WC 2018: Serbia 0 v 2 Brazil – Group E

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The final match in Group E between Seleção (The Squad) and Beli orlovi (The White Eagles) was a neutral’s dream. The permutations for both teams were simple – they both could top the group, finish second or be eliminated depending on Switzerland’s result against lowly Costa Rica. Head Coach Tite has battled both his players and the country’s fans in the media after two less-than-convincing showings in the tournament so far. Two injury-time goals edged them past the Costa Ricans, meaning only a draw was needed at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow tonight to confirm their place in the second round. Serbia have also struggled – only a set piece saved them from drawing with Costa Rica and last time out they were soundly beaten by the Swiss. With so much on the line for both sides, there was the added problem of discipline with 3 players from each side running the risk of suspension for the knockout stages: Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Casemiro for Brazil; Aleksandar Mitrovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Nemanja Matic for the Serbs. Big names!

Brazil started the brighter of the teams with Neymar and Coutinho linking up well to bring an early save from Vladimir Stojković. Then, in a huge blow for Tite’s men, the influential Marcelo was replaced by former Chelsea defender Filipe Luís – the Real Madrid wing back suffering an apparent back injury. Neymar forced another good parry from Serbia’s Partizan stopper before Gabriel Jesus raced through, beating the offside trap, only for his weak effort to be kept out also. Stojković then made the game’s first big mistake: a delightful through ball from Coutinho found the run of Paulinho through the middle of the Serbian defence, Stojković failed to get to the ball in time and the Barcelona midfielder poked the ball over him to give Brazil the lead. It was a moment of pure class from Coutinho in an otherwise drab first half between two sides out of kilter.

As the second half limped on, signs of the familiar Brazilian complacency at the back started to emerge and the game felt like a cup tie. The White Eagles forayed forward after clearing a corner to find themselves four-on-four: Torino’s Adem Ljajic worked his way into the box and played a one-two with Dusan Tadic – but the return pass was a complete waste and summed up the night for the Serbs up until then. Still the Serbs piled on pressure, however; Aleksandar Mitrovic had a strong shot blocked, before Sergej Milinkoviv-Savic fired wide from 15 yards. Another chance for Mitrovic went begging, the Newcastle forward caused huge problems for Miranda but headed low straight at goalkeeper Alisson. Seleção knocked the wind from the Serbian sails with twenty minutes left – Thiago Silva popped up in front of Nemanja Matić at the near post to head a Neymar corner past Stojković to send Tite’s side into the knockout stages. It was harsh on Mladen Krstajić’s side who had given it a good crack but lacked the necessary quality to really hurt the average Brazilian backline.

The critics remain but the fans will party tonight and celebrate Neymar and co topping the group. Brazil could really struggle against a pacy, counter-attacking side with lots of quality in the final third. Next up: Mexico, who have just that. A mouthwatering prospect for all football fans.

Man of the Match: Philippe Coutinho (BRA)

Best: Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho, Thiago Silva (BRA), Aleksandar Mitrović, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Nemanja Matić, Vladimir Stojković (SRB)

