Thoughts on the World Cup: Group Stage Part Deux

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Now that we’re most of the way through the second round of group games, we hope that we have a little better picture of how the tournament is going to play out. But in such a small sample of games, it’s hard to determine exactly why results are happening the way they are. After seeing Chile beat Spain soundly, maybe the Netherlands’ 5-1 over the reigning world champs was more on Spain than we wanted to admit. And Ghana’s 2-2 draw with Germany certainly caught a lot of people by surprise; while it may be worse for the USA’s chances of advancing from the group, maybe Ghana being better (or Germany being slightly worse) than expected would give us a better shot against some of the stronger teams in this World Cup.No matter, on to our thoughts from the days between the last USA game and today.

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TUESDAY

Coming into the tournament, so many pundits tabbed Belgium as a darkhorse candidate to win it all that it didn’t seem like they were an actual darkhorse anymore. Regardless, with a slate of opponents featuring South Korea, Russia, and Algeria in Group H, it surely seemed that Belgium would have little difficulty taking first place in their group and avoiding a date with Germany in the Round of 16. However, things were not so easy for the Belgians, as they had to come from behind to beat Algeria 2-1. Algeria defended doggedly throughout the match, but frankly, they had no business being in the lead at any point. The Desert Foxes managed just three total shots and one on target, which was the converted penalty in the first half. Belgium, meanwhile, peppered the Algerian net with 17 total shots, eventually knocking home two in the second half to take all three points.

In Brazil and Mexico’s 0-0 draw, Guillermo Ochoa certainly deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Brazilians off the score sheet, making six saves on the day. Some of the Brazilians’ shots left something to be desired, particularly Thiago Silva’s free header off a corner that he directed straight at Ochoa. Either way, Mexico has to be happy with the result. The draw puts them on 4 points heading into their final match with Croatia, which will give El Tri an advantage over the Luka Modric-led side that will likely need a win to advance.

What is it with Fabio Capello and goalkeeper nerves? For the second straight World Cup, the starting goalie of Capello’s squad has committed an absolutely shocking miscue, leading to a 1-1 draw. I’ll let you all decide which one was worse between good ol’ Robert Green and Igor Akinfeev. But Russia was able to equalize, so things worked out okay in the end for them. South Korea will certainly want to get points from its match against Algeria so as not to enter their final Group Stage game against Belgium needing a good result against the Red Devils. Likewise, Russia will be hoping for any kind of point against Belgium, which could be the difference in a very tight Group H. — Carl Yedor

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WEDNESDAY

It is well documented that Arjen Robben loves to cut the ball back and rip it across the face of goal with his powerful left foot (as he did in trademark form against Australia). Even when opposing defenders attempt to close him off and dare him to shoot with his right, he always manages to get it on his left. But with the defender beat, the keeper can still do his part to take away Robben’s desired shot across goal. Shade to the far post, and dare him to shoot near. Instead of closing the angle to goal (like they’re taught), they should open the angle when Robben approaches the net. But that’s just one man’s assessment.

This Spain team was not built to come back. Their current generation of players has gone one goal up so early so often that comebacks have never been an issue for them. This was evident on a number of occasions—and more than just the Sergio Busquets “can’t-miss” miss in front of goal.  Chile executed, closed the game, and now have all the makings of the 2010 Uruguay team that fought all the way to the semifinals. With a pair of 2-1 wins Thursday from Colombia and Uruguay, it can now be said without hesitation …“All hail Chilombuguay!”

I refuse to give insightful analysis on the Croatia-Cameroon game. Best jersey combo of the World Cup so far, though—I’ll say that much. — Matt Bell

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THURSDAY

With Falcao out for Los Cafeteros, another Monaco star stepped up to propel Colombia to the Round of 16. James Rodríguez, at age 22, sparked Colombia in its first two group games and helped them create an offensive flow. Ivory Coast’s offense struggled to get much going, and Didier Drogba was left out of the starting eleven for a second straight game. The Elephants outshot Colombia and possessed the ball for 56% of the game, but again James Rodríguez of AS Monaco made the difference. Los Cafeteros are playing exciting soccer and have the potential to upset Brazil should they meet in the knockout stages.

Uruguay certainly played their style of soccer against England. La Celeste is not afraid to get physical, as shown by Diego Godín (who could have received four yellow cards if we’re being honest). The offensive tandem of Cavani and Suarez overwhelmed England, and Uruguay reinstated themselves as potential contenders in the tournament. On the other hand, England’s performance in this World Cup was pretty disappointing, despite the difficult draw. England had not lost to a South American squad in a World Cup since 1972 and had not lost two group stage matches since 1950. However, their young roster should come back stronger in 2018, and the Three Lions will hope to get a more favorable slate of opponents their next time out (although they may have used up their draw karma with this headline from the lead up to South Africa 2010).

The Greeks tried to hand the Japanese the game, but the Japanese simply could not put the ball in the net. Not only were they missing shots, they were missing by a wide margin. Japan really needed the win to improve their chances of advancing while Greece was happy with a point, as Greece still has control of their own destiny. Greece lost Kostas Katsouranis to a red card in the 38th minute, yet it was not evident as the teams played at the same level as when the sides were squared. This was a poor quality game and Japan missed out on a great chance to pick up three points. — Nick Barton

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FRIDAY

The Race for the Golden Boot

Handicapping the competition at this point is of course an exercise in insanity. The list of top goal scorers is a mix of thoroughbreds and underdogs this early in the tournament. Where else can Enner Valencia be mentioned in the same breath as Robin Van Persie (here, of course, because anything either of these two touch right now becomes a goal).  But there seems to be some clear feedback from the small sample size of games we have thus far.

