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Player ratings as La Roja run riot in World Cup opener

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Spain ensured they were not the latest high-profile nation to fall victim to a World Cup upset by thrashing Costa Rica on Wednesday.

The earlier result in Group E saw Germany lose to Japan in one of the shocks of the tournament so far, but Luis Enrique’s men took total control of their first match from the off.

Spain came close to taking a fifth-minute lead when Pedri’s beautifully weighted ball over the top of the Costa Rica defence met Dani Olmo, whose cushioned strike went just wide.

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Pedri again was the creator of Spain’s next chance moments later, this time teeing up makeshift striker Marco Asensio, but the Real Madrid forward was unable to direct his effort towards goal.

La Roja went ahead with just 11 minutes on the clock through Olmo, whose clever one-two with Gavi over the top of the defence worked a treat, and the RB Leipzig star brilliantly brought the ball back down past Francisco Calvo before dinking over a helpless Keylor Navas.

That advantage was doubled midway through the first half when Jordi Alba’s cutback was delicately swept home by Asensio, with former club-mate Navas only getting a glove on the shot.

Oscar Duarte conceded a penalty just before the half-hour mark when his legs got in a tangle with Alba’s, and Ferran Torres kept his nerve from the spot to add Spain’s third of the day.

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Spain notched up their fourth a few minutes after the restart. Francisco Calvo and Bryan Oviedo both failed to deal with a Torres dribble deep into their own box, with the Barcelona winger pinching the ball back and slotting past Navas.

Gavi volleyed in the fifth with a quarter of an hour remaining, racing into the penalty area and striking with the outside of his boot to meet Alvaro Morata’s cross and become Spain’s youngest scorer in World Cup history.

Spain’s sixth goal came in the last minute of normal time. A low cross from Nico Williams was spilled by Navas, allowing Carlos Soler to smash in the rebound.

The final goal of the rout was finished by Morata in stoppage time as Costa Rica’s day of misery came to an end.

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Gavi, Alejandro Balde

Gavi was unbelievable / Clive Mason/GettyImages

GK: Unai Simon – 6/10 – Had very, very little to do. Acted as another outfielder as Enrique insists.

RB: Cesar Azpilicueta – 6/10 – There were a few eyebrows raised when he was named in the starting XI. In hindsight, such a walkover was perfect for Azpilicueta to come in for the ill Dani Carvajal.

CB: Rodri – 6/10 – Enrique clearly doesn’t trust a lot of his centre-back options, starting a natural midfielder in defence.

CB: Aymeric Laporte – 6/10 – Had an early miscommunication with Busquets but was fine from there on in.

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LB: Jordi Alba – 8/10 – Like Azpilicueta, there have been questions over Alba’s continued involvement with the Spain setup, but he rolled back the years with a classic lung-busting performance here.

DM: Sergio Busquets – 7/10 – Another of Enrique’s old guard who looked right at home in such game played at their own pace.

CM: Gavi – 10/10 – How about that for a major tournament debut? Gavi flittered between the lines and looked the spit of the legendary midfielders who preceded him.

CM: Pedri – 8/10 – Ditto. Spain’s future is in safe hands as long as the Barcelona duo remain fit.

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RW: Ferran Torres – 8/10 – The quietest of Spain’s front three but still scored twice had joy running down both flanks.

CF: Marco Asensio – 8/10 – Whether running in behind or dropping deep, Asensio looked like a natural centre forward and gave Costa Rica’s defenders headaches throughout.

LW: Dani Olmo – 9/10 – Worked perfectly in tandem with his fellow attackers and supporting-cast midfielders.

SUB: Alvaro Morata (57′ for Torres) – 8/10

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SUB: Carlos Soler (57′ for Pedri) – 7/10

SUB: Alejandro Balde (64′ for Alba) – 7/10

SUB: Koke (64′ for Busquets) – 6/10

SUB: Neco Williams (69′ for Asensio) – 7/10

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Manager: Luis Enrique – 9/10 – The ideal start. Enrique’s selection decisions were vindicated and his players put in a top performance.

Keylor Navas

A rare picture of the ball in Navas’ hands / Clive Mason/GettyImages

GK: Keylor Navas – 2/10 – Should have probably done better with Spain’s second goal. Helpless regardless.

