It's shaping up to be another European-dominated World Cup on European soil, with Belgium, England and Sweden all picking up victories to continue an early trend in Russia.
MOSCOW — Day 5 of World Cup 2018 was defined by England’s stoppage-time winner from Harry Kane in a 2-1 victory over Tunisia, Belgium’s blistering second half in a 3-0 shutout of Panama and a VAR-ruled penalty (another correct call by VAR) in Sweden’s 1-0 win over South Korea.
The three European sides continued the burgeoning theme of UEFA's success at the World Cup, with the confederation's teams going a blistering 8-1-4 out of the gate–and two of those ties are accounted for in the game of the tournament, Spain's 3-3 draw vs. Portugal.
Here are my five thoughts on the day in Russia:
• Germany, of all teams, provides Europe's only blemish
The trend over the decades has been clear: European teams win more at World Cups taking place in Europe, and teams from the Americas win more at World Cups taking place outside of Europe. That trend includes the U.S. team, which has only advanced to the knockout rounds in World Cups outside Europe (1930, 1994, 2002, 2010, 2014) but has never done so in Europe. It’s remarkable that of the 13 European teams to have played so far in Russia 2018, only one (Germany!) has lost.
Teams have only played one game so far, so things could easliy change, but we’re likely looking at another Europe-dominated World Cup in Europe.
• England finds a way to win
It was looking like England was headed for a 1-1 tie with Tunisia until Kane found the net in stoppage time—off yet another decisive set piece, this time a corner kick. Captain Kane had both of England’s goals, his first in a major tournament, and he showed the kind of poise that might have been lacking in some previous England teams on the big stage.
Give Tunisia credit for coming back from an early deficit with a penalty strike (dumb play, Kyle Walker) and dealing with the injury departure of starting goalkeeper Mouez Hassen for backup Farouk Ben Mustapha in the opening quarter or an hour. But England was the brighter team in this game and deserved the three points. There will be plenty for coach Gareth Southgate to work on in the coming days, though.
• Group F there for the taking for Mexico
After bagging three points against group favorite Germany, Mexico has a golden opportunity to set itself up well for the knockout rounds by winning Group F (and likely avoiding a round of 16 matchup with Brazil). Group foes Sweden and South Korea deserve plenty of respect, but their performance against each other in a disjointed 1-0 Sweden victory on suggests that Mexico should be the better team in both remaining matchups.
Sweden-South Korea was full of starts and stops due to the game being filled with 43 fouls. And while Sweden scored the winner on a VAR-ruled penalty kick, neither of the game’s leading creators—Sweden’s Emil Forsberg and South Korea’s Son Heung-Min—was able to put his stamp on the match.
• Belgium can grow into this World Cup, and that’s a good thing
There are a greater number of balanced groups in this World Cup than at any time in recent history, mainly because FIFA shifted away from dividing draw pots by continent at the December draw and used the FIFA rankings instead. But on paper, at least, Group G is top-heavy with Belgium and England above Panama and Tunisia. And the fact that Belgium and England don’t meet until the final group game means that Roberto Martinez's side can likely use the first couple games to work out the kinks and grow into the tournament before entering fifth gear in the knockout rounds.
Indeed, Belgium had some kinks to work out after a scoreless first half against a game Panama, but Dries Mertens picked a gorgeous volley out of the air for a golazo early in the second half and Romelu Lukaku poured it on with two goals of his own in the second half for a 3-0 win.
• Rest In Peace, Walter Bahr
The U.S. soccer community lost one of its most revered figures on Monday: Walter Bahr, the last surviving member of the 1950 USA World Cup team that famously beat England 1-0. A Philadelphia soccer legend, Bahr had the assist on the historic goal scored by Joe Gaetjens that beat mighty England in 1950, and he spoke to me for this story on that goal in 2014. His sons, Chris and Matt, both won Super Bowls as placekickers. Bahr was a classy individual who always had time to talk about the sport he loved. My thoughts are with his family.