Japan Target Fifth Asian Title After World Cup Heartbreak

Japan’s captain Maya Yoshida attends a press conference in Narita, Chiba prefecture in Narita on December 7, 2022, following their loss in the second round of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Photo by Yuichi YAMAZAKI / AFP)

 

Japan will put their World Cup heartbreak behind them and focus on becoming Asian champions for a fifth time, captain Maya Yoshida said after the team returned home on Wednesday.

The Blue Samurai were eliminated from the World Cup on penalties by Croatia in the last 16 on Monday, denying them a first-ever place in the quarter-finals.

But the defeat did not stop hundreds of fans from travelling to an airport near Tokyo to welcome the players and coach Hajime Moriyasu back from Qatar.

READ ALSO: Japan Confident Of Bright Future Despite World Cup Heartbreak

“We won’t stop here,” Yoshida said at a news conference after arriving.

“We will aim to become the best in Asia,” he added.

“Our fight will continue. As long as we keep playing football, we must keep fighting.”

The Asian Cup will also be held in Qatar after original host China dropped out due to its strict anti-Covid policies.

The tournament was set to be held in June and July 2023 but is now likely to be postponed until early 2024 to avoid Qatar’s fierce summer heat.

Japan won the most recent of their four Asian Cup titles the last time Qatar hosted the tournament, in 2011.

The Blue Samurai could not find a way past Croatia in the last 16 of the World Cup, but they stunned former champions Germany and Spain to top their first-round group.

“We couldn’t reach new heights but my players showed us a new era, and this is just the beginning,” said Moriyasu.

Among the crowd of fans waiting to welcome the team home at the airport was 55-year-old Takamichi Masui.

He said the wins over Germany and Spain were proof that “Japan has become a soccer powerhouse”.

Another fan, 37-year-old Takahiro Ichikawa, said that like captain Yoshida, he is only looking ahead.

“For now, I hope the national team will focus on pulling off a solid performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar,” he said.

Morocco Knock Out Spain, Book Quarter-Final Spot

Morocco’s players throw Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui in the air as they celebrate at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

 

Morocco beat Spain on penalties to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history on Tuesday after the match finished 0-0.

The African side won the shoot-out 3-0 after Spain failed to convert all three of their spot kicks.

Spain coach Luis Enrique had claimed his players prepared by taking 1,000 penalties as homework but Pablo Sarabia, Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets all missed from the spot and Madrid-born Hakimi dinked his home to the delight of Morocco’s raucous support.

Walid Regragui’s side will face Portugal or Switzerland in what is uncharted territory for them, with their previous best a last-16 exit in 1986.

Spain had been hoping they could repeat their 2010 World Cup triumph after reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2020, where they were also beaten on penalties by Italy.

The teams were closely matched through a nail-biting clash, with Spain having more of the ball but Morocco creating the better openings, few though they were.

Luis Enrique trialled his third right-back of the tournament in Marcos Llorente, and benched the team’s top scorer Alvaro Morata for Marco Asensio, after the shock defeat by Japan.

Spain monopolised the ball, with Morocco’s fans furiously whistling with their side out of possession.

Morocco, who are the last African and Arab side left standing at the first World Cup held in an Arab country, were intensely backed and their fans greatly outnumbered Spain’s.

With La Roja playing in a pale blue second strip, they resembled the away team on hostile territory.

Gavi, who at 18 years and 123 days old became the youngest player to start a World Cup knockout game since Brazil great Pele in 1958, rose to the occasion.

The Barcelona midfield terrier was at his most intense, smashing into challenges left, right and centre, even diving to make one with his head.

Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou tipped a Gavi strike on to the crossbar, though it would have been ruled offside, while Asensio drilled into the side-netting, although Spain created little.

Regragui’s side sat deep defensively and threatened on the counter, with Unai Simon beating away a long range effort from Noussair Mazraoui.

Toothless Spain

 

Sofiane Boufal, who bypassed Llorente like sand slipping through the Spaniard’s fingers early on, carved the best chance of the half for Nayef Aguerd, who headed inches over.

Bounou pummelled away a Dani Olmo strike from an angle as the tension cranked up after the break.

Luis Enrique raged at Rodri for choosing the wrong option on the ball, and withdrew the dogged and muddied Gavi for Carlos Soler.

He threw Morata on too, giving Spain a focal point up top, but they struggled to supply him as Morocco sat deeper and deeper.

