Leading into the final group matches, let’s go ahead and talk about all of them, shall we?
Could it be anything else, really? The non-penalty given to Fred when Brazil opened the tournament against Mexico, the two wrongly disallowed offside goals for Mexico’s Giovanni Dos Santos against Cameroon. Even the Croatia foul on Julio Casear that pulled a goal back for Croatia was questionable (though probably the right call in the end).
How will it play out? It’s unlikely that Cameroon will manage to get a result against Brazil, which should see them through at the top of the group with 7 points. Croatia v Mexico is the match to watch, then, as the winner will join Brazil into the knockouts. Mexico have the slightest of edges, as they can count on a draw to put them through, but Croatia has more firepower going forward. It remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get past the Mighty Guillermo Ochoa, but I think they’ll pull it off.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: Brazil versus Mexico. What Mexico lacked in real attacking threat they made up for in a brave defensive performance against a team desperate for an untainted win. It might have ended as a no score draw, but it was thrilling football.
Goal of the Group: Nothing leaps out at me. If it had counted, Dos Santos’ first strike, off a gorgeous cross from Herrera would get my vote. Since that was disallowed, I’ll settle for Perešić’s tasty run down the left against Cameroon for Croatia’s second goal.
Even the most optimistic of Spain dismissives couldn’t have possibly expected what happened here. When the Netherlands put 5 goals past Spain, it was the most seismic shift we’ve ever seen in modern football tactics. Even the most reasonably bullish couldn’t have seen a result like that coming. I saw Spain play a friendly against El Salvador a week earlier. They won that match 2-0, but they looked a team in trouble for it. The saving grace had been David Villa, on in the second half for Diego Costa, he gave just enough of a spark to put Spain up.
The World Cup would hold no such joy. A controversial penalty aside, Spain had no answer to the overwhelming Dutch. They were broken and with it, an empire of footballing prowess bid farewell.
The good days weren’t going to go on forever, but to see Spain fall so harshly was a true shock.
Chile, meanwhile, earned their place into the next stage with aplomb. If the Netherlands had severely wounded Spain, it’s fair to say that Chile euthanized them once and for all.
Australia deserves mention for playing bravely in the face of overwhelming odds. They gave Chile a good fight and regrouped to give the Netherlands an even better one.
How will it play out? Netherlands and Chile are through, it’ll just be a matter of which position they fill out. Netherlands have the edge, needing only a draw. The absence of Robin Van Persie will certainly be missed, but they should have enough quality the fight their way into the top of the group.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: A dull match hasn’t yet occurred in this group, but it has to be Netherlands v Spain for the reasons I outlined above. It’s a match that will be remembered for as long as football is played.
Goal of the Group: Appropriately enough, this can only be discussed in the context of great Dutch goals of the past. Tim Cahill’s Van Bastenesque strike against the Netherlands deserves great applause; Arjen Robben controlling a long pass and finding the perfect opening to slot home against a baffled Spanish defense summoned the spirit of Dennis Bergkamp against Argentina in 1998.
But in a group full of remarkable goals, it had to be The Flying Dutchman. Daley Blind’s miraculous cross from the left, 50 yards out, straight onto the head of Robin Van Persie was forever memorable. Perhaps one of the finest goals scored in the history of international football. Blind’s cross was tremendous, but Van Persie’s finish, a controlled leap forward, arms outstretched like a bird, made time stand still. As he controlled his move and put his head to the ball, lobbing a mesmerized Iker Casillas, I knew immediately that I’d seen an astonishing thing of beauty.
Colombia’s attacking verve saves group C from being flushed down the toilet of World Cup history. Sadly, Greece always brings the promise of disappointment along with them, but even they get to claim a European Championship in 2004 and an exciting victory over a superior Russia in 2012. Japan has disappointed, an early Keisuke Honda strike of undeniable quality nullified by mediocrity all around. Japan failed at the Confederation’s Cup last year, too, but they at least failed with incredible style. While not as bad as Japan, Ivory Coast’s golden generation is slowly withering away and there’s not a lot to be positive about with what we saw here.
How will it play out? It’s difficult to see how Japan will upset Colombia and Ivory Coast should manage a draw against Greece at the very least. I don’t expect a lot of fireworks as Group C concludes, but the best hope might be a Japanese side eager to get through. They’ll need a very good result to do it: 2-0 win over a clearly superior Colombia side, plus some help from the stingy Greek defense. I don’t imagine it’ll happen, though.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: Either of Colombia’s wins deserves mention, but I’ll go with the one over Ivory Coast. The first half was spent with both teams feeling each other out, but Colombia got on the board with a tremendously powerful header at the 64 minute mark, adding a second with an excellent counterattack. Ivory Coast pulled one back, but it was never going to be enough.
