Plus: Hwang Hee-Chan and Heung Min-Son combine to send South Korea into the last 16 ahead of Uruguay and Ghana on another dramatic night of group-stage action
Saturday 3 December 2022 11:57, UK
Brazil will not remember their final game group game fondly. They were fortunate the late 1-0 defeat to Cameroon did not cost them top spot in Group G. But for Gabriel Martinelli it might prove a springboard.
The Arsenal forward, whose call-up for the tournament surprised some in Brazil, was handed his first start for the national side as Tite made wholesale changes, emerging from the encounter as one of few players to have enhanced his credentials.
As part of a front four with his Arsenal team-mate Gabriel Jesus, Manchester United's Antony and Real Madrid's Rodrygo, he was by far the most dangerous player, his speed and directness from the left flank unsettling Cameroon throughout.
On another day he would have had a goal to reward his efforts but Cameroon goalkeeper Devis Epassy thwarted him on three separate occasions, first tipping an early header over the bar, then saving two powerful efforts from further out.
There were three successful dribbles, more than anyone else on the pitch, and glimpses of creativity as well as goal threat. At one point, Martinelli teed up substitute Bruno Guimaraes for an opportunity from which he should have done better.
It was his speed, though, that most stood out. In an often turgid game, he was a catalyst. At one point in the second half, Cameroon's only option was to haul him down as he threatened to race through on goal, goalscorer Vincent Aboubakar taking a yellow card which would later see him sent off in the closing stages.
It was telling, too, that while Jesus, Antony and Rodrygo were all withdrawn in the second half, Martinelli was kept on for the duration. His playing time at this World Cup amounted to only three minutes before this game. On the evidence of his performance here, and with Neymar's fitness still uncertain, we can expect him to feature more prominently in the knockout stages.
The World Cup group stages were decided on the finest of margins, but it's still surprising that Uruguay simply did not score enough goals to go through.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta's goals against Ghana were the only ones Uruguay scored at the tournament. They drew 0-0 in their opener with South Korea before losing 2-0 to Portugal just a few days ago.
De Arrascata's goals were Uruguay's 24th and 25th attempts on goal - the kind of numbers you would expect for a squad of their calibre. But to come away with just two goals to show for their work is a real concern.
Indeed, Uruguay's squad includes two world-class forwards who have been there and done it. Between them, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have scored 126 international goals with 273 caps.
They rotated into the starting XI alongside Liverpool forward Darwin Nunez, who at the age of 23, is the future of Uruguay's forward line. Suarez and Nunez combined well in the first half against Ghana - the former assisting De Arrascaeta's second goal - but ultimately were just a foot short of seeing Uruguay through.
Then there's De Arrascaeta, with a clamour among fans for him to start against Ghana, having only come on as a 62nd-minute substitute against Portugal until Friday. He justified his inclusion too with both goals well taken. But it perhaps says a lot that in the current Uruguay squad, he is now the third-highest scorer behind Suarez and Cavani with 10 goals.
Some may point to various decisions by head coach Diego Alonso that contributed to the exit - not playing De Arrascaeta in earlier games and taking off both Suarez and Nunez on Friday when more goals were needed. That being said, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
As news of South Korea's winner filtered through, Suarez became increasingly tearful and frantic as he urged his team-mates forward before breaking into inconsolable sobs at full-time. This will likely be the final time we see Suarez and Cavani at a World Cup and it's a devastating way to end it.
But to end on a positive note - this is Uruguay squad in transition. The likes of Diego Godin, Sebastian Coates and Martin Caraces could also be making their final appearances at the tournament, but there is new talent coming through.
While Uruguay's campaign in 2022 will not go down as their greatest, they now have four years to prepare for their next crack at World Cup glory.
Vincent Aboubakar's dramatic stoppage-time header to nick a late win over Brazil ensured no team finished on maximum points in the group stage.
In fact, it is the first World Cup to see no side win all three of their group games since 1994.
It is a stat which suggests this tournament is wide open with the standout nations after the first two games of the tournament - Brazil, France and Spain - all suffering defeats in their final group games.
It leaves just five teams unbeaten in Qatar - the Netherlands, Morocco, Croatia, USA and encouragingly England.
