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21st Jun 2018

World Cup Comments: The wonderful jeopardy of World Cup week two

Week one is no picnic, but week two is when we get to the real nerve-shredders

Simon Clancy

The World Cup is already a week old

When the full-time whistle blows at the end of Croatia/Argentina tonight we’ll be twenty-three games in. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun!

Yet for some, time stands still. The second-round games have begun and there’s that sense of tension and jeopardy that accompanies them that you simply don’t get with the opening group games, especially if you didn’t win first time around. As a fan you know you’re on the precipice of elimination. One mistake, one mistimed tackle, one horrible miss can be all it takes to push you over the edge, all gone for four more years.

Managers who’ve lost in the first round know it’s all or nothing for the second batch of games. That means semi-fit players get a run out – see Salah, Mohamed. It also means national-heroes-who’ve-been-suspended-for-taking-cocaine-that-they-claim-was-in-a-cup-of-tea also go straight into the first team. See also Guerrero, Paolo.

If you got a point in the first game, then it’s potentially even tougher for the manager. Stick or twist? Can you throw caution to the wind like Ian Wright in ITV’s wardrobe department faced with an array of lurid coloured shirts? Or do you sit back and let the game come to you, risking defeat ahead of the crucial final game?

Who’d be a manager, eh?

You’ve seen the effects of paragraphs two and three over the last couple of days and nowhere more so than when Spain played Iran on Wednesday night. The Iberian derby that finished 3-3 last week was clearly the game of the tournament so far, but this one felt like perhaps the biggest moment.

It seems strange to say until you remember that Portugal had already gone clear on 4 points with the Iranians second on three, courtesy of their late winner against Morocco. With the game finely balanced at 0-0 midway through the second half and the crowd, who’d created a vibrant atmosphere inside the Kazan Arena sensing something remarkable, something impossible.

Defeat for Spain would have been catastrophic, putting them on the verge of one of the most improbable exits in World Cup history. Fernando Hierro’s men had pressed but could find no way through. Iran’s tactics – at times – left something to be desired, but when the ball dropped to Karim Ansarifard seven yards out, a footballing world held its breath.

Inside the stadium, the vociferous, seemingly unstoppable noise did exactly that: it stopped. The air was thick with tension. It felt like slow motion as the Olympiacos striker pulled his foot back and then made clean contact. The ball nestled in the net. The crowd were on their feet. I was on my feet and I had no horse in this race.

David De Gea stared down at the ball, transfixed as it settled behind him. It was one of the greatest World Cup moments of them all. Except it wasn’t: the nestle was in the outside folds of his net, Karim’s shot that looked in had somehow gone millimeters wide, the combination of pace and net offering the cruellest of optical illusions.

Surely this couldn’t be happening, surely they couldn’t hold on for a point? The noise intensified again for the 90 seconds that it took for Spain to go down the other end and score courtesy of a cruel deflection as Ramin’s clearance hit Diego Costa’s knee and ricocheted past Beiranvand in the Iranian goal.

Yet the tournament outsiders weren’t done. Still they pressed. Rarely if ever did it feel entirely comfortable for Spain, who huffed and puffed but couldn’t get in. Then, after a fortuitous rebound from a free kick, Ezatolahi drove home the unlikeliest of equalisers from close range. The relentless vuvuzelas were silenced, replaced by the duelling sounds of unabashed celebration and jaws hitting the floor.

They were dancing on the streets of Tehran. And Lisbon. Hell, they were probably dancing in Rabat because all of a sudden, Morocco had a chance to avoid the wooden spoon that now had Spain’s fingerprints on it.

But VAR came to the rescue. The goal was ruled out and an air of calm fell, albeit briefly. However, jeopardy still lingered. The air of ‘maybe, just maybe’ hung around the stadium for the last quarter of the game.

Then with eight minutes left, perhaps the best chance of all arrived on the head of Medhi, star striker for the Qatari side Al-Gharafa SC. Again, time seemed to stand stock still. The air got tight. Surely one-all. Spain on the brink again. And yet….and yet for a third and final time it wasn’t to be. Somehow, the 25-year-old powered the ball over when it was easier to score.

By the time the final whistle went a few minutes later, there was a sense that Spain had got away with one. Greater still, one half of the Iberian Peninsula breathed a collective sigh of relief, from Bilbao in the north to Almeria on the opposite coast.

It’s these moments that make the World Cup what it is – the greatest sporting event on the planet – when big plays little and little kicks up a fuss. The same scenes will be replicated across Russia deep into the weekend, nowhere more so than in Sochi on Saturday night when Sweden can, with a win, all but eliminate the defending champion Germans. For Die Mannschaft it would represent perhaps their greatest failure.

For the rest of us it would be utterly joyous. Not because we could revel in their parting, more in the utter joy and fear that makes round two so magical. There will be a rare tension in Fisht Olympic Stadium come 7pm Saturday. I for one can’t wait.