Goal of the Group: Gervinho’s swimmy run from the left corner flag into the penalty area. Past one defender, past two. Little touches, delicate but authoritative, right up to a perfect finish. A singular effort in a group that demanded team efforts, but Gervinho put on display with that strike what he’s capable of. Lovely stuff.
Between them, Uruguay, England and Italy have won 7 out of the 19 World Cups. Any gambler will point out that past performance does not guarantee future success, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Italy made it to the Euro 2012 final, Uruguay was a 2010 World Cup semifinalist and England is stacked with players from arguably the most competitive league in the world. This group was always going to be tough, but never in the context we’ve been given. Little Costa Rica, useless in the snow but brilliant at home, must have packed the whole of San José with them. They’ve stunned the group, stunned the cup and stunned the world with two remarkable performances: a thrashing victory over mighty little Uruguay and a disciplined performance marked with moments of justifiable genius against an Italy side that moved with less urgency than Michelangelo’s Pieta. Costa Rica’s side stands as a testament to team sports, to a socialist ideal that would shame even Marx. Costa Rica is the Henry V of football: a true band of brothers.
How will it play out? As an Italy fan (who was ashamed in their match against Costa Rica), I’m well aware of how the Italians seem to make everything complicated in world football. I think they’ve got the quality to go through, and they’ll just need a draw to do it. I’ve bowed to the altar of Cesare Prandelli since he was appointed in 2010, but his tactical mistakes against Costa Rica were baffling and nearly unforgivable. Uruguay has quality, too, but I think the Italian’s push through, even if it’s in a nervy fashion that threatens to stop my heart.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: It would be cruel to not mention England. Their meeting with Italy in the rainforest deserves mention for being highly entertaining and hard faught. The three goals were all remarkable; the first for Pirlo’s Dummy (we must capitalize it in that fashion forever); the second for Rooney’s brilliant cross; the third for another brilliant cross, onto the head of the talismanic Mario Balotelli. To call Balotelli frustrating would be to devalue the the meaning of that word, but on his day, he’ll find the space he needs with a lethal urgency. All in all, a cracking match, full of attacking verve, near misses and (ultimately, for England fans) heartbreak.
Goal of the Group: It had to be Bryan Ruiz’s header. Costa Rica never lacked for willingness to attack, but this was meant to be. Denied a justified penalty a few minute earlier, Júnior Diaz’s cross to the far post was met with the head of Ruiz. He hit the top post and the strike bounced just beyond the line. We got to see that goal line technology at work and it confirmed what we already knew: little Costa Rica had just gone up on mighty Italy. They’d earned it and the result held. A historic goal, if not for quality (thought it was bloody beautiful), but for the blueprint of what it means to be a supposed minnow in this crazy sport of football.
Has any team been more lethal than France? Go ahead and make an argument and I’ll fight you on it. You can point to the weakness of the group, but you could do the same in Group C or, as we’ll see, Group F or H. Bear in mind that Switzerland went into this as the seeded group; the top dog, the best of the bunch. No one in their right mind believed that, of course, but there it was. The French started off with an expected domination of Honduras, but they made a meal out of Switzerland, destroying the alpine nation in football in a way that no nation could ever do in war. Anyone who watched that 5-2 shellacking would point out that even that lopsided final score was unfair. The French fell asleep, lulled to there like Proust in Combray. A couple of Swiss madeleine’s (including our only goal from a free kick in the tournament so far) didn’t make a difference. This was comprehensive football from France. They might have problems once the knockout stages begin, but they unquestionably have the firepower to make up for any shortcomings.
How will it play out? France will top the group; Ecuador’s played with bravery, and it’s possible they sneak something past France on the wings, but even if they win, it’ll need to be by an unbelievable margin. Switzerland gets the benefit of playing Honduras; I won’t guarantee 3 points for them, but I’ll say it’s very, very, very likely they’ll get them.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: This is a tough call. The group has been full of entertaining matches, but I guess it comes down to what you want. Ask me another day and I’ll change my mind, but right now I’ll celebrate my pleasant surprise at Honduras v Ecuador. It’s not a match I was anticipating, especially after Honduras’ extremely negative play versus France to start the group. That said, both teams put everything into it; it was a bit ugly and lacking the refinement of fine French finishing and superb Swiss crossing, but they fought like there was no tomorrow. Which is probably true, but it was a blast to see. One of the more physical matches of the tournament; not cerebral physical, but bodies flying into each other with wreckless abandon physical. A fun match, for sure.
