Belfast Telegraph

From Russia with love – the World Cup crackers

Some clashes from Russia 2018 will live long in the memory.

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.

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.

Argentina 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 stoppage time when Belgium broke forward from a Japanese corner and Chadli swept home the winner.

FRANCE 4 CROATIA 2 (Final, Sunday July 15, Moscow)

🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷 Kylian Mbappé: the second youngest scorer in a FIFA World Cup Final after Pelé in 1958 🔥 📺 Highlights 👉 https://www.youtube.com/fifa

Posted by FIFA World Cup on Sunday, July 15, 2018

A game which was every bit as eventful as the scoreline suggests took off when Mario Mandzukic glanced Griezmann’s controversially-awarded free-kick into his own net to hand France the lead against the run of play.

Ivan Perisic’s sweetly-struck equaliser briefly restored parity before Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana, after input from his VAR team, awarded a penalty for handball against Perisic which Griezmann duly dispatched.

But the drama was far from over and after a pitch invasion for which punk rock group Pussy Riot later claimed responsibility, Paul Pogba and Mbappe produced sumptuous finishes to seal a victory which was only slightly marred by the blunder from France keeper Lloris which allowed Mandzukic to reduce the deficit.

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