The favourites to win each group have been known from the very moment of the group stage draw’s completion. Yet, as the old adage goes, the beautiful game is played on grass, not paper. Though it is early days yet, there are still several potential shocks that could come to fruition.
Egypt – wins by 2+ goals over Russia and Saudi Arabia needed
After an absolute riot of an opening game, in which Russia demolished Saudi Arabia 5-0 in a display of sheer ruthlessness, the second game of Group A threatened to be a damp squib. Uruguay missed a plethora of chances against Egypt as a forgettable first half fizzled into goalless oblivion, with a Luis Suarez shot into the side netting being the sole flash-point.
Egypt grew in strength throughout the second half, and though the North African side was clearly missing the divine influence of Mohammed Salah, ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan was a speedy spanner in Uruguay’s machinery. However, there was an air of inevitability surrounding Uruguay’s winner when the momentum shifted towards the two-time world champions in the dying minutes.
The losers of that encounter were winners in their own right, and with Salah set to return, Russia must remain grounded and professional after destroying the weakest side by far in Group A. Naturally, a narrow win for Egypt over Russia would be of little use. Egypt must win by four clear goals to overturn the existing deficit to the hosts, but a healthy two-goal win – combined with, perhaps, a mere single-goal win for Uruguay over Saudi Arabia, would be the perfect fillip for Egypt.
Iran – draws against Iberian giants should be enough
Unsurprisingly, Iran’s exalted position in the headlines was shortlived, with the headline clash of Portugal v Spain – and Cristiano Ronaldo – dominating the airwaves. Yet, it is the Iranians who enter the second round of Group B clashes top of the group, after an improbable late winner against Morocco. As an immediate consequence, Iran’s buy/sell price on World Cup spreads has undergone a slight, but telling increase.
The Moroccans could easily have put their clash with Iran to bed long before Aziz Bouhaddouz put the ball in his own net on 94 minutes. They began the stronger side, and could have gone into the break 3-0 up, as a familiar tale of woe for Iran looked likely to continue. With the nation winless in a World Cup match since a 2-1 triumph over the United States twenty years ago, the late twist was as divine as it was ridiculous.
Now, the equation is simple for Iran. It is a big ask against the might of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa, but if Carlos Queiroz’ men can defend with the same stoicism and discipline they showed in the second half against Morocco, getting the five points that should see them through is not an impossible prospect.
Iceland – unbeaten run after great draw with Argentina will do it
Though Iceland must win at least one of the remaining two games, repeats of the performance against the dreaded Argentina will be more than enough. Though the more purposeful side in the early stages, the two-time world champions were badly below par against debutants Iceland throughout the Group D opener.
Cynics may point to ‘beginner’s luck’ on this occasion – after all, the Icelandic are far from the first team to get a resounding result in a first-ever World Cup match. However, cynicism is a state of mind that no Icelander, whether fan or player, knows or embraces. The surprise package of Euro 2016 next faces Nigeria, and there is no question as to which team carries a greater psychological burden.
The Super Eagles had their chances against Croatia, but it was a surprisingly ordinary and laboured performance from a squad containing several decent Premier League players. With Argentina out of the way, Iceland’s path to progression – and another success story for the small island nation – is clearer than ever.