Team that surprised us
Expectations could not have been lower for the host nation before the tournament. There was a palpable grim pessimism among Russian supporters that stemmed from a seven-game winless run and a series of sluggish performances in their warm-up matches.
However, two emphatic group victories- 5-0 over Saudi Arabia and 3-1 over an Egypt side many had tipped to qualify from Group A- have rejuvenated confidence and pride in the national team.
Despite a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Uruguay, which was heavily influenced by Igor Smolnikov’s red card, the feel-good factor surrounding the national team has returned.
This is the first time since 1986 that Russia have qualified for the knockout stages and they will now look to their clash with Spain as an opportunity to further quash their pre-tournament doubters.
Game we loved
Portugal 3-3 Spain:
In only day two of the tournament, a thriller was played out in Sochi between Portugal and Spain.
Twice Portugal led through Cristiano Ronaldo, twice Spain equalised courtesy of leading frontman Diego Costa. A stunning Nacho volley from the edge of the area followed and Spain looked to have won the encounter in only the first game for their new man in charge, Fernando Hierro.
The irresistible Ronaldo was not done yet. In the 88th minute, the Real Madrid forward stepped forward to fire an exquisite free-kick into the top corner.
The Portuguese captain’s hat-trick in the opening 3-3 draw against Spain was the perfect jump-start needed for the tournament.
In his side’s following fixture against Morocco, Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game in the first half to secure a crucial 1-0 victory to boost Portugal’s hopes of qualification to the last 16.
At 33-years-old, on the back of another 40-goal season that produced yet another Champions League winner’s medal, there remains not one hint of fatigue or weakening of his incredible, innate will to win.
It was the tournament the Egyptians had waited so long for, 28 years in fact. For their national team and star Mohammed Salah, the experience would ultimately become a case of what might have been.
Scorer of 32 goals in 36 league appearances in an unforgettable first season at Liverpool, all Egyptian hopes inevitably rested on their main man being fit for the tournament.
Cruelly suffering a dislocated shoulder on the eve of the competition in Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League Final defeat by Real Madrid, it always looked a mountainous task for the Egyptian to return to full-fitness.
Salah was left on the bench for Egypt’s damaging opening 1-0 defeat by Uruguay and was subsequently risked to start in their second fixture against Russia.
However, two consolation goals in as many games for the Liverpool marksman could not conceal his clear lack of fitness, nor his teammates’ ineptitude in the final third. Egypt bowed out with three defeats to their name, finishing bottom of Group A.
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