Thoughts on the World Cup: Group Stage Part Three

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Time is running out on the Group stage of World Cup 2014, and our boys are nearing kickoff of their match against the Germans. There will be no predictions here, only things that we’ve learned from the games from Monday through Wednesday. Some of the matches were entertaining; others were played very cautiously. But we should cherish every one we get since this tournament only comes around every four years. On to the important stuff.

Fred Neymar

MONDAY

During my “crystal” Golden Ball reading last week, I slightly discounted the chances for Neymar in his pursuit to lead the tourney in scoring. To be accurate, I was unimpressed with the precision Neymar showed in his first two games, tallying twice on a mishit long shot and a penalty that was touched by the keeper before finding its way in. I thought goals like this would be difficult for Neymar to duplicate going forward.

After today’s match, I’m proud to say I was right. Neymar will not score on bizarre left-footed rips from outside the 18 or penalties in which the keeper guesses the right way. This is because he will not have to. Because today, Neymar was nothing short of magnificent.

He was the story in Brazil’s 4-1 over Cameroon. Yes, I understand the opposition was Cameroon. But after tallying twice more today, he has my full attention. The first mark was a showcase of finesse, a perfectly tapped in cross that slid impossibly away from Cameroon keeper Charles Itandje. The second was Neymar at his Messi-lite finest, a heat-seeking missile moving towards the box with the ball before sliding an exquisite shot past the keeper. The cheers of a nation grow ever louder for its hero-to-be.

I actually had this game circled on my World Cup calendar. It seemed the perfect storm. Croatia was coming off a goal-fest victory over lowly Cameroon. Mexico had just drawn 0-0 with Brazil in one of the most open and entertaining scoreless draws I’ve ever seen. I figured I was in for a treat with the form the two sides were in and the stakes for advancing being as high as they were. And so for my 4pm viewing pleasure, I chose El Tri vs. the Croats.

Oops.

I genuinely fell asleep in the first half of this match. Somewhere after Oribe Peralta’s shocking slip and fall midway through the first half, I went dark, sweet dreams of Ivan Rakitic long balls and cool Peralta finishes dancing in my head. I awoke to the same 0-0 scoreline and the same feeling of regret as Neymar was singlehandedly winning the group for Brazil.

Thankfully, the second half was at least a little brighter. This was Mexico’s game nearly the entire match, and their breakthroughs came in waves. So swift was the change that Mexico went from being one conceded goal away from elimination to one goal away from actually stealing the group from Brazil, all in the span of 10 minutes.

As much as I am bred to begrudge El Tri every ounce of success they enjoy, I’ve been keenly interested in watching their matches. A commitment to team – something you might say was lacking during qualifying – has shown up in bunches in Brazil. My defining moment of the match? The late-game goal line clearance by Mexican center back Maza Rodriguez with his team up 3-0 and assured of a spot in the knockout rounds. The goals looked like they might never come before the last twenty minutes today, and that will be a concern going forward. But with Ochoa in net, and a little heart to make up for the lack of pace in the backline, the Mexicans will not be an easy out.

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Perhaps it was fitting. The defending champions – the winners of the last three major tournaments, as I’m sure you know – quietly exited Brazil with a 3-0 defeat of plucky underdog Australia. It was one of those vintage Spanish performances. La Furia Roja more than just dominated – it was as if the Socceroos were merely training ground dummies, placed and moved exactly to demands, never much threatening the once-proud Spanish.

It’s a bit of a strange exercise to see the Spanish exit, though. It’s as if they knew how messed-up and upside-down their performance (or lack thereof) had made the soccer world, so on this day in Curitiba, they decided to join in the fun. David Villa finished with flair. Fernando Torres scored! Juan Mata got on a real, authentic soccer pitch. And added a goal too, just for kicks.

This is not the future of Spanish football. It’s probably the laughably opposite incarnation of what we will see in the coming years. A new wave of young talent will flood the scene, and the Spanish will be back on the world football stage soon enough.

You won’t show this game to your grandchildren. It was the final twist of the knife in the heart of a somewhat unlikeable but powerful empire that made an indelible mark on history. This game will be buried somewhere in the archives. A shame, isn’t it, that the bigger you are, the harder you fall. And today, the Spanish finally fell, in a way only the Spanish of recent memory could.

