Lotta goals in the desert - World Cup Daily Diary: Day 9

The early games were bonkers; the late games…less so. Let’s run it down

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Cameroon’s Jean-Charles Castelletto celebrates after scoring their team’s first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Cameroon and Serbia.
Cameroon’s Jean-Charles Castelletto celebrates after scoring their team’s first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Cameroon and Serbia.
Image: Getty Images

Game of the day: Serbia 3 - 3 Cameroon

We could have gone either way with this one, as South Korea and Ghana had their own share of going off the rails. But we’ll choose the early game today as it had one more goal. It always feels derivative to say that soccer is defined by goals or that “goals change games,” which is perhaps the most popular trope among commentators. But it also just happens to be true.

Cameroon took the lead against the run of play. They only had one shot at all in the first 20 minutes, though Serbia wasn’t doing too much more than pawing at their defense in the opening exchanges. But going behind stirred something in Serbia we hadn’t seen this tournament, who then snapped back into the lead with two goals before halftime, including this textbook header from Strahinja Pavlović to tie it:

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By the way, could you find a more Serbian-looking guy than Pavlović? You’ve seen this guy smoking an unfiltered cigarette outside a bar with no sign, haven’t you?

After the break, the lead only caused Serbia to purr even more smoothly, with Dusan Tadić and Sergej Milinković-Savić (who scored the second Serbia goal) dovetailing with striker Aleksandar Mitrović, culminating in this gorgeous third goal that should be set to some killer smooth piece of music like the Pink Panther theme or a Sly song:

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And this was over. Or it should have been. A funny thing happened. Cameroon manager Rigobert Song introduced striker Vincent Aboubakar, switched his team to a 4-4-2, and Serbia reacted as if they’d subbed on a dinosaur. Twice Aboubakar broke Serbia’s defensive line/offside trap, both times Nikola Milenković on the right side of Serbia’s three-man defense being the one caught too deep and keeping Aboubakar onside. The back three found covering one forward to be a breeze. Throw a second one at them and it was a kindergarten fire drill back there. The first, when everyone assumed the flag would go up and it eventually did, only for VAR to retrieve the goal back from the trash, was finished off by Aboubakar himself with the kind of scoop you’d only try when you’re pretty sure it doesn’t matter anyway:

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If Aboubakar was sure that he was onside, is he quite as relaxed? Doesn’t matter now.

The second time saw Aboubakar square for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. And suddenly, without Cameroon really deserving it, they had tied the game and looked the more likely winner. Sadly, they only generated two more shots after the equalizer, but got what they needed to at least go into the last day with something to play for. Just have to beat Brazil! Easy peasy!

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At 3-1, it seemed it would be the same story for Cameroon as it’s been since last winter’s AFCON, where something broke. After going out on penalties at home, they’ve been pretty wishy-washy, and showed a lack of anything against Switzerland, especially after going behind. They did show gumption and fight on Monday.

For Serbia, they’ll rue not clinching all three points here, especially with everything riding on an already boiling match with Switzerland, that only needs a draw. It is strange that after featuring both Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahović together in qualifying, they’ve shied from that in this tournament. Especially with Mitrovic certainly not 100 percent. They played a great 50 minutes or so. But in a World Cup, you can’t leave the other 40 on the table.

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Other Games

South Korea 2 - 3 Ghana

This was another game that saw a team that hadn’t shown much storming back out of nowhere, except the Koreans couldn’t then hang on. The worry about South Korea before the tournament, especially with Heung-min Son barely fit, is that their careful and intricate way of building attacks would end up looking like the worst of tiki-taka, with no end product and opposing teams yawning as they easily held them out before rushing the other way. And that’s what the first half pretty much looked like. Ghana was barely under any threat (0.37 xG against) and was able to cash in on a set piece. With the comfort of a lead, Ghana then took a page out of South Korea’s book and pieced together 31 passes to set up Mohammed Kudus for his first of the day:

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Nothing spurs a team like staring into the abyss, though. Finally, for the first time in two games. South Korea played with some pace and urgency in the second half, and the whole game flipped with two Gue-song Cho headers. The second is a prime example of just wanting it more than anyone around you:

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From there, Korea battered the Ghanian goal, as they should have…except for the small problem of leaving the back door open. Which Ghana strolled right through just seven minutes later:

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Great dummy from Iñaki Williams. At least that’s what he’ll say.

