Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2018

A Few Surprises From World Cup Group Play

The FIFA Men’s World Cup reached its midpoint with the conclusion of Group Stage play on Thursday. The bracket for the knockout round is set, with one very big surprise and a couple of smaller ones. The shock of the Cup to date is that pre-tournament favorite Germany has been seen off, hopes for a repeat run to a championship dashed by a dismal 2-0 loss to South Korea in its last group match. Four days earlier the world’s number one ranked team appeared to have come alive just in time with a stunning stoppage time goal to edge Sweden and keep its fate in its own hands. Instead the Germans finished at the bottom of Group F with a record of one win and two losses, both of which were shutouts. It was the worst World Cup performance by the Mannschaft in eighty years, and will no doubt lead to a period of soul-searching in Berlin.

But while no one saw the German debacle coming, closer attention to recent World Cup history might have raised a warning sign. This is now the fourth World Cup in the last five that has seen the defending champion fail to advance out of the Group Stage. Just like Germany, 1998 winner France and 2006 champion Italy both finished last in its group four years later. Spain, the 2010 winner, managed one notch better than that in the group standings in Rio four years ago, but still failed to move on to knockout play. Only perennial powerhouse Brazil backed up its 2002 title by making it as far as the quarterfinals at the following World Cup. The pattern of great success giving way to disappointment, along with the fact that no men’s team has prevailed in consecutive World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, should remind fans all around the globe of just how competitive the world’s most popular sport is at its highest international level.

The lesser surprises produced by the Group Stage were the failure of any African teams to advance, and the mismatched bracket that is now in place for the Knockout Stage. While no African country has ever seen its team advance to the championship game, the knockout round has always included at least one squad from that continent since the current World Cup format was instituted in 1982. This year however, three African teams – Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia – managed just one win and one tie in nine contests, with a goal differential of minus seven.

Nigeria put a scare into mighty Argentina by keeping their match tied until late in the contest on Tuesday. Had the score remained 1-1 the Nigerians would have gone forward, and Lionel Messi and company been headed home in disgrace. But Marcos Rojo scored off a perfect centering pass from Gabriel Mercado in the 86th minute to save the Argentines and vanquish the Nigerians.

That left Senegal, which like Nigeria would have gone through with a tie in its final Group Stage game. But a goal early in the second half by Columbia’s Yerry Mina was the only scoring in that match. The 1-0 result put Columbia on top of Group H and left Senegal and Japan tied for second with 1-1-1 records, setting in motion the list of World Cup tiebreakers. Moving down that list, both teams had a goal differential of zero and four goals scored in group play. Since Japan and Senegal had tied 2-2, they also had a matching record, goal differential, and goals scored in heat-to-head play. That left the sixth tiebreaker, the last one before the drawing of lots. It’s a comparison of so-called fair play points, or the fewest penalties. With three yellow cards to Senegal’s five, Japan advanced and the final African hope was extinguished. It’s the first time that the fair play tiebreaker has decided a spot in the Knockout Stage.

Thanks in part to Germany’s unexpected exit, the bracket for the single elimination portion of the Cup is decidedly lopsided. Based on FIFA’s ranking of national teams, one side of the bracket has the second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh ranked teams in the world, and two more that are in the top fifteen. On the other side only Spain and Switzerland are ranked in the top ten, with just two others, England and Denmark, in the top fifteen. When the drawing for the Group Stage was held back in December, analysts noted that there was no obvious “group of death” as is usually the case – no group with multiple powerhouse squads, one or more of which would be deprived of a spot in the final stage. That was largely due to this year’s drawing being based more on team rankings and less on geographical considerations. But in its place group play has produced a side of death in the final bracket.

That in turn made the outcome of Thursday’s game between England and Belgium especially interesting. The two teams were playing strictly for position in the bracket, with both already through to the final stage. Had the match ended in a tie, England would have been pronounced the winner of Group G based on, what else, fair play points. Both teams rested several starters and the action was somewhat less than gripping, but ultimately it was the Red Devils that broke through, with Adnan Januzaj sending a curling left-footed shot into the far corner of the English net early in the second half for a 1-0 Belgium victory and a spot in the side of death. Soon enough, fans of the Red Devils may find themselves wishing that Januzaj’s strike had missed.

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