Poland and Colombia were expected to run away with the pool. But surprise 2-1 defeats were inflicted last week on the former by The Lions of Teranga, and the 10-man latter by Samurai Blue.
Another three points for either at Ekaterinburg Arena should provide a critical advantage heading into next Thursday’s final matches.
Here are the key tactical battles:
SHINJI OKAZAKI V M’BAYE NIANG
It wasn’t just the final whistle that was a welcome sight for Japan in the final stages of their historic win against Colombia.
Peripatetic Leicester City forward Okazaki played the final five minutes to show he had recovered from a sore calf that at one stage threatened his participation in the competition. This was the 32-year-old’s 114th international appearance.
Torino’s Niang took advantage of a touch of fortune to break his international duck at the eight attempt. With Stoke City striker Mame Biram Diouf so underwhelming, responsibility rests with him to fire Senegal into the round of 16 for the first time since 2002.
GAKU SHIBASAKI V IDRISSA GUEYE
A midfield battle to relish awaits at Ekaterinburg.
Getafe’s Shibasaki was inspirational against Colombia as Japan became the first Asian side to defeat South American opposition at any World Cup. No Samurai Blue star made more key passes (two), while his four tackles was the second highest and his two interceptions was joint top.
Standing in his way on Sunday will be Everton’s Gueye – unless he’s dismissed early doors like Espanyol’s Carlos Sanchez.
Gueye’s shot was deflected in by defender Thiago Cionek to force the opener, although his tally of just one tackle was far less than last season’s Premier League average per game of 3.5.
YUTO NAGATOMO V ISMAILA SARR
Players at contrasting stages of their career will clash on Sunday.
Internazionale-owned left-back Nagatomo, 31, should win his 107th international cap when the Lions of Teranga come to town. His ceaseless drive was on show against Colombia, whom he made a leading six clearances against.
Sarr is only 20-years old. But his supreme technique and fleet of foot on the right flank have already attracted the likes of Barcelona, whom he turned down last summer to join Rennes.
No Senegal player made more dribbles or was fouled more than him against Poland (both two). The key now is to better his zero accurate crosses from three attempts.
El Tri put in a stunning opening performance in Group F last week, their bravado and desire gaining requisite reward through exciting PSV Eindhoven winger Hirving Lozano’s fine finish.
This stands in contrast to the sorry Taeguk Warriors. They failed to register an attempt on target against Sweden, who inflicted a 1-0 defeat thanks to centre-back Andreas Granqvist’s second-half penalty.
Here are the talking points ahead of Saturday’s clash at Rostov Arena:
SON ISN’T SHINING
Sweden’s victory hit Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min harder than most.
Korea’s great hope had no attempts on goal and had 50 touches – just the sixth most for his team.
“I’m still disappointed about my performance and feel very, very sorry for my team-mates because if we don’t score, it’s my fault, because I need to take the responsibility,” said a penitent Son.
Worryingly, this display supplies further evidence for the dichotomy in his career.
A fine return of 18 goals in 52 matches was registered for Spurs last term. For his country, the 25-year-old has one strike during the last eight caps.
Son’s problem must be filtered through a malaise that has afflicted his nation.
They stumbled through qualifying, losing three of five away games – enough to see Germany’s Uli Stielike lose his job as head coach.
A variety of formations have been used by replacement Shin Tae-yong to little positive effect.
The repeat of 2014’s “humiliation” that Son warned of pre-tournament appears close to fruition.
22 - Son Heung-Min has been involved in 22 goals (14 goals, 8 assists) in 23 appearances at Wembley Stadium this season for Tottenham, more than any other player. Crucial. #TOTJUV pic.twitter.com/OCy305xYkA— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2018
EL TRI’S CHANGE OF TEMPO
A contrasting challenge awaits Mexico this weekend.
Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio came into the tournament with criticism stinging his ears. The retort was to produce a tactical masterstroke that required full buy-in from his squad.
El Tri kept the pressure on in Germany’s half and defended with discipline. But they bravely allowed the likes of Carlos Vela to stay up top and constantly offer an out ball.
