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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

World Cup talking points, Day 12: dark horses, the pain for Spain and VAR-watch

All the things that are hogging the conversation after the latest day of action in Russia 2018

Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates scoring their first goal against Russia. Reuters
Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates scoring their first goal against Russia. Reuters

Dark horses

Although some football sages had tipped Uruguay to excel before the World Cup began, the South Americans were happy to fly under the radar during their first two group games, doing what was needed to progress past Saudi Arabia and Egypt by a single goal in each match. Today, playing the hosts Russia, they showed their class as they eased to a 3-0 victory, although to be fair they were aided by their opponents, who contrived to hand them an own goal and a sending off within the first 40 minutes. Obdurate in defence and with the potent attacking threat of Luis Suarez up front, Uruguay will go into their round-of-16 game with Portugal knowing that they have little to fear from the Euro 2016 champions, who have yet to prove they are much more than a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired outfit.

Andres Iniesta's lacklustre performance symbolised Spain's problems in this tournament. AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Andres Iniesta's lacklustre performance symbolised Spain's problems in this tournament. AP

The pain for Spain

Spain may have ended up at the top of Group B following a harum-scarum game against bottom-placed Morocco that saw them have to twice fight back from a goal down, but their performances across the three games shown the confusion in the camp following the dismissal of manager Julen Lopetegui in the week before the tournament started. Their ageing team has looked disjointed, and world-class players such as Andres Iniesta and captain Sergio Ramos were distinctly mortal on Monday after making errors that led to both of the Morocco goals. Topping the group has at least allowed them to avoid Uruguay, but even a second-round tie against Russia could prove too much for them. Despite being the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the hosts will benefit from enormous home support in the game at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Iceland's fans have has lot to thunderclap in their team's achievement in even qualifying for the World Cup finals. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Iceland's fans have had lot to thunderclap in their team's achievement in even qualifying for the World Cup finals. Getty

Ice kings

In all likelihood, Iceland’s limited team, which held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in the first game of Group D but were then exposed by Nigeria in a 2-0 defeat, will go out of the competition on Tuesday when they come face to face with group leaders Croatia. However, the extraordinary achievements of this team in even getting to Russia 2018 cannot be overstated. We know that they are the smallest nation in population terms to ever reach the finals, but the size of the pool of talent that the squad of 23 has been picked from is mind-boggling: of the 302,000 native Icelanders who live in the country, only half are men: of that total, at least two thirds are ineligible through age, which means that the country managed to find the team that held Lionel Messi et al from a maximum of just 50,000 brave Vikings.

VAR-watch

This was probably the worst day of the tournament for Fifa's new technology, as its usage – and non-usage – helped to transform the face of Group B. After just 10 minutes of Spain's clash with Morocco, Gerard Pique flew in with a two-footed, studs-up challenge on Khalid Boutaib that had most viewers wincing and waiting for the inevitable red card. Instead, the VAR control room sent no guidance to the referee and the tackle went laughably unpunished.

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Then in the second half of the games, which were being played concurrently, Cristiano Ronaldo was initially denied a questionable penalty before having the decision reversed by the video team in Moscow (he subsequently saw his spot kick saved). But his swing of the arm in an off-the-ball incident with 10 minutes to go that floored Iran's Morteza Pouraliganji only resulted in a yellow card, despite the offence being confirmed by the video footage. And finally, Spain's injury-time leveller was initially ruled out for offside, before it was allowed after Iago Aspas's goal was deemed legal.

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