Alamy Stock Photo Argentina players celebrate their win over the Netherlands.
# Opinion
Ranking the 10 best matches of the 2022 World Cup
Argentina-Netherlands and other memorable encounters.

10. Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia

The first major shock of the tournament, with Japan’s similarly unlikely defeat of Germany coming the following day. Argentina were many people’s pre-tournament favourites, although there was a sudden rush to revise that judgement after this result. Lionel Messi had given the South Americans the lead from the spot, and they almost had a couple more with VAR intervening to disallow a goal on more than one occasion. Lionel Scaloni’s side consequently appeared to be coasting before a sudden one-two punch in the form of goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari. A stunned Argentina struggled to maintain their composure, suddenly looking bereft of ideas and Messi for once appearing mortal. It was tempting to write them off after this catastrophic opener yet here we are a couple of weeks later and improbably, La Albiceleste are still alive.

9. Ghana 0-2 Uruguay

There are a few contenders for this list in Group H — the two 3-2 games both also involving Ghana (they lost to Portugal and beat South Korea) spring to mind. And you could argue that as standalone matches, they were better than the game that makes the cut here. Yet Uruguay v Ghana makes it for the sheer tension and drama that it produced. Luis Suarez entered the field as the villain in Ghanaian eyes, owing to his clear handball to famously deny them a crucial goal at the 2010 World Cup. But this time, the former Liverpool man ended the game in tears. There were incredible scenes as Uruguay went 2-0 up and at one stage appeared to be coasting into the next round. However, South Korea’s dramatic fightback against Portugal, scoring a last-minute winner, meant the South Americans suddenly needed a third goal to go through. And they could easily have scored it but were denied partially as a result of a couple of controversial decisions from the officials. Consequently, it was the Asian outfit that advanced by the narrowest of margins — goals scored — as the Uruguayans angrily surrounded the referee amid vociferous protests upon the final whistle.

8. Cameroon 3-3 Serbia

In Group G, you could also make a case for Switzerland’s come-from-behind 3-2 defeat of Serbia, but that misses out by virtue of the fairly unspectacular conclusion to the game — the final goal was scored in the 48th minute and the Swiss looked in firm control thereafter. The Serbs’ match with Cameroon, however, was not quite so straightforward in the second half. The European side looked set for an easy win as they found themselves 3-1 up after  Aleksandar Mitrović’s 53rd-minute goal. Nevertheless, Cameroon hit back thanks to two strikes in three minutes from Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Choupo-Moting. A nervy finish ensued but neither team could score a winner and both ultimately were knocked out in one of the most closely contested groups of the tournament.

7. Morocco 0-0 Spain (Morocco win 3-0 on penalties)

This feels like a somewhat controversial choice as precisely zero goals were scored over the course of 120 minutes. Yet the best games aren’t always the ones where teams find the net with the most frequency — if that were the case, England’s 6-2 victory over Iran would top this list. But what was fascinating about this encounter was the dramatic contrast in styles — Morocco, a disciplined, supremely well-organised counter-attacking side, and Spain, a team with an abundance of talent who can keep the ball for fun yet struggle particularly against the type of cagey approach their opponents favoured and implemented with aplomb. Yet while Luis Enrique’s men controlled the ball, they did not necessarily control the game. Despite Spain having 77% possession, the Moroccans made La Roja look toothless in attack, and of their 13 attempts on goal, only one hit the target. Further drama was to follow. Despite their manager’s insistence that he told them to take 1,000 penalties in training, the 2010 winners incredibly missed all their spot kicks, resulting in the biggest shock of the round of 16. 

6. Croatia 1-1 Japan (Croatia win 3-1 on penalties)

Another epic encounter involving two well-matched teams. Japan were one of the main overachievers at the tournament, defying the odds by topping a group that included Spain and Germany. They were unlucky not to advance any further, as they took the lead against Croatia before being pegged back by a brilliant second-half header from Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic. A nervy period ensued with both sides increasingly exhausted and determined to avoid a mistake. Zlatko Dalić’s men had the greater composure ultimately, as the occasion seemed to get to the Japanese players, missing three out of four spot kicks but exiting the competition with their heads held high regardless.

5. Costa Rica 2-4 Germany

Of all the final group stage games, the evening of 1 December was surely the night that warranted the most channel surfing between fixtures. Japan overcame Spain 2-1 in the other match, and there was a point in the evening when all four teams looked like they might go through. Costa Rica dramatically going 2-1 ahead against Germany suggested they could defy all the experts and advance with Japan at the expense of the two favourites. Having lost to the Japanese and drawn with Spain, the Germans were in the most vulnerable position ahead of the final set of matches. They needed to beat Costa Rica and hope Spain overcame Japan, and while they held up their end of the bargain with a deserved but nerve-ridden win ultimately, the Spaniards’ surprise loss saw the four-time champions crash out unexpectedly at the first hurdle for the second World Cup in succession.

