Who would have thought that Senegal and Japan would play on Sunday eyeing a knockout berth? And that Nigeria would make Iceland melt in the way Argentina couldn’t? This World Cup is writing its own script as it goes along.
What I liked about Senegal’s dismantling of Poland was the brand of football they displayed. It wasn’t overtly physical. What was also striking was how lightly the weight of history sat on Aliou Cisse’s team. It can’t be easy to get on to a World Cup game 16 years after your last ended in a quarter-final defeat; more so when you are doing it at a stadium where the majority of fans are rooting for the rivals.
But the way Salif Sane and Kalidou Koulibaly reined in the dangerous Robert Lewandowski led to Poland having the worst of starts to their 2018 campaign. A slice of good fortune fetched Senegal the first goal and it was M’Baye Niang’s presence of mind that fetched the second. But underpinning the performance was discipline and pace. Then, in Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye and Koulibaly they have players who can influence a match on their own.
Japan may have been lucky that they were a goal up and Colombia a man down by the third minute but credit to them for how they managed the midfield, especially in the second half. They passed well and exploited the space left by 10-man Colombia.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Japan and Senegal play out a draw simply because it is a result that would hurt neither. It is possible that Senegal and Nigeria could make it out of the group stage and, boy, wouldn’t that be great news for Africa?
Nigeria could have won by a bigger margin against Iceland, showing that football’s smallest nation at a World Cup is in its element shutting out teams that are more powerful. But when it comes to taking the game to opponents, they tend to struggle.
Nigeria fizzed with pace making them barely recognisable from the team that played Croatia. Ahmed Musa’s goals were a product of opportunism and technique in equal measure; the way he hooked the ball for the first goal was something his marker didn’t anticipate. The second had him going past players and rounding off the goalie before banging home.
But here’s the thing: Nigeria are a team that is totally unpredictable. So, while they could steamroll Argentina – not too difficult given the disarray there seems to be in Lionel Messi’s team now – they could also simply roll over. That could, in turn, give Argentina just the lifeline they need to turn their campaign around.
The team from Africa that impressed me most was Morocco. They were under a coach who had done well in Africa and put in solid shifts in both games. They were unlucky against Iran and Portugal. They could have won both games but now go into their final game knowing that their World Cup would end with it.
Former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia is writing exclusively for Hindustan Times
FIFA World Cup 2018: Japan, African nations write their own script