5 things we learned from the opening set of fixtures in the World Cup group stages

The first set of matches in Russia have thrown us thrills, spills and A LOT of penalties. An impressive start to the World Cup has been shown by many teams, most noticeably Russia, while Iceland, Mexico and Switzerland have all pulled off upsets. Here, we take a look at the biggest talking points so far as we head into the second set of fixtures:

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5. Cristiano Ronaldo has still got it

Many will agree that Spain v Portugal has been the game of tournament so far, with it probably being awarded the game of the tournament when the World Cup finishes. The quality and passion shown in that game was a brilliant advertisement for the World Cup with Ronaldo being at the fore front of that charge, scoring an unbelievable hat trick, completing the route with a perfectly executed free kick. What made the hat trick even more impressive was the fact it was against arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, Manchester United’s David De Gea. With Ronaldo conjuring up many of the Portuguese attacking threats, it showed the 33-year-old still has the ability to compete and take over on the biggest stage, writing himself in footballing history year on year. It’s no secret Ronaldo is the star of a fairly average Portugal side (without him), but if he continues to perform like he did against Spain, who knows how far the Euro 2016 winners could progress in this tournament.

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4. LOTS of penalties are being awarded now VAR has come into use

In the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a total of nine penalties were awarded throughout the entire group stages. Well, the first set of fixtures can match that, as nine penalties have been awarded so far in Russia with seven being scored, 1 saved and one blazed over the bar. The reason for three of the penalties being awarded is through the use of the new VAR review, which allows the referee to look at the incident again by himself or get told by a qualified referee who is watching it in a different location on their TV screen. It allows the officials to access the situation from a number of different angles to make sure that they can award the correct decision. With a number of ex pros and pundits suggesting it is a lot easier to gain a penalty in the modern game, many are stating that VAR brings more accurate results, as neither team can argue at the decision. It looks like VAR is here to stay so we may as well get used to it.

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3. The World Cup minnows are pulling of shocks

So far in Russia a number of the heavy weight teams have clearly not pulled their weight, dropping points to opposition which neutrals will feel they should be winning comfortably. Most notably was the current World champions Germany losing their opening game on Sunday to the North Americans of Mexico. It was a very sluggish performance from the 4 time World Cup winners as the lack of effort and the tactical prowess of the Mexican players was clear to see. This was also shown in the Argentina game where the South Americans didn’t have an answer to the Icelandic backline who defended resolutely after Alfreð Finnbogason equalised shortly after Sergio Aguero opened the scoring. It possibly shows that the standard of defending has increased in recent years, with managers able to mark out top players with 11 men behind the ball at all times, as they look to punish teams on the counter attack.

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2. Belgium are looking clinical

The Belgian fan base must have been worried at half time against Panama, as the ‘Golden Generation’ failed to really test the Central American teams number one Jaime Panedo. A second half masterclass from Roberto Martinez men put them in pole position in Group G, with it looking very likely they will progress into the knock-out rounds. Yes, they were only up against a Panama team who are attending the World Cup for the first time in their history, but its important to get your important players off the mark and Romelu Lukaku did just that, scoring two good goals after Dries Merten’s wonder strike early into the second period. A professional performance from Courtois and co at the back for Belgium gave them little worry of conceding which is important for confidence as the tournament begins, and Belgium are the first heavyweight to win a game by a sufficient margin which can only be positive.

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1. England are on the charge

Over 18 million people tuned in to watch Gareth Southgate’s opening game in Russia as England managed to claw out a late victory thanks to a Harry Kane header in the dieing moments. This gave England lift off after a mildly frustrating game, giving them their first opening win at a World Cup in over 12 years. The first half saw many positives for the Three Lions as the link up play between midfield and attack was impressive for all to see. Deli Alli and Jesse Lingered both put in brilliant first half performances which many can be excited about. This Tunisian side were not a team to brush off, boasting a number of top division players which used their experience to frustrate England after they were awarded a soft penalty in the first half. This can only a sign of things to come for this England side who will face tough opposition in Belgium before they reach the knock out stages, meaning we can see this team be tested. For now Gareth, the country is behind you.

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