The Three Lions are most likely to win the tournament out of those five sides, according to Opta's predictor, with England fourth favourites overall.
The predictor believes Brazil are the most likely to win the World Cup (26.8 per cent) with Argentina, who have recovered well from their shock opening defeat against Saudi Arabia with two wins in their last two games, the second favourites (17.1 per cent). Those two sides are on the same half of the draw and could meet at the semi-final stage.
The only other team ranked above England in the predictor is France with the defending champions given an 11.1 per cent chance of winning it - just 0.1 per cent more than England. Those two sides could meet at the quarter-final stage.
But Gareth Southgate's side will be buoyed by the wide-open nature of this tournament. They are a team who will be feared by their opponents: England have the joint-best record of any side in the group stage with seven points and boast the best goal difference of any team with +7.
What this topsy-turvy group stage has done, though, is serve as a reminder of how a four-team group can generate such tension and drama.
So it is a real shame to see FIFA do away with this rollercoaster format after Qatar with the next World Cup in 2026 expanding to 48 teams in a three-group format that will not feature simultaneous kick-offs for the final games.
Switzerland went about their business quietly in the group stages. They edged past Cameroon, narrowly lost out to Brazil and, though they were tested against Serbia, booked their spot in the last 16 relatively comfortably in the end. There was to be no drama reserved for the late stages at Stadium 974.
But should we have seen this coming?
Since the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Rossocrociati have now only lost three of their 15 matches in the group stages of the World Cup (W8 D4) and qualified for the knockout stages in all but one of these five tournaments.
Perhaps more impressively, along with the reigning World Cup champions France, they are the only other European team to have qualified for the knockout stages in each of the last five major tournaments since 2014.
The Swiss only needed a point to qualify for the last 16 on Friday night, while Serbia had to win to stand any chance of progressing from the group after taking just one point from the first two games. They never looked under any particular threat, even when Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic struck to cancel out Xherdan Shaqiri's opener.
Breel Embolo's second of the tournament restored parity before the break and Remo Freuler saw Switzerland finally take the lead. From there, there was to be no way back into the game for Serbia. Any routes forward were shut off, any rare shots charged down. It was game management at its finest.
In the lead up to the tournament, head coach Murat Yakin did not mince his words when he talked up his side's chances.
"I think we are the best Switzerland national team that has ever existed - we have fantastic players who play abroad and I am convinced we will perform our best World Cup ever," he said.
"We have a great team with a great team spirit that has been built for the last couple of years. Football-wise we have improved a lot, and now we want to write history."
Reaching the last 16 is nothing new, though. The Swiss have reached that stage in four of their last five appearances on the world stage. In order to write history, they will need to beat Portugal on Tuesday to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1954.
A stern challenge lies ahead, but Yakin and Co should by no means be written off.
With an average age of 27 years and 198 days, this was the youngest Portugal side named for a World Cup game since 1966 against the USSR - albeit one containing a 37-year-old Ronaldo - but take nothing away from this triumph for South Korea.
Ji-Sung Park's place in the pantheon of Asian football is unquestioned - and it was he who scored the winning goal over the Portuguese back in 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the tournament and advanced as group winners.
It was only his 10th goal for his country and first at a World Cup, but you can add Hwang Hee-Chan's name to that glittering cast as South Korea booked their spot in the knockout stages for the first time since 2010.
Hwang's last goal for Wolves came against Arsenal way back in February. The forward went 26 appearances without breaking his drought at club level, which explains why he was omitted from the starting line-up by Paulo Bento.
A 66th-minute substitute, these were his first minutes of football in Qatar and first of any kind since playing for Wolves against Leeds in the Carabao Cup on November 9.
Heung-Min Son remains without a goal at this World Cup but he ran himself into the ground.
A day after Japan set the tone by stunning Spain 2-1 in their final game to reach the knockout phase on a night of mind-boggling drama, Son made sure South Korea's fans could kick-start their own party in the Education City Stadium.
The Asian side simply refused to accept that their World Cup dream was over and it was captain Son who epitomised the Koreans' relentless energy with a selfless display, typified by his role in the goal for Hwang, whose late intervention means he will be the toast of Seoul all weekend.