WC 2018: Uruguay 3 v 0 Russia – Group A

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As expected in Group A, this fixture would decide who finishes top of the group. Despite both teams already securing their spot in the knockout stages, the triumphant team would, as a result, most likely avoid a second round tie against the mighty Spanish. A flurry of changes for both La Celeste (The Sky Blue) and Золотые Орлы (The Golden Eagles) meant there were lots of new faces looking to impress on a sunny afternoon at the Samara Arena. Young Lokomotiv forward Aleksei Miranchuk was given his chance up front for Russia, and Uruguay’s Lucas Torreira was also given his first World Cup start – the 22-year-old is widely expected to join Arsenal from Sampdoria for £26m after the tournament. A lively end-to-end start resulted in the opening goal coming after just 9 minutes – Yuri Gazinskiy’s clumsy challenge from behind on Rodrigo Bentancur gifted a free-kick on the edge of the box to Uruguay. Luis Suárez stepped up and emphatically drove the ball hard and low past Igor Akinfeev in the Russia goal. The goalkeeper will be disappointed conceding on the same side as his positioning – you have to save those in a World Cup tournament. Russia nearly levelled the contest immediately as a lovely ball into the box from Miranchuk found Denis Cheryshev, the tournament’s surprise package so far, but he could only fire straight at Muslera. The Russians rued that missed chance as midway through the first half a Uruguayan corner was only half-cleared to Diego Laxalt. The Genoa man connected poorly with his shot at goal but thanks to a huge deflection off the unfortunate Cheryshev, Igor Akifneev was wrong-footed and the shot looped into the corner of the Russian net. Óscar Tabárez and his staff were delighted in the dugout, a pleasing sight. His side was well on top in the first half thanks to an effective press across the midfield and some aggressive forward play down the Russian flanks. It went from bad to worse for the hosts of the tournament, however, as two rash challenges from Igor Smolnikov minutes apart saw the Zenit Saint Petersburg defender given his marching orders quite rightly. A shell-shocked Stanislav Cherchesov went into the tunnel at the break with a damage limitation problem on his hands!

The game was effectively over as a contest after the break. The Uruguayans were happy to recycle the ball and see out the match, whilst the Russians struggled to play their way back into the game with only 10 men. Diego Godín was phenomenal as the cornerstone for Tabárez’s team who were determined to give nothing away at the back. The introduction of Krasnodar’s skilful forward Fyodor Smolov gave Russia a bit more of a direct threat for the final period of the game, and it was his mazy run that produced the best chance for Russia to pull a goal back. Muslera wasn’t in the mood to concede, however, and spoiled the Russian’s cross as Dzyuba lurked dangerously. The only sour note for Uruguay so far in the tournament has been the lack of reward for the hard-working Edinson Cavani. That was quickly dismissed minutes from the end – Godin thundering a bullet header from Torreira’s corner towards goal, Akinfeev did well to parry the ball away but the PSG forward was on hand to sweep the ball past the Russian stopper to claim his much-deserved first goal of the finals.

Three wins, three clean sheets, a perfect start for Uruguay. The Russian party has been rocked, however they still progress and managed to rest key players for what will be the country’s most important game in decades as either Spain or Portugal await in the first knockout round.

Man of the Match: Diego Godín (URU)

Best: Diego Godín, Rodrigo Bentancur, Lucas Torreira, Edinson Cavani (URU), Daler Kuzyayev, Artem Dzyuba, Sergei Ignashevich (RUS)

WC 2018: Serbia 1 v 2 Switzerland – Group E

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Buoyant after positive results in their opening games, Serbia met the Swiss in Kaliningrad in a crunch fixture that both teams would have highlighted prior to the tournament as a must-win. With Brazil the overwhelming favourites to progress, the two European teams know they are fighting over the second qualifying spot. The Swiss earned a well-deserved point against Brazil largely thanks to a dogged defensive display in which they were successful in preventing the Brazilians from playing in between the lines. Borussia Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji was sensational that night – at only 22 and winning his 9th cap, he is a future leader for Vladimir Petković’s Rossocrociati (Red Crosses). Serbia were less convincing against a Costa Rican side who had their chances to share the spoils in Samara. Reliant on a wonderful trade-mark free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov to break the deadlock, Бели Орлови/Бели Орлови (The White Eagles) failed to click in midfield and but for a commanding performance from Partizan goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković, it could have been a disappointing start to the finals. Mladen Krstajić’s men started the better of the teams tonight, however. Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matić doing what he does best by winning the ball in midfield before releasing Dušan Tadić down the right. His sumptuous ball into the penalty area was met wonderfully by Aleksandar Mitrović to head the Serbs in front. The Newcastle United forward (who enjoyed a prolific campaign in the Championship with Fulham last term) attached himself to Akanji’s defensive partner Fabian Schär in the opening period in an attempt to assert his physical superiority. It worked – cushioning the ball on his chest from a Branislav Ivanović cross, Mitrović peeled away from Schär and acrobatically sent a good effort narrowly over Yann Sommer’s crossbar. The Swiss then wasted a glorious chance to level with their first attack of the game. AC MIlan’s superb left back Ricardo Rodríguez dispossessed Ivanović on the edge of the Serb box, wasting no time to expertly pick out compatriot Blerim Džemaili, only to see the Bologna man drag his shot horribly wide from 8 yards out. The Swiss slowly started to come into the game after a pedestrian start. Dynamic transition play from the defensive to attacking thirds, led by the distribution of Akanji and Rodriguez, was beginning to cause issues for the Serbian midfield. Džemaili collected an intricate through ball from Steven Zuber but his poked effort goalwards lacked power and was comfortably parried away by Stojković. Just as the Swiss looked the more likely to level before the break, a Serbian corner from the right found Duško Tošić unmarked 5 yards out in the centre of the goal. Somehow the Guangzhou R&F Football Club defender blazed his header wide and a collective head-in-hands expression could be witnessed by every Serbian player, coach and supporter inside the stadium.

