Control on his left thigh to bring the ball under his spell, a cushioned left-footed touch that meant there was no need to break stride before arrowing in a precise right-footed finish.
With the sort of brilliance he effortlessly makes look routine, Lionel Messi had belatedly come to the party by opening the scoring for Argentina against Nigeria in St Petersburg. About time.
This World Cup group stage – the most exciting and dramatic in living memory – ensured a raucous footballing celebration across Russia over the past 15 days. It was only right one of the most distinguished guests finally got his round in.
It began with the much-mocked and derided hosts instantly turning up the volume. Russia showed little courtesy to their opening-night guests Saudi Arabia, dishing out a 5-0 shellacking.
That was not indicative of what was to follow, with tight, tense matches the order of the day. At times late twists and celebratory benches emptying on to the field seemed almost obligatory.
On day two, Uruguay left it late to beat Egypt 1-0 and Iran left it even later to stun Morocco by the same scoreline, before Spain and Portugal produced one for the ages.
Cristiano Ronaldo – far more punctual in terms of this event than his old pal Leo – brought the house down in Sochi, completing a hat-trick with a rasping free-kick to snatch a 3-3 draw.
85 – Cristiano Ronaldo has now scored more international goals than any other European player in the history of football (85 goals for Portugal). Historic. #POR #MAR #PORMAR #Ronaldo #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/I3wsEJTGlQ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 20, 2018
Spain were excellent less than 48 hours on from Julen Lopetegui’s bizarre Real Madrid-packaged sacking but they have stumbled since, just beating Portugal to top spot in Group B in a breathless, VAR-sozzled final round of fixtures.
The much-discussed technology has largely been a success, although Neymar might not agree after he had a penalty deservedly taken off him.
Brazil’s pretender to the Messi/Ronaldo throne has managed a temper tantrum, a goal, a rainbow flick and hysterical tears – and that was just during stoppage time in a 2-0 win over Costa Rica.
The Selecao and their main man are yet to hit their stride having eased into the last 16, something that might concern future opponents more than it does head coach Tite.
Neymar is now on to five career World Cup goals. Harry Kane managed that in the space of seven days and England, for the first time in a very long time, are fun again.
Well, they were until they and Belgium seemed to decide Thursday’s dead rubber wasn’t worth winning – Adnan Januzaj separating himself from the groupthink.
Both those teams can make waves in the knockout stages, where South America, in all its sound and colour, is well represented.
Peru are back home after their fans provided some truly unforgettable atmospheres in Group C. At times it felt like there must have been no one left in Lima.
— Anderson Santamaria (@andersanta11) June 26, 2018
If only top-spot claimants France had been anywhere near as exciting, with Les Bleus an unexpectedly dull outfit given the raft of prime attacking talent available. However, they grew into Euro 2016 and Didier Deschamps will find an omen in this.
They face an Argentina taken apart by perennial dark horses Croatia – Luka Modric making a typically eloquent case to be considered among the group stage’s outstanding players, alongside Philippe Coutinho – but possibly rejuvenated by Marcos Rojo’s last-gasp heroics against Nigeria. On and off the field, with reports of mutiny after the Croatia loss, Messi’s men are the tournament basket case.
By contrast, you know what you are going to get with Uruguay. The steely defence of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, the razor-sharp attack of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Their last-16 showdown with Portugal will be one played on a knife-edge.
The overall hope is that with those higher stakes, the entertainment does not fade as in Brazil four years ago. Here’s to the party continuing until the victors emerge blinking and bleary eyed with the ultimate prize.
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