Belfast Telegraph

From Russia with love – the World Cup crackers

The 2018 finals featured some thrilling contests right from the outset.

The 2018 World Cup has been widely regarded as one of the most exciting international tournaments in memory.

Here, Press Association Sport picks out five of the most unforgettable encounters.

PORTUGAL 3 SPAIN 3 (Group stage, Friday June 15, Sochi)

Spain had sacked coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before this match after the national federation took exception to being kept in the dark about his negotiations to join Real Madrid, and they made the worst possible start at the Fisht Stadium.

Cristiano Ronaldo earned a fourth-minute penalty which he got up to convert before a fine solo effort from Diego Costa brought Spain level. The impressive Isco rattled the underside of the crossbar with a powerful drive before Ronaldo restored the European champions’ lead just before half-time after his low shot squirmed through the grasp of David De Gea.

Costa brought Spain back on terms again as he turned in from close range, and then Nacho’s stunning low strike put La Roja in front at 3-2. But Ronaldo was not to be denied, and he ensured the match ended level with an 88th-minute free-kick.

GERMANY 0 MEXICO 1 (Group stage, Sunday June 17, Moscow)

The lowest-scoring entry in this collection, but this breathless encounter more than made up for the lack of goals with intrigue and drama. Mexico took the match to the reigning champions and deserved to lead through Hirving Lozano’s 35th-minute goal as Germany’s defenders struggled to cope with the Central Americans’ counter-attacking prowess.

Germany increased the pressure in the second half but could not find an equaliser, with Julian Brandt coming closest as he hit the post late on. It was a sign of disappointments to come for Germany, who were eliminated at the group stage with just three points from their three games. The celebrations in Mexico City at the final whistle were enthusiastic enough to register as “artificial” quakes on the geologists’ charts.

NIGERIA 1 ARGENTINA 2 (Group stage, Tuesday June 26, St Petersburg)

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Argentina celebrate Marcos Rojo’s late winner (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Argentina entered this match in disarray, with reports that coach Jorge Sampaoli had been sidelined after the 3-0 defeat to Croatia.

They realistically needed to win to make progress and took the lead when Ever Banega’s beautiful through-ball was controlled majestically by Lionel Messi, who rifled an angled shot past Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.

Victor Moses tucked away a second-half penalty to leave the South Americans on the brink of elimination, but Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute volley enabled them to progress and sparked celebrations in the stand from Argentina’s cheerleader-in-chief, 1986 World Cup-winning captain Diego Maradona.

FRANCE 4 ARGENTINA 3 (Last 16, Saturday June 30, Kazan)

The knockout phase of a tournament can be where things start to get cagey but that never looked like being the case here as France forward Kylian Mbappe came of age on the world stage.

The Paris St Germain teenager outmuscled and outsprinted the Argentina defence before Rojo took him out in the box, with Antoine Griezmann scoring the resulting penalty.

At that point it looked curtains for Argentina, but they recovered to lead 2-1 as Angel Di Maria’s long-range strike brought them level and Gabriel Mercado diverted a Messi shot past Hugo Lloris early in the second half.

France levelled with a sensational strike of their own as Benjamin Pavard’s perfectly struck shot found the corner, and then Mbappe stepped up to put Les Bleus back in control, firing home a low shot from close range before rounding off a sweeping counter-attack. Sergio Aguero gave Argentina a flicker of hope with a late goal, but they ran out of time.

BELGIUM 3 JAPAN 2 (Last 16, Monday July 2, Rostov-on-Don)

Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ looked set to be dumped out after two smartly-taken efforts from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui early in the second half.

The tide changed with the introduction of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli to the Belgian midfield, and Jan Vertonghen’s looping header halved the deficit before Fellaini rose to head home in the 74th minute.

An incredible comeback was complete deep in injury time when Belgium broke forward from a Japanese corner and Chadli swept home the winner.

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