World Cup 2018: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Dead Rubbers

World Cup England v Belgium

By Brian Tamayao

Qualifying into the knockout rounds of the World Cup, or any major tournament for that matter, is a prestige every team craves. Obviously, advancing into the round of 16 increases the likelihood of winning the trophy – the ultimate goal for every participating team.

Aside from that, it’s also regarded as a status symbol in the global football pyramid. For the minnows, it is a way of sending a message – to themselves and everyone else – that they have what it takes to disrupt the status quo. On the other hand, the contenders see passage to the knockout rounds as bare minimum. It is clearly expected of them to advance and not doing so is usually a humiliating ordeal. Just ask Germany, champions of 2014, after they crashed out of the group stage by finishing bottom of their group. When almost everybody thought they’d easily make it through, that’s when they stumbled.

Thus, it brings to mind the existence of dead rubbers. A third game in a World Cup group stage usually turns out to be a really meaningful one that can swing tides with one kick of the ball. However, when both teams have little to play for, be it due to their achievements beforehand or favourable results elsewhere, the game becomes quite unbearable to watch.

Three matches in such nature in the final round of the group stage were Group C’s what-could-have-been-a-battle-for-top-spot between Denmark and France, Japan’s must-not-do-worse-than-Senegal game against Poland in Group H, and the supposed battle for Group G supremacy between England and Belgium that turned out to be a second-string showdown.

Like all things, there are good and bad sides to it – add to that an ugly part that can always be improved upon. Looking back, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the three aforementioned events:

Denmark 0-0 France

The Good: Qualification for Denmark, Top Spot and Rotating Players for France

France managed to secure top spot harmlessly and in the process were also able to give their key players a much-needed break before the crucial round of 16 tie against Argentina (then still unknown). Meanwhile, Denmark settled for a point they are equally happy with as it guaranteed their way into the round of 16 for the first time since 2002. Moreover, no key players from both teams picked up injuries and suspensions – meaning they will enter the knockout rounds in full force.

The Bad: France’s unconvincing brand of football and Denmark missing the opportunity to qualify as group winners

So much talk has surrounded France’s squad prior to the tournament’s start – and rightly so. As one of the best teams in the tournament, France is expected of big things in the tournament. Playing against Denmark could have demonstrated such strength after mediocre showings against Australia and Peru. Instead, they have yet to inspire in this tournament. Underwhelming after three games, France would feel the pressure to perform when it matters more.

As for Denmark, knowing the score in the other game made them less aggressive. They may rue this approach as they let the chance to beat France and establish momentum going into the round of 16 slip past them. Although they got Croatia instead of pre-tournament favorites Argentina, the Balkans are looking far better than their South American counterparts. Perhaps, Denmark like their chances against their fellow Europeans better than Lionel Messi et al. Time will tell if that’s a wise decision.

Ugly – Both teams didn’t need to win

As there is little incentive for both teams to win, there were not plenty of exciting moments in this match. Unsurprisingly, most of the passes were safe attempts to play the ball while a few of those facilitated what turned out to be a largely harmonious exchange of possession. Many of the shots were also made from distance, suggesting the lack of zeal common between them. In the end, it became the first (and so far only) goalless draw of the tournament, which summed up the match in its entirety – a boring risk-free encounter. The biggest losers here are the spectators who flocked a potential Group C showdown for almost nothing.

Japan 0-1 Poland

Good – Japan qualified, Poland got the win

This game wasn’t dead rubber until news about Yerry Mina’s breakthrough goal for Colombia was scored. Already eliminated before the game, Poland were desperate for a consolation win. They eventually grabbed it with Jan Bednarek’s strike early in the second half. Japan, who would have gone out if not for the Barcelona defender’s goal in the other game, opted to rest a few important players like Yuya Osako, Shinji Kagawa, and Takashi Inui. It almost came back to haunt them after Poland took the lead. Fortunately for them, there was a winner in the other game – enough to see them through by virtue of the fair play criteria.

Bad – Depending on the other game

As soon as they became aware of the situation in the other match, Japan played more cautiously as to not concede another goal or get more bookings. Their opponents, Poland, looked to have obliged to the Japanese cause as they also did little in breaking the monopoly of possession in the closing minutes. It was a risk well taken in the end although many fans were left dismayed by the tactic. Had Senegal equalized, all of it would be for nothing. Fortune seems to really favor the brave – even if the courage Japan showed was merely relying on others and not taking matters to their own hands.

Ugly – Last stages of the encounter

It all meant the final 10 minutes or so in Volgograd produced an eyesore to football fans in attendance. The Polish half may have cared a little less as long as they were going to win it. As for the Japanese, some of them may have just done better in tuning into their phones and check the developments in Samara.

After the game, the tactic used by Akira Nishino was also under intense scrutiny. It resembled the “Disgrace of Gijon” 36 years ago. He himself hinted regret afterwards although some sympathized with him, saying they only needed to do what they had to. At the end of the day, it was job done albeit not in the most beautiful of ways.

England 0-1 Belgium

Good – Playing time for everybody

Storming starts by the English and the Belgians meant they qualified even before meeting each other in the group. Not needing to win the last game, both teams fielded what are regarded to be their second-stringers. As the regular starters took time to recover for the knockout stages, the other set of players featured in what became a friendly in the biggest tournament in world football. After a lackluster game was settled by a moment of brilliance from Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj, it’s safe to say most of them will keep their places on the bench in their teams’ next games. Nonetheless, the situation allowed them to play in the World Cup – a feat not even some of the best football players in the world could say.

Bad – Untested heading to the knockout rounds

Most people probably see the two European sides as the dark horses – if not contenders – in this tournament. On Thursday evening, the two could have simply gave it a go at each other. After all, they only impressed against teams they were expected to beat. Belgium ended the night as winners but everyone knows that neither team fielded their strongest unit. It made the result less meaningful had the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Jesse Lingard have seen action, with all due respect to the others. It’s now interesting to see how they would fare against the other contenders. Would they hold their own or would they stumble like their Group G opposition? The Kaliningrad encounter failed to offer a suggestion.

Ugly – Draw strategy

The conversation surrounding this match’s buildup was the draw strategy. Prior to kickoff, journalists asked both Belgium’s Roberto Martinez and England’s Gareth Southgate whether winning the group is a position they wanted to be in. A group win would have meant that a tougher road – at least on paper – was on the cards. France, Argentina, Uruguay, Portugal, Mexico and Brazil are all on that side of the bracket. Meanwhile, only Spain and Croatia look serious contenders on the other half of the draw. That’s where the group runners-up were headed.

To be fair to both managers, they didn’t say outright that they’d be happy with not winning yet they fueled talk when they suggested that winning the game isn’t the most important thing. To an extent, they are correct as both know whatever the result was in their game, what would matter more is the outcome in the next game. It turned out to be the motivation to rest key players, wary that a booking or a rash challenge on one of them can be detrimental to their long-term goal.

What perhaps was farcical was the talk, primarily from outside, of deliberately not topping the group to boost their chances of winning the World Cup. If both were tempted to do so, then it’s simply tempting fate. Anything can happen in the knockout rounds – everyone is well aware of that.

Love them or not, dead rubbers are here to stay. Sometimes not winning a match leads to more favorable outcomes than winning it. It’s all about the bigger picture after all. Thankfully, for fans and all else against these kinds of matches, it’s do or die from this moment on. Winning is now the name of the game.


Related readings:
Denmark and France progress after tame draw
Nishino earns reward for brave decisions
Januzaj magic lights up drab affair