Russia vs. Saudi Arabia didn’t look the most appetizing of World Cup starters. But the hosts, the lowest ranked side in the competition before it began, were brilliant. A sublime brace from substitute Denis Cheryshev and a stunning late free kick from Aleksandr Golovin threw down a challenge for the other 31 nations that was widely accepted. DW takes a look at the moments, trends and tribulations that made World Cup 2018 such an exceptional tournament.
Before Russia 2018 began, three of the past four world champions had been knocked out at the group stage when defending their crown. But Germany wouldn’t be complacent enough to add to that statistic, would they? Yes, they very much would. Joachim Löw’s side were made to look old by Mexico, squeezed past Sweden and were embarrassingly anaemic against South Korea.
While Joachim Löw’s men were the only major casualties of the group stage, Argentina limped through after drawing with Iceland and getting hammered by Croatia while Spain and France also failed to convince. By July 2, Argentina and Spain were gone. France putting Messi and co. out of their misery wasn’t much of a turn up but Russia matched heavily favored Spain for 120 minutes of the last 16 match before deservedly prevailing on penalties. Suddenly the draw was opening up.
All of which meant Sweden, Croatia, Russia and England went further than most expected. But perhaps the biggest shock of all was England finally winning their first World Cup penalty shootout, against Colombia in the last 16.
The set pieces
There was one in the first game, two in the final and 67 in between. Set piece goals came to define Russia 2018 and accounted for a 43 percent of all goals scored, the highest such figure since 1966. Headers from free kicks opened the scoring in the first semifinal and the final while a direct free kick gave England a lead they couldn’t hold in the other last four clash. Antoine Griezmann’s penalty in the final meant 22 spot kicks were converted (outside of shootouts), the most of any World Cup, with VAR seemingly critical to the increase in awards.