Goal of the Group: Paul Pogba’s looping lob to Karim Benzema. It was the fourth goal for France, hardly a suspenseful finish, but Pogba put the perfect touch on it and Benzema struck it true from an awkward position.
Honestly, this group deserves a subtitle of The Group of Poor Officiating Part Deux. Iran’s denied penalty; Edin Džeko’s unjustly denied goal for an offside that wasn’t even close. Seriously, you could have fit another human being in the space he had leading up to that goal. This group turned on two brilliant bits of Lionel Messi; a lateral run past three Bosnian defenders in the match against Bosnia-Herzegovina and a tremendous, thundering strike in stoppage time against an Iranian defense that had done everything possible, only to find out it wasn’t enough.
Argentina got their tactics wrong the whole time, but never paid for it. Bosnia-Herzegovina got their tactics wrong, too, and paid the price with an early exit. It’s tempting to dismiss formations as the stuff of football nerds, but any close analysis would tell you those two teams got it incredibly wrong. Argentina haven’t been made to pay for it yet, but mark my words: they will. This favorite to win the whole thing won’t make it anywhere… unless Messi’s magical left foot strikes again. In which case, all bets are off.
How will it play out? Argentina faces a decent challenge against Nigeria. I would hope they’d learn not to put Higuaín and Agüero out with Messi (and frankly, I think they failed from the moment they decided to leave Tevez out of the squad), but at the end of the day it’s unlikely to see how Nigeria pulls a win out of this. That said, they’ll likely progress from the group. Bosnia-Herzegovina will hopefully manage to unlock that Iranian defense and get their first World Cup win. It won’t get them anywhere, but it’ll send Nigeria through.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: Iran came so close to pulling off one of the great upsets in World Cup history. The penalty they didn’t get! I’ll admit it wasn’t a clear cut call; honestly, if it hadn’t been for Fred’s dive in the first match of the tournament, that would have earned Iran the penalty kick they deserved. I don’t want to take anything from Argentina here, either; Romero came up with the crucial saves when called upon. And that Messi goal… it’s why we talk about him with reverence. It was heartbreaking to see it happen, but it was also thrilling stuff. Could have gone down as the great 0-0 draw in World Cup history.
Goal of the Group: It’s the Messi strike against Iran, of course. The little guy with the impossibly quick feet invented that goal out of nothing. No sane individual would have taken that shot expecting it to upset the net’s equillibrium. Even in the face of those 90+ minutes of remarkable defending, that goal proved Messi’s greatness, his ability to lift a side when it matters most.
Between Clint Dempsey’s broken nose and Thomas Müller’s broken face, could it be anything but? I guess we could call it the group of 2-2. The only thing we can’t call it is the group of boredom. Going into the final match, the permutations seem endless. And, it must be said, potentially controversial. After all, it was West Germany in 1982 and their presumably colluded match with Austria that changed the World Cup format forever. There, those two neighboring European sides played a match that needed one specific result: West Germany 1, Austria 0. That would see both teams through to the next round at the expense of an Algerian team that had shocked West Germany earlier, beating them 2-1.
It’s an interesting thought, but the truth of it is that it’s hard to imagine this USA side and this Germany side could ever see eye to eye. Jürgen Klinsmann was hardly appreciated as the coach of Germany in 2006 and he’ll face his former assistant in Joachim Löw, who has matured this German side into a genuine force.
Well, a genuine force until they hit the semi-finals, right?
Seriously, though. It’s remarkable that for all of FIFA’s efforts to avoid situations like this, well… here we go. I imagine FIFA brass will be paying very close attention to this match; if it were to end in a draw between the USA and Germany, there would be inquiries. There’d have to be: Portugal or Ghana would demand them (more vociferously for the team of those two that won their match).
Regardless of how it plays out, it’s without question this is one of the most exciting groups we’ve seen since the current World Cup format was solidified in 1998.
