Matchday 1 at the 2018 World Cup is in the books. The tournament’s first quarter is complete. All 32 teams have completed 90 minutes apiece. And that means it’s time for a bit of reflection before the World Cup barrels on, full-steam ahead.
It’s time for a look at the best and worst players – the studs and duds – of the group stage’s opening round:
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal — We specifically chose to list forwards first so that Ronaldo could lead the list. Because how could he not? His was arguably the best curtain-raising World Cup performance by a striker ever.
Diego Costa, Spain — Costa’s was pretty darn good, too. On a team renowned for intricate, flowing moves, he bullied Pepe and singlehandedly got Spain level for the first of his two goals.
Hirving Lozano, Mexico — Got the goal, of course. But “Chucky” did more than that. He was integral in transition, carrying out his defensive responsibility in a lopsided 4-4-1-1 without the ball, then exploding down the left flank when Mexico won it.
Romelu Lukaku, Belgium — Big Rom was excellent. But it was only Panama, which is why you won’t see any other Belgians on this list.
Luis Suarez, Uruguay — He’ll be fine. But … woof, it was not a good start.
Aziz Bouhaddouz, Morocco — A 95th-minute winner! Off the bench as a supersub! With a diving header ! … into the wrong net.
In all seriousness, that’s the type of moment that can destroy a player emotionally. Hopefully Bouhaddouz has received necessary support from teammates and others over the past few days, and hopefully he gets a chance to redeem himself.
Nikola Kalinic, Croatia — Sent home for refusing to come on as a substitute. Maiden World Cup voyages don’t get much worse than that.
Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo; Nigeria — Trumpeted as one of the best counterattacking front threes in Russia, the Nigerian trio collectively flopped in a 2-0 loss to Croatia.
Aleksandr Golovin, Russia — The big caveat here is that Golovin dazzled against one of the worst teams the World Cup has ever seen. But he dazzled nonetheless, and tacked another $5 million onto his eight-figure price tag.
Hector Herrera, Mexico — It’s still amazing that Herrera isn’t more universally appreciated than he currently is. He absolutely bossed the middle of the park against Germany.
Carlos Vela, Mexico — Vela’s man-marking of Toni Kroos was the key to suffocating Germany’s attack at source. The LAFC star was then the main Mexican link between defense and counter.
Aron Gunnarsson, Emil Hallfredsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Gylfi Sigurdsson; Iceland — The defenders will get the plaudits, but Iceland’s midfielders – especially the three central players and Bjarnason on the left – were dogged all day. Their unabating flocking to the ball corralled Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Toni Kroos, Germany — Vela marked him out of the game, rendering him a non-factor on one side of the ball. On the other, without a player like Real Madrid’s Casemiro behind him, he was an utter liability.
Mexico’s goal was emblematic of Kroos’ evening. His unavailability as a passing option led to the turnover. Mexico then broke right through his deep-lying midfield area. And Kroos’ less-than-100-percent recovery run left him inches short of blocking Lozano’s shot:
The youngster puts it away!
Chicharito starts the counterattack and Chucky Lozano finishes it to give Mexico the 1-0 lead. pic.twitter.com/Ze5IUJuE3d
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 17, 2018
Sami Khedira, Germany — Khedira was worse than Kroos. Much worse. He couldn’t pick up the creative slack. And he, too, was culpable for all that space between midfield and defense. Mexico passed and ran circles around him.
Lucas Biglia, Argentina — Looked old, injured, and incapable of providing any on-ball creativity whatsoever.
Angel Di Maria, Argentina — The Iceland match might be remembered as a changing of the guard for Argentina on the wing. Di Maria’s game is stale. It seems Christian Pavon could replace him in the starting 11 as soon as Thursday against Croatia.
Salman Al-Faraj, Abdullah Otayf, Taisir Al-Jassam; Saudi Arabia — The three Saudi central midfielders were almost invisible. “Packing” stats tell the tale. Russia beat 70 Saudi Arabia players via pass or dribble over 90 minutes, which, as you can see below, is a ridiculously high number.
For the statheads… Enjoy Day 5! pic.twitter.com/lDnDoBFcOT
— IMPECT (@impect_official) June 18, 2018
Carlos Sanchez, Colombia — You can sacrifice yourself for the good of the team late in a tight game. But you absolutely can’t in the third minute. Sanchez’s early red card against Japan was costly.
Jose Maria Gimenez, Uruguay — Scored a crucial winner. Also the protagonist of a staunch defensive effort.
Jesus Gallardo, Mexico — Dealt with Thomas Muller-Joshua Kimmich overloads really well.
Manuel Akanji, Switzerland — Young Borussia Dortmund center back was great against Brazil, and could be one of the breakout stars of the tournament.
Joshua Kimmich, Germany — Mexico exposed Kimmich’s ambition. That’s not entirely his fault. In fact, it’s more so on teammates and coaches. But Kimmich did a poor job of anticipating changes of possession and Mexican counterattacks. There’s no way Philipp Lahm, for example, would have been caught high up the field so often.
William Troost-Ekong, Nigeria — Had a nightmarish World Cup debut. Poor marking led to Croatia’s first goal, and a takedown of Mario Mandzukic sent Luka Modric to the penalty spot for the second.
Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi; Saudi Arabia — The less said about the Saudi center backs, the better.
Kasper Schmeichel, Denmark — One or two of his six saves were outrageous. He was one of a few reasons an outstanding Peru performance yielded zero points.
Hannes Thor Halldorsson, Iceland — Doesn’t get much better than saving a Messi penalty in your World Cup debut.
Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico — His flying two-handed dive to tip Toni Kroos’ free kick onto the crossbar was special.
David De Gea, Spain — Rob Green took control of De Gea’s body for two strange, costly seconds.
Abdullah Al-Mayouf, Saudi Arabia — Again, the less said, the better. No need to pile on with criticism.
Juan Carlos Osorio, Mexico — We covered his brilliance extensively here.
Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina — Sampaoli got so much wrong in Argentina’s opener against Iceland. Playing two No. 6s against overmatched opposition was inexcusable. Now he’s reportedly considering as many as four or five changes for the Croatia showdown. The uncertainty is mostly of his own doing.
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