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Germany Finds a Way; Mexico, Belgium Take Big Steps Toward World Cup Knockout Stage

Germany was left for dead, but a spirited comeback and a last-gasp goal from Toni Kroos have altered the champions' outlook completely, while the outlook for Mexico and Belgium continues to be bright.

MOSCOW — Day 10 of World Cup 2018 was full of drama. Defending World Cup champion Germany was seconds from being all but eliminated in the group stage, but the shorthanded Germans used a sensational Toni Kroos free kick deep into stoppage time to beat Sweden 2-1.

Elsewhere, Mexico continued its hot start to the tournament, beating South Korea 2-1 to stay in first place in the group. In the day's first match Belgium blasted Tunisia 5-2 in the most freewheeling game of the day, all but securing its place in the last 16.

Here are my five thoughts on Day 10:

Germany finds a way 

Just when it seemed like world champion Germany was heading to a nearly-unsurvivable tie against Sweden, Kroos hit a gorgeous last-second free kick to give 10-man Germany a 2-1 victory over Sweden.

What else can you say but: Germany, man. Just as Mexico exposed the space behind the German back line on repeated counterattacks, Sweden grabbed a 1-0 lead against Jogi Löw’s bunch through a counterattack. But the Germans struck back early in the second half, and despite losing Jérôme Boateng to a second yellow, Germany kept pushing–even bringing on an attacker, Julian Brandt, in place of a defender, Jonas Hector–and created the dead-ball situation that Kroos could not have hit any better. What a comeback.

With Boateng banned for the group finale vs. South Korea and Mats Hummels's status uncertain after he missed Saturday's match with neck injury, Germany could be down its two starting central defenders. But after fighting back from the brink of elimination, Germany has shown that it will find a way.

WATCH: Kroos Completes Germany's Comeback on Sweden With Last-Minute Golazo

Mexico had to play a different way to win this time 

We talked a lot about Mexico’s psychology in preparing for a potential trap game against South Korea. And while Mexico passed that mental test with flying colors, more important on Saturday’s was El Tri’s ability to play a far more possession-based game than it did against Germany and find a way to win again.

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After counterattacking relentlessly against the Germans, Mexico had to break down South Korea’s defense while also dealing with copious fouling from the Koreans. Mexico’s first goal—on a Carlos Vela penalty—came from spending so much time in the Korean end that eventually a handball in the box happened. El Tri’s second goal came off a counterattack, but it’s a shot in the arm for Juan Carlos Osorio’s team that it can win playing with different marching orders. 

Mexico Passes Another Kind of World Cup Test in Outlasting South Korea

Belgium is a blast, but I’m still concerned about its defending 

Keep in mind that Belgium has started this tournament with Panama and Tunisia, but the Belgians’ relentless attack (with two goals each by Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard) was terrific entertainment in a 5-2 blowout of the Tunisians. There still remain questions, however, about Belgium’s defending when it faces better teams down the road.

Part of that is on the back line, where Vincent Kompany’s return for the third game couldn’t come soon enough. And part of it is in the midfield, where Yannick Carrasco still seems like a risky choice when it comes to assigning any defensive duties. For now, it looks like Belgium may just try to outscore teams, which is remarkably entertaining but perhaps not the best route to win a World Cup.

VAR is getting the specific calls right, but it’s missing other things

My expectations entering the World Cup were that VAR would be a disaster, as it was being run by referees that didn’t all use VAR in their respective countries during the past club season. What’s clear so far is that VAR has been a net-positive; in other words, it's better than if VAR were not being used in this tournament.

VAR has been better than I expected at making quick decisions and getting reviews right on penalty incidents other than off-the-ball wrestling in the box. But that exception is a significant one. Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and England’s Harry Kane are just two examples of forwards who deserved to earn penalties in such situations, but VAR has so far been unwilling to step in and call those penalties. Also, too, VAR could have weighed in on the apparent foul that allowed Mexico to win the ball at the start of its first goal sequence. But it didn’t.

Brazil Secures Its Win, but Neymar's Actions Remain a Lightning Rod

The Golden Boot race is going to be fun 

No player has scored more than six goals in any of the last three men’s World Cups—Colombia’s James Rodríguez had six in 2014—but both Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo have four after just two games in this World Cup and could add many more (though Lukaku’s ankle ding means it’s unlikely that he’ll play against England). Nobody has really put up big numbers since Brazilian Ronaldo had eight in 2002, but it’s a legitimate possibility here in Russia. Part of me thinks the Golden Boot winner will come out of whomever plays in the third-place game and is allowed to take advantage of the wide-open nature of those games. But that’s not always the case.

Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.