World Cup '“ Leon Wobschall: Let's hope we have a banquet to savour in knockouts

THE starter was simply delightful, but for that perfect meal you also require an exquisite main course and classy dessert.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo: Celebrating after the Group B match against Spain.

Supporters have dined out on some delectable World Cup fare so far, with the fervent hope of all those who cherish the beautiful game being that the sumptuous banquet continues as the table is prepared for the 16 footballing nations still resident in Russia.

If it does and the knockout phases and final follow the drama and sensory overload of the group stages then a new contender for the greatest World Cup of all time will be upon us.

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What memories so far. An abject fall from grace for the seemingly imperious Germans, who were knocked out in the opening round for the first time since 1938 tops the list, with a remarkable Iberian derby to treasure between Spain and Cristano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal bestowed with the status of game of the tournament so far.

There was also Russia’s opening night pulverising of Saudi Arabia, the classy Croatian dismantling of Argentina and late drama in an enriching encounter between Serbia and Switzerland.

Not forgetting Harry Kane, Marcos Rojo, Group B being decided by VAR and Japan through via UEFA’s Fair Play rules at the expense of poor Senegal.

Much more, too, with the competition already closing in on the previous five tournaments for goals scored from the 80th minute onwards in games.

We have also only been subjected to one tepid goalless encounter with France drawing with the Danes in the competition’s 38th match – which represents a record start to a World Cup without a goalless stalemate.

But a word of warning after taking stock following the most gripping of opening World Cup fortnights.

We have been here before. Four years ago, in fact, in Brazil.

After 136 goals were scored in the group stages – a record for a first phase of 48 games – the Roundheads promptly won their battle with the Cavaliers with the knockout stages dominated by hardheadedness.

It culminated in a distinctly joyless Argentine side reaching the final in Rio before a German side displaying rather more elan thankfully lifted the trophy.

There were some compelling moments of knockout theatre, including a wonder goal from James Rodriguez and stirring efforts from Colombia and Chile to try to knock Brazil off their perch – before Germany emphatically did that on a night of carnage in Belo Horizante.

But it was largely a time for caution with the average number of goals per game dipping from 2.83 to 2.19 in the later rounds, with finalists Argentina scoring just two goals in the knockout stages and one in normal time.

Disregarding Germany’s stupendous semi-final result against the hosts, just five goals were scored in the five other quarter-final or semi-final matches at Brazil 2014.

The successful stealth tactics of the Argentines in reaching the final last time are likely to have resonated in Montevideo, Lisbon and Paris this time around, with the football powers of Uruguay, Portugal and France being three qualifiers who underwhelmed in the group stages – Ronaldo’s unquestioned magic aside.

An early barometer for the knockout stages and future vitality of the competition is likely to arrive today. Games between France and Argentina and Uruguay and Portugal pit four famous names together, but the matches sadly have the potential to be arm wrestles.

Stodgy – and awful, to be frank – for most of their dismal group qualification, Argentina survived amid a riot of sky blue and white frenzy and raw emotion in Tuesday night’s win over Nigeria. St Petersburg has never felt more like Buenos Aires.

After playing from the heart in that throbbing denouement with their World Cup lives on the line, the hope is that La Albiceleste will stay true to those same instincts against the French.

Not too many would put their last peso on it although one thing is sure: Argentina are likely to leave their mark on this competition for better or worse.

Looking at the last-16 clientele it has a surreal look without the presence of Germany, let alone Italy and Holland.

Having no African nation through to the knockout stages for the first time since 1982 also makes for a strange sight; a sad one, if truth be told.

Elsewhere the likes of Japan and Denmark possess the look of sides happy to be along for the ride after achieving arguably what they set out to do before the competition began, namely reach the knockout stages.

For England, Colombia, Switzerland and Sweden – nations in the second tier of footballing powers – there is the tantalising prospect of a semi-final place for one of them should they prevail in their last-16 tie. Will they be bold in that quest or calculated and risk averse?

Hosts Russia’s game with Spain at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium tomorrow and Brazil’s encounter with an easy-on-the-eye Mexican side in Samara on Monday afternoon arrive with the promise of plenty.

The tone could well be set today. In a competition abundant with pleasant surprises so far it would be nice if panache as opposed to pragmatism reigns in Mother Russia on this most glorious of Saturdays.