A brilliantly entertaining group stage created 116 goals and a plethora of narratives this already feels like a tournament with is own distinctive character

And breathe. After 48 matches, 116 objectives and a thrillingly differed swag-bag of drama, big-name angst and rolling VAR-palaver, Russia 2018 has now reached its midpoint.

These things invariably alter from week to week, the tone and texture of a tournament defined by a few key games. But as the World Cup takes a breath, hitches its shorts up and contemplates a final punt through the laces at the knockout stage, it already feels like a tournament with its own distinctive character.

Yes, it's that time already. Welcome to That Was The Russia 2018 Group Stage that was.

Whatever your view on the ultimate quality of the football, it has been a brilliantly entertaining World Cup so far, with few of the mind-numbingly dull games that is sometimes dogged the group stage.

From the high-ceilinged quality of Portugal and Spain battering away at each other like a pair of hall-of-fame Mexican middleweights; to the novel spectacle of simulcast video referee shenanigans; to the emphasis so far on team play over star power: Russia 2018 has detected its own shapes, mushroomed into some unexpected areas and confirmed some well-honed truths.

Some of the big notes were nailed at the start. The host nation play around well and remains fully engaged. The opening game at the Luzhniki Stadium was a brilliantly staged piece of theatre, complete with an enjoyably opaque address from Vladimir Putin, iconic alpha-dog shootings of Gianni Infantino lurking like an overattentive blini-waiter between Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and a 5-0 defeat of a wretched Saudi Arabia.

The grounds have all been ready and fit for purpose. Russia's volunteers have been friendly and accommodating. And around the edges the social spirit of the country has come to the fore. Rather than battering visit fans about the head with knuckledusters, the Russian people have been excellent hosts on the whole, often to a fault. There are plenty of narratives of unsolicited rescues from the wrong side of town, drinks bought in bars and lost property returned.

Undoubtedly Russia has prepared a face to meet the faces, its cities carefully scrubbed and posed, as is usually the instance. But the top line, solely unsurprisingly, is that this is just another country like all the other countries, built to a larger scale but with the usual variety of all human rights. The basic spectacle of Senegalese, Moroccans, Peruvians and South Koreans twirling their flags around Red Square felt like an apprehending transformative moment in itself.

Russia
Russia fans watch their team's game against Uruguay at the Fifa fan fest. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/ AFP/ Getty Images

On the pitch the football has been relentlessly moreish, to the fullest extent a rest day now feels like a hardship to be grudgingly suffered. Some stats thrown out by the Fifa machine: Russia 2018 has find an average rate of 2.54 goals per game in the group stage, slightly down on Brazil 2014 but up on every other World Cup of the last 30 years except for France 98 and USA 94.

Belgium are top scorers with nine. Uruguay have yet to concede at all. Forty-seven goals have come in the first half, and 75 in the second. One could go on. Javier Mascherano, whose World Cup has once again resembled the harrowing final scenes of a notably gore-stained 1980 s Vietnam war movie, has committed the most fouls.

Javier Mascherano

Neymar has been contaminated an astonishing 17 hours, though this depends on one's specific definition of the words” being fouled “. Lionel Messi and Victor Moses are among five players tied on most handballs so far( two ), another strand to the never-ending Moses v Messi debate.

The fastest player so far, with a top speed of 34 kph, is Cristiano Ronaldo, who is, lest we forget, 33 years old and in his 16 th season as a pro. Finally, and another tribute perhaps to the reach of VAR, merely one player has been booked for diving. Surprisingly this is dear old Son Heung-min, who might just feel a little wronged on that score.

When it comes to the best teams so far Croatia are the obvious choice. The 3-0 defeat of Argentina is the outstanding outcome along with Mexico's surgical dismantling of Germany. Luka Modric is arguably the outstanding player of the tournament to date. Belgium have looked like the genuine challengers their depth of talent suggests. The arm-wrestle between Portugal and Uruguay on Saturday will see a session of two teams with the necessary tournament bastardy, plus upper-class attackers in form.

Otherwise everyone is below the radar, still looking to come to the boil. France have seemed stodgy for all their dazzling talent. Brazil still seem to be finding a workable groove. Germany had more shootings than anyone else but finished bottom of their group, victims of the dedication to method and systems that served them so well but brought a strange kind of entropy at this tournament. Spain have appeared slow and underpowered at times but depicted moments of exhilaratingly pure champion quality in the exchanges between Isco and Andres Iniesta.

Diego
Diego Costa, Isco and Andres Iniesta have impressed even in an underpowered Spain side. Photograph: Norbert Barczyk/ PressFocus/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Beyond this there has been a refreshing refusal to bow to the star players of club football. Ronaldo has been productive as ever but a semi-fit Neymar has had 17 shoots at goal, scoring only once, and built 24 failed dribblings. Messi has rendered just the one otherworldly moment. This is a different game from the relentless numbers of club football, each squad stacked with a greater variety of human talent. The knockout phase, with its fine point details, may provide a more hospitable centre stage.

There have been obvious tactical alterations, modifications to the game's rhythm driven by technology. Aided by the video referee, and by a lack of defensive prep from some teams, set pieces have played a large part. There have been 24 penalties awarded, 18 scored and six missed, leading to fears the game is undergoing a fundamental modification in its gravity.

Some have suggested squads will now focus tactics on winning penalties, will hire expert penalty-takers, that a kind of apocalyptic penalty fixation is the future. More likely squads will simply adapt how they defend as has already begun to happen during the tournament. Overall the lessons of VAR from Russia 2018 are that when managed brusquely, when consigned to simple howlers and obvious blunders, a little VAR can be a good thing.

Otherwise some things remain the same. The dance between possession football and counterattack continues. Predictably Spain embody one side of this, completing 400 more pass than anyone else so far. England are sixth on that list, a significant moment in itself. As the tournament winds down, as players tire and stakes grow ever higher, it seems likely the teams that pass and keep the ball best will prosper.

One irritation: there has been a surprising amount of play-acting, players writhing in apparent agony holding the wrong body portion or shrieking when briefly touched. No doubt this is a misguided side effect of a greater refereeing presence. Countermeasures are required to stamp it out, as they are to restrain a related rise in the haranguing of officials.

Sign up for the World Cup Fiver .

A final bonus point: a total of 2,178, 894 ticket holders have watched with an average attendance of 45,394. The grounds have been boisterously full, with lulls in the partisan noise often filled by sudden outbreaks of “Ross-iy-ya” from the locals.

This has felt like a genuinely epic-scale World Cup, football in a big country, with a vast bloom of interest and history in every city. The weather will now change, with a more staccato feel to the more micro-managed drama of knockout football. Over to you, part two. It won't be an easy act to follow.

Read more: www.theguardian.com