How will it play out? I could just phone it home and say it’ll be a draw, but truth is I’m still not sure this USA team can beat Germany. The latter is certainly not unbeatable — Ghana proved that and were a moment of head’s up brilliance from Miroslav Klose away from cementing it. Germany’s weaknesses play strangely into the USA’s strengths; strong attacks on the flanks against a German set of centre halves out of position at fullback could make a difference. Realistically, I suspect Germany will be capable of getting the goals they’ll need to win, which leaves the ultimate table in the hands of Ghana and Portugal. It’s tempting to think Portugal will write this match off, but I don’t see it happening that way. They’ll go into it thinking they can get the win and make up the goal differential to see them through. They won’t get there, not against a dangerous Ghana side, but they’ll put enough into it to keep the USA into it, perhaps an undeserved gift, but one we’ll need.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: All of them? Seriously, can I pick that? I suppose we can dismiss Germany v Portugal on account of it’s lopsidedness, but USA’s thrilling comeback against Ghana; their draw against Portugal; and Ghana’s draw with Germany; all of them are classics of World Cup history. When the draw was announced, everyone called it the Group of Death. I, perhaps cynically, have called it the Group of Blood. But maybe, really, it’s the Group of Hope. Portugal was unfortunate to fall apart as they did against Germany; Ghana has played with astonishing verve and tenacity. And the USA… how do you describe that miracle header from John Brooks? That goal from Dempsey, pooched in off his stomach. And that cross from Cristiano Ronald. That cross, the one that silenced a nation of football fans in training, catching up to a glorious game that’s captured a planet in its grasp but eluded one of it’s superpowers. That day has gone; we’ve suffered the requisite heartbreak now, the sensation of having victory so close, and yet so far. If anything, that draw against Portugal will go down as a moment of character building. A realization that while all men are created equal, all footballing nations are not. It takes a moment of genius, a moment of luck, a moment of inspiration, to separate the truly great from the ones that could have been.
Goal of the Group: It’s Jermaine Jones’ strike, of course. A wonder goal, so shocking it froze Portugal’s keeper; it surprised the scorer himself. A miraculous strike, wonderful in real time and a treat in slow motion. It was impossible and yet it happened. Watchng it again sends a chill down my spine and it doesn’t go away when I see it again. It’s the Joe Gaetjens goal of 2014. Jones made the impossible real; the fact he couldn’t believe it had happened doesn’t make it any less significant.
Algeria’s 4-2 win over South Korea disagrees, but the reality is that this group has disappointed. Belgium’s golden generation has looked in desperate need of a buff; they’ve got the results, but there’s no passion. That’s a tough thing to measure, but you can see it. Compare Belgium’s late win against Russia to any of the group G matches; any of the French victories; Colombia’s unity and verve. They don’t compare kindly. I was high on Belgium before the tournament began, but they’ve been a disappointment. A kind draw has forgiven them, but I won’t.
I’d be remiss to not mention Algeria v South Korea again. There we got real passion; in a group full of robotic Russians and boring Belgians, we got real, genuine passion. The Algerians attacked with astonishing verve; they should have brought that out against the Belgians earlier. South Korea suffered a huge set back, but never gave up. They put a huge amount of effort into trying to get a result that would have defied the history books; the fact they were unsuccessful should be relegated to a footnote. Both teams fought bravely, non-European minnows in a sea of European mediocrity. I can only hope that Belgium (and Russia, if they make it through) can play in a manner that honors the Algerians and South Koreans they left behind.
How will it play out? I really don’t know. I’m loathe to commit to anything after seeing that Algeria v South Korea match. Belgium’s guaranteed a spot, but they could lose their place at the top if Algeria pulls off another performance like they did against South Korea. That said, I think Belgium should get the result they need to finish top; I’ll go so far as to say it’s essential they do. Any team they meet from Group G will come into the knockout rounds more ready to play to the death. Russia has seemed content to play for the draw throughout, so it’s hard to imagine they’ll do much more, even when it’s necessary.
Top of the Group
Match of the Group: Algeria v South Korea. A tremendous contest, one I admittedly dreaded and wrote off as likely to boring. It was anything but. Algeria played aggressive, and once South Korea was on the backfoot, they played aggressive, too. Lots of attacking football, a lot of it surprisingly technical given the nations involved. A real treat; the perfect antidote to the turgid affair of Russia v Belgium just prior.
Goal of the Group: Algeria’s nifty move for goal number four against South Korea. Their earlier goals could have been chalked up to happy bounces, poor goalkeeping. This one was special. A delicious run from Yacine Brahimi, a pass off to Fegouhli who one times it back for Brahimi to slot past the keeper. Lovely! Just happy to be here.
Anything? Based on the small sample size of two group matches, it’s tough to say. I think France looks possibly unbeatable. They have defensive questions, but they seem more than capable of answering them with offense. They won’t meet much competition in the round of sixteen, but things could get dicey from there. At this point, they’re my team of the tournament.
I’m sure I’ll regret this, but I’m calling France to win the whole thing at this point.