Another substitute, Nico Williams did find the Atletico Madrid striker on one occasion but the angle was too tight and he scraped a shot across the face of goal.

Bounou made a fine save from Olmo’s free-kick as it almost snuck all the way through, with Spain finally creating stronger chances as the game frayed in the moments before extra-time.

Morocco responded in the additional period by finding stability and testing Simon, who made a fine save with his legs to deny Walid Cheddira after he broke in down Spain’s left flank.

Despite heavy pressure by Spain in the final moments before penalties, they could not trouble the Sevilla goalkeeper again, with Pablo Sarabia clipping the outside of the post, although he might have been offside.

Having been sent on apparently for the shoot-out, Sarabia struck the post again from Spain’s first penalty, after Abdelhamid Sabiri had sent Morocco ahead.

Soler and Busquets missed, while Hakim Ziyech scored, before Hakimi netted against his birth country to ignite wild celebrations.

AFP

Brazil Dedicate World Cup Victory To Ailing Pele

Brazil players stand behind a banner honouring Brazilian football legend Pele after they won the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Brazil and South Korea at Stadium 974 in Doha on December 5, 2022. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

 

Brazil’s players paid tribute to legend Pele, who is receiving hospital treatment in Sao Paulo due to his ailing health, after sauntering to a 4-1 World Cup victory over South Korea.

Following Monday’s last-16 match at Stadium 974 in Doha, the players unfurled a huge banner to the 82-year-old, widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.

First-half goals from Vinicius Junior, Neymar, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta saw2 Brazil put the game to bed long before Paik Seung-ho’s stunning consolation in the second period.

“It’s hard to talk about what Pele is going through right now but I wish him all the best,” said Neymar, who made his return from an ankle injury to play most of the game.

“I hope he will be back in good health as soon as possible and that we could have at least comforted him with the victory,” Neymar told Globo.

Pele’s battle with colon cancer is providing motivation for the players to try to win a record-extending sixth world title — the first three of which Pele was part of.

“He needs a lot of strength from us and this victory is for him, so that he can come out of this situation and that we can be champions for him,” said Vinicius.

READ ALSO: England’s Bellingham ‘Has Everything’ But Now Comes Biggest Test Yet

‘I was afraid’ 

Neymar’s return gave Brazil a huge boost and they were on fire right from the first minute.

His 13th minute goal from the penalty spot took Neymar to within one goal of Pele’s record 77 strikes for Brazil.

But he admitted there had been moments after he was injured in Brazil’s opening World Cup match against Serbia that he thought his tournament might be over.

“When I got injured I spent a very difficult night. I was thinking of a million different things,” said Neymar, who added he had been “crying a lot”.

“I was afraid of not being able to play in this World Cup again but I had the support of all my teammates and my family who gave me strength.”

Richarlison paid tribute to the team’s talisman, saying Neymar’s very presence on the pitch makes the game easier for everyone else.

“I’m very happy about the return of Neymar. On the pitch he drags away two or three players creating space for the others,” said Richarlison, who now has three goals in the tournament.

“Neymar provides a competitive advantage, he makes the difference on the pitch — he’s the driving force,” added assistant coach Cesar Sampaio.

Richarlison also praised coach Tite’s decision to rest almost the entire first team in their last group stage match, a 1-0 defeat to Cameroon after their progress to the knock-out stages was already secure.

“We played with intensity from the first minute and that was because we rested a part of the team in the last match, so you have to give credit to the boss,” said Richarlison.

Tite’s numerous changes meant he has now given the entire 26-man squad some action at the tournament, with even third-choice goalkeeper Weverton playing the last 10 minutes against Korea.

“The game was practically over when I came on, but no goalkeeper likes to concede a goal,” he quipped.

AFP

Bento Steps Down As South Korea Coach After World Cup Exit

This file picture taken on December 8, 2016 shows the then Olympiacos’ head coach Paulo Bento before the Europa League Group B football match between Cyprus’ APOEL FC and Greece’s Olympiacos FC at Nicosia’s GSP Stadium. SAKIS SAVVIDES / AFP

 

Paulo Bento announced he would not be staying on as coach of South Korea after they were eliminated from the World Cup with a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil on Monday.

“Now I need to think about the future, but I will not be with the Korea team. I am going to rest and then see,” the 53-year-old former Portugal coach said after the loss in the last 16.

“I have just told the players and the president of the national federation.

