A fond farewell to the best ever World Cup group stage

It seems almost sad to wave adieu to what was surely the greatest ever iteration of the World Cup group stages. The knockouts have a lot to live up to...

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And so it begins. The business end of the 2018 World Cup. The wheat has been separated from the chaff, with teams like Tunisia, Panama and Egypt left by the wayside in favour of sides who can actually play football. Like England, the mighty Three Lions.

Nothing yet has been seen to indicate that football is not, in fact, coming home. That’s probably because it is. 100%. England are en route to the final and 60 more years of painfully high expectations lumped on the shoulders of every generation that follows this one, the World Champion generation.

In the year 2078, the disembodied Futurama-style heads of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner will still be crooning away to wistful England supporters about how Phil Jones bagged a late winner in the final to earn his country its second World Cup all the way back in ‘18. Sadly, “The FIFA World Cup Trophy’s still gleaming” doesn’t work quite as well as a lyric as “Jules Rimet’s still gleaming” – but hey, a hook’s a hook.

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It may seem like we’re getting ahead of ourselves here – but, well, were you not watching during the Tunisia or Panama matches? Or during what’s now being known as ‘that’ performance against a second-string Belgium who clearly had no intention of winning the group but failed to execute their plan as well as England. It’s coming home, people. Just accept it.

Apparently, though, FIFA are insisting that the rest of the fixtures in the tournament be fulfilled. One can only presume that this is because we need to know who will be England’s opponent in the final on Sunday July 15th.

Don’t you just get the feeling that the winner of Uruguay v Portugal will go quite far in the tournament? On the face of it there’s very little to love about either of these teams. They’re not ashamed of stinking the place out of it in order to get a victory at any cost – just look at Portugal’s display against Iran, or Uruguay’s game-destroying masterpiece versus the mighty Saudi Arabia.

And yet you can’t help but admire their ferocious dedication to ruining everyone’s matchday experience with a foul count that Deep Blue would struggle to keep track of. As the old Irish folk saying may or may not go, ‘They just don’t give a f*ck about what you think, pal.’ It’s glorious stuff, really.

To be fair, it’s not as if we can expect much different from France-Argentina. Leo Messi and the lads made it through after as Argentinian a performance as you can imagine against Nigeria on Tuesday. Which is to say they cuckolded their manager, were mostly rubbish, Javi Mascherano got a concussion, Messi scored a worldy and Marcos Rojo notched a volleyed winner in the 87th minute.

Meanwhile Didi Deschamp’s mission to shackle one of the most explosive ever crops of French attacking talent continues to be a roaring success. In fact, he’s almost become too good at it. Someone might want to check Antoine Griezmann’s man-bag for a needle full of Performance de-Enhancing Drugs. (Top joke, that).

As for Spain, who take on Russia, what’s going on there? One minute they look like Spain from 2010, the next minute they look like Spain from every single World Cup before 2010. You wouldn’t be surprised either way if they beat the hosts 4-0 or lost 5-4 after a hat-trick of own goals from David De Gea – if he even plays. And the Russians? Well, it’s almost as if they’ve been injected with a sense of national pride that’s spurring them on to greater highs than anyone might have imagined. They’re no dopes.

Oh and by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, but the Germans are out. The bloody Germans. Out. In the first round.

The holders’ curse continues. Even with Sweden doing them a favour and blasting a modest Mexico side out of the water, Manuel Neuer and the rest of the chaps are on the plane home. To be fair, it’s not the first time the Germans have come unstuck in Russia. Sweden and Mexico now go through from their group, which is a surprise, because they’re both crap. Brazil are likely to do for the Mexicans, but Sweden have a decent chance of out-boring their Swiss counterparts and progressing to the quarters.

Group H ended in pretty remarkable fashion as well, with an impressive-looking Senegal side going out on ‘fair play’ to Japan. It was disappointing for Senegal, but to be honest they really only have themselves to blame. They should have sealed qualification against Japan in their second game, but were sloppy. Colombia progress as group winners to take on the champions-elect, with Japan lambs to the slaughter for Belgium.

But we grow tired of talking about teams other than Gareth Southgate’s brave boys. The Harries and the Jordans have been immense thus far, as has been pretty much everyone except the darling of Fleet Street, Raheem Sterling. Poor Raheem – he just can’t win with some people. Here’s hoping he nets a few in England’s four upcoming victories over inferior opposition.

The only thing that remains is to wave goodbye to what was surely the finest group stage of any international tournament. Those 48 matches had everything you could possibly have hoped for: amazing goals, VAR controversies, socio-political controversies (eagles, eh?) and just an all-round sense of things being bloody excellent.

The knockout stages are only just beginning, yet there are dozens of incidents already enshrined in our collective memory from the past two weeks. If the following rounds go well, this is all set to be the best ever World Cup.

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