For one, you have to remember that the more games a team plays, the more chances it has for its players to score goals. This is my polite way of saying that yes, Enner Valencia is good King Midas for the Ecuadorians right now. But with realistically two more games (max) left on his Brazil 2014 docket, it’s unlikely the Pachuca man distances himself from the pack.

Second, surrounding teammates are vital, not only because they can provide the valuable service for a forward, but also because they can steal goals as well (the classic split-the-Heisman-vote between teammates). Here’s to you, Dutch dynamos RVP and Arjen Robben, and your quest to try and one-up each other’s strikes. Here’s also to you, Luis Suarez, because it looks like your teammates are completely content to let you go full LeBron in Cleveland on you and sit back while you take care of business. More awe-inspiring is the fact that you (so far, at least) make this a completely viable strategy.

Finally, remember role. James Rodriguez has scored in four of Colombia’s last five international matches. He’s been as important as any player so far in Brazil. But playing in his #10 role and sitting behind all that attacking firepower to defer to – Juan Cuadrado, Victor Ibarbo, Teo Gutierrez – it’s unlikely Rodriguez will continue his scintillating scoring form. His influence, though, will no doubt carry Colombia deep in the tourney.

Thus, I consider it a four horse race – Neymar, Benzema, Mueller, and Suarez.

Neymar tallied twice in the first game, but in underwhelming fashion – a flubbed shot from distance that found its way into the net and a penalty that was actually partially stopped by Croatian keeper Pletikosa. The Brazilian wunderkind was held scoreless in his second match against Mexico.

The aforementioned Suarez had a brace to push Uruguay past England, but I will be keenly interested in seeing how he holds up moving forward in this tournament less than a month removed from knee surgery. He already missed his nation’s opener against Costa Rica still recovering from the injury.

Mueller had a hat trick in his opener. His penalty was exquisitely taken, and his second was a solid finish, but his third came on a tap-in against a 10 man, disinterested Portugal side. Legend Miroslav Klose lurks on the bench, but this German team is my updated pick to hoist the trophy. As such, he’s my runner-up selection.

As much as I can’t believe I’m saying this, here it goes: Karim Benzema looks to be in the lead for the Golden Boot. The French are in the driver’s seat in Group E and look to play a weak Group F runner-up in the round of 16, almost ensuring a run to the quarterfinals and possibly farther. Additionally, the French goals have been scored from a variety of somewhat “non-repeatable” sources. Blaise Matuidi and Moussa Sissoko do not seem to be lucrative bets to find themselves on the score sheet again anytime soon. Service from these two though, plus the phenomenal Paul Pogba, will keep Benzema plenty satisfied. Lastly, Benzema has been the unquestioned focus of the French attack so far in Brazil. A slightly lacking finish prevented him from a hat trick his first game, and his two assists today are not only an important tiebreaker but also show how much the ball flows through him in the final third. I’m not saying buy all the shares of Benzema stock, but don’t be surprised as the price keeps soaring. — Peter Barston

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SATURDAY

Leo, Leo, Leo. How on Earth did he get that shot off and into the back of the net? After an impressive performance from the Iranian defense (who have clearly adopted a strict defend-and-counter strategy), Messi finally broke through in stoppage time to give Argentina another 3 points and ensure their passage to the knockout stages. While I’m sure we’ve all seen the highlights at this point, it’s worth repeating just how small Messi’s margin of error on that shot was. If he hits that shot a few inches to the right it hits the Iranian defender trying to close him down. A few to the right, and it doesn’t end up in the goal. On the world’s biggest stage, those inches make all the difference, which is why it’s such a luxury to have one of the best in the game taking those shots.

And how about Ghana vs. Germany? While it was not the best result from an American standpoint in terms of our hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages, we can certainly agree that Ghana earned their draw against the Germans. As with their game against the Americans, the Black Stars outshot Germany by a notable margin, even though several of those shots were somewhat speculative efforts from long range. Ghana is a confident side and they go into each game playing to win, which is definitely admirable when compared to a typical underdog’s strategy of sitting in and defending as if their lives depended on it.

I will admit here that I expected Bosnia and Herzegovina to advance to the knockout round in second from Group F, but we cannot take this result away from Nigeria. Bosnia was a little unlucky not to score, especially considering their 20 shots, seven of which were on target, and a disallowed goal in the first half. For Nigeria, Emmanuel Emenike and Peter Odemwingie were great on offense and were a big part of why the Super Eagles were able to get the win. — Carl Yedor

USA-Portugal kicks off at 6 ET. Don’t be late.

Images courtesy of ibtimes.com, The Telegraph, ESPN, thenews.com, BBC, Bleacher Report

Follow Carl on Twitter: @CarlYedor61
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mjbell16
Follow Peter on Twitter: @peatebutterston
Follow Nick on Twitter: @TriniNick_James
Follow GSABR on Twitter: @GtownSports
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