Group stage excels as World Cup just keeps giving – now for the serious bit

DOHA, Dec 3 (Reuters) – The first World Cup hosted by an Arab country enters its knockout stage on Saturday, but it has been a daily rollercoaster of shocks, comebacks and head-spinning group climaxes. Everyone involved should probably lie down. Week in a dark room before taking.

Forty-eight games and 120 goals have taken place in the latest edition of FIFA’s showpiece, and there’s barely a dull moment in a tournament that just keeps on giving.

Simultaneously, the final three nights of group action were surprising, with Japan stunning Spain to qualify from Group E and South Korea beating Portugal to exit Group H.

Four-time champions Germany, on the other hand, are heading home, still scratching their heads as to how.

The tournament opened with a spectacular ceremony and a spectacular opening game between Qatar and Ecuador, when the narrative still focused on the host country’s treatment of migrant workers and the LGBT+ community, which is still highly controversial.

The debate will continue after the last ball has been kicked, but as far as what has gone on inside the eight glittering stadiums, the World Cup has been a spectacular spectacle.

England’s 6-2 thrashing of Iran and France’s Kylian Mbappe-inspired 4-1 defeat of Australia were the early headlines on the second day. Then the script was flipped upside down.

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Everything seemed normal when Lionel Messi put Argentina ahead from the penalty spot in their Group C opener against Saudi Arabia. But Saleh al-Shahri and Salem al-Dussari sealed a 2-1 Group C win for the 51st-ranked Green Falcons in what data company Nielsen Grace notes was the biggest statistical shock in World Cup history.

Normal service resumed a day later as Spain thrashed Costa Rica 7-0, but a few hours later Japan’s Samurai Blue opened the doors to Group E with a 2-1 win over Germany.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo scored a penalty in a 3-2 win over Ghana at the Shipping Container 974 Stadium to become the first player to score in five World Cups. Brazil eased into the tournament by beating Serbia, only to miss Neymar through injury.

But the unpredictability continued.

Iran scored in the eighth and 11th minutes of stoppage time as they bounced back from defeat by England to beat Wales 2-0 in a game in which Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey was sent off, in the group stage. One of only two red cards.

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Like Iran, Costa Rica also showed incredible resilience as they beat Japan 1-0 to set up a gut-wrenching climax to Group E.

And the shocks kept coming.

Magnificent Morocco

Belgium, the world’s second-ranked team, were beaten 2-0 in Group F by formidable Morocco, whose fans turned Doha red in celebration. Morocco progressed to the knockout stages for the first time since 1986, while Belgium returned home.

Simultaneously, the final group matches dissipated the tension in a big way.

Tunisia thought they had given themselves a shot at reaching the last 16 with a symbolic win over France but their joy turned to tears as Australia stunned Denmark.

Argentina completed their Saudi shock recovery by pipping Poland in Group C in an emphatic result. Poland also came through on goal difference, although at one point all that separated them from Mexico – who were desperately trying to score against Saudi Arabia. There were yellow cards.

If that was interesting, what happened the next night almost threw the football world on its axis.

Spain, quiet in their first two games, looked set to take the lead against Japan at the Khalifa Stadium to top Group E, while across town Germany beat Costa Rica to qualify. It was also visible on the way. Then everything went crazy.

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Goals from Itsu Doan and Ao Tanaka gave Japan the lead and Costa Rica put Germany ahead. For four minutes both Spain and Germany were heading for the exit door.

Germany saved Spain’s beacon but not its own with a 4-2 win as Japan made the last 16. He was joined by South Korea 24 hours later when Hwang Hee-chan’s extra-time goal beat Portugal 2–1. Although the South Korean players had an anxious wait in the center circle for Uruguay not to score again against Ghana.

Even then the group stage was not chaotic, as Cameroon signed off with a 1-0 victory over already-qualified Brazil – a statistical 12th shock of the tournament – and goalscorer Vincent Abou Bakr. Was immediately dismissed for over celebrating.

After perhaps the most memorable group stage of any World Cup, now for serious business. But please don’t stop the fun.

Reporting by Martin Herman; Edited by William Mallard

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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