First-round takeaways from Doha

Salem Al-Dawsari celebrates his winning strike against a Lionel Messi-led Argentina. PHOTO: REUTERS

1. Asia comes to the fore

The first World Cup in the continent for 20 years seems to have stirred some of its teams.

Saudi Arabia and Japan stole the headlines with their sensational wins over former champions Argentina and Germany, respectively, on consecutive days. South Korea then held a Uruguay side that some consider dark horses for the World Cup.

Iran were drubbed 6-2 by England on Monday, but made it a third Asian victory in four days by scoring late goals to seal a 2-0 win over Wales on Friday.

They were not as poor as the scoreline suggested on Monday, and there was a sense coach Carlos Queiroz had set up conservatively against the English with one eye on prioritising positive results in their two other games. They will meet the United States in their final Group B match next Tuesday.

Australia, however, were soundly beaten by France and Qatar virtually eliminated after losing tamely to Ecuador and Senegal, but overall Asia can be proud of its displays so far.

The way it is shaping up, the continent could even have more than two teams progress into the last 16 for the first time. It has had two representatives advancing from the group stage only twice – in 2002 and 2010.

2. Keep an eye on Spaniards

Spain’s Gavi became the youngest goal scorer at the World Cup since Pele. PHOTO: REUTERS

Much of the pre-tournament talk about favourites centred on two South American giants Brazil and Argentina, tournament machines Germany, defending champions France, and inevitably, England.

But Spain, champions in 2010, were hugely impressive in their 7-0 trouncing of Costa Rica in their opening Group E game – and not just because of their goals.

What struck me was how the Spaniards kept their intensity and focus up in the final half hour of the game, when they were already 4-0 up.

While some teams holding such a commanding lead might take their foot off the pedal, Luis Enrique’s men continued to play at the highest standards in both attack and even defence. Costa Rica could not muster even a single shot at goal, even off target, for the entire 90 minutes.

The fact Spain maintained their level even as Enrique made a slew of substitutions in the last third of the game is all the more impressive.

With a clutch of youngsters – like gifted midfielder Pedri, Alejandro Balde, Nico Williams, and 18-year-old Gavi, who became the youngest goal scorer at the World Cup since Pele 64 years ago – also showing they are not overawed by the occasion, Spain may surprise by going further than many originally expected.

3. Ronaldo has still got it – just about

Ronaldo wheels away after beating the goalkeeper - at a fifth World Cup tournament on Thursday. PHOTO: AFP

Such was Cristiano Ronaldo’s woeful club form at Manchester United and subsequent bombshell interview that led to his contract being terminated on Tuesday, that his critics have suggested he should not even be leading Portugal’s attack in Qatar. The out-of-sorts 37-year-old would only be a passenger for the Portuguese, they argued, with better options to choose from instead.

But Ronaldo made them all eat their words in Portugal’s 3-2 win over Ghana in their Group H clash.

He earned and converted the penalty which gave his team the lead in the second half, putting him in the record books as the only man to score in five editions of the World Cup.

No doubt, he is no longer the scoring machine he once was. Early in the game, he missed a header which a Ronaldo in his prime would have buried, and his diminished pace was evident on occasions. But he was able to make up for it with his experience and intelligence, as his cleverly won spot-kick showed.

At Manchester United, he chafed at being just another cog in the machine Erik ten Hag was building, but in Qatar, he is once again the focal point, the talisman for his side. And with an able supporting cast of talented, wispy Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes drifting in free roles around him, Ronaldo is revelling being the leading man again.

4. Brazil’s bright start

Richarlison seals Brazil’s 2-0 win over Serbia with an acrobatic strike. PHOTO: AFP

The image of Richarlison, body gracefully askew in mid-air as he fired home Brazil’s second goal in their 2-0 win over Serbia, has been one of the best of the first round.

The acrobatic strike capped off a slick attacking move involving livewire forward Vinicius Jr, and set the Selecao’s hunt for a record sixth title off to a solid start.

“Now that,” Fifa’s veteran English commentator Peter Drury declared as Richarlison’s second bulged the net, “is Brazil!”

Equally impressive was how the Brazilians subdued a Serbia team who boast decent firepower in Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, and technically gifted attacking midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The Serbs had only four attempts the entire game, of which three were from distance and all four off target.

Coach Tite seems to have found the perfect balance for his side, who remain breathtaking in attack – they also struck the woodwork twice on Thursday.

However, Neymar and Danilo are set to miss the rest of the group stage with ankle injuries.

The team doctor said the duo went through MRI scans and ligament damage was found.

In any case, with nine attackers in their 26-man squad, Brazil may not miss playmaker Neymar too much. And a return in the knockout stages could give the team extra oomph.

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