No great surprise that Zambia is heading to the knockout rounds out of Group C. But it is surprising that Portugal is by no means certain to follow the AFCON U-20 champion to the round of 16.
Zambia 4-2 Iran
After 50 minutes of this match, Iran had one foot in the knockout rounds. Reza Shekari had opened the scoring for the Iranians in the seventh minute, collecting a weak clearance and calmly working the ball past the scrambling Zambian defense. Shortly after half-time, Shekari converted a penalty: 2-0 to Iran. Zambia had taken a lot of shots, put none on target, and the Iranians were on their way to six points and certain place in the round of 16.
Then the fight-back started. Fashion Sakala got Zambia on the board in the 54th minute: a long ball over the top found him inside the area; he took a touch with his left foot and scored with his right. Five minutes later, Enock Mwepu fired past 'keeper Nima Mirzazad from the top of the box: 2-2. Six minutes after that, a cut-back from the byline caused panic in the Iran defense; Emmanuel Banda pounced from close range: 3-2. And six minutes later still, Patson Daka drilled a shot through a thicket of Iranian defenders from 20 yards out: 4-2.
In less than 20 minutes, Zambia had gone from two goals down to two goals up. A shell-shocked Iran tried to battle its way back into the game, but the Zambians were in no mood to surrender their hard-won lead.
The result strengthens the perception Zambia is the top team in this group, though it also appears a team that needs time to find its range: all six of the side's goals in this tournament to date have come in the second half of its games. As demonstrated by Iran, an opponent able to exploit early mistakes can potentially get a jump on Zambia before its potent attacking unit wakes up.
Still, on the evidence of two games, the threat of Zambia's attack is real. Fashion Sakala and Patson Daka (who joined this match at half-time, presumably still a little tender after injury forced him out of his team's opening match) are the stars of the Zambian show, but the players combine well as a unit. The preferred tactic is often to play the ball long and get behind the defense with pace, but two of the four goals against Iran were scored from outside the box with Iran's back-line facing the ball.
The ability to move the ball around the final third with imagination and pace is troubling to any defense. If Zambia can avoid the sort of mistakes that gave Iran its lead in this game, the AFCON U-20 champion will be a handful for any team in this tournament. And with six points from two games, it is assured a place in the knockout rounds. Zambia can finish no lower than second in Group C, but will be favorite to enter the round of 16 as a group winner.
Iran still has control of its destiny in this tournament. It has three points from its opening-game win over Costa Rica. That alone will give it a shot at a lucky-losers spot in the knockout rounds, though to be more confident about its chances of qualifying for the round of 16, the team will want at least a point from its concluding group stage game, against Portugal.
Costa Rica 1-1 Portugal
Portugal must be wondering what it has to do to win a game at this tournament. A relatively soft penalty gave the Portuguese the lead in the first half, but the VAR was in even-handed mood and it didn't take a lot of contact in the box for Costa Rica to win an equalizing spot kick shortly after half-time. A red card for captain Ruben Dias took the edge of Portugal's efforts to find a winner. Neither side could break the tie.
A point gives both teams hope of clinching the runner-up spot in Group C, if either can win its last game of the group stage. Costa Rica will be the underdog against Zambia; Portugal would be favorite against Iran if not for the fact it only has one point and two goals to show for its first two matches at this World Cup.
- Costa Rica vs Zambia - 4:00 am, Eastern; Saturday, May 27
- Portugal vs Iran - 4:00 am, Eastern; Saturday, May 27