Belfast Telegraph

Highs and lows of the World Cup group stages so far

There are only four games left before the knockout stages begin.

The group stages of the World Cup are drawing to a close so Press Association Sport takes a look at some of the highlights of the tournament so far:

Best game: Portugal 3 Spain 3

The tournament got off to a flyer with Portugal and Spain serving up a classic. Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines by completing a hat-trick and equalising with a stunning late free-kick.

Worst game: France 0 Denmark 0

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France and Denmark did not serve up a classic in Moscow (AP)

After 13 days, this World Cup got its first goalless draw as France, already through, and Denmark, who needed a point to join them, went through the motions in Moscow.

Best goal: Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)

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Ahmed Musa stunned Iceland (AP)

There are plenty of contenders after Russia’s Denis Cheryshev set the tone in game one. There have been fine long-range strikes from Nacho, Philippe Coutinho, Luka Modric, Granit Xhaka, Son Heung-min and Jesse Lingard and a great volley from Dries Mertens. But the skill of Ahmed Musa to control and smash home against Iceland stood out.

Best team: Croatia

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Croatia have powered through to the last 16 (AP)

Zlatko Dalic’s side completed the group phase with a 100 per cent record, their victories including a clinical 3-0 dismantling of Argentina.

Most disappointing team: Germany

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Germany failed to live up to their billing (AP)

The holders mounted an unexpectedly dismal defence of the title they won so impressively four years ago. After losing their opener to Mexico, a last-gasp defeat of Sweden offered hope but they slumped out after an insipid display against South Korea.

Best fans: Senegal

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Senegal’s fans have been among the brightest and liveliest (AP)

The host cities have been awash with the colour and vibrancy of all nations but, for sheer joie de vivre, Senegal take some beating. And that’s without mentioning the fact they pick up their litter on their way out of the ground.

Hits: Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku

England captain Harry Kane proved the chief inspiration and match-winner for their opening victory over Tunisia and followed that up with a hat-trick against Panama. Five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo has also come to the party while Romelu Lukaku has shone at the apex of an exciting Belgium attack.

Misses: Timo Werner, Robert Lewandowski and Julen Lopetegui

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Poland’s Robert Lewandowski has made no impact (Adam Davy/Empics)

As Germany’s first-choice centre-forward, much was expected of highly-rated Leipzig forward Timo Werner but he simply failed to make an impact. He was not alone, however, as the vastly-experienced Robert Lewandowski proved hugely underwhelming in Poland’s dire campaign. But they did at least feature. Spain sacked their manager Julen Lopetegui two days before their first game.

VAR: The star or a step too far?

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VAR has been one of the World Cup’s big talking points (John Walton/Empics)

Even the VAR cynics had to agree that the system worked perfectly on Wednesday as South Korea were awarded the first of their two dramatic late goals against Germany after it had been incorrectly disallowed for offside. That followed other successes such as Neymar being caught out after diving to win a penalty, Sweden earning a spot-kick after a foul was missed, Iran rightly having a goal chalked off for offside and Spain being awarded one. Critics will still point out that it missed Kane and Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic being wrestled off the ball while Australia and Portugal harshly had spot-kicks awarded against them for handball.

Best free-kick: Toni Kroos

Kroos must have hoped he had salvaged Germany’s campaign with his superb late winner against Sweden. It was not to be, but it was still a moment of sublime quality.

Best pundits: Alex Scott and Ally McCoist shine

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Former England international Alex Scott has made an impression as a pundit (Mike Egerton/PA)

The depth and quality of TV analysis has probably never been so high, with both main broadcasters backing up their reliable experts with some smart new signings. Alan Shearer continues to talk common sense on the BBC, who have also benefited from the insight of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Alex Scott. Ally McCoist has done a fine job as a co-commentator on ITV, whose studio analysis has also been strong with Roy Keane, Eni Aluko and Gary Neville proving popular.

Howlers: Silly Willy

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Willy Caballero had a moment to forget against Croatia (AP)

There have been a few head-in-hands moments. From the keepers, Argentina’s Willy Caballero allowed Croatia’s Ante Rebic to volley home after a poor clearance and Manuel Neuer’s venture upfield in Germany’s loss to South Korea backfired. Elsewhere on the field, Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak gifted Senegal’s M’Baye Niang a goal with a dreadful backpass.

Best save: Yann Sommer

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Yann Sommer has impressed for Switzerland (AP)

Switzerland’s Yann Sommer enhanced his reputation with a fine showing against Costa Rica, including keeping out a powerful header from Celso Borges with a reflex dive to his left.

Social media highlights

Germany’s Mats Hummels summed up his country’s sorrow after their elimination with a simple word – sorry. That was a far cry from Kane’s display of sheer joy after his late winner against Tunisia, which earned him more than 24,000 retweets. Elsewhere, Ian Wright’s stunned reaction to a Lionel Messi penalty miss went viral while Jesse Lingard provided some talking points with his photographs of England team-mates racing unicorns in their hotel pool.

The tournament in numbers

1: The world ranking of champions Germany before the event began.

2.6: Average goals per match after 44 games.

24: Penalties awarded in the tournament – a new record and already 11 more than in the whole of the 2014 event.

252: ‘Attacks’ by Germany in their three games, according to FIFA statistics. It came to little avail.

2,089: Passes completed by Spain in their three games.

Team of the tournament (so far):

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Jo’s fine performances against Germany and Sweden have earned him a spot

Jo (South Korea); Trippier (England), Gimenez (Uruguay), Stones (England), Cheryshev (Russia); Casemiro (Brazil); Hazard (Belgium), Coutinho (Brazil); Ronaldo (Portugal), Kane (England), Lukaku (Belgium).

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