“This is a decision which I took in September. It was set in stone and today I confirmed it. I have to thank them and am very proud to have been their manager.”

Bento took over following the 2018 World Cup, succeeding Shin Tae-yong.

In Qatar, he led South Korea to the knockout round for the first time since 2010 with a last-gasp win over Portugal in their final group game.

However, they were outclassed by Brazil as they found themselves four goals down before half-time at Doha’s Stadium 974, although they did pull one back late on through substitute Paik Seung-ho.

“I believe we can be very proud of what we have done at this World Cup, and what we have done over the last four years to get here,” said Bento, who coached his home country at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

A Korean side captained by Son Heung-min got to Qatar by finishing second in their qualifying group behind Iran but their last-16 exit means they have still never won a World Cup knockout tie outside of their home country.

“I think we did really well in the group stage although I think we could have picked up more points as we should have beaten Ghana,” Bento said.

“But I think we can be very proud and I am proud with what we have done over the last four years.”

He added: “This has undoubtedly been one of the best groups of players I have had the opportunity to work with.”

AFP

Ronaldo Eyes World Cup Quarters As Morocco Dare To Dream

Portugal’s forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo (C) celebrates scoring his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group H football match between Portugal and Uruguay at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on November 28, 2022. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

 

Cristiano Ronaldo will aim to fire Portugal past Switzerland and into the World Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday as Morocco bid to derail Spain’s bid for a second global crown.

Just two last-eight slots remain to be filled in Qatar after five-time winners Brazil swatted aside South Korea 4-1 and 2018 finalists Croatia squeezed past Japan via a penalty shoot-out.

Ronaldo was hogging the headlines at the tournament even before he kicked a ball after launching a tirade against Manchester United and their manager Erik ten Hag.

Following an exit by “mutual agreement” he is now seeking a new team, with sources saying he is in talks over a blockbuster deal with Saudi club Al-Nassr.

The 37-year-old superstar forward, who is appearing in what is almost certainly his last World Cup, has been a shadow of his former self in Qatar despite all the hype.

After scoring a penalty in his team’s opening clash against Ghana to become the first player to score at five World Cups, he has huffed and puffed but has failed to find the net again.

Ronaldo’s starting role in the team remains a hot topic among Portugal fans, but coach Fernando Santos said he was not paying attention to the raging debate.

“I do not read this type of material,” he said. “It is not a lack of respect, it is simply that we have three days to train for a game and I am not looking at other kinds of news. We focus on the upcoming match.”

Santos said he expected a close contest against Switzerland. Portugal beat the Swiss 4-0 in the UEFA Nations League in June before losing 1-0 in the reverse fixture.

READ ALSO: England’s Bellingham ‘Has Everything’ But Now Comes Biggest Test Yet

African hopes 

Morocco are the sole remaining team from Africa, and the only Arab team left in Qatar.

Coach Walid Regragui has urged his men to believe they can defeat powerhouse Spain as they attempt to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history.

Morocco would become just the fourth African team to reach the last eight — after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 — if they beat the 2010 champions.

“We’ll come out swinging,” said Regragui. “We want to hoist the Moroccan flag way up high. We’re playing first and foremost for us and our country.

“All Arabs and Africans, we want to make them happy. We want their prayers and we want their support so it can give us that extra ingredient to win. Before it was just the Moroccans that supported us.”

Spain started the tournament with a swagger, smashing seven goals past Costa Rica before a draw with Germany and a defeat against South Korea.

Coach Luis Enrique said he set each of his players the “homework” of practising 1,000 penalties ahead of the World Cup, saying he is convinced they are not a lottery.

Brazil, with Neymar back in the team after injury, put on a first-half masterclass on Monday against South Korea, rocketing into a 4-0 lead in the 36th minute, including a goal for their talisman from the penalty spot.

Paik Seung-ho pulled one back with a thunderbolt late on but his side were outclassed on a disappointing night for Asian football.

Earlier, Luka Modric’s Croatia did it the hard way against Japan, coming back from a goal down to equalise before winning 3-1 on penalties.

Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the hero for Croatia, saving three penalties in the shootout.

Seven of Croatia’s past eight knockout games at major tournaments have gone to extra time, the only exception being their defeat in the final by France in Russia four years ago.

Brazil will face Croatia in the quarter-finals on Friday, with the Netherlands taking on Argentina on the same day. England play France on Saturday.