Mario Gavranović replaced the ineffective Haris Seferović for the Swiss at the break, Vladimir Petković choosing to exploit the flanks in search of an equaliser. The Serbs failed to adapt and it didn’t take long for the Swiss to level. Another marauding run from Rodriguez on the counter saw the ball reach Xherdan Shaqiri at the far edge of the box. His shot was deflected into the path of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, who thundered a left-foot strike back across goal and past the static Stojković. Game on! Moments later the Swiss could have been ahead. The enigmatic Shaqiri, ever blowing hot and cold, pops up on the right and weaves his way between two Serb defenders before curling an outrageous effort past the Serbian keeper. Despair, however, as the ball clips the outside of the post and deflects wide. Into the final 10 minutes and it is anyones game, both teams trading blows across the park in a thrilling contest.

A huge moment seconds before the 90 are up – the brilliant Akanji clears a Serbian cross with another fine header. Rodriguez moves the ball forward quickly to Zuber who spots Shaqiri’s clever cross-field run and slips him in behind the Serbian defence. The Stoke City man bursts into the box and slides the ball between the advancing Stojković and tracking Tošić to send the Swiss fans into jubilation. It is no more than their efforts deserve in the second half, and due credit to Petković and his tactical switch at half time. The Swiss go into the Costa Rica game knowing a draw will be enough to send them through to the knockout stages. Serbia need to pick themselves up off the floor and find a way to beat Brazil to qualify. They were again hampered by a lack of midfield creativity, Krstajić’s tactics were far too one-dimensional as Mitrović tired late on.

Man of the Match: Ricardo Rodríguez (SUI)

Best: Manuel Akanji, Ricardo Rodríguez, Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri (SUI), Sergej Milinković-Savić, Aleksandar Mitrović (SRB)

WC 2018: Morocco 0 v 1 Portugal – Group B

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The atmosphere inside the Luzhniki Stadium was electric for this tasty match up in the second round of games in Group B. Desperately unlucky to fall to a late defeat (thanks to an own goal) against Iran in their first game, Morocco made a couple of changes to force the issue against the European Champions, Portugal. Khalid Boutaïb and Nordin Amrabat were preferred in the forward line, and they looked lively straight from the off – Amrabat delivering a teasing cross from the right that was collected by Ziyech, his ball back into the box met by Boutaib, whose good effort just crept over the bar from 10 yards. Then, bang! The Atlas Lions fall asleep for a Portugal corner and Joao Moutinho expertly curls the ball right into the mixer. Cristiano Ronaldo is free, about six yards out, to bury the diving header and give A Seleção das Quinas an early lead. Opportunistic, smart play from the Portuguese to get their noses in front. Morocco were not to let their heads go down, however, and continued to press high up the pitch with purpose and quality. A great deal of endeavour failed to amount too much in terms of true chances for the Moroccans, and Portugal should have doubled their advantage after a lovely dink over the back four from Ronaldo sent Goncalo Guedes away in the Moroccan penalty area. His volley was well saved by Munir Mohamedi and immediately the Atlas Lions charged back up the field and a won a corner of their own. A delightful ball in was glanced goalwards by Younes Belhanda, whose effort whizzed narrowly wide of the far post. For all their hard-work and impressive build up play the Moroccans found themselves trailing at half time to Ronaldo’s early header.

