World Cup 2018: 5 key takeaways from the Mundial so far

Messi has failed to light up the World Cup as expected

The opening week of the World Cup has been exhilarating, to say the least with plenty of shocks and surprises with an equal measure of controversies, especially those surrounding VAR.

Close wins and late goals were the norm but the headline results of the week were Mexico outclassing defending champions Germany and Iceland holding the mighty Argentines to a hard-fought and deserved draw.

Cristiano Ronaldo and own goals have been among the headline performers while there has been a good mix of last-minute goals, bangers, free-kicks and a lot of penalties.

Elsewhere, the debate on the usage of VAR with it proving to be a mixed bag with some good and controversial decisions while some new stars have emerged and some older ones have been disappointing

Here are the key takeaways from what has been an exhilarating opening week of football at Russia 2018:

#5 Upsets, upsets everywhere

Football: Germany vs Mexico at World Cup
Mexico stunned the defending champions

Everyone loves an underdog story and the opening week provided plenty of this with the less heralded teams providing plenty of entertainment and pulling off quite a few upsets with almost all of the favorites for the title starting off on the wrong foot.

Mexico arguably provided the shock of the tournament so far with Germany, not at the races in their opening match. Iceland produced a typical defend-for-your-lives display against Argentina and the Swiss held their own (at times pushing the boundaries of the law) against much heralded Brazil.

Honorable mentions should also go to Australia, who were unlucky to lose against France and also Morocco and Egypt both as both of them were unlucky to lose to last-minute goals against Iran and Uruguay respectively. The week ended with the tenacious Tunisians almost holding England to a deserved draw if not for a Harry Kane goal at the very end.

Expect the David vs Goliath act to continue in the further weeks as the margin for error shrinks.

#2 Impact of VAR

France v Australia: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
VAR has made an immediate impact on play

The use of VAR was a much-debated topic going into the World Cup and the opening week has done little to quell those doubters with plenty of controversial decisions which proved to be game-changing questioning the need for such a system.

France owed both their goals in the 2-1 win against the Socceroos to technology with Griezmann awarded the first ever penalty at a WC via VAR which polarized fans and pundits.

The impact of VAR can be judged on the fact that a total of 10 penalties have been awarded in the opening week, most of them via VAR with the all-time record of 18 set to be broken in the coming weeks.

Penalties awarded to Egypt's Mo Salah, France's Antoine Griezmann and Peru's Christian Cueva, both clear penalties but not picked up by the referees served as proof of the system's efficiency.

Consistency has been the biggest issue with fouls inside the penalty box reportedly going unpunished in England's opener against Tunisia when Kane was wrestled to the ground twice by Tunisians.

Portugal and Brazil claimed fouls on their defenders, Pepe and Miranda in the build-up to the goals which were not heeded. What is clear that though VAR has reduced the margin of error, though it has also polarized fans and pundits with its usage.

#3 Ronaldo and Messi roles reversed

Portugal v Morocco: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
CR7 has been the leading man for Portugal

The only stick that was used to beat Ronaldo was that he had failed to perform at a World Cup when Messi single-handedly took Argentina to final in 2014. The argument had some truth in it with Ronaldo only scoring 3 goals in the last three editions and Messi winning the Golden Ball in the previous edition.

All he needed was one match and the opener against Iberian neighbours, Spain provided him with the perfect opportunity to shut his critics up once and for all.

His first two might have been a penalty and due to a rare David de Gea error but his 88th-minute exquisite free kick for the hat-trick was a thing of beauty that will be watched over and over again.

He did not stop there proceeding to knock Morocco out of the tournament with the only goal, in the process becoming the highest scoring European in international games with 85 goals.

If he continues this level of performances he could drag Portugal all the way like he did at the Euros in 2016.

Messi, on the other hand, has done little to justify his out-of-character pre-World Cup buzz created by him posing with a G.O.A.T (pun intended) for a New York-based magazine.

Amongst an array of dribbles and one-twos, his penalty miss sticks out as the match’s biggest moment. While understandably bogged down by a sub-par team, Messi might regrettably end up on the early flight back home if we see more of the same in the coming set of fixtures.

It generally used to be the other way with Ronaldo doing all the talking and Messi going quietly about his business but their roles seem to have reversed this time.

#2 The curse of the defending champions continues

Football: Germany vs Mexico at World Cup
Germany was abysmal against Mexico

In the last two editions of the Mundial and in three of the last four tourneys, the defending champions have bowed out in the first round with Spain, Italy, and France being the victims.

But if there was one team that could break this curse, it was said to be Germany with pundits going as far as to suggest that they could even retain the cup.

Mexico had other ideas though and Germany also fell to the defending champions' curse with a lacklustre performance against the devastating incisiveness and pace of the Mexicans.

To highlight how unlikely that defeat was, it has been 36 years since they lost the opening match at a World Cup; at the 1982 edition when Germany was still divided into two nations.

The worrying thing though was that the Mexicans did not shut shop after Hirving Lozano's opener and cut apart the fabled German defence time and again could have added more had it not been for wasteful finishing.

They need to wake up or face the scary possibility of becoming the latest victim to the curse with the Swedes who they play against in their next match, no pushovers.

#1 Russia take the world and their fans by surprise

2018 FIFA World Cup group stage: Russia vs Egypt
The hosts have been the surprise package at the World Cup

Expectations were understandably muted in Russia ahead of the World cup with fans not expecting the hosts to advance out of their relatively easy group ahead of Uruguay and Egypt and beating the Saudis was the most they expected out of their team.

This was understandable considering that they were the lowest ranked team going into the tournament (they rose above Saudi Arabia in rankings a day before the World Cup), were missing some key players and had uninspiring performances in the friendlies before the World Cup.

A relatively easy group and inspired performances from the likes of Dennis Cheryshev and Aleksander Golovin, however, have propelled the Sbornaya to the top of their group and from no-hopers into an unpredictable and dangerous opponent.

Cheryshev has been the leading man, scoring two goals after replacing the injured Alan Dzagoev in the 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia and one goal in the 3-1 win against Egypt.

Spain or Portugal probably awaits them in the round of 16 and both teams would be wise not to take them lightly as they would be under no pressure to perform, having already exceeded expectations by qualifying out of their group and anything from now on would be a welcome bonus.

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Edited by Omene Osuya
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