4. Brazil 1-1 Croatia (Croatia win 4-2 on penalties)

One of the numerous upsets that characterised this tournament perhaps more than any other, Brazil seemed to have justified their favourites tag in the early parts of the World Cup, advancing from the group stage with relative ease and proving far too good for South Korea amid a 4-1 round-of-16 win. However, just how hard it is to win a World Cup was underlined, as one unfortunate off day usually tends to be fatal. Against a stubborn Croatia backline, stars like Richarlison, Vinicius Junior and Raphinha were all below-par and substituted as a consequence. Neymar was not much better but appeared to redeem himself with a stunning individual goal that looked to have won it for the Selecao in extra time. However, the underdogs were given a huge psychological boost thanks to substitute Bruno Petkovic’s 117th-minute equaliser. That gave Zlatko Dalić’s side the impetus to edge the game on penalties. And so a tearful Neymar left the field, having controversially opted not to take any of his side’s four spot kicks and contemplating what could potentially have been his last chance to win the World Cup.

3. Morocco 1-0 Portugal

Despite Morocco’s remarkable upset against Spain, most pundits were tipping Portugal to progress, especially on the back of a hugely impressive 6-1 victory against Switzerland, as the hat-trick hero and heir apparent to Cristiano Ronaldo, Goncalo Ramos, truly announced himself on the international scene. Yet if anything, this was an even bigger shock and better performance than the Spain win as far as the Arab outfit were concerned. A combination of good goalkeeping from Bono (which prompted inevitable, endless U2-related puns) and wasteful finishing from the Portuguese were key to this upset, yet the first African side ever to reach a World Cup semi-final also impressed when they ventured forward and could have won even more convincingly but they missed a couple of great chances to extend their advantage. It was another sad end for a legendary figure, as Cristiano Ronaldo — only deemed worthy of a substitute appearance by boss Fernando Santos — was inconsolable at the final whistle and immediately traipsed off the pitch having equalled Kuwait striker Bader Al-Mutawa’s international caps record but left to ponder another ineffectual display in his waning career.

2. England 1-2 France

With the depth of talent on display, this game could easily have been the final rather than a star-studded last-eight encounter. Both teams were tipped as potential tournament winners and had been very impressive up to this point, comfortably navigating the group stages and round of 16, so it was bound to be a close affair. The match itself turned out to be a classic, with each side having dominant spells and displaying great moments of quality. Right up until the final whistle, the outcome felt deeply uncertain. England were the better outfit over the course of the 90 minutes but perhaps lacked the creativity and cutting edge in the final third to fully capitalise on their superiority. Meanwhile, as good as they looked on the sporadic occasions they attacked with menace and despite theirn conservative tactics, France were their own worst enemy at times, conceding two needless penalties, yet only seeing Three Lions star Harry Kane convert one. In the end, thanks in part to the odd controversial refereeing decision, the holders just about prevailed thanks to the class of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud among others following an enthralling encounter that was impossible to look away from.

1. Argentina 2-2 Netherlands (Argentina win 4-3 on penalties)

One of the most intriguing subplots of this World Cup is whether Lionel Messi can finish his glorious international career — he has recently suggested that this will be his last appearance at the tournament — in a fitting fashion. Possibly no game summed up Argentina better than this clash, and ‘clash’ feels like an especially apt way of describing it given the unsporting scenes that transpired regularly on the night. It was largely Messi’s brilliance that inspired his team to a 2-0 lead but they then nearly blew it as they almost have on a few occasions now. An unlikely source and a player about as different from Messi as possible, former Burnley striker Wout Weghorst, turned the game on its head after coming off the bench, scoring two late goals to bring the match to extra time. It was a deeply tempestuous affair with both sides guilty of underhand behaviour. The fact that, despite 17 yellow cards, it took until the 128th minute for a player to be sent off – Denzel Dumfries — was an indication of the extremely generous and lax officiating that both teams benefited from on occasion. It was the Argentines who held their nerve better in the shootout and probably just about deserved the win on the balance of play anyway — they had better chances plus more shots on and off target. Of course, not everyone watching will have been enamoured with the poor behaviour at times from both teams, but regardless, it is a match that will live long in the consciousness of football fans around the world owing to the near-relentless drama it generated.

Honourable mentions: Ghana 3-2 South Korea, Germany 1-2 Japan, Ghana 2-3 Portugal, Germany 1-1 Spain, Croatia 0-0 Belgium, Serbia 2-3 Switzerland.

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