The World Cup has lived up to its billing as the greatest show on earth by delivering all manner of thrills in the opening games. We have seen last-gasp winning goals, missed penalties, sumptuous free-kicks, bad tackles, colourful fans, jubilation, despair and heartbreak. Here are five key things we have learned so far:
Cristiano Ronaldo is desperate for another Ballon d’Or
Ronaldo delivered another reminder of his footballing genius by firing in a hat-trick to inspire Portugal to a 3-3 draw against Spain. It currently stands as the game of the tournament by a country mile, and Ronaldo loomed large over it. His last-ditch free-kick to secure a share of the spoils was positively spine-tingling, and it showed just how much confidence he has in his own ability. He has won the Ballon d’Or for the past two years and moved level with his great rival, Lionel Messi, in the all-time stakes. They now have five apiece, and Ronaldo seems hell-bent on winning a sixth this year. Messi inspired Barcelona to the Spanish league title, but Real Madrid went one better by winning a third consecutive Champions League.
It now seems as though Messi’s only chance of overhauling Ronaldo lies in his performances at this World Cup. Yet he missed a penalty for Argentina as they drew 1-1 with Iceland in their opener, while Ronaldo was coolness personified from the spot to break the deadlock against Spain. Right now it is advantage Ronaldo in the race for individual brilliance.
Check the World Cup spread betting and you will see Brazil, Germany and Spain as the favourites to win the World Cup this year. But all three have made a slow start to the big tournament. Brazil could only draw 1-1 with Switzerland, as Neymar failed to ignite the team in the face of strong Swiss resistance. The biggest shock of all came when defending champions Germany lost their opener against Mexico, and pundits have started questioning whether this golden generation is now past it.
Spain would have won their game against Portugal had David De Gea not spilled Ronaldo’s tame strike into the net, and they need to cut out the individual errors if they are to go deep into this tournament. But their World Cup preparations have descended into chaos after they sacked coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament, so they may struggle. France are fourth in the betting and they limped to a narrow win over Australia, courtesy of Paul Pogba’s deflected strike. Their performance left a lot to be desired, and fifth favourites Argentina could only draw with Iceland, with Messi blunted. It all suggests that we could be in for an open, exciting and unpredictable tournament.
Most of the opening group games have been extremely tentative affairs, and caution has reigned supreme. Eight out of the 11 games so far have seen under 2.5 goals, and that is something to bear in mind if you are a betting fan. A few of them have been turgid, but several have been gripping tactical battles between teams with contrasting styles, and they simply seem scared to lose. You would expect teams to take greater risks in the second and third games of the group stage.
Hosts are not actually terrible
There was only one emphatic victory in the 11 opening games, and many were surprised to see Russia deliver it. They ripped Saudi Arabia apart, racking up a 5-0 victory that could have been even heavier. Before the tournament, Russia had failed to win in seven games and they had slumped to 70th in the world rankings, below Cape Verde Islands, Guinea and Mali. They were given little chance of delivering on the Russian Football Federation’s optimistic demands of securing a semi-final berth as a bare minimum. But they looked bright, dynamic and creative against the Saudis, with youngster Aleksandr Golovin shining. They could be a real force at this tournament.
The Viking clap is mighty
Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup, with a population of just 330,000 people. In the team’s opening game, they had to deal with arguably the greatest player of all time in Messi, plus Man City superstar Sergio Aguero, and they were tipped to suffer a thrashing. But they emerged with an exceptionally creditable 1-1 draw, following on from victory over England at Euro 2016 and a win against Croatia to top their World Cup qualifying group. The population is small, but they are mighty, as evidenced by the rousing Viking clap delivered by their supporters in the opening game. Group D now looks wide open after Croatia beat Nigeria in their opening game, and Iceland could spring a surprise by surging into the last 16 at the expense of a more heralded rival.