A subdued Mohamed Salah got on the scoresheet for Egypt but could not avoid a third-successive World Cup 2018 loss as Salem Al Dawsari earned a deserved 2-1 win for Saudi Arabia in the final throes at Volgograd Arena.
Salah, 26, belied nagging doubts about a shoulder injury and off-field reports of imminent international retirement to lob the Pharaohs into the lead on 22 minutes when the eliminated Arab nations met.
The ascendant Green Falcons had two first-half penalties that required review by the Video Assistant Referee. Roving forward Fahad Al Muwallad’s first was superbly pushed onto the woodwork by 45-year-old record-breaking goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, before outstanding midfielder Salman Al Faraj did the business deep into first-half injury time.
A draw then seemed apparent before a delightful move was finished off by Villarreal loanee Al Dawsari’s lashed effort into the bottom corner in the 95th minute to earn his nation’s first World Cup triumph since 1994.
Here are the talking points when Group A reached its crescendo:
SALAH’S WORLD OF PAIN
It is fair to say Salah’s World Cup did not go to script.
Not even when a delicate chip, for a second strike of the tournament, earned an early lead for Egypt, plus his 50th goal in 58 appearances during an unforgettable 2017/18.
The maelstrom that subsumes him at international level took a turn for the worst in recent weeks.
The hype about his debilitating shoulder problem and rush to get fit was understandable.
What wasn’t predictable was AP’s report of a threatened international exit after being used as an unwitting political pawn this Saturday in a ceremony with controversial Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
A second picture opportunity with a leader accused of multiple human rights violations is not a good look for such a socially conscious footballer.
This situation appeared amplified before kick-off when the first announced XI didn’t feature him.
He barely celebrated his goal and soon spurned a glorious one-on-one.
Only Salah will know whether frustrations at enduring injury or disquiet about off-field matters caused his muted display.
WILL THE GREEN FALCONS SPREAD THEIR WINGS?
What now for Saudi Arabia?
On Monday, the Green Falcons finally took flight at the third time of asking during their return to the World Cup after 12 years away.
Saudi registered 64 per cent possession, had 16 more attempts than Egypt and five more corners.
They’d previously registered a combined two shots on target during the harrowing opening 5-0 loss to hosts Russia and subsequent 1-0 reversal to Uruguay.
Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s blueprint of a ceaseless press and high defensive line was clear during their third, winning assignment. A plan is in place and looks to be an effective one.
But will his capricious paymasters allow him to finish the job at January 2019’s Asian Cup, or is progress rendered nought by the opening night’s humiliation?
EL HADARY IS SPOT ON
Record-breaking Egypt keeper El Hadary had waited 45 years and 161 days for this moment.
The oldest player to ever feature at a World Cup wasn’t in the mood to waste more time.
El Hadary has represented the Pharaohs on 156 occasions and won four Africa Cup of Nations.
He’s felt the pain of repeatedly missing out on the globe’s grandest stage alongside the likes of legendary playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika and had dormant dreams ignited by the emergent Salah.
Such athleticism to repel Al Muwallad’s spot kick proved that even in football’s exacting age of elite performance, sometimes age is just a number.
#KSA #EGY— @fifaworldcup_ar 🇷🇺🏆 (@fifaworldcup_ar) June 25, 2018
👏 مبروك عصام الحضري 🇪🇬 الرقم القياسي الجديد!
أصبح اليوم أكبر لاعب سناً يشارك في #كأس_العالم، بعمر 45 سنة و 161 يوم!
تهانينا على المسيرة الرائعة وتمنياتنا بالمزيد من الإنجازات!#KSAEGY #روسيا2018@ElHadary @Pharaohs @EFA pic.twitter.com/N2xeYjV9Es
The breakout star of World Cup 2014, James Rodriguez, got his first start of the 2018 edition and inspired Colombia’s rise to a vital 3-0 win against Poland.
Rodriguez, 26, produced a delightful first-time cross for Yerry Mina’s headed opener and an incisive pass for his rampant nation’s third through Juan Cuadrado.
Here, we analyse the performance of the Colombia star.
Goals – 0
Assists – 2
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 0
Touches – 86
Passes – 67
Key passes – 3
Dribbles – 3
Dispossessed – 2
Rodriguez simply gets Colombia ticking.
His inability to be present from the off in last week’s opening Group H-reversal to Japan because of injury was almost as damaging as Carlos Sanchez’s third-minute red card.