AFP

Morocco To ‘Come Out Swinging’ Against Spain At World Cup

Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui attends a training session at the Al Duhail SC Stadium in Doha on December 5, 2022, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

 

Morocco coach Walid Regragui has urged his team to believe they can defeat powerhouse Spain as they attempt to reach a first World Cup quarter-final.

The north African side are in the last 16 for only the second time after advancing as winners of Group F ahead of 2018 runners-up Croatia, having defeated Belgium and Canada in Qatar.

“It will be a very testing game for us. We’re coming up against one of the best footballing nations in the world. I think they’re one of the favourites to reach the final,” Regragui said on Monday.

“That said, we’ve also got things up our sleeve. We’ve had one extra rest day compared to them and we’re going to try and pull a surprise out of the bag.

“If we’re able to send Spain packing I think this will be a wonderful surprise not only for us but for our country.”

READ ALSO: England’s Bellingham ‘Has Everything’ But Now Comes Biggest Test Yet

Spain denied Morocco a famous win at the 2018 World Cup with a last-gasp equaliser in a 2-2 draw, the only point the Moroccans picked up in Russia.

“We’re not seeking revenge at all. We’re not looking at what happened in the past,” said Regragui, who was appointed in August.

“We’ve got a new generation and, for me, the mentality has to change with the Moroccan team. All the negative aspects, that’s the old Morocco, we’ve changed. Our country’s changed.”

Morocco, the lone Arab nation and the last African team remaining in Qatar, will have the vocal backing of thousands of fans for Tuesday’s game at Education City Stadium.

“We’ll come out swinging. We want to hoist the Moroccan flag way up high. We’re playing first and foremost for us and our country,” said Regragui.

“All Arabs and Africans, we want to make them happy. We want their prayers and we want their support so it can give us that extra ingredient to win. Before it was just the Moroccans that supported us.”

Morocco would become just the fourth African team to reach the quarter-finals — after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 — if they beat the 2010 champions.

Morocco’s only other appearance in the last 16 came in 1986, when they lost 1-0 to eventual runners-up West Germany.

“I don’t think we should go out with any sort of complex,” said Regragui.

“Yes, we’re the underdog, but we know what Spain are made of and the recipe is easy. We shouldn’t be worried, we should have no regrets and give the best of ourselves.”

FIFA Probes ‘Incidents’ During Serbia World Cup Game

FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during a press conference at the Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC) in Doha on November 19, 2022. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

 

FIFA said on Monday it had opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian football association following the team’s bad-tempered World Cup clash with Switzerland.

Football’s governing body said it was looking at several potential breaches of its disciplinary code including the misconduct of players and officials, and discrimination.

READ ALSO: England’s Bellingham ‘Has Everything’ But Now Comes Biggest Test Yet

FIFA referred to “incidents” during the group stage game, without saying what they were.

Fans during Friday’s match in Qatar, which Switzerland won 3-2 to progress, were told to “stop all discriminatory chants and gestures”.

It was not immediately clear what triggered the announcement but it followed a confrontation between Swiss captain Granit Xhaka and Serbia’s players.

The flashpoint in the second half drew in Switzerland forward Breel Embolo and Serbia substitutes ran onto the pitch at Stadium 974 to remonstrate with Swiss players before the referee brought the situation under control.

Xhaka comes from a family with roots in Kosovo, the former Serb province with a majority ethnic Albanian population.

Serbia were already being investigated by FIFA after the team hung a controversial flag in their changing room before they lost to Brazil in Qatar.

The Kosovo football federation filed a complaint with FIFA after photos showed a version of the Serbian flag with a map that depicted Kosovo as part of the country and included the slogan “there will be no surrender”.

England Gave Senegal World Cup Lesson, Cisse Admits 

Members of Senegal are disappointed after losing the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match England vs Senegal at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar on December 4, 2022. England won the match to get a ticket for quarterfinals. Twitter/@AJE_Sport

 

Senegal coach Aliou Cisse bemoaned his team’s defensive lapses after England brushed the African champions aside 3-0 in the World Cup last 16 on Sunday, admitting there had been a gulf in quality.

First-half goals from Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane gave Senegal a mountain to climb and a third by Bukayo Saka in the second half ended the contest.

“A match lasts 90 minutes and in the first half we played pretty well and created chances but unfortunately we didn’t score,” said Cisse.

“We were playing a very good England team and we saw that in their challenges, their physical strength. We weren’t as good as we should have been.”

