World Cup Thoughts – Day 13
The last teams learn their fate as the group stage ends
On the last day of the group stages, I actually had more to say about the earlier games, so that’s a win for free subscribers there. Let’s get on with it.
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Portugal had already qualified and were likely to finish first unless Ghana moved the goal difference needle. South Korea needed to win and hope that either Ghana lost, or Ghana drew but South Korea made up the goal difference.
Ghana, along with the pride of humbling their least favourite man in world football, could go through a draw as long as Korea didn’t score too many. A win would send them straight through. Uruguay had to win and hope South Korea didn’t do the same.
Portugal got things going with the first shot of either game. Diogo Dalot got down the right flank and squared it to Ricardo Horta, who put it straight in the net. 1-0 to Portugal and Korea were in trouble. Ghana had the chance to really take the driving seat in the group after 20 minutes, but Andre Ayew missed his penalty. Uruguay made Ghana pay for this soon after. Luis Suárez’ strike was probably about to float past the line, but Giorgian De Arrascaeta got on the end of it to make sure. Suárez and De Arrascaeta linked up again straight afterwards, after the former played a dinked assist for the latter to smash it in. 32 minutes gone and Uruguay had all but ended Ghana’s dream.
At about the same time, South Korea got their break. After creating nothing in the first half and totally ceding control of the game, they get a corner that Portugal don’t defend properly and equalise. That’s not enough to change the standings, with Uruguay still set to finish second, but it’s half the job done for Korea.
Uruguay vs Ghana turned flat in the second half. Ghana looked broken by conceding two goals, while Uruguay have a strict philosophy of only trying to score when they absolutely need to. Hopefully everyone changed the channel and put on the other game. After looking very poor in the first 45, South Korea started to create more chances. It took them all the way into stoppage time in the second half to do it but, eventually, it happened. Korea broke from a Portugal corner, with Son Heung-min driving up the pitch and feeding Hwang Hee-chan, who didn’t miss his one-on-one with the ‘keeper. Korea had won the game. This started feeding through to the Uruguay players, knowing they were going out, and producing the instantly famous image of Suárez’ tears.
Let’s talk Uruguay’s failure, because I think it’s easiest to parse. Many are up in arms over Edinson Cavani not receiving a penalty late on, and scoring that chance would send Uruguay through on goal difference. I think it could have easily been given but, as ever, I don’t really care about refereeing decisions. Uruguay didn’t score a single goal in their first two matches. They barely even tried to attack in this tournament until the first half against Ghana. Uruguay’s ultra-cynical sufferball approach comes with this risk.
The template for extremely negative World Cup play is probably Argentina in 1986. Carlos Bilardo’s team looked to defend and defend for 90 minutes, trusting that a certain Diego Maradona would do something brilliant to get them ahead and just soak up pressure otherwise. It’s a model that’s been embraced by other nations at times, and can be described as “being so good that you don’t need to attack”.
Uruguay are not so good that they don’t need to attack. They might have been good enough for such a low-variance approach when Suárez and Cavani were in their prime, but they’re not right now. This is a decent squad, not a great one. If they had pushed harder to get the three points against South Korea in the first match, they might have sailed through this group. They’re kind of the flip side of Germany in that sense. Uruguay needed to take more risks and produce more than zero goals in their first two games.
I don’t think Ghana can have that many complaints. Maybe they were good enough for a draw against Uruguay on another day, but I find it hard to believe they “deserved” enough points to see them into the knockouts. They were just in a group with some higher quality opponents.
Korea got the huge benefit of playing Portugal in a partial dead rubber for that team, but hey, them’s the breaks. They pretty much played Ghana and Uruguay level, then got the good fortune to face Portugal on a good day where they really did deserve the win. I suspect Portugal can turn it back on when the game really matters to them, but we’ll have to wait and see.
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