After opening round shocks, second matches commence with promise

Mazino Dickson

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The cautiousness, exuberance and naivety which usually accompany FIFA World Cup’s opening matches should now be over, as the Russia 2018 teams go into their second set of matches from Tuesday.

It is always an opportunity to re-define strategies and plans, and a moment to set out on how to achieve set-goals.

Apart from the first Group H games which are to be played on Tuesday, all first set of two matches have been played in all the other groups, A to G.

They were 14 matches in all, spread across seven groups between Thursday and Monday and at all the 12 venues.

Senegal are to take on Poland at Spartak Stadium in Moscow, while Colombia face Japan at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk, with both matches slated for the afternoon.

 Later in the day, hosts Russia and Egypt will, at Saint Petersburg, kick off the second set of group phase matches — 16 in all.

The last in this set of matches will be between Poland and Colombia on June 24 at the Kazan Arena.

This second set of matches means a lot, with some of those who will qualify for the second round likely to emerge from the list of those who won their opening games.

The first round losers will also emerge, either from the group of opening day losers or from those who drew their opening day games.

Some of the pre-tournament favourites — defending champions Germany, Brazil and Argentina — have been stunned, while the likes of Nigeria have been brought down to earth.

Hosts Russia, Iran, Peru, Iceland, Switzerland and Mexico have produced some surprises on their part, making nonsense of earlier analyses and raising fresh hopes.

Russian fans, who could not have expected a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia, now think beating Egypt in Tuesday’s meeting at St Petersburg should be a normal affair.

“Russia are sure for the second round once we beat Egypt on Tuesday, because I don’t see us not beating them,’’ Sergei Ryabkova, a shop attendant at Shevchenko street in Kaliningrad, said.

Egypt, however, should have been bolstered by the expected return of Mohamed Salah to put behind them Friday’s 0-1 loss to Uruguay and work towards redeeming Africa’s image.

The North Africans were the first African side to appear at the World Cup finals, in 1934 at Italy, and they have never utilised that benefit to raise their profile.

They not only need to make the best use of this their third-ever appearance, but also help in pushing Africa’s claim for 10 slots at the expanded World Cup of 2026.

A loss to the hosts will definitely end the Egyptians’ Russia 2018 dreams, while a win or a draw will give them hopes of better days ahead.

But with a massive home support, it may be difficult for Egypt to upstage Russia, even in spite of the much-expected Salah magic.

Morocco have a bigger task on their hands on Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow when they take on Portugal who seem unstoppable with Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, memories of Morocco’s 3-1 defeat of Portugal in 1986 at Mexico can return to haunt the Europeans who are usually one of their continent’s under-achievers at the world stage.

Also on Wednesday, Spain will be expected to overrun Iran at the Kazan Arena, while Uruguay should put an end to Saudi Arabia’s misery at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don.

That is when the competition will really come alive, and probably lend weight to all-pre-tournament predictions, with only a few shocks ahead of June 25.

This is when the final round of group phase matches will begin with Group A in Samara and Volgograd.