The top 10 matches of the 2018 World Cup

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As the 61st match of the FIFA World Cup draws near, the world's biggest sporting event prepares to draw the curtain on another epic tournament of matches, drama, fans, memes and memories. 

The previous 60 games have thrown up countless goals, magic moments, talking points and controversial moments, as empires have crumbled, hoodoos have vanished and new powers have emerged. 

Here are our pick for the top 10 games of the tournament, out of order.

Australia v France

If you’re going to draw France, the first game was the time to do it. Australia’s players acquitted themselves admirably in a match they were unlucky to lose, Paul Pogba’s deflected shot giving Les Bleus a most unconvincing of wins. Australia was inches away from a famous draw against the eventual finalist. The closeness of this result would paper over the cracks that became chasms for the Socceroos in later outings: inability to convert chances in open play, a reluctance to attack and poor game management. But for a fleeting moment, the Socceroos almost pulled off a famous World Cup result which could have changed the complexion of their campaign.

Portugal v Spain

Perhaps it was the tyranny of the draw that Portugal and Spain drew each other first. The neighbouring countries threw everything at each other in an instant classic, which appeared to leave both nations drained in their remaining matches. A football geek’s dream, stylish possession football met crisp, fast counter-attacks. Ronaldo bagged a hat-trick, Diego Costa snared two goals of his own. David De Gea made a howler and Spain’s battalion of gifted playmakers threaded the ball around with class. A draw seemed a fitting result, with neither team leaving anything in the tank. Unfortunately it showed, neither able to reach the same heights again.

Belgium v Japan

One blistering stoppage-time counter-attack stamped this one as an instant classic. With an hour gone Belgium was on the ropes and staring at another underwhelming cup exit. Japan had boldly exploited spaces down the flanks, troubling the European giant. Then Jan Vertonghen scored and the comeback was on. Fellaini jagged another one in the 74th as Japan started to wilt, perhaps guilty of playing out their own dream result too early. With the referee taking increasing glances at his watch, the minutes ticking well past the 90th, the Red Devils received it deep. De Bruyne found Chadli with a scything pass. Chadli scores. Japan is out and Belgium lives to fight another day.

Colombia v England

This was the match in which an injury to James Rodriquez broke Colombia hearts and England broke its penalty shootout hoodoo. Jordan Pickford’s heroics from the spot knocked the monkey of England football’s back and spawned a wave of ‘it’s coming home memes’ that continued until England’s semi-final loss to Croatia. If this match wasn’t a classic per se, it was an important moment for the galvanizing of a football nation, renowned as much for its fragile psyche than its deeds on the pitch.

Russia v Spain

This game makes the list for Russia’s sheer effort in repelling a Spain team that amassed an incredible 1107 passes. With a staggering 79 per cent possession Spain’s inability to make it count became the subplot of a tale in which arguably the most unfancied Russia team in history knocked out one of the favourites in front of its home fans, to make the quarter-finals of its home World Cup. Spain topped its group, but that flattered to deceive, it’s draw with Portugal the high watermark of a tournament doomed from the outset by the shock departure of manager Julen Lopetegui days out from its beginning. An underwhelming end to a campaign that failed to ignite, but for Russia, the moment its delirious fans started to believe.

Brazil v Belgium

Brazil huffed and puffed, but for all its possession, it couldn’t get past the twin afros that anchor the midfield of Belgium’s golden generation. Perhaps the Selecao were guilty of not doing their due diligence. A glimpse at the Red Devils’ epic last ditch win over Japan in the round of 16 would have revealed the ruthless counter-attacking style that eventually brought Brazil undone. Alas, when Kevin De Bruyne received the ball from Romelu Lukaku in the 31st-minute, the nearest defender may as well have been back in Rio, the Manchester City star surging through acres of space before firing an angled shot past the despairing arms of Allison. Coutinho and Neymar tried to get them down the left, but were guilty of cutting in more than a painter, Belgium withstanding waves of pressure to prevail 2-1.

Nigeria v Argentina

Argentina’s World Cup performance bore an eerie resemblance to its qualifying campaign. The Albiceleste looked underwhelming and, frankly out of contention after a draw with Iceland and a loss to Croatia. It came down to the third match against Nigeria, where a goal to Lionel Messi and Marcos Rojo’s late winner sparked scenes of celebration across the nation. The match was somewhat overshadowed by Argentine legend Diego Maradona’s antics, the famous win proving to be nothing but a false dawn, as Jorge Sampaoli’s disjointed team was bundled out by France a few days later.

France v Argentina

A seven-goal score-line belied the gap in class between the disjointed South American team which scrapped into the knockout rounds and the powerful European side that appeared to be moving up through the gears. France looked potent and went ahead early through Antoine Griezmann’s penalty. Angel Di maria scored a wonder-goal to bring Argentina back into the game, before Gabriel Mercado put the South Americans in front. Underrated les Bleus defender Benjamin Pavard scored a stunner of his own, before two goals in five minutes to the lethal Kylian Mbappe killed the match as a contest. Sergio Aguero’s late consolation had fans wondering why he’d been parked on the bench for so long, France storming into the quarter-finals with a performance in which the stellar parts finally clicked into something resembling top gear.

Germany v Mexico

From the moment Mexico carved out its first chance against Germany, something looked wrong with the defending champion. Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela had a field day exploiting space on the left, as Joachim Low’s fancied team struggled to deal with its opponent’s fast transitions from defence to attack and rapid ball movement through the middle of the pitch. Mexico held on for a famous victory as Germany uncharacteristically squandered chances, leaving its title defence in disarray before it had really even begun.

Russia v Croatia

Croatia has done it the hard way, getting to the final on the back of three drawn thrillers, two of which went to penalties. The trickiest of those tasks may well have been coming from behind, then relinquishing the lead in extra time, only to prevail 4-3 on penalties, to eliminate the host nation. Captain Luka Modric was immense as Croatia’s own fairytale started to take shape.