After the break it was more of the same – the Portuguese not taking too many chances but aiming to hit their attacking talisman, Ronaldo whenever opportunity arose. The Moroccans came out fighting: the excellent young Ajax star Ziyach sending over a pinpoint in-swinging free kick, to which Belhanda rises and forces a tremendous save out of Rui Patricio. Portugal retreated deeper and deeper, frantically attempting to defend the intense pressure from the Atlas Lions. It was fantastic to watch the individual battles all over the pitch. A dangerous free kick from Ziyach once more was met by Juventus defender Benatia just six yards out, the ball ricocheting off his shoulder rather than his head and bouncing agonisingly wide. Hands down the man of the match, Ziyach picked up the ball on the right, skilfully cutting inside and darting past two Portugal defenders before unleashing a terrific drive that Pepe throws himself in front of, the ball deflecting over Rui Patricio’s bar. Desperate stuff from the Portuguese. Somehow they survive until the final whistle and Morocco hearts are broken. It is hard to justify the results based upon their two terrific performances, however they are heading home from Group B. Portugal were more than fortunate and after a thrilling game against Spain, they will need to improve significantly to progress any further than the Second Round based on this showing. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo who holds their fortunes in the palm of his hand.

Man of the Match: Hakim Ziyech (MOR)

Best: Hakim Ziyech, Younès Belhanda, Nordin Amrabat (MOR), Rui Patrício, Pepe, William Carvalho (POR)

Russia 2018: Group H Preview

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Ok, let me get this out from the off – I love SENEGAL in this group. Aliou Cisse has built a side packed with attacking flair since taking charge in 2015. Led by Liverpool sensation Sadio Mané, Les Lions de la Téranga (The Lions of Teranga) boast a wealth of young attacking talent. Look out for Monaco’s Keita Baldé, Torino’s M’Baye Niang and Rennes wonderkid Ismaïla Sarr, who will all endeavour to run at defences and score. Captain Cheikhou Kouyaté, who has been in good form for West Ham United this season, will anchor the midfield and quite surprisingly the Senegalese are decent at the back. Kalidou Koulibaly and Kara Mbodji are rock solid in the centre of defence, with young Bordeaux full back Youssouf Sabaly a threat down the left. Unbeaten in 10 qualification games, conceding only 3 goal and with Mané set to light up the tournament, I think they top Group H, in what will be a surprise to many. COLOMBIA will have other ideas no doubt. The South American powerhouse stuttered through qualifying and ended up very fortunate to progress after 3 draws and 1 defeat in their last 4 games. Chile’s failure to beat Brazil in their last game was met with a collective sigh of relief in the country. Harshly treated by the referee in their quarter-final defeat to hosts Brazil in 2014, Colombia then disappointed in the Copa América, bowing out to Argentina on penalties after scraping through their group despite failing to beat Peru and Venezuela. José Pékerman is adored by the fans after the performance in Brazil and has been given more time to realise the potential of this talented squad. Once again Radamel Falcao will lead the line for Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers), however it is the dynamism of the three players in support that many will be looking forward to watching: James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and José Izquierdo have all impressed in European football and look to take on the world stage once again. A young back four is marshalled by Spur defender Davinson Sánchez whose first seaon in the Premier League was outstanding. Can they repeat the ventures of four years ago? I think they will grow through the group games and could be the team nobody wants to play in the knockout rounds. I’d stopped being excited about POLAND before the last European Championships, and of course they finally started to put right years of wasted potential. Growing up I loved the Polish team of the 80s, I sat in my bedroom watching VHS tapes of Grzegorz Lato and Zibì Boniek destroy defences at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Piotr Zieliński and Karol Linetty are close as Biało-czerwoni (The White and Reds) have ever coming to emulating those legends. Both earning rave reviews in Serie A with Napoli and Sampdoria respectively, they could be the key to provide service to main man Robert Lewandowski. Now nearing 30, you feel this tournament will be his last chance to achieve success with his country. Already his country’s all-time leading scorer, can the Bayern hitman inspire his nation in Russia? JAPAN dismissed coach Vahid Halilhodžić in April after a 1-1 draw (thanks to a goal with the last kick of the game) and 2-1 defeat to Ukraine in warm up games. Many believed the course of action to be harsh and further eyebrows were raised when they hired as a replacement, Akira Nishino. Out of coaching since 2015, he has no international experience but did win the J-League with Gamba Osaka way back in 2005. Who knows what to expect, however the change by the Japan Football Association was intended to reaffirm a commitment to attacking football. Step up Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki. Led by every manager’s ideal professional, Makoto Hasebe, you feel that the Samurai Blue need to upset Colombia in their opening game to have a chance of progressing to the knockout phases.

