
Hotaru Yamaguchi N/A – Came on late in the game to help Japan hold on for the win. Looked composed if unspectacular in possession.
Shinji Okazaki N/A – Didn’t have much time to make an impact after coming on as a late sub, but provided fresh legs as Japan closed out a win.