Ghana wasn’t great. They scored when they needed to. South Korea couldn’t one more time. There’s your game.

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Brazil 1 - 0 Switzerland

Well, this was a comedown. Brazil without Neymar is certainly a different beast, both missing his enormous talent as well as their usual tendency to try and find him. With him missing for the rest of the group stage, Switzerland didn’t find it too hard to make Brazil look pretty flaccid. Without their No. 10 in the heart of the attack. Brazil was far more dependent on going out wide, and Vinicius Jr. had moved more inside in the first half to combine with Richarlison up top.

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Not fearing anything in the middle, Switzerland simply deployed a 4-5-1, and doubled up on Brazil’s wide players with their fullbacks and wide attackers. You can do that against this Brazil team because unlike in the past when they had real cowboy fullbacks such as Cafu or Roberto Carlos or Dani Alves, manager Tite prefers his fullbacks to stay where they are. Éder Militao, who started at right-back today, is really a centerback for a living. Switzerland cut off any links to glory from out wide, with Brazil not having too much to answer in the middle.

The second half didn’t change all that much, even with Vinicius restored to his normal left wing and Rodrygo brought on to link with Richarlison. The goal came from Brazil simply solving the problem of going through the middle with numbers instead of having Neymar, as Casemiro found himself in the box to volley home an absolute rapier. There was too little time for Switzerland to respond, and they didn’t seem much interested in doing so.

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Neymar will be back for the important games, but if he’s not fully healthy then Switzerland’s blueprint will be used again.

Portugal 2 - 0 Uruguay

And the real comedown. Here are two teams that are capable of really setting off a firework show that spent the first 45 minutes kicking each other into seven different kinds of shit and bitching to the ref when they weren’t doing that. Uruguay came for a point and didn’t get it.

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It did contain maybe the most Ronaldo moment ever, as he tried to claim this was his goal in every way possible, even throughout the celebrations:

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Dress for the job you want and all that.

Finally, after going a goal down Uruguay actually tried to cross the halfway line with more than just Darwin Nuñez and the corpse of Edinson Cavani, but could only find the post again. Now they need to beat Ghana and hope Portugal doesn’t rest everyone and has enough left on the field to not let South Korea sneak a win past them. It didn’t have to be this way, but this is apparently how Uruguay has it drawn up.

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Goal of the day: Aboubakar’s trampoline flick was a contender, but Casemiro may never hit another shot like this again:

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Did VAR fuck anything up? We saw both sides. Aboubakar’s goal is exactly why the referee’s assistants have been holding off on raising their flag until the play is completed, because he was onside and VAR saved a goal that should stand. But Portugal’s penalty came off a handball from Jose Giminez when he was merely putting his hand down as he slid to the ground, the only place his hand can go, and something explicitly stated is not supposed to be a penalty.

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And yet the VAR official called the on-field ref to the screen, and that almost always ends up in a reversal. The system is still dependent on the opinion of people, and it’s not hard to get two people who see the world cockeyed making these decisions.

Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid? No Alexi, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t have “haters” just because he’s good. You mentioned his “off-the-field matters,” so go all the way, bud. Once you open that door you can’t just dip a toe through it and then run away from it.

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The one true Ronaldo: It is truly inspiring to see the OG Ronaldo, and more to the point the level of consistent contentment he seems to have achieved. Maybe you have to be the best forward of your generation to exude such a relaxed state, but maybe it’s there for all of us. Follow the OG Ronaldo to freedom:

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Lastly, I know many people out there don’t follow sports. Most of their arguments are sound. Sometimes I even envy them. But the question I always come back to is, if you don’t follow sports, what makes you feel like this?