Thursday, December 3, 2015

2018 World Cup Finals Group B in Review

The surprise last-minute decision to enlarge the 2018 World Cup Finals to 40 teams in exchange for a raft of administrative reforms being passed by the FIFA Congress was welcomed by numerous countries around the world. Here's how Group B panned out.

After the draw which saw England placed in Group B along with Chile, Sweden, Uzbekistan and the Cape Verde Islands, Roy Hodgson could hardly contain his delight. "We've avoided all the really big teams," he noted, as well as the strongest teams from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF. "When I look at Group E containing Argentina, Belgium, Croatia, Cote d'Ivoire and Mexico, I feel we've dodged a bullet. Also, we have a relatively simple game first up to ease into the tournament.

Round 1:

England 3 Uzbekistan 1
Chile 3 Cape Verde 0

After a nervous start which saw them concede inside the first ten minutes after a mix-up between Joe Hart and John Stones, England overcame the Uzbeks thanks to a strong second half showing. Jamie Vardy had equalised on the half hour mark, and Uzbekistan's brave resistance was finally overcome by a pair of Theo Walcott goals, the sub netting in the 73rd and 82nd minutes after replacing Wayne Rooney who suffered a minor hamstring strain. However, the team from Central Asia showed enough good touches and organisation to overall have been delighted by their performance in their World Cup Finals debut.

"We had to work hard," Hodgson admitted, "but we know that there are no easy games in the World Cup."

The only concerns for the England manager were the injury to Rooney and needless yellow cards for both central defenders, Gary Cahill and John Stones.

Meanwhile, Chile cruised to an easy 3-0 victory over Cape Verde, their three early goals allowing them to leave both their tired stars Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal on the bench for the entire match.

Round 2:

Sweden 1 England 1
Chile 4 Uzbekistan 0

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a last gasp equaliser to earn Sweden a point. The mercurial Swede had been a doubtful participant in this match after struggling with a groin strain, but a first round bye meant he had time to recover before his team's opening match and his goal, which cancelled out Raheem Sterling's well-taken first half strike, meant England once again failed to overcome Sweden, leaving a clearly disappointed Roy Hodgson ruing the way the fixture list had been drawn up. "We were without the injured Rooney, and we had both Cahill and Stones scared to make a challenge for fear of picking up a second yellow card and missing the Chile match. Overall we're happy enough with the point, but we really should have won. Now both Walcott and Vardy have picked up knocks too and will miss the Chile game. Sweden came into the match fresh after their first round bye and as you all saw, this proved vital in the last five minutes.

As it turned out, both John Stones and Gary Cahill picked up late yellow cards and will miss the vital game against the South American champions. Sweden also picked up four yellow cards, but having had a first round bye all the players affected are available for their next match.

England's opponents in the next game, Chile had no such problems, cruising to an easy 4-0 win over Uzbekistan, who had themselves suffered some late injuries to key players in their first game. Alexis Sanchez played himself into form after being introduced in the 65th minute, scoring two clinically taken goals against his tiring opponents.

After losing both their opening two matches, Uzbekistan's World Cup was effectively over just five days into the 35-day tournament. However, they still had to wait twelve more days before heading home. With nothing on the line, their coach promised to give some of his squad players the opportunity to play in the next match, against Sweden, resting his starting line-up for the final match against Cape Verde where he deemed the opportunity to win more likely.

Round 3:

Chile 2 England 1
Sweden 1 Cape Verde 0

A depleted England team deservedly lost to Chile whose victory was more convincing than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. "Obviously we missed Rooney, Vardy and Walcott through injury, and with both Stones and Cahill suspended we were forced into playing an unfamiliar team. Sanchez opened the scoring after 24 minutes when he was left unmarked in the box, second-half substitute Fabian Orellana added an insurance goal on the break as England pushed forward to equalise, and although James Milner's twenty-yard pot shot gave England late hope, it was the South Americans who looked most likely to score again as the match neared its conclusion.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the crucial goal midway through the second half for Sweden as they picked up three more points with a 1-0 victory over Cape Verde, to move level on points with England.

Round 4:

England 4 Cape Verde 0
Sweden 2 Uzbekistan 1

England were nearly back to full strength for their match against Cape Verde, missing just the suspended Ross Barkley after he picked up his second yellow card against Sweden. Wayne Rooney completed his first full game of the tournament and provided assists for both England's first half goals. After just six minutes he cleverly played in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and after 42 minutes his headed effort off a Sterling corner rebounded off the bar before being bundled in by the returning Gary Cahill. Harry Kane scored two late goals to boost England's chances of qualifying for the second stage on goal difference.

In the other game, Sweden held off a late Uzbekistan onslaught to claim the points with an unconvincing 2-1 win, despite their Central Asian opponents resting their entire starting team in a match that was meaningless for them.

Round 5:

Chile 0 Sweden 0
Cape Verde 4 Uzbekistan 4

Both Chile and Sweden qualified for the last sixteen after playing out the dull scoreless draw that would ensure they would both progress. A game of little excitement saw just two hopeful long-range efforts on goal, both easily saved, and a notable lack of physical play which meant neither team picked up injuries or suspensions.

The other match couldn't have been more of a contrast, with both teams eager to pick up their first ever World Cup Finals point. As it transpired, both were successful in this endeavour, after a rollicking seesaw battle which saw both teams squandering one-goal leads twice before ending all square. Unfortunately only 11,000 fans bothered to turn up to this eighth game in seventeen days in Yekatarinburg, presumably most anticipating it would be a dead rubber and focusing instead on the Chile versus Sweden clash.

Commenting on England's failure to progress past the group stage, Hodgson professed he was overall happy with the team's performances given the players they had available. What cost us was the late goal we conceded to Sweden. We would have moved on if not for that. Now our players will go home and rest before the Premier League starts again in a few weeks.

While grateful for the earlier than anticipated return of his five-man English contingent, Arsene Wenger indicated his annoyance that he would be without Koscielny, Coquelin, Giroud, Alexis Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla, Bellerin, Monreal, possibly Ramsey, if Wales failed to beat the United States in their last group game, and also both goalkeepers for the upcoming opening game of the Premier League season away to Leicester. "I may have to re-sign Bendtner," he said gravely.

Final Standings:

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