Players to watch: Sadio Mané, Keita Baldé, Ismaïla Sarr (SEN), Davinson Sánchez, Mateus Uribe, Juan Fernando Quintero (COL), Robert Lewandowski, Piotr Zieliński,  Karol Linetty (POL), Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda (JPN)

Fun fact: In a strange interview post-sacking, ex-Japan coach Halilhodžić said “Why was I sacked? In Japan, everything is focused on money, and that’s how they perceive football too,” he said. “That is, according to me, the main reason. I will go to Japan in a week to get that cleared up” Money is the root to all the world’s problems, we already knew that right?!

WC 2018: Belgium 3 v 0 Panama – Group G

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The gulf in class between the two European teams in Group G (England and Belgium) and the other two teams (Tunisia and Panama) makes the opening games in the group very important. Would Panama be able to make up in organisation, grit and work-rate that they lack in quality coming up against this Belgian side riddled with proven talent? The opening 20 minutes played out as expected with De Rode Duivels dominating possession and forcing Los Canaleros into some last-ditch defending. Exposing the space down both flanks, the Belgians looked threatening: after a clever dummy from Eden Hazard, the ball landed at the feet of Yannick Carrasco who saw his shot saved by Jaime Penedo; not long later Dries Mertens tried to pick out Romelu Lukaku lurking unmarked at the back post but he was foiled by a brilliant interception from Roman Torres, who poked the ball wide of the upright for a corner. The Belgians failed to make the most of a number of corners as the resolute Panamanian defence held strong. A lack of urgency and desire saw the game peter out to half-time without any clear-cut opportunities for Roberto Martínez’s side to take the lead.

Hernán Darío Gómez would have probably liked to have skipped half-time as it turned out to be his side’s worst nightmare. Within two minutes of the restart, a lapse in concentration at the back allowed time and space for FC Napoli striker Dries Mertens to pounce on a loose ball in the penalty area and loop the ball expertly over the diving Penedo. It turned out to be a significant turning point in the game, signalling the floodgates to open. A sublime outside-of-the-boot Kevin De Bruyne cross from the left was met powerfully by Lukaku with a diving header from six yards out – the ball flying past a helpless Penedo once again just ten minutes after the forst goal. Disappointment and naivety crept into the Panamanian side who needlessly started to force and turnover the ball, drastically exposing their backline on the counter. Eden Hazard wasted no time in driving into the Panama half and pick out the run of Lukaku, who doubled his tally with a lovely dink over Penedo to make it 3-0. The brave Los Canaleros did have their moments – the imperious Michael Murillo darting past Carrasco to collect a long ball in behind the Belgian defence, forcing Courtois to rush off his line and make an important save with his legs. They never stopped having a crack, joint all-time leading scorer Luis Tejada just failing to get on the end of a delightful swinging cross from Armand Cooper from the left.  But in the end, the Belgians didn’t need to get out of second gear and this was a comfortable victory for De Rode Duivels. More difficult challenges lay ahead for them, and critics will no doubt highlight that there are a few questions that remain uneasily unanswered. Panama will be pleased with their application for much of this game. Embracing one another at the end in a circle of prayer, they will learn from this and come out stronger against England in their second game in the group.

Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku (BEL)

Best: Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Thomas Meunier (BEL), Román Torres, Michael Murillo, Armando Cooper (PAN)

Russia 2018: Group G Preview

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A shock 3-1 defeat to Wales (or Gareth Bale), at the European Championships in France two years ago, spoilt BELGIUM’s breakout party as the much-lauded De Rode Duivels (The Red Devils) failed to live up to pre-tournament hype to make any impact on the world stage. Flash forward to Russia and it’s the same conversations. Electrifying in qualifying (9 wins, 1 draw, 43 goals scored and only 6 conceded in 10 games is some record), boasting a gluttony of mainly Premier League superstars, and holding the hopes of many sweepstakes punters from around the globe, the only question is whether the coach is up to the task. Roberto Martínez was utterly unconvincing at Everton after showing promise as a young coach at Swansea and Wigan. His appointment by the Royal Belgian Football Association raised the eye of many critics due to his complete lack of experience both as a player and manager at international level. He has overseen 14 wins in just 20 games, however mainly against inferior opposition. Disappointing draws against Portugal, Mexico and Russia left a lot to be desired compared to inconsequential drubbings of Costa Rica (4-1), Egypt (3-0) and Saudi Arabia (4-0). Eden Hazard is the focal point of the attack and will look to run the show from a traditional No.10 position. Romelu Lukaku has thrived at international level over the past 18 months and in Dries Mertens they have someone who can create something out of nothing. They should easily progress from the group but the game against ENGLAND should tell us a little more about their potential in this tournament. The Three Lions were equally impressive in qualifying and have only lost twice in 2 year (against Germany and the French). Head Coach Gareth Southgate, infamous for missing the decisive penalty against Germany at Wembley in Euro 96, has come through the England youth teams to provide both stability and an unusual sense of optimism. Embracing the modern 3-4-3 formation, the attack is spearheaded by one of the world’s most inform strikers, Harry Kane. The Tottenham Hotspur striker has 145 goals in the past 4 seasons for club and country and needs to emulate the performance of Gary Lineker at Italia 90 if England are to have any realistic chance of lifting the trophy in Russia. An able cast of young, hungry attacking players will attempt to provide service to the captain: Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all under 23 are Southgate looks to build for the future. With a seemingly positive fan base behind them, and a clean slate from the horrific English media, England could surprise the Belgians and top the group. There were 4 million people (the entire population) in PANAMA celebrating when star man and defender Roman Torres, who had been pushed forward in search of a winning goal, outmatched the Costa Rican defence to fire his country to the World Cup for the first time in their history at the expense of the new footballing aristocracy that is the USA. The Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) boast a heavy contingent who play their club football in the MLS alongside captain Roman Torres, who turns out for the popular Seattle Sounders franchise. Michael Murillo of the New York Red Bulls is an exciting prospect who can fly down the right hand side from fullback, whilst former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo is one of few Panamanians to have carved out a successful career in Europe with Dinamo București. Targets for the tournament are first a goal then a point, any more than that and Hernán Darío Gómez’s side would be in dreamland. Indeed those targets could be well out of reach given the fact that they have only managed one goal in their last five warm up games. Coach Nabil Maâloul returns for his fourth spell with TUNISIA (who make it to the World Cup for the first time since 2006) after a disastrous spell with the Kuwait national team. Maâloul has lost only one of his ten games in charge – impressive wins over Iran and Costa Rica in warm up matches were followed up by a 2-2 draw with Portugal last month in Braga. This is a talented group of players: attacking midfielder Naïm Sliti impressed in Ligue 1 with Dijon FCO this season; Wahbi Khazri has Premier League experience with Sunderland, and striker Ahmed Akaïchi netted 18 goals for Al-Ittihad Club this season. It’s a tall order to ask The Eagles of Carthage to progress from the group, especially after a knee injury to star striker Youssef Msakni ruled him out of the tournament.

Players to watch: Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, Kevin De Bruyne (BEL), Dele Alli, Jordan Pickford, Marcus Rashford (ENG), Roman Torres, Michael Murillo (PAN), Naïm Sliti, Wahbi Khazri (TUN)

Fun fact: Panama forwards Luis Tejada (age 36) and Blas Pérez (age 37) are the country’s all-time joint top goal-scorers with 43. The two journeymen boast 38 clubs between them in their playing careers, including every single South and Central American nation with a professional league. Neither has scored for their country since September 2016.