Tuesday’s games started slowly, as France and Denmark produced the first goalless draw of the tournament. But the day ended in delirious excitement after all four Group D teams entered the final minutes of their matches with a chance to go through.
Ever Banega. Given that the entire football world has been rhapsodising about a certain Argentine number 10 for hours now, and Marcos Rojo’s unlikely winner will dominate tomorrow’s headlines, it seems right to focus on another of Argentina’s heroes today.
Banega is a cultured, forward-thinking central midfielder who has regularly been a pleasure to watch for many years now. But he’d barely figured in the tournament before today, having been brought on as second-half substitute against Iceland and then left out altogether in the Croatia game.
Coming into this match, there had been justified criticism of Argentina’s impotent midfield displays in those games, which had been bereft of guile or penetration. Bringing Banega into the starting line-up changed that decisively.
His pass in the 14th minute to set up Lionel Messi’s goal was as perfect as the ensuing finish. Later in the first-half, another wonderful Banega though-ball put Angel Di Maria in on goal, although the PSG man was unable to score.
The adjustments that Nigeria made during the half-time break meant that Banega’s effectiveness was diminished in the second period, but his contribution was nonetheless integral to Argentina’s victory. If today’s team selection really was the result of a mutiny, then at least it was a thoughtful revolt.
New Zealand. The All Whites, as New Zealand’s national team are known, have only reached the World Cup on two occasions, most recently at South Africa in 2010, and they’ve never made it past the group stage.
But their eternal foes Australia were knocked out of the World Cup after losing to Peru today, so glasses will have been raised and toasts made to Andre Carrillo across New Zealand after his wonderful 18th-minute strike.
New Zealand had themselves come close to qualifying for this tournament, only to lose 2-0 in a play-off – to Peru. When their conquerors defeated Australia today by the same scoreline, any hard feelings will surely have been forgotten.
Australia’s departure won’t be lamented by many. Their squad was full of limited, hard-running players who play their club football for limited, hard-running sides. That lack of finesse in the final third of the pitch made them tough to watch, although 19-year-old Daniel Arzani looked like he could be a future star.
Peru’s fans, meanwhile, spent the entire game jumping around like they’d just scored a goal. Both the side and their supporters will be missed.
Anyone who watched Denmark play France. If a game could ever be summed up in a single image, then it’s the above shot of bored French supporters during today’s match against Denmark. The lady on the right understandably appears to have fallen asleep.
Later, the wife of Denmark captain Simon Kjaer could be seen weeping at the end of the game. They were presumably tears of boredom. Aside from Nabil Fekir looking bright after he came on for France, the 90 minutes were devoid of incident. Even a VAR controversy failed to rear its head.
Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar had been brought into the French starting eleven, but the uninitiated would never have guessed that these were two of the most admired young players in world football. Just pity the poor TV producers who had to put together a highlights reel for this one.
Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain. Long before a harsh second-half penalty was awarded against him, many viewers will have asked themselves the question: “Just how badly does Javier Mascherano have to play before he’s dropped from the team?”
He’s been a great midfielder in his time, but today when he wasn’t giving the ball away, he seemed to be either slowing Argentina’s play down or getting in his team-mates’ way.
For Higuain, it was a case of another big miss during another huge match in an Argentina shirt. While he clearly doesn’t lack a big-game mentality at club level, for his country he remains an enigma.
And it was left to a defender, Marcos Rojo, who had previously only scored two goals in more than 50 international appearances to show Higuain how to do his job.