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 tactical talking points could well come to the fore in Wednesday’s clash in Kazan. Check out the key players analysis here.
ASENSIO’S AN ACE IN THE PACK
Fernando Hierro decided against unleashing Real Madrid’s prized finisher, Marco Asensio, off the bench with the game on the line on Friday.
Thiago replaced a tiring Andres Iniesta and the ever-industrious Lucas Vasquez arrived on the scene to shore up the right-hand side to see the win out … until Ronaldo happened.
However, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Hierro will need a locksmith with a penchant for the spectacular off the bench should Iran put on a defensive masterclass.
The 22-year-old is just about the fastest option available to the Spain boss outside his sub strikers and his left foot has conjured up special goals for Real, be it through tap-ins or long-range howitzers, on a regular basis.
Let’s not forget either that Atletico Madrid’s Spanish army knife Saul Niguez is also parked on that bench – while he’s not got the finest of senior goal records, just a year ago he was taking the golden boot back home from the Under-21 European Championship.
Both players were key cogs to that side that reached the final. Time for the big leagues.
IRAN SHOULD PLAY A TUN
Iran’s defensive strength was well-known to any observer of the AFC qualifiers long before the gates were shut on Morocco in St Petersburg.
Spain, of course, are an uptick in quality to any side they’ll have faced under Carlos Queiroz but there is a blueprint to follow – Tunisia’s.
The North Africans were all at sea against England on Monday, especially in the first half, but found a way to trouble Spain – albeit in a friendly – earlier this month where they lost by just one goal in Krasnodar.
Tunisia packed the midfield in a 4-5-1 formation, soaked up the pressure and burst away on the counter attack, leading to a surfeit of chances before the break.
Team Melli, as it so happens, have been moulded into a swift side on the counter under Queiroz with Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh the twooutlets with pace to burn.
While it is rather optimistic to expect that duo to pierce Spain’s covering defenders, if they can draw a few fouls or corners, players such as centre-back Morteza Pouraliganji are dangerous from set-pieces. And never count out an own goal …
GIVE INIESTA A SIESTA
Hierro is not expected to make many, if any changes to the line-up that started against Portugal though there may have been one player that woke up on Saturday morning feeling the strain more than most.
Andres Iniesta started 46 games for club and country last season – a 16-game increase on 2016/17 – with Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde keen to give the Nou Camp as many last glimpses as possible after it became clear he was to leave for the Far East.
Spain certainly do not have the luxury of playing too cute with their starting XI after their opening draw but they have a player in Saul who can give La Roja some width, or the metronomic Thiago in reserve.
Given that Morocco should be the sterner challenge, and there’ll surely be knockout games to come, preserving Iniesta should be a consideration.
Unfortunately for Colombia, an early red card for teammate Carlos Sanchez meant their star striker was forced to forage with little support, and he was unable to make a telling impact in their 2-1 loss to Japan.
Here’s a closer look at Falcao’s performance.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 2
Pass accuracy – 92%
Key Passes – 0
Dribbles – 0
Touches – 47
The Monaco striker was dealt a bad hand with Colombia being forced down to 10 men so early in the game, leaving their star striker isolated up front. That meant he had to lead the line with little attacking support, which he did with aplomb, putting in a bruising display that kept the Japanese defenders on their toes.
He’ll have wanted to mark this game – his World Cup debut, remarkably – with a goal, but the opportunities he had to score were all difficult half-chances.
Movement – Playing as a lone striker, Falcao made sure the Japanese back-line was aware of his presence, drifting onto the shoulder of the last man whenever he could and moving all across the pitch as he tried his luck against everyone in the opposition back four.
Physicality – Shorn of his old pace because of injuries, Falcao’s physicality is now one of his strongest attributes, and it was on display here. He terrorised Japan’s defence, with Maya Yoshida in particular struggling to handle his strength.
Never quite got into prime position to score, with his best chances a couple of difficult, over-the-shoulder attempts to score. In fairness there may not have been much more he could have done, especially given his side’s numerical disadvantage and chief creator James Rodriguez starting on the bench. But Falcao sets high standards for himself, and he’ll be the first to admit he didn’t meet them on Tuesday. It was a fighting performance rather than a brilliant one, when Colombia needed brilliance.
12th minute, SHOT: Nearly a classic goal from Falcao, tries guiding a dropping ball from a free-kick into the bottom corner, but his shot is straight at the keeper.
34th minute, SHOT: Another nearly moment as again, Falcao got his foot to a ball dropping over his shoulder, but at full stretch he just about gets a toe-poke that’s straight at the keeper again.
37th minute, FOUL: It was a cheap foul, but credit to Falcao, who muscled his defender and put himself in position to be fouled. Juan Quintero scored a brilliant goal from the resulting free-kick.
Falcao showed many of his best qualities on Tuesday, his strength, intelligent movement, and most of all his fighting spirit coming to the fore as he tried to lead a salvage job for 10-man Colombia. What was missing was the flash of brilliance that he’s capable of, and needed to deliver as Colombia waged an uphill battle. Twice, he came just short of producing a memorable goal, and in a game of fine margins that ended up being the difference.
RATING – 6/10
Denis Cheryshev for the Golden Boot? He’s scored more goals than Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robert Lewandowski combined, and moved level with Cristiano Ronaldo, after proving the Hero of the Day for Russia against Egypt.
Hot on the heels of that brace off the bench against Saudi Arabia, the Villarreal winger added a third strike to his World Cup scrapbook. In fact he has now scored more goals at the tournament than in his last two La Liga seasons.
Surely he will have at least two more chances, including a Round of 16 clash, to engage in an unlikely duel with Ronaldo.
On from the start in light of Alan Dzagoev’s hamstring injury, Cheryshev tormented Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi for prolonged periods down Egypt’s right-hand side.
The 27-year-old also gleefully moved into central pockets of space left by a lacklustre Mohamed Elneny, dove-tailing particularly well with Artem Dzyuba – himself getting a start thanks to some opening-day heroics.
Cheryshev’s whipped in crosses were beginning to wear Egypt down and he doubled Russia’s lead after losing Elneny in the penalty area and slamming home full-back Mario Fernandes’ cross.
DECISION-MAKING – Cheryshev is a jet-heeled winger and has the ability to blast past his full-back. The veteran Fathi, fully aware of this, stood off him at times to counter this, but Russia’s newest star placed trust in his superb crossing ability over the prospect of running down blind alleys.
He also displayed remarkable intelligence to drift inside, knowing full well Egypt were losing the battle in the middle, and it was from there that he got his just rewards with the goal.
GOAL RUSH – It’s hard to pick at any aspect of Cheryshev’s performance – he was even good in defence too, cutting off the supply line to Salah with two interceptions and two tackles on the night.
If we are being hyper-critical, the No11 could have added one or two more goals to his already outstanding tally, taking a team-high four shots but getting just the one – his second-half strike – on target.
Cheryshev did go closest in an otherwise fairly quiet first half from 20 yards, and no wonder he’s looking more. If you had his left foot, you’d trust it whole-heartedly as well.
Russia needed heroes in a squad which was seemingly devoid of them. Cheryshev has answered his nation’s call and then some.
He had not even played for his country since 2015 prior to this year but Russia have unearthed, or rediscovered, a gem buried in Spain for several years.
Powerful, quick, a fine crosser of the ball and a new-found eye for goal. Swap his passport and he’d get into virtually every starting side at the World Cup.
RATING – 8/10