Both Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal crashed out of the World Cup on Saturday, leading many fans to question whether we will see the two greatest footballers of our era in action at the global showpiece again.
While it isn’t inconceivable that the pair will play a role in Qatar in 2022, as they continue to perform wonders at club level, Ronaldo (33) and Messi (31) will certainly be at an age when most footballers are thinking of hanging up their boots.
We could have witnessed the changing of the guard in Argentina’s 4-3 loss to France. The Albiceleste defenders just could not deal with the pace and verve of PSG starlet Kylian Mbappe. The 19-year-old became the first teenager to score two in a World Cup match since Pele netted twice for Brazil against Sweden in the 1958 final, turning the game on its head after Argentina had taken a 2-1 lead early in the second-half.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics must be called into question, however, as his men were frequently caught on the break and when Sergio Aguero found the net in injury time, it shed a spotlight on team selection. The Manchester City star and Juventus duo Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain started on the bench and could well have had a result-changing impact had they featured more prominently.
Having seen his great rival make an early exit, Ronaldo was upstaged by Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani in Portugal’s 2-1 loss to the South Americans. The PSG hitman hit home with a bullet header and then a stunning, swerving effort on the break to see his side through to the quarter-finals.
Ronaldo was also rendered ineffective by Uruguay’s resolute defence, who had not conceded a goal in 2018 until Pepe’s headed equaliser. Having been breached once, the Uruguayan defenders stood firm and Portugal, despite shifting through the gears in the second-half, were restricted to shots from distance.
The biggest upset of the weekend was reserved for Sunday’s early kick-off, in which 2010 champions Spain were upended by hosts Russia on penalties at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
La Furia Roja enjoyed the vast majority of possession, but were denied time and again by inspirational Russian skipper Igor Akinfeev, leading some critics to call the fixture the death of Spain’s fabled Tiki-Taka “death by a thousand cuts” style of play.
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Living up to his billing as the home side’s only real star, the 32-year-old shot-stopper made a series of saves in regular time to keep the scoreline at 1-1 and then in extra time, before keeping out Koke and Iago Aspas’s spot-kicks to secure victory for Russia.
President Putin will be pleased.
The final game of the weekend also went to penalties. Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel can consider himself unlucky to be out of the tournament after his penalty save in normal time and two further shut-outs during a shootout weren’t enough to see the Scandinavians progress against Croatia. Instead, it was the Balkan side who emerged the victors, – 3-2 on penalties after a nail-biting 1-1 stalemate.