- The World Cup group stage dazzled us with drama and highlights on end for the last two weeks, but a certain class of goals stands above all the rest.
It's so easy to lose sight of what's happened in a World Cup given how fast it moves, and how the fallout from one match can be remedied by the next (or, in some cases, the amount of yellow cards a group foe has received). But lost in the insanity, drama and procession to the knockout rounds were some tremendous moments of brilliance. The level of intensity was matched by quality goals, some way more decisive than others.
Of the 122 goals scored in the group stage, we've plucked a gameday roster's worth of 18 that really highlighted just how special the action has been over the last two breathtaking weeks:
The Free Kick Trio
Aleksandr Golovin was one of the stars of Russia's tournament-opening thrashing of Saudi Arabia. And while Russia was deserving of the lopsided victory, it made sure to pad its lead in stoppage time, when the match was done and dusted. The exclamation point came from Golovin, the 22-year-old rising star who is expanding his profile by the game. In the game's final seconds, he lined up a free kick from 20 yards that might as well have been the cork popping on the host nation's Champagne of an opener.
Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov delivered in a slightly more high-stakes situation, with his left-footed beauty breaking Costa Rica's resistance as the only goal in a 1-0 win that put his side in position to contend for a knockout berth.
The top free kick, though, came from Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal's riveting opener vs. Spain. After twice giving his side the lead, only for Diego Costa to equalize both times, Ronaldo then watched as Nacho, his club teammate, struck for a worldy (more below) to give Spain the lead. Enter Ronaldo, who earned and then delivered on an 88th-minute a free kick from 23 yards to force the draw. The match came on the third day of competition, and we might not get a more riveting one going forward.
The Trivela Twins
Ricardo Quaresma has made a career of deploying the trivela–a ball hit off the outside of the foot–and he was at it again in Portugal's group finale vs. Iran with this opener just before halftime. It marked Portugal's first goal of the competition by someone not named Cristiano Ronaldo, and it proved quite valuable, as the European champs needed it in order to stay alive and advance.
Russia's Denis Cheryshev was an early injury substitute in the opener vs. Saudi Arabia, replacing Alan Dzagoev. All he did was score twice, including this sensational ball off the outside of his left foot to pad Russia's lead in stoppage time.
The Rocket Men
Philippe Coutinho has been Brazil's best player at this World Cup, both with his ability to create for others and with his finishing. He set the tone for his World Cup with this absolute laser from just outside the box against Switzerland.
Granit Xhaka has also been known to hit a good long-range ball, and he pounced on the rebound of a blocked shot to deliver a thunderbolt that kick-started Switzerland's come-from-behind win over Serbia.
Luka Modric, too, is a rocket specialist, even if he doesn't always have the opportunity to fire away with Real Madrid. Argentina seemingly dared him to shoot, giving him the time and space to set up for a right-footed blast that truly secured all three points for Croatia.
The least-expected rocket came from Spain fullback Nacho, who could not have hit this ball for a go-ahead goal vs. Portugal–the first international goal of his career!–any better. Only because of Ronaldo was this low line drive not a three-point-winner for La Furia Roja.
The Stunning Winners
Iago Aspas's back-heel flick–which had to be confirmed by VAR due to an initial offside call–didn't win a match, but it won a group. By virtue of Spain drawing Morocco, it was able to hold off Portugal and head to what certainly appears to be a more advantageous side of the bracket. And lost in all the madness of the VAR ruling, and the simultaneous action going on between Portugal-Iran was the fact that Aspas won the group on a back-heel flick!
In terms of an actual game-winner, it doesn't get much better than Marcos Rojo's volley for Argentina. Never mind the stakes and significance. What on earth is Marcos Rojo doing in the attacking third and firing away with his right foot?! Talk about your surprise hero. It's usually Argentina players riding Lionel Messi's back, not the other way around.
It really doesn't get much better, however, than Toni Kroos's provisional title-defense-saver vs. Sweden. Gifted the opportunity to take a tight-angled free kick, Kroos and Marco Reus pulled off a remarkable designed play, with Kroos somehow avoiding the two-man wall, yet still curling his missile enough to tuck inside the far post, giving Germany the win at the death. As it turned out, it was fool's gold. Germany choked vs. South Korea, and the defending champs are watching the knockout stage from the comfort of their own homes.
Be Afraid of Chucky
Hirving Lozano's goal on the counter in Mexico's tournament-opening 1-0 win over Germany isn't going to be up for the Puskas Award. From an aesthetics point of view, there have been handfuls of better goals. But considering its significance to Mexico–and on the flip side, its detriment to the defending champions–it was as impactful as any early-match goal in Russia. And don't downplay the skill involved here to cut back on Mesut Ozil and then have the quick-release ability to beat Manuel Neuer at the near post. That sound you hear is PSV Eindhoven calculating its new transfer fee demands.
More About the Pass
To the goalscorers goes the glory, but if not for some expert-level set-ups, some goals don't stand a chance of ever coming to fruition. That was certainly the case for Kevin De Bruyne's precise outside-of-the-foot ball to Romelu Lukaku for Belgium's second goal vs. Panama.
And it was most definitely the case for James Rodriguez's insane, bending cross into space from behind the midfield line that sparked Juan Cuadrado's breakaway vs. Poland.
It was also the case for Nicolai Jorgensen's ridiculous deft touch to set up Christian Eriksen's blast from inside the box vs. Australia.
Sometimes, there's nothing better than a sweet, sweet assist.
From Musa to Messi
Ahmed Musa's self volley vs. Iceland and Lionel Messi's incredible takedown and finish–with his "lesser" foot–displayed two of the most sensational self-set-ups of the round.
Musa's full extension to pop Victor Moses's cross up in the air, then the wherewithal and ability to hit it with power on the volley made for one phenomenal goal, and it put Nigeria on course for an important victory, at least at the time.
Musa's side was then victimized by Messi in their group finale. Running onto Ever Banega's lovely ball over the top, Messi made the difficult look incredibly easy. From the first touch off the thigh, to settling it down for his dominant left foot, to set up his right for the precise finish–Diego Maradona's reaction says it all.
Even after everything we just witnessed over the last two weeks, we're getting greedy. Bring on more in the knockout stage.