The Netherlands justified its billing as the highest-ranked team (No. 8 in FIFA rankings) in Group A to top the final standings and progress to the round-of-16. With two wins and a draw, the Dutch were the deserving group champion and brought up memories of the 2014 edition in Brazil, where they reached the semifinals. With the return of coach Louis van Gaal, the Oranje showed glimpses of its famed playing philosophy as it beat Senegal and host Qatar, and drawing against Ecuador.
The Netherlands had seven points and extended its unbeaten run to 18 matches. A three-time runner-up, it thus made up for its failure to qualify in the 2018 edition in Russia. The Dutch were joined by Senegal as the second team from the group to reach the knock-out stage. Senegal, a quarterfinalist in the 2002 Japan-Korea edition, showcased its talent to overcome its opening match loss against the Dutch and won its next two matches against Qatar and Ecuador to finish with six points.
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Ecuador, which had previously reached the knock-out stage only once, in 2006, should be feeling dejected as it led the group standings prior to the final round and was forced to bite the dust by a determined Senegal, which won by Kalidou Koulibaly’s late goal.
Qatar failed to make much of the home advantage and lost all its three matches. With only one goal to its credit (and seven against), Qatar became the first host nation in the FIFA World Cup history to be eliminated after losing all three of its group matches.
Best goal — Cody Gakpko vs Ecuador
Cody Gakpo’s left-footed net-buster against Ecuador should count as the best goal of the group. With the Netherlands looking to extend its command over the action against the talented Latin American opposition, Gakpo bulged the net with a swerving drive that saw the ball sailing through a narrow corridor between the post and the outstretched hand of Ecuador goalkeeper Hernan Galindez, whose valiant dive went in vain.
Best Player — Cody Gakpo
The 23-year-old Dutch winger became his country’s first player to score goals in the team’s first three matches of the World Cup. The record came riding on the youngster’s ability to find the target from difficult angles. The PSV Eindhoven player, who is now on the radar of several big European clubs including Manchester United, opened the scoring for the Netherlands in a difficult encounter against Senegal with an opportunistic header. He scored his team’s only goal in a 1-1 draw against Ecuador with a brilliant left-footer. He also brought up the lead against Qatar in the team’s final group league outing. This made Gakpo only the second player to score the first goal of the match three times in the same group stage of a World Cup, after Italy’s Alessandro Altobelli in Mexico 1986. Also, Gakpo is the second player from the Netherlands, after Wesley Sneijder in 2010, to score with his head, left foot and his right foot in a single edition of the World Cup.
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Best match — Senegal vs Ecuador
Senegal carried the aspirations of the African nations by progressing to the knock-out stages. Senegal and Ecuador met for the first time in the World Cup and the match turned out to be an exciting contest — Ecuador’s Latin American flair coming up against the robust determination of the doughty Senegalese. Ecuador needed a draw to book a ticket to the next round but Senegal appeared in no mood to be ruled out. The Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, saw lively action as Senegal surged ahead late in the first half thanks to a calmly taken penalty from Ismaila Sarr. Ecuador drew level midway through the second half and appeared to have gained the required point but the scenario altered pretty soon as Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly showed his class by getting the winner in the 70th minute for a 2-1 result. This ended a wait of two decades for Senegal, which made it to the knock-out stage for the second time in its history.