Once found, the Los Angeles forward led the charge to provide support for West Ham United striker Javier Hernandez.
This attitude reached its genesis when Juventus centre midfielder Sami Khedira was robbed of the ball deep in Mexico’s half. Four passes later, Lozano was characteristically checking back inside and rasping a low shot into the bottom corner on 35 minutes.
This time, they’ll be expected to set the tempo against opponents who’ve lost five of their last seven fixtures.
Counter-attack opportunities should be at a premium as Korea flip this approach on its head. It is a challenge that Osorio is eager to embrace.
He said: “It’s time for Mexico to show that we can take the initiative.
“There is a big difference between playing against Germany or [another] powerhouse. We are, supposedly, superior to our opponents.
“We have to impose our [own] conditions.”
Mexico haven’t won successive World Cup matches since 2002. But another victory would see a likely second-round meeting avoided with pre-tournament favourites Brazil.
Esto es de todos!! Se juegue o no!! Que gran grupo! Gran triunfo, gran esfuerzo!! Pero solo es un paso, con mucha ecuanimidad, a disfrutar y a partir de los próximos días enfocarnos en el siguiente rival!!! #NadaNosDetiene #VivaMéxico pic.twitter.com/4AQoxZmuwI— Chicharito Hernandez (@CH14_) June 17, 2018
SHIN MUST LIFT SENSE OF DOOM
All the morbid tournament predictions about South Korea rang true at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
Shin’s muddled and troubled year-long reign continued with a hapless display. The Taeguk Warriors showed little fighting spirit and chose to launch an artillery bombardment towards giant Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors centre forward Kim Shin-wook.
A paltry five, wayward attempts on goal followed.
This regularly bypassed star player Son. Rather than test the creaking legs of grizzled Krasnodar centre-back Granqvist, they served up his ideal approach.
The problems continued in defence. It should not have required the Video Assistant Referee to punish Suwon Samsung Bluewings-owned centre-back Kim Min-woo’s reckless slide in the area on Krasnodar winger Viktor Claesson.
At the World Cup, they’ve now kept just one clean sheet in their last 13 matches and are winless in their last five matches.
A potential wildcard exists in Barcelona youth product Lee Seung-woo. It is also vital that Jeonbuk attacking midfielder Lee Jae-sung and Red Bull Salzburg forward Hwang Hee-chan can impose a greater influence on proceedings.
With holders Germany sure to be in need of a result in next week’s last outing, Korea must dig themselves out a sizeable hole.
Head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s woeful tactical rejig into a 3-4-2-1 formation led to an error-strewn display, that brought out the worst in the Barcelona icon.
All three goals came in the second-half. Eintracht Frankfurt forward Ante Rebic – lucky to stay on after a first-half horror challenge on Eduardo Salvio – emphatically volleyed in from goalkeeper Wily Caballero’s cataclysmic chipped pass, before Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric struck a goal of staggering quality from 25 yards.
Barca’s Ivan Rakitic finished off against a bedraggled side during injury time. His shot was pushed into substitute Mateo Kovacic’s path and he then calmly applied the finish into an open net.
Here are the talking points:
A MESSI ENDING?
Messi has lived a dream at Barcelona. For his country, an enduring nightmare took a haunting twist at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
For all his 32 major trophies won and record 552 goals at club level, success on the international stage has proven painfully elusive. A World Cup victory was meant to seal his ascension to the level of Diego Maradona – who watched in tears as La Albiceleste unravelled – and Pele.
A final viable chance now appears to be gone.
If Iceland beat Nigeria on Friday, the former will only need a draw against qualified Croatia to go through. That’s if this imitation Argentina can even beat regular World Cup foes Nigeria.
Portugal and Madrid nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo will be watching on with interest.
Messi’s brief international retirement that followed June 2016’s Copa America final defeat – in which he missed a penalty in the shootout – was meant to be the nadir. How wrong he was.
The 30-year-old followed up last weekend’s saved spot-kick against Iceland with a much-worse display. In that game, he was everywhere without doing anything.
Sampaoli’s change of tactics made arguably the game’s greatest-ever player invisible.
Only two outfield starters for Argentina had less touches than Messi’s 49. The great man had just one shot – blocked on the line by club-mate Rakitic from point-blank range – and made only two key passes.
Not good enough.
Messi was Argentina’s saviour in the final round of qualifying, producing a hat-trick of astounding quality at Ecuador. He could not come up with the goods this time, against superior opposition.
A rub of the face as the teams lined up pre-match appeared to betray the crushing pressure laid upon him. Can this be suffered any longer?
“For me, the national team is over,” Messi said after defeat by Chile in the 2016 Copa final. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”
The pain from this loss and probable elimination will be exponentially worse. Even than 2014’s reversal in the World Cup showpiece, and three final defeats in the Copa.
Could a permanent end to his tortured spell with La Albiceleste soon follow?
SAMPAOLI HAS A SHOCKER
Sampaoli became Argentina’s third head coach in two years amid a stream of expectation in May 2017.
A tactical sage to rival mentor Marcelo Bielsa was in the dugout for La Albiceleste.
Curiously for the figure who impressed so much at Chile and Sevilla, reality has been far different. The 58-year-old crafted an utter mess on Thursday.
His 3-4-2-1 brought out the worst in Messi, left gaping gaps on the sides of the defence that Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Rebic should have repeatedly punished plus favoured the utilisation of limited players like Enzo Perez – guilty of missing an open goal in the first half – instead of inspirational Sevilla midfielder Ever Banega.
But it is not just the latest result that will spark an inquisition.
Sampaoli has chosen to bludgeon his principles of high-tempo pressing with a high defensive line on a squad that is utterly unsuited.
Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi – who has been left at home – have radically underperformed. Not all blame can be apportioned to these wonderful strikers at club level.
Usual No1 Sergio Romero also failed to make the cut because of an injury he insisted was eminently recoverable from. Replacement Caballero imploded and sparked Croatia’s surge.
Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria performed wonders, even in centre midfield, for Alejandro Sabella. He was anonymous against Iceland and an unused substitute in the second game.
But this Croatia match will live in infamy.
Centre-backs Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafuco and Nicolas Otamendi blundered through a debacle that was Argentina’s heaviest group-stage defeat since 1958. Javier Mascherano is a spent force in defensive midfield, despite his legendary achievements.
Sampaoli’s hubris-laden desire to prove his genius has left him looking a fool.
Gonzalo Higuain (1) and Sergio Aguero (1) had two touches in the opposition box combined against Croatia.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 21, 2018
Higuain replaced Aguero after 54 minutes. pic.twitter.com/VR8OD0zzXg
DALIC’S HISTORY BOYS
After 20 years, Croatia are back in the World Cup’s knockouts.
Pleasingly for former Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic, there is the promise of so much more to come from his talented side.
Croatia were just as culpable as their shoddy opponents for a forgettable first half.
Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren had a pair of uncertain moments that could have led to a goal.
They registered only four attempts, with one of them on target. Mandzukic headed wide when it appeared easier to score, while Atletico Madrid right-back Sime Vrsaljko produced an embarrassing cross when played in over the top by the incredible Rakitic’s pass that perfectly exposed Sampaoli’s tactical folly.
Just like in the weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Nigeria, they needed a catalyst to get them going.
It came when Caballero decided to chip a ball to Rebic, who’d moments before the interval wasted a glorious opportunity from Modric’s sublime pass. This time, he produced a perfect volley.
Croatia smelled blood after their first attempt of the second period and went for the jugular.
In Clasico pair Rakitic and Modric, they have centre midfielders without compare.
Besiktas centre-back Domagoj Vida is criminally underrated. Internazionale winger Ivan Perisic a true threat.
The addition of Inter anchorman Marcelo Brozovic improved the balance of the team and freed Modric to produce a man-of-the-match display.
An ability to rub salt into gaping Argentina wounds points to their lethality. If – or when – Dalic can draw out 90-minute performances, a repeat of the iconic 1998 side’s run to the last four cannot be discounted.