MOSCOW — Day 7 of World Cup 2018 was defined by 1-0 scorelines and winners from established soccer countries that never really seemed like they were in danger of squandering those slim advantages. Portugal 1, Morocco 0; Uruguay 1, Saudi Arabia 0; and Spain 1, Iran 0 kept the tournament from having its first scoreless tie, and after a run of surprises in recent days, order was (at least temporarily) restored.
Uruguay's win ensured that La Celeste and host Russia will go through to the last 16 from Group A, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco were all eliminated from contention after two matches.
Here are my five thoughts on Day 7:
• Ronaldo really has a chance to do something special in Russia
In the last three World Cups, no player has scored more goals than the six that James Rodríguez had in 2014. Well, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo already has a World Cup-best four goals after just two games, and you wonder how many he might be able to get here if Portugal can keep it going.
After seeing the 33-year-old Ronaldo in the Champions League final, it seemed like he might be tired coming into this stage of the season. But he has started each game like he was being shot out of a cannon, scoring in the first five minutes against both Spain and Morocco. There’s a lot of soccer left to play in Russia, but Ronaldo looks like he’s the player most ready right now to make history.
He's already achieved some, passing Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas on the all-time list of men's international goal scorers.
• Nobody is talking about Spain’s coaching situation anymore
Yes, it seemed crazy that Spain changed its coach just two days before its first game of the World Cup. But the players are still the same players (who happen to be among the best in the world), and new coach Fernando Hierro is a respected soccer man, has been with the set-up for years and isn’t bringing any significant changes.
It wasn’t easy, but Spain dominated possession against a tough-minded Iran team and eventually broke through on Diego Costa’s third tournament goal for the 1-0 victory. Of the four tournament favorites that struggled in their opening game (Germany, France, Spain, Brazil), Spain seemed like the one that had the least to be concerned about. How often, after all, is David De Gea going to have a howler? Hierro has restored stability, and with four points heading into its game against already-eliminated Morocco, Spain looks to be in good shape.
• The better team doesn’t always win—probably more so in soccer than in any other sport
Consider Morocco, which was the better team in both of its first two games (against Portugal on Wednesday and Iran previously) but is now eliminated with zero points. Or consider Portugal, which has been outplayed in both of its games (by Iran and Spain) only to have four points in the group.
The difference? Morocco couldn’t finish to save its life, while Portugal has Ronaldo, the figure of the World Cup so far. Ronaldo has gone from being the world’s premier winger to its best center forward, and if you have a legitimate world-class goal-scorer, then you can make up for a lot of other things on the field.
• Uruguay is quietly taking care of business
Nobody should give Uruguay a medal for a pair of 1-0 victories against Egypt and Saudi Arabia (which was much more competent today than in its 5-0 loss to Russia, aside from a goalkeeper howler on the goal). But there’s a value to Uruguay getting all six points out of its two games without doing much that was exciting.
You can lose a World Cup in the group stage, but you can’t win one in it. Uruguay now knows that while it has already advanced, it will need to beat Russia to win Group A. Until now, Uruguay has bided its time, gotten its points and used a bunch of different players. But the real Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani will need to start emerging in the next game.
• Wednesday was historic in Iran for a special reason
For the first time in 37 years, government authorities let Iranian women into the national soccer stadium to watch soccer—in this case, a big-screen showing of the game between Iran and Spain. Iran still has another big step to take by allowing women to attend actual games in the Azadi stadium, of course, and if you want to know more about the story you should follow @OpenStadiums on Twitter.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently attended the Tehran derby at the stadium with all men in attendance and failed to mention anything about the no-women policy, a huge missed opportunity. Ones hopes that continued pressure on the Iranian authorities will open up their stadiums to fans of both genders.