ST PETERSBURG: Entertainment, upsets, personalities, controversy and goals — the World Cup has had it all — and the knockout stage drama hasn’t even begun.
The group stage of the tournament can risk being a simple process of eliminating the weaker nations and serving as a mere warm-up for the favourites.
But with holders Germany already back on home soil after their shock exit and Lionel Messi and Argentina just minutes away from joining them, the opening phase has been anything but a formality.
The 48 games have produced 122 goals, an average of 2.5 goals per match, just below the level for the 2014 tournament as a whole, with just one goalless draw — the tepid final Group C match between France and Denmark.
Amongst those goals there have been some moments of breathtaking brilliance. Lionel Messi’s sublime goal against Nigeria, with the ‘thigh of God’ control, Brazilian Philippe Coutinho’s strike against Switzerland and Luka Modric’s devastating drill into the bottom corner in Croatia’s 3-0 upset of Argentina.
From Portugal there was Ricardo Quaresma’s cheeky outside of his foot ‘trivela’ against Iran and Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain in the thrilling 3-3 draw which set the tone for the group stage.
There is no better drama in football than late drama — 26 goals were scored after the 80th minute, of which 13 — or 50 per cent, have been winners or equalisers.
Marcos Rojo, the Argentina defender, volleyed home like a world-class striker in the 86th minute against Nigeria — a goal which kept his team in the tournament and sent the Africans out. Germany’s Toni Kroos kept his side on life-support for a few days after his dramatic late free kick winner against Sweden.
What has helped maintain the combativeness and tension in the group stages has been the strong displays from some of the lower seeds.
South Korea are out but will take some comfort in having beaten the defending champions Germany. Iceland, in their first World Cup, almost made it and will remember how they held Messi and Co to a 1-1 draw.
Nigeria were minutes away from advancing at the expense of Argentina and Senegal were in with a chance until the death. Iran and Morocco showed signs of real progress.