You don’t need me to tell you this has been the Entertaining-As-Hell World Cup. Goals are being scored at a steady rate, upsets are unfolding and Cristiano Ronaldo is playing like the best player in the world. What more could you want? Russia to crash out in the group stage? Yeah, that ain’t happening on Putin’s watch. English football players from Outside the Top Six have also made their imprint on the world’s biggest tournament. Let’s highlight a few of the biggest performances through the first round of matches.
Iceland – Gylfi Sigurdsson
Iceland suffocated Argentina in the first match. Lionel Messi was like a bug attracted to a porch light but that light was Icelandic defenders. They engulfed the greatest player in the world. They were stingy, unforgiving and played unapologetic football. It wasn’t attractive but dammit it was effective.
One of the more mesmerizing players for Iceland – and only a little bit for his looks – was Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. Slotted as the No. 10, playing next to Alfred Finnbogason defensively and his partner in crime on the attack, Sigurdsson completed five take-ons while placing three shots on goal, reminding Argentine defenders that he still has magic in his boots after a blah club season.
Sigurdsson also flashed his two-way play, disrupting Argentina’s attack before it got started by intercepting three passes.
Denmark – Kasper Schmeichel
Denmark survived a fierce Peruvian onslaught in their first match. One man was patrolling the backline, preventing Peru from breaking through. Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel. It was among the Top 3 performances by a goalkeeper in the opening round (Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Iceland’s Hannes Halldorsson).
The 31-year-old tallied six saves with four coming in the final half hour after Denmark took the lead. Schmeichel was the Man of the Match but could have had that titled stripped if Christian Cueva didn’t send his penalty kick back to South America. Schmeichel’s five saves from inside the penalty area is a tournament-high.
England – Harry Maguire
Leicester City’s center-back Harry Maguire was a surprise start for me in Gareth Southgate’s three-man backline. Southgate wants to play with the attack building from the back, so more ball-playing defenders are key to igniting the offense. I thought this meant Tottenham’s defensive mid/defender Eric Dier would play to the left of John Stones. Maguire, like Dier, also prefers his right foot which could be a problem later in the tournament as outlined here by Ty from Twitter.
But Maguire was great against Tunisia. Let’s just jump to the 91st-minute when Maguire got his head on an England corner kick and deflected the ball to an unmarked Harry Kane who finished for a second time to give England the 2-1 lead. It was one of three keys passes made by Maguire on the day. In fact, no one on the Three Lions attempted or completed for passes as the Leicester City man.
Sweden – Pontus Jansson
Swedish center-back Andreas Granqvist was the Man of the Match against South Korea. It’s not often you see a 33-year-old defender step up in the 64th-minute to calmly bury a penalty to decide the game but that’s exactly what Granqvist did. It was an outstanding moment even if his defensive partner Pontus Jansson played better defensively.
The Leed United man was a late addition to the Swedish lineup. The morning of the match he was told he would start for a sick Victor Lindelof of Manchester United. Jansson put his own shot on net in the 21st-minute. But it was his work defensively to extinguish the Korean attack that stood out. His eight aerials victories made crossing into the box nearly impossible for Korea.
South Korea – Ki Sung-yueng
This is my sneaky, semi-controversial pick of the week. South Korean holding midfielder Ki Sung-yueng played a hell of a game against Sweden, even if his teammates lacked quality around him. The captain competed 91-percent of his passes, generally on the right side, attempting to service Tottenham star Son Heung-Min.
Korea is going to have issues scoring over the next two game, but the one element they have going forward is a leader in the middle facilitating forward play.
Mile Jedinak – Aussie. Beard aficionado. Bone-crunching midfielder. World Cup Goal-Scorer.
Grzegorz Krychowiak – Poland goal-scorer who stepped up when Robert Lewandowski was lost stranded in the Senegalese Lompoul desert.
Chicharito – Was a constant counter-attacking threat who ran through the German defense. He had the assist for Chucky Lozano’s goal that gave Mexico the victory.