- The first two matchups of the World Cup knockout stage are set, but not after a dizzying spell of simultaneous drama left us with mouths agape. Spain and Uruguay are group winners, while Portugal and Russia are through in second place.
MOSCOW — Day 12 of World Cup 2018 is done, and the drama reached a peak level. In Group B, favorites Spain and Portugal couldn’t manage three points against their game foes (Spain 2, Morocco 2 and Portugal 1, Iran 1) but still advanced to the knockout rounds, even though Iran made it heartbreakingly close late against the Portuguese.
Earlier in the day in Group A, things were considerably less dramatic, as Uruguay beat Russia 3-0 to win the group and leave the Russians in a we’ll-take-it second-place spot.
Here are my five thoughts on Day 12:
• Simultaneous games plus late simultaneous VAR calls = craziness
The drama was off the charts late in Group B when we saw two huge VAR calls at the same time: One that gave Iran a penalty against Portugal (that was converted for a 1-1 tie) and one that gave Spain a late equalizer on Iago Aspas's back-heel flick in a 2-2 tie against Morocco. That sudden turn allowed Spain to win the group ahead of Portugal and even gave Iran a late chance to win the game–and the group!–but a last-minute shot by the Iranians ended up hitting the side-netting.
It’s worth noting that VAR got both those calls right, though there will be plenty of debate over whether VAR got it wrong when Cristiano Ronaldo was given a yellow card instead of a red in the second half.
• Spain was as disappointing as Morocco was impressive
Spain was uncharacteristically poor in the back on Monday: Gerard Piqué could have picked up a red card for a sliding two-footed tackle early in the game. And soon after that a mixup between Sergio Ramos and Andrés Iniesta allowed Khalid Boutaib to break free and put Morocco ahead. (Ramos and Piqué, two of the most revered center backs in the game, have been wildly up and down in Russia.)
The Moroccans have to be included in a group of the best World Cup teams ever to be eliminated after two games. They deserved to beat Spain on Youssef En Nesyri’s header, and you can only wonder what might have happened if Morocco had finished better earlier in the tournament.
• Uruguay is still set to make a deep run
I had Uruguay going to the semifinals in my pre-tournament predictions, and my feeling remains unchanged after the Celeste grabbed all nine points in (an admittedly easy) Group A. The Uruguayans have improved in each game and are getting production out of the veteran core of Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín and Fernando Muslera. Then there’s a wealth of younger options that can make a difference; against Russia it was Diego Laxalt, who abused Igor Smolnikov into two yellow cards and fired the shot on Uruguay’s second goal, which resulted in an own goal on Denis Cheryshev.
• Russia slipped today, but don’t write them off just yet
You had a sense the hosts would regress to the mean after the euphoria of two straight wins to start the tournament (in perhaps the easiest World Cup group ever). But before you say, “This was the real Russia,” keep in mind that the Russians played with 10 men for most of the game and went without their best player, Aleksandr Golovin, to keep him from picking up a yellow-card suspension.
The Russians will be underdogs in their round of 16 game against Spain, but remember where it will take place: Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where the home support will likely be massive. Back in November, Russia held Spain to a 3-3 draw in a friendly in Saint Petersburg, and while the stakes and stage will clearly be different, that's experience upon which the hosts can draw. Russia has already had a “successful” World Cup by surviving the group. But it will be motivated to do more than that.
• I’m going to miss simultaneous group finales with a 48-team tournament
How many dramatic moments have we seen over the years thanks to the simultaneous group finale format? Well, they’re going to go away once FIFA adopts a 48-team World Cup format in 2026 with 16 groups of three teams each.
That’s a shame, and I hope that FIFA reconsiders the idea.
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.