LEE CLARKE’S WORLD CUP DIARY: Messi grit and VAR farce

England's World Cup adventure begins tonight.
England's World Cup adventure begins tonight.

It’s been a little while since I last penned any thoughts regarding the 2018 World Cup in Russia but frankly I have been struggling to keep up!

The tournament has provided some real drama so far and to be honest I will be gutted when these group stages are over, such as been the level of excitement.

It still remains to be seen which nation will be lifting the famous trophy come 15th July and as the knockout stages approach the intensity looks set to increase even further.

Here, I look at some of the week’s big talking points, starting with a certain Argentinean superstar who has finally arrived in Russia…

Majestic Messi

It’s taken just shy of a fortnight but Lionel Messi has finally landed a significant blow on the 2018 World Cup.

The Barcelona man scored a superb opener in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Nigeria and helped Argentina limp into the first knockout round of the tournament.

After his arch-rival and nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo had stolen the show in the first week of the tournament all eyes were on Messi as Argentina fought to save their place at the World Cup and he duly delivered.

Messi has had his fair share of criticism during the World Cup so far, including plenty from myself, but fair play to the Argentinian captain for stepping up when it mattered for his nation and putting on a performance that showed grit and determination.

The beaten finalists from 2014 will need their influential talisman to rise to the fore once again in the round of 16 as France stand in their way of a quarter-final berth.

Neither nation has really shown their full potential this summer and it will be interesting to see who emerges victorious from Saturday’s hotly anticipated showdown.

VARce!

In large I think VAR has proved what a positive impact it can have on football at this World Cup but the Iran v Portugal game on Monday evening offered a firm indication that it is still very much a work in progress, particularly when it comes to subjective decisions.

The Paraguayan referee was extremely poor. Whilst the players’ behaviour didn’t help matters, it seemed every time he went over to look at a decision he was pressured into changing his mind from his original call.

Ronaldo was cautioned for absolutely nothing and Southampton full-back Cédric Soares was punished for ‘deliberate handball’ in what can only be described as a farcical use of VAR.

The referee ruled out any possible infringement from a mere 10 yards away yet reversed his decision after being advised to look on the screen by his colleagues through his earpiece.

How any professional referee can have the beauty of watching that incident four or five times and then deem it to be a deliberate act of handball is frankly laughable and makes a mockery of the whole VAR system.

English Enthusiasm

It’s proving really difficult not to get a little bit excited about Gareth Southgate’s new-look England side, isn’t it?

Okay so we haven’t played anyone particularly good at the World Cup just yet but if you’re looking for the teams that have put in convincing performances, then England and Belgium are your pair.

The Three Lions were in scintillating form as they hit a woeful Panama for six in the Nizhny Novgorod sunshine.

Jesse Lingard caught the eye with a stunning performance capped with an exquisitely well taken goal to give England a three goal advantage.

The Manchester United man has taken a lot of criticism since signing a contract worth £100,000 but it is safe to say his performances have rocketed since and he is fast becoming one of Southgate’s most important players for the national side.

The game with Belgium of Thursday evening represents a much sterner test and although both sides are seemingly set to rest players, it will still offer us optimistic England supporters a good benchmark as to how far the team can go at this World Cup.