Cisse, who was unwell in the run-up to the match, said: “Senegal’s strength before the World Cup was our defensive set-up. The fact we have let in a lot of goals at this tournament is difficult to explain. We are going to have to look at that.

“You pay for any mistake you make at the World Cup because of the calibre of the teams.”

READ ALSO: England Beat Senegal 3-0 To Book France Clash In World Cup Quarters

The coach said his side was missing two or three players who could have made a difference including star striker Sadio Mane, who was ruled out of the tournament before it started with an injury.

But he said he was making no excuses.

“We have worked for years to be the best in Africa but we were facing one of the top five teams in the world and we saw the difference tonight,” he added.

Cisse, whose side are ranked 18th by FIFA, said the team were on an upward trajectory.

“We have been trying hard to reach this level and we need to continue to ensure that at the next World Cup we can play better against a team of this calibre.”

And he said African football was getting better, despite his side’s limp exit.

“It is not easy to become world champions but in Africa infrastructure is improving,” he said. “We need more technical directors, we need to work on refereeing as well. You need all those things in place.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past. You can’t just do it overnight. In all countries in Africa there is a real sports policy in place. We have to keep that up if we want to win these tournaments.”

AFP

World Cup Lights Up To Show Support For Hospitalised Pele

A picture taken on December 3, 2022, in Doha, during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football tournament, shows the Torch tower of Doha also knows as the Aspire Tower, lighten up by a screen depicting Brazilian star Pele and reading a message in support to the former Brazilian football player who is being treated for a “respiratory infection” at the hospital in Sao Paulo. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

 

World Cup host nation Qatar showed its support for Pele on Saturday, lighting up buildings with a “Get well soon” message for the Brazil football great.

The Lusail Stadium in Doha, which will host the World Cup final on December 18, and the Aspire Tower next to the Khalifa Stadium, were adorned with pictures of Pele in his famous number 10 shirt.

On the Corniche, the Qatari capital’s seafront promenade, the dozens of drones that come alive each night drew a Brazil shirt with Pele’s name and number 10 on the back.

Pele was admitted to hospital in Sao Paulo earlier this week for what doctors said was a “re-evaluation” of the chemotherapy he has been undergoing since surgery to remove a colon tumour in September last year.

[READ ALSO] Qatar 2022: Full Last 16 Fixtures, Date And Time

Players in Qatar have expressed concerns for the health of the three-time World Cup winner, who is now 82.

France striker Kylian Mbappe on Saturday tweeted: “Pray for the King.”

England captain Harry Kane offered his support for Pele at a press conference ahead of his team’s last-16 tie against Senegal.

“We send our best wishes to him and obviously all his family as well,” said Kane. “He is an inspiration amongst our game and an incredible footballer and incredible person. We wish him well.”

Doctors treating Pele said Friday that he was being treated with antibiotics.

Pele has taken to Instagram to thank well-wishers for their show of support.

“It’s always nice to receive positive messages like this. Thanks to Qatar for this tribute, and to everyone who sends me good vibes!”

AFP

Netherlands Beat USA To Reach World Cup Quarter-Finals

Netherlands’ defender #22 Denzel Dumfries (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s third goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between the Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on December 3, 2022. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP)

 

A clinical Netherlands ended the United States’ World Cup dream on Saturday, sweeping into the quarter-finals with a ruthless 3-1 victory.

First-half goals from Memphis Depay and Daley Blind and a late strike from Denzel Dumfries sealed a deserved victory as the Dutch handed out a painful lesson in finishing to their American opponents.

The Netherlands, bidding to win their first World Cup after losing in three previous finals, will face Argentina or Australia in the last eight.

Veteran coach Louis van Gaal’s men were worthy victors in Saturday’s last-16 clash at the Khalifa International Stadium.

Although the USA enjoyed long periods of possession in a bright first-half display, all too often a lack of composure in the final third let them down.

Instead, it was the Dutch who calmly bided their time before carving open the Americans with forensic precision.

USA forward Christian Pulisic squandered a golden chance to put his team 1-0 up after only three minutes when he found himself in space only to see a scuffed shot saved by Andries Noppert.

Buoyed by that early chance, the US remained on the front foot, attacking high up the field.

But in the 10 minutes, the Netherlands took the lead. The superb interplay in midfield saw the ball worked to Inter Milan’s Dumfries down the right.

Dumfries picked out Depay, who swept home the finish to cap a majestic 20-pass move that was in the best traditions of the Netherlands’ total footballing heritage.