Flash back to early June. Your naïve, conservative author is filling out his World Cup bracket. Group B is soon the topic of interest. The winner is penned in: Spain will surely emerge unscathed from the group. Filling in behind was of more an issue. I elected Chile to finish second, on a bit of a hunch.

Group B is complete today, and I was not wrong about Chile. Their mile-a-minute, pressing style brought points and plenty of newfound supporters. But what I was wrong about was the entire flavor of Group B. This was not Spain’s group. This was not Chile’s group. This was not Australia’s group, Tim Cahill’s volley notwithstanding. In the end, Group B was unequivocally the Dutch’s domain. The results are mighty impressive: +4 against Spain. +2 against Chile. What really should have been +2 over the Socceroos. This entire tournament may yet prove to belong to the Oranje.

The Netherlands’ bandwagon is picking up steam, and to win the group in such a fashion has me eagerly jumping aboard. A semifinal run – especially considering a potentially juicy quarterfinal matchup thanks to Costa Rica’s stunning showing – is in the cards. The most entertaining side in the tourney is sure to steal a few more hearts along the way. — Peter Barston

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TUESDAY

Once a biter, always a biter. FIFA’s investigation into the Suarez Bite Incident 3.0 is especially fascinating because there’s simply no precedent for it, except prior rulings on Suarez Bite Incident 1.0 and 2.0. One thing is certain—Uruguay will be without their best player in a knockout game for the second straight world cup. Last time, it didn’t work out so well, and on Saturday Uruguay will face a very impressive Colombia team in a much-anticipated Chilombuguay matchup (that’s Chile-Colombia-Uruguay). And while we’re on the Suarez subject, every SportsCenter anchor’s inability to pronounce Giorgio Chiellini’s last name properly is really starting to irk me. It’s very easy. Here, let me help you: “Key-a-lee-knee”.

In their past two world cups, England has found the net just five times in seven games. With Wayne Rooney as the only likely holdover from the Gerrard-Lampard-Defoe-Heskey years, the stage is set for the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley and co. (a group whose average age is under 22) to wipe the slate clean and begin a new generation of English football. All four players have work to do—neither is the first or even second attacking option on their respective club sides, but youth, final third ability, and raw pace is a good starting point for the Brits.

Mario Balotelli, to me, is still a rank below Luis Suarez when it comes to the “best strikers in the world” discussion. The difference isn’t natural ball skill, touch in front of net, holding strength, or even open field speed. The difference is that, in a tie game, with both teams struggling to tilt the match one way or another, Suarez is constantly screaming for the ball, creating chances with clever give-and-go’s, and putting pressure on tired defenders. Super Mario, on the other hand, prefers to wait for his moment to make his impact on the game. He waited against England, and it worked out. But against Uruguay, it never came and Italy were eliminated. Balotelli waits. Suarez doesn’t. Suarez’s insistence on leaving his mark on a game (or in Tuesday’s case, a player) makes him a much more impressive player for me. — Matt Bell

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WEDNESDAY

As expected, Bosnia and Herzegovina went out and dominated the game, controlling possession and taking more shots than their opponents. The Iranians picked up the moral victory by scoring today, their lone goal of the tournament. Bosnia and Herzegovina must be disappointed by their early departure from the tournament, as they definitely had their sights set on making an impressive World Cup debut with a march to the knockout stages. The team blew their chance at the Round of 16 against Nigeria, but the youthful team can use this experience to hopefully succeed in the future.

You could call Argentina vs. Nigeria “Messi vs. Musa” and no one would blink. Both players netted two incredible goals that put their teams in position to win the match. The Super Eagles created many chances to score, exposing the suspect defensive line of the Argentinians. Nigeria’s success is one of the better stories in the tournament. The African team looked poor in the 2013 Confederations Cup and the first game of this World Cup against Iran, but Vincent Enyeama deserves special recognition for his two clean sheets and his ability to limit the Argentinian offense to three goals despite thirteen shots on net. On the other side of the pitch, Argentina still has many questions to answer. Messi has been the main source of offense, while Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Angel Di Maria have not made much noise in front of goal