The tee-ups for Mina and Cuadrado this time were the icing on the cake.
MAKING HIS CLASS COUNT – You cannot doubt the pedigree of this supreme Real Madrid-owned, Bayern Munich playmaker.
The highlight came when he picked up the ball on the left and one pass dissected the retreating Poland defence for Cuadrado’s stunner. This influence will only grow in the matches to come.
EXERCISE IN EFFICIENCY – You would not have known that doubts surrounded Rodriguez’s participation.
The ex-Porto and Monaco star got straight up to speed against the sorry Poles. For Colombia, Rodriguez had the most touches and passes, plus joint most key passes.
His influence is without compare – and so is his efficiency.
10 - Across the last two World Cup tournaments (2014 and 2018), no player has scored more goals (6) or provided more assists (4) than James Rodriguez. Gifted. #POLCOL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/hFdNqjRkHr— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 24, 2018
25th min CHANCE: A sweeping pass played in Radamel Falcao on the break, but the striker’s back-heeled pass couldn’t find Cuadrado.
40th min ASSIST: What a delight to behold. Excellent creative partner Juan Fernando Quintero played Rodriguez into space from a corner, an inviting centre then being powered home by Mina.
55th min CHANCE: Colombia’s threat on the counter continued. This time, Rodriguez found Quintero and his shot was blocked.
75th min ASSIST: One of the tournament’s most-enjoyable goals. Colombia broke at lightning pace and Rodriguez was found on the left touchline. He looked up and instantly played winger Cuadrado into the clear, to then apply a picture-book finish with the outside of his boot.
Rodriguez burst into life from the off four years ago, rocketing in six goals during five matches to grab the Golden Boot.
A calf problem forced him to come on as a substitute in last week’s 2-1 defeat to Japan. This time, he rubberstamped his enduring class with two perfect assists.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane took advantage of an awful fumble from Samurai Blue goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to deflect in an 11th-minute opener. New Real Betis winger Takashi Inui levelled things up in style on 34 minutes when he curled a shot into the bottom corner.
Japan dominated chances after the interval and Inui rocked the crossbar, but fell behind when 19-year-old Eupen full-back Moussa Wague provided an emphatic finish to end a fine move. Samurai Blue were then able to fight back for a second time when Pachuca forward Honda tapped in at the back post after a scramble.
The result at Ekaterinburg Arena left both teams on four points at the midway point in the fight to make the round of 16.
HONDA IS REVVING UP
A giant figure in Japanese football came up with a huge equalising goal.
Honda’s composed finish earned a fully merited share of the points and kept Samurai Blue well in the mix.
It also earned the 32-year-old former CSKA Moscow and AC Milan attacker a piece of history as the first Japan international to register in three World Cups.
This ended a personal scoreless spell which stretched back to September 2016’s 2-1 home defeat to the UAE when the final round of AFC qualifying began in inauspicious circumstance. Vitally, it followed an assist off the bench for Yuya Osako’s winner against Colombia.
Honda’s fallow period made him a central character in sacked head coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s failed purge of the old guard. April’s ruthlessness from the Japan Football Association appears to have been vindicated.
FLAWED BUT FULL OF PROMISE
The fans in Ekaterinburg were not starved of entertainment.
Plenty of end-to-end action saw the sides share 22 attempts, of which the Lions of Teranga were denied the lion’s share by Japan’s 15.
Each combatant also boasted one goal of requisite class and one of great fortune.
These foibles make it a fool’s errand to predict who will ultimately progress on Thursday when Group H reaches its conclusion.
Ensemble, on peut le faire.🇸🇳✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/SECVNbDtyS— Senegal Football🇸🇳 (@SenegalFootball) June 24, 2018
ANOTHER KAWASHIMA CALAMITY
Japan cannot say they weren’t warned.
Fresh from letting Juan Fernando Quintero’s low free-kick slither in at his near post for Colombia, Kawashima made another wrick.
Last week’s mistake ultimately could not stop Samurai Blue gaining a historic first-ever victory for an Asian nation against South American opposition at the World Cup.
This time, however, it was a costly one.
Frustration among their supporters comes from the presence on the sidelines of emerging Kashiwa Reysol shot stopper Kosuke Nakamura.
On current ability, the 2017 J. League Best XI member appears the safer choice.