Again the Americans advanced purposefully into Dutch territory through Pulisic, only for the Chelsea player to deliver a cross that fell behind his US teammates.

Tim Weah had the best American chance of the remainder of the half on 43 minutes, letting fly with a rasping shot that Noppert parried away.

But in first-half stoppage time, the Netherlands delivered the hammer blow.

Dumfries again found space down the right and drilled a cross to Blind, who had ghosted clear of Sergino Dest, for an emphatic low finish.

The Netherlands nearly extended their lead early in the second half when Dumfries’ low cross was prodded towards the US goal by defender Walker Zimmerman, forcing a smart save from Matt Turner.

[READ ALSO] Qatar 2022: Full Last 16 Fixtures, Date And Time

USA coach Gregg Berhalter introduced Gio Reyna for the ineffective Jesus Ferreira in attack at half-time in an effort to provide a sharper cutting edge.

The Borussia Dortmund player made an instant impression after setting up a shot for Weston McKennie that sailed over the bar.

Berhalter brought on Haji Wright for McKennie midway through the second half and the move sparked a fleeting revival.

After seeing a goal-bound chance cleared at the near post on 75 minutes, Wright scored a minute later when his flick from Pulisic’s cross looped over Noppert into the Dutch net for 2-1.

Yet the American fightback was short-lived. In the 81st minute, another Dutch attack pulled the USA defence out of position, and Blind calmly crossed to an unmarked Dumfries at the far post, who made it 3-1.

AFP

Qatar 2022: Giants Falter And Three Things We Learned From Group Stage

 

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

Combo of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Robert Lewandowski

 

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.

 

Belgium’s forward #10 Eden Hazard walks off the field after the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Belgium and Morocco at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 27, 2022. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

 

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.

 Giants Falter

Saudi Arabia’s forward #09 Firas Al-Buraikan celebrates as Argentina’s forward #10 Lionel Messi leaves the pitch during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on November 22, 2022. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)

 

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.

 

Wales’ forward #11 Gareth Bale reacts at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Wales and Iran at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on November 25, 2022. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

 

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

Costa Rica’s midfielder #17 Yeltsin Tejeda (C) celebrates with teammates after he scored his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E football match between Costa Rica and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

 

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.

 

Belgium’s goalkeeper #01 Thibaut Courtois (C) and teammates react at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP)

 

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

Combo of Hkim Ziyech, and Kalidou Koulibaly

 

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’s players celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Canada and Morocco at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by Fadel Senna / AFP)

 

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.

Giant-Killing Japan Looking To Strike Out Croatia

Japan’s teammates celebrate after winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E football match between Japan and Spain at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

 

Japan’s World Cup exploits have made headlines in baseball-crazy Japan and coach Hajime Moriyasu is looking to strike out Croatia when they meet in the last 16.

The Blue Samurai booked their place in the knock-out round with a stunning win over Spain on Thursday, topping Group E after also upsetting Germany in their opening game.

Moriyasu has been praised for his game-changing substitutions as Japan came from behind to beat both European heavyweights with second-half fightbacks.

Croatia will offer a difficult test in Monday’s last 16 match-up but Moriyasu is hoping his players can hit another home run.

“The players don’t think of themselves as starting players or substitutes and neither do I,” he said on Friday.

“Of course there is competition for places and we have to have some kind of hierarchy, but in general they’re all regular players.

“I don’t know if it’s quite the same but it’s like in baseball — among pitchers you have starters, relievers and closers.”

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Japan’s forward #09 Kaoru Mitoma, Japan’s midfielder #06 Wataru Endo and Japan’s midfielder #15 Daichi Kamada celebrate after defeating Germany 2-1 in the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E football match between Germany and Japan at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on November 23, 2022. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)

 

Moriyasu brought on Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma at half-time against Spain as Japan looked to hit back on the counter-attack after conceding a first-half goal.

The changes had an immediate effect, with Doan scoring an equaliser and Mitoma setting up the winner for Ao Tanaka minutes later.

Moriyasu said he does not expect much to change against Croatia but hopes his team can enjoy more than the 15 percent possession they had against Spain.

“The concept that we have as a team is to defend well and from there attack — that’s how we got here and that hasn’t changed during these three games at the World Cup,” he said.

“Our opponents will be strong and we’ll have to see how much of the ball we get. We would like to have more of it but it depends on our opponents.”

AFP