RB: Carlos Martinez – 1/10 – Torn inside-out by Olmo before being hooked at half-time. A day to forget.

CB: Oscar Duarte – 1/10 – Got too tight to Alba when giving away the penalty.

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CB: Francisco Calvo – 2/10 – Only marginally better than Duarte in that he did not give away a penalty.

LB: Bryan Oviedo – 2/10 – One of Costa Rica’s more experienced heads wasn’t much use at either end.

RM: Keysher Fuller – 1/10 – Naturally a right-back, Fuller did little to help Martinez in their battles with Olmo, Torres and Alba.

CM: Celso Borges – 3/10 – Did little to win the midfield battle, though that was understandable up against Gavi, Pedri and Busquets.

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CM: Yeltsin Tejeda – 3/10 – Yeah, seriously, this was a battle they just were not going to win.

LM: Jewison Bennette – 4/10 – Looked lively on the break but had little support.

CF: Joel Campbell – 2/10 – Like Oviedo was unable to make his 2014 experience count.

CF: Anthony Contreras – 3/10 – Anonymous throughout.

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SUB: Kendall Waston (46′ for Martinez) – 2/10

SUB: Alvaro Zamora (62′ for Contreras) – 2/10

SUB: Bryan Ruiz (62′ for Bennette) – 2/10

SUB: Brandon Aguilera (72′ for Borges) – N/A

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SUB: Ronald Matarrita (82′ for Oviedo) – N/A

Manager: Luis Suarez – 3/10 – There’s not much he could have done about such an early collapse, but Costa Rica looked hopeless throughout.

Player of the Match – Gavi



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Gareth Southgate’s justification for Phil Foden decision is an insult to England supporters

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The Phil Foden discourse has rumbled on through the weekend. Now here we are, still talking about it. still scratching our heads and wondering what exactly Gareth Southgate’s thought process is as he picks his team (which is wrong) and makes his substitutions (which are also wrong), as we have done for every England manager since the dawn of time.

England managers always get a raw deal. Supporters always find a stick with which to beat them, even the fictional ones. Who didn’t feel the rage when Mike Bassett selected Tony Hedges (York City) and Ron Benson (Plymouth Argyle), for example? It isn’t often justified. But, then again, sometimes it is.

As England laboured towards a dreary 0-0 draw with the USA, fans understandably clamoured for Foden’s involvement. Southgate decided not to oblige them, afterwards citing the player’s lack of game time in the number ten position for Manchester City.

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This, more than anything else, should be cause for concern. Here we have the England manager essentially admitting that he saw no way through the mind-bending puzzle that is ‘fitting one of England’s most talented and versatile players into an already fluid 4-2-3-1 system.’

Let’s break this down. Foden can play as a 10, an attack-minded 8 and on either wing. Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham all had fairly ineffectual games against the USA and could have been replaced. Foden could have come on for each and every one of them with minimal reshuffling, depending on who else Southgate wanted off the bench.

Southgate’s reasoning – that Foden doesn’t play as a 10 for City – is complete nonsense. Players can operate in different roles for club and country, something he should know given how often he has fielded Kyle Walker at centre-back. When they’ve been training under Pep Guardiola for six seasons, they are not just comfortable doing it, but accustomed to it.

The justification also fails to hold up given that Marcus Rashford came on to replace Saka down England’s right-hand side, a position he very rarely plays for Manchester United.

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Double standards and logical inconsistencies have been a recurring theme during Southgate’s reign whenever he has attempted to defend his decisions – as though his quotes to the media were cynically engineered to enrage fans.

If they were, he hits the bullseye every time.

There were plenty of valid reasons for not bringing Foden into the game against the US. Given the situation in the group, it made sense to ensure England didn’t lose rather than going all out for the win and being caught out on the counter.

Foden’s defensive contribution and off-the-ball work isn’t as strong as other players, and we are yet to see him produce his level at Man City in an England shirt. Jack Grealish and Rashford both scored against Iran and therefore deserved their chance to impact the game off the bench too.

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Each argument has a fair rebuttal, though. England could have sealed qualification there and then with a win. Ostensibly attacking changes can prove to be defensive. Would Foden’s ability to receive the ball in tight spaces not have helped England get hold of a game they were struggling to control in midfield?

Does he need to be defensively robust when he has a solid back four and Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson behind him? What exactly is Foden on the pitch to do in the first place? It’s not to defend.

We haven’t seen his best for England because he’s so often been playing in Southgate’s favoured 3-4-3, as restrictive as it is depressing. Given Foden’s form this season, he should be lightyears ahead of Saka, Mount and Sterling, never mind Rashford and Grealish.

That debate can rage on and on. The point is that Southgate had a number of reasonable explanations to choose from. As a manager, we are by now well-accustomed to the overt pragmatism he wears as tightly as a Marks and Spencer waistcoat. Fans wouldn’t have been happy, but they might, at least, have understood.

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Instead, Southgate’s comment hinted at cowardice, disdain for supporters or, even worse, ineptitude. When a player with the ability of Foden isn’t coming off the bench at 0-0 there needs to be a damn good reason.

Southgate couldn’t come up with one. No wonder a national inquest is being held. His game-changing substitutions, or lack thereof, have cost England dearly in both the World Cup semi-final and Euro final. For all the talk of England fans picking anything to moan about, they absolutely have a right to be in up in arms over this.

These decisions can decide matches in knockout football. If you’re not making them in the group stage you’re certainly not going to be brave enough later in the tournament. Southgate still doesn’t seem to be able get them right, or even know why he makes them at all.

Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders and Toby Cudworth to look back on South Korea/Japan ’02 as part of the ‘Our World Cup’ series. We take a trip down memory lane – join us!

If you can’t see the podcast embed, click to download or listen to the episode in full!

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How Karim Benzema could return for France at World Cup

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Karim Benzema may be available to France for their World Cup defence after all after reports emerged of rapid progress in his recovery from injury.

Benzema was feared to be unavailable for the entire tournament after picking up an injury but did not withdraw from the squad, and France manager Didier Deschamps did not call up a replacement, instead opting to take 25 players to Qatar.

Initially feared to be out for around three weeks, Benzema had been the subject of multiple reports in Spain which claim that the Ballon d’Or winner is ahead of that schedule, and he could return to training as early as this week.

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Given he remains a part of the France squad, Benzema is technically still eligible to play at the World Cup and could return to Qatar if all goes well.

Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders and Toby Cudworth to look back on South Korea/Japan ’02 as part of the ‘Our World Cup’ series. We take a trip down memory lane – join us!

If you can’t see the podcast embed, click to download or listen to the episode in full!

France have made a strong start to their World Cup defence with victories over Australia and Denmark securing their spot in the last 16 with one group game to spare.

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Les Bleus play Tunisia on Wednesday to round out the group stages, before looking ahead to the knockout stages.



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Who could England face in the World Cup knockout stages?

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Four points from their opening two games have England in the driving seat in Group B at the World Cup.

One final game against Wales will decide whether they reach the knockout stages as group winners or runners up, though there remains the outside chance of an early elimination.

Gareth Southgate will be planning for the knockout stage, however, with a myriad of different nations standing between his squad and the World Cup final.

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Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders and Toby Cudworth to look back on South Korea/Japan ’02 as part of the ‘Our World Cup’ series. We take a trip down memory lane – join us!

If you can’t see the podcast embed, click here to download or listen to the episode in full!

England currently top Group B and a win would take them through in first place. A draw is also good enough to progress, though that would open the door for Iran to take first place with a win over the USA.

Only a thrashing of three or more goals from Wales will result in an early elimination for the Three Lions.

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England will have designs on going through the group stage as winners, which would result in a favourable last 16 clash against the runners up of Group A, where the Netherlands, Ecuador and Senegal reside. Finishing second in Group B would see England face the winners of Group A.

As group winners, a win in the round of 16 would see Southgate’s side book a quarter-final clash with either the Group D winners – likely to be France – or the runners up from Group C, where Poland, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are all still in contention.

As group runners up, a win in the round of 16 would set up a quarter-final tie against the Group C winners or the runners up from Group D.

There are a number of sides England could face in the semi-finals, but all come from Groups E, F, G and H. That pool includes nations like Spain, Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Brazil and Portugal.

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