The first round of the Qatar 2022 World cup has ended with some remarkable results that have seen records being smashed as well as scintillating and surprising performances from powerhouses, lesser teams, and dark horses.
Fight for the top spot in the goal-scoring chart of the tournament appears to have surprising early contenders with the usual suspects Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, and Suarez missing out.
The shot-stoppers have not been left out of the wild medley as seven goal-keepers have currently kept two clean sheets.
While the first round of matches ended Friday, the games threw up some intrigues. Ahead of the last 16 ties, here are four things we learned from the tournament’s group stage:
Aging Stars Stretch Their Luck
For many of the great names of the game, Qatar 2022 is the last chance at redemption and glory and the first round has proven that these men are mortal after all.
Lionel Messi, 35, and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, are arguably the greatest players of their generation but the tournament has been underwhelming for the duo as they have struggled to really impact the game.
Polish striker, Robert Lewandowski, 34, finally broke his World Cup jinx with his first against Saudi Arabia but overall the stellar heights he is known for at Barcelona have been missing in this tourney.
The likes of Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez, and Edison Cavani have also suffered the same fate of the possible aging process. Hazard, 29, has not been himself since departing from Chelsea to the Bernabeu and was dropped to the bench for the must-win game against the 2018 finalists Croatia.
Coming off a 35-match winning streak including clinching the COPA America title, pundits and football lovers would have predicted a comfortable win for Argentina over Saudi Arabia.
Some went as wild as giving a five goal win to the South Americans. However, the gods of the game had something different when Saleh Al-Shehri cancelled out an early Lionel Messi penalty and Salem Al-Dawsari hit a stunning winner to put Lionel Scaloni’s men on the brink of an early exit (they later qualified).
The handwriting appeared to have been on the wall for Wales when they faced the Iranians. Iran showed they wanted the win much more than their European contingents as they hit the post twice in quick succession. Azmoun was the first and Gholizadeh followed quickly.
Goals from Rouzbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian left Wales in shambles as Wayne Hennessey became the recipient of an unwanted record as the first goalkeeper to be sent off following a violent tackle on Taremi.
Title Contenders Crumble
For the German side, they came to Qatar with one goal and that was to bury past demons of the 2018 World Cup in Russia when they crashed out in the group stage. However, the passage from Group E to the next round would go down to the wire on the last match day.
Hansi Flick’s men had been stunned in the first match by the Japanese courtesy of goals from substitute Ritsu Doan in the 75th minute before Takuma Asano completed a remarkable turnaround eight minutes later, smashing the ball home to send the boisterous Japanese fans wild.
It was a roller coaster night as chances for qualification to the next round swung from one end to the other. Germany manage to secure the win they needed over Costa Rica but Spain’s shock loss to Japan, who were aided by a controversial second goal, saw the four-time champions exit the tournament – with Spain and Japan progressing.
The Belgians came into the tournament as the second-ranked team and needed to prove critics wrong that the golden generation was past its prime. Despite an unconvincing victory over Canada and a surprising loss to the Moroccans, Roberto Martinez’s side were still fancied to join the likes of Brazil, France, Portugal, and others in the next round.
Romelu Lukaku was guilty of three dreadful misses as Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia side rode their luck to hold on and see Belgium crash out of the World Cup in the group stage after a 0-0 draw.
Martinez would step down as manager following his side’s ousting. The 49-year-old had been in charge since 2016 and his contract was due to run out after the tournament.
“That was my last game with the national team, I can’t carry on,” Martinez said at his post-match press conference. “It’s time for me to accept that this is the last game.”
Hope For Africa
The African representatives had failed to qualify for the round of 16 last time around and were looking at turning their fortunes around.
Champions Senegal were missing their talismanic forward, Sadio Mane, and despite an evenly contested game against The Netherlands, they suffered a loss due to an Eduoard Mendy error ultimately. Led by Ismaila Sarr and captain Koulibaly, the Teranga Lions showed resilience by winning their last two matches to reach the last 16.
Morocco have been the shining light of the tournament, topping Group F which had the likes of Belgium, Croatia, and Canada with. They garnered seven points with Chelsea forward, Hakim Ziyech, playing a key role in lifting his side to the next round.
Of the five African sides, two made it to the next round while three crashed out. Cameroon stunned Brazil on Friday, becoming the first nation from the continent to do that at the World Cup but that was not enough to see them through the group stage.
Tunisia finished with four points while Ghana managed three points. The last time two African sides reached the round of 16 was in 2014 in Brazil. In Russia 2018, no country from the country made the knockouts.