DUROâ€™S RUSSIA NOTESâ€¦.
Now, the men have been separated from the boys. The real gladiators have taken over the battlefields here in Russia with majority of the pretenders either home already or on the way to their various destinations.
Most cities where the group matches were played are now witnessing quiet moments, with rancorous atmospheres witnessed in pubs and eateries gradually simmering to their usually acceptable levels.
But Moscow and St Petersburg, the two major bubbling cities in Russia remain in top tempo as they are stiff full of actions with matches lined up till semi finals, third place and final in the two respective cities.
In most hotels in St Petersburg for instance, the sky-blue and white colours of Argentina that used to be the dominant jerseys in sight have started to fade following the exit of the Albiceleste against France Sunday night.
The boisterous fans of the South American nation were seen in solemn moods at most bars Sunday night, wondering why they have to leave at this stage.
A group of five that have become close to this reporter failed to show up at our usual rendezvous. Franco, who appears as the top dog of the travelling Argentine party in St Petersburg was seen at breakfast table this morning not his usual self. â€œAmigo, I am not happy today,â€ he muttered in his heavily accented Spanish guttural intonation. â€œWhy, Messi, Why?â€ he continued to stress over Argentinaâ€™s loss to a Kylian Mbappe inspired Les Bleus in that Round of 16 seven-goal thriller at the Kazan Arena.
I could not hide my happiness that the Argentines were going home like the Super Eagles, not after that insulting, â€˜f–k youâ€™ finger gesture from Maradona, when camera picked him out from the crowd during that last Group D game against Nigeria. Though I feel sad losing the company of these noisy, football crazy Argentine fans, I said in my heart that the injustice of Turkish centre referee, Neyt Cakir, not awarding a second penalty to Nigeria has been taken care of by my â€˜African brothersâ€™ playing for France here at this Mundial.
BAD MARKET FOR LATE ARRIVALS
The exit of African teams at the group stage is not only been felt by those of us that came here all the way from home but also turning out bad business for those selling jerseys of the five teams here. Our â€˜Aso Ebiâ€™ that was the â€˜hottest cakeâ€™ here exchanging for as high as $300 for the original stuff from Nike has dropped in value. Racketeers who were selling the â€˜China-madeâ€™ for equivalent of between $50 and $30 are now at a loss. Customers have thinned out due to the loss. The same applies to jerseys of other African teams already gone home.
Even in the face of bad business, one lady who came in early with her stuff from Nigeria is smiling away, having sold off her wares while the market was â€˜hot.â€™ She certainly must have learnt her lesson from previous outings to make hay while the sun shines.
Last Batch of Nigeria Football Stakeholders Depart Russia
The last batch of Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) officials and football stakeholders left St Petersburg Saturday night for Nigeria via Dubai, one week after Super Eagles crashed out of the ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup here in Russia.
Eagles players had earlier left their Essentuki camp base in batches for their respective clubs to either join their teammates in preseason camps or holiday.
At the Hilton Hotel and adjoining Haempton in St Petersburg Sunday, most of the Nigerians football stakeholders who boarded the midnight flight from the Pulkovo Airport were mostly NPFL football administrators and NFF secretariat staff.
Most of the NPFL administrators were seen discussing the restart of the domestic topflight this weekend.
Rangers International FC of Enugu Administrator, Davidson Owumi, Rivers Unitedâ€™s Okey Kpalukwu and several others were amongst those who boarded the Emirates flight out of the Pulkovo Airport for Lagos Saturday night.
Eagles crashed out of the Russia 2018 tournament with just one victory in three Group D games. Nigeria lost the opening game 2-0 to Croatia and defeated Iceland 2-1 but lost the bruising battle with perennial group rival Argentina by the same 2-0 to leave the tournament with dream unfulfilled.
Brazil on Redemption Mission against Mexico
In their four previous World Cup matches with Mexico, Brazil has never conceded a goal against El Tri, outscoring them 11-0 in those encounters.
Brazil’s mission to rectify their disappointing 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign is still on course after they navigated their way to the summit of Group E at Russia 2018. Brazil’s journey to the Round of 16 has been anything but smooth: After drawing 1-1 with Switzerland in their opener and leaving it late to claim a 2-0 win over Costa Rica, they beat Serbia 2-0 to ultimately move on as expected group winners.
One of the questions that Mexico will need to answer is: has their momentum gone? After starting their Russia 2018 journey off with two solid wins, most notably a 1-0 victory over 2014 champions Germany, they followed that up with a 3-0 defeat to Sweden. El Tri may take confidence from their most recent World Cup meeting with Brazil in 2014, a goalless draw in Fortaleza on 17 June, the only of the four encounters between the two sides that did not end in a Brazil victory.
Brazil has been gradually improving, following the coaching staff’s plans. The team enters the knockout stage with plenty of confidence, and it feels like those first 180 minutes of tension are way behind them. The expectation around the players is that Mexico will go for a full-pitch press. This may put pressure on the defensive line to make plays, but could also open up spaces for A SeleÃ§Ã£oâ€™s stars to shine.
Mexico on the other hand will try to break their Round of 16 hoodoo by defeating the most difficult team possible, but one whom they have fared pretty well against in recent times. The team will also have the motivation of bouncing back from their disappointing performance in the last group match against Sweden, and will have to do so without suspended central defender Hector Moreno, one of its most important players.
BRAZIL: Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Casemiro, Paulinho; Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus
MEXICO: Guillermo Ochoa; Miguel Layun, Hugo Ayala, Carlos Salcedo, Jesus Gallardo; Hector Herrera, Jonathan Dos Santos, Andres Guardado; Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano
Casemiro: A Selecaoâ€™s Steadying Man in the Middle
Can it be said that behind every great attack there is a great midfielder? While that may not be a hard and fast rule, Casemiro is doing everything he can to prove that, in the case of this Brazil side at least, the answer to the question is: yes.
The midfielder is the first to say that he is not playing a lone hand. Yet there can be no doubting that he is a steadying presence for A SeleÃ§Ã£o, just as he is for Real Madrid.
â€œIâ€™m ready and willing. I always say that the boss (Tite) asks me to do more or less the same thing I do for my club,â€ he told FIFA. â€œIf thereâ€™s a reason why Iâ€™m here then itâ€™s because Iâ€™ve done a good job there and because he has faith in me. Obviously, he changes a thing or two but he always tries to get us doing what we usually do. I have to give him credit for that.â€
With an enterprising Mexico side providing the opposition in Samara Monday, Casemiro will have an even more important role to perform than he usually does. The kind of player who seems to be everywhere at once, he offers vital support to the teamâ€™s star acts up front.
â€œHe has an amazing command of his role. I admire the way he occupies space and his level of concentration,â€ said an approving Tite. â€œEven in the dressing room heâ€™s got peripheral vision.â€
Casemiro is not at all bothered by the fact that in football it is the front men who usually attract all the headlines. The midfielder has gifts that usually go unnoticed by the fans but which arouse nothing but admiration from a very specific audience: coaches.
â€œWhen it comes to Real Madridâ€™s balance, heâ€™s their most important player,â€ said Atletico Madrid Coach Diego Simeone on analysing their great rivals. â€œThe team has changed a lot since he won a starting place,â€ said another high-profile coach, Massimiliano Allegri of Juventus.
If Casemiro can draw those kind of comments from opposing coaches, it is not hard to imagine what Zinedine Zidane, one of those responsible for his rise at the Bernabeu, has to say about him: â€œHe provides balance between defence and attack. That shouldnâ€™t come as a surprise to anyone. Heâ€™s full of confidence and heâ€™s improving with every passing year.â€
Casemiro admitted to being too embarrassed to even speak to Zidane at the start of his working relationship. His rapid development ended up bringing that barrier down, and though the player might be shy off the pitch, when the conversation turns to football and tactics, he loosens up.
Tite has even said that his conversations with the midfielder gave him some ideas that proved valuable in the qualifying wins over Uruguay and Colombia.
His vision aside, given the journey Casemiro has made in coming from a poor background to reach the top, he has no reason to feel embarrassed when talking to the greats of the game. Abandoned at a very early age by his father, and the eldest of his siblings, he helped his mother Magda look after his two brothers.
Then, at the age of 14, he left his hometown of Sao Jose dos Campos for Sao Paulo to join the youth ranks of the club that bears the cityâ€™s name. With the allowance that he received, he was able to cover virtually all his familyâ€™s bills back home.
Within four years, he had turned professional and was playing for Brazilâ€™s youth teams, and was well on the road to financial security. â€œWhen I made my World Cup debut, I had this little film playing in my head,â€ added Casemiro, Brazilâ€™s pivotal presence. â€œIt was like watching a dream come true. Iâ€™m also thinking about another world title to go with that dream. I want to win.â€
Free Scoring Belgium in Battle for Qâ€™final Ticket against Japan
The leading goal scorers in the group phase take on Asiaâ€™s last remaining representatives as Belgium meet Japan in the final 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia match to be hosted at Rostov Arena Monday.
The Red Devils are aiming to reach their third World Cup quarter final (after Mexico 1986 and Brazil 2014) and equal their world finals record of four consecutive wins, set four years ago. Their unbeaten 22-match run â€“ the longest in Belgiumâ€™s history â€“ reflects the quality of a hugely talented side.
Japan advanced from the group phase on fair play points and are intent on winning a last 16 tie for the first time ever. They have the experience to do just that: Eiji Kawashima, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Okazaki are each set to play their 11th world finals matches, a national record. Along with Keizuke Honda, they will be looking to make up for the defeat to Paraguay at South Africa 2010, the last time that the Japanese featured in the knockout rounds.
Roberto Martinez left most of his first-choice players on the bench for the England match so they could rest and avoid suspensions. Even with a weakened side, the Belgians still recorded a fine win that buoyed morale even further and has put some pressure on the squadâ€™s habitual starters. The Red Devils are expected to play a dynamic, offensive game against the Japanese. Should the Asians adopt the same mindset, it should make for an open, entertaining game.
Japan used a 4-4-2 formation in their last group match against Poland and lost 1-0. Coach Akira Nishino is likely to revert to the 4-2-3-1 system he deployed in the win over Colombia and the draw with Senegal. Attacking midfielders Genki Haraguchi, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui will have important roles to play. The Japanese will look to attack down the flanks and their chances of success will hinge on how well they can supply Gaku Shibasaki.
PLAYERS ON YELLOW
Several players on both sides will start the game on yellow cards. A further caution in this game will see them miss the quarter-finals, should their team win, of course. Thomas Meunier, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker are the men in question for Belgium, while Japanâ€™s Kawashima, Hasebe, Tomoaki Makino and Takashi Inui find themselves in the same position.
BELGIUM: Thibaut Courtois; Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld; Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier; Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard; Romelu Lukaku
JAPAN: Eiji Kawashima; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Gen Shoji, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Gaku Shibasaki; Genki Haraguchi, Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui; Yuya Osako
Collina Reveals New Orders for World Cup Refs after Penalty Protests
Aleksandar Mitrovic and Harry Kane, if early matches of Serbia and England were replayed, would benefit from penalty claims turned down in their respective games against Switzerland and Tunisia.
World Cup referees were enabled, by the introduction of video assistance, to hit a 99.3pc â€˜perfection rateâ€™ according to FIFA refereeing Chairman Pierluigi Collina. But Collina has also indicated one particular flaw in officialsâ€™ initial orders, reports AIPS News.
This was not so much an issue of VAR but about what should, and should not, be permitted in terms of physical contact.
Mitrovic and Kane were both manhandled by defenders in those games without any support from referees Felix Brych of Germany and Colombian Wilmar Roldan.
England, happily, did defeat Tunisia 2-1 eventually but Serbia were left furious: the score in their game against Switzerland was 1-1 at the time of the incident and they ultimately lost 2-1 to a last-minute goal.
England and Serbia both raised queries about the incidents and Collina told a media briefing: â€œAt a certain point of the group phase there were some incidents which disappeared.
“We had some holdings (of players) but in the following matches they either disappeared or, if they continued, were punished by the appropriate decisions and, if in the penalty area, a penalty kick.
â€œWe noticed, intervened and fine-tuned. You were able to appreciate that something had changed.â€
The issue of penalty box man-marking was the only note of negativity conceded by Collina among his paean of praise for VAR.
Collina reported the 3.4 average of cards per game as equal to major club competitions at domestic and international level and noted with satisfaction that only three red cards had been shown, two of those for double-yellows. The number of penalties had doubled compared with 2010 and 2014 through â€œmore accurate control of what went on inside the penalty area.â€
Some 335 incidents had been checked by VAR including all 122 goals. Collinaâ€™s team had registered 17 VAR reviews during games with 14 seeing the referee run to his monitor screen. The three decisions immediately corrected concerned two for offside and one for mistaken identity on a booking.
Collina added: â€œWe have had 14 decisions changed by the intervention of VAR, six penalty awards changed on the intervention of VAR â€“ with one changed from a free-kick to a penalty and two penalty awards by the referee being reversed after a monitor review.â€
This meant that Collina assessed 95pc of the refereesâ€™ own decisions as having been correct, a â€˜perfection rateâ€™ improved to 99.3 by the use of VAR.
He added: â€œBefore the competition we said VAR does not mean perfection, there could be some wrong interpretation of or mistake but 99.3pc is very close to perfection.â€
The average time for a VAR review was 80 seconds which answered pre-finals concerns about time lost. Referees are under instructions to add time for video reviews though they do not add time for standard match interruptions such as free-kicks and throw-ins.
FIFAâ€™s Director of Refereeing, Massimo Busacca, concluded: â€œAfter 48 games, we havenâ€™t had a single scandal, and thatâ€™s very important.â€