After two fun weeks, the group stage of the 2018 World Cup has concluded. While it seems like we are only halfway through, we have actually played 75 percent of the matches. This has arguably been one of the more entertaining World Cups ever. It’s save to say that the group stage hasn’t exactly been what we all expected and we take a look at some things that have been most surprising at this World Cup.

Spain

Spain was considered one of the favorites to win the World Cup but that was until head coach Julen Lopetegui signed with Real Madrid. His plan was to keep running Spain and leave after the World Cup but the Spanish FA had different plans and fired Lopetegui the day before the World Cup.

With that kind of turmoil, it appeared like Spain was doomed to fail. Instead, Spain won their group and went unbeaten. Fernando Hierro took control of this team and Spain hasn’t missed a beat, something that would have been unheard of a couple weeks ago.

VAR

VAR has always been a highly controversial topic and was in fact a part of our “Most Disappointments” article. Personally, for me, VAR has been running as smoothly as I could have hoped for.

Yes, there have been times where VAR wasn’t utilized as smoothly as it should have. Yes, there have been times where we could debate if a play was actually “clear and obvious.” But let’s face it, as long as human beings are eventually tasked to be making refereeing decisions, there will be mistakes made. At least VAR provides an additional layer of determining the correct call even though that still won’t be perfect.

I have seen VAR used in the Confederations Cup, the FA Cup, the Bundesliga and in MLS. And no one has done video review as smoothly and as quickly as the referees at this World Cup. That may not be enough for some people but take it from me; if you’re expecting perfection, you’ll never be satisfied with VAR.

 

Goals upon goals upon goals

One stereotype that seems to be used by soccer haters has been that there are way too many 0-0 ties. I’m looking around and teams were scoring and scoring often.

In fact, this year’s World Cup has only seen one scoreless draw and started on a 36 consecutive match streak. Many matches have had close finishes, late goals and exciting play. The only real forgettable game was the France-Denmark 0-0 snoozefest that was largely due to those teams knowing they would advance with a draw.

 

The favorites were struggling

The five odds-on favorites to win this year’s World Cup were Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain. If you watched these teams compete, you wouldn’t have known these were the actual favorites. Germany finished last in Group F and Argentina needed to get in on the final day and advanced with just four points and a negative goal differential. Brazil, France and Spain all won their groups but even they have clear vulnerabilities.

Teams like Russia, Portugal, Mexico, Croatia and Belgium have impressed in the group stage and while they may not be traditional contenders for the World Cup, they will be tough to beat.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nCDPIQSISY

Cristiano Ronaldo

Surely, seeing one of the best players in the world compete at the top of his game isn’t much of a surprise. What is surprising is that even for Ronaldo, he is in unchartered territory at the World Cup. Ronaldo scored in his fourth consecutive World Cup but this is the first time where he scored more than one goal in a World Cup.

Ronaldo knows that just like in Euro 2016, it’ll need to be on him to have a great tournament if Portugal is to win. Ronaldo also knows that this may very well be his final World Cup. That kind of motivation and pressure could be the thing that gives him the one thing missing from his personal trophy case.

 

The knockout stage setup

The round of 16 is typically set up where the top teams are expected to win their group while the runners-up don’t and thus the favorites avoid facing each other until at least the quarterfinal.

The strange thing has been that one side of the bracket looks much more difficult than the other side. Despite coming very close to having a Brazil-Germany round of 16 match, one side includes Uruguay vs. Portugal, France vs. Argentina, Brazil vs. Mexico and Belgium vs. Japan and the other side includes Spain vs. Russia, Croatia vs. Denmark, Sweden vs. Switzerland and Colombia vs. England. While it may have been unthinkable to imagine a team like Russia or even England being in the World Cup final but it’s now a wide open tournament. And that can only be great for fans.

About Phillip Bupp

News and soccer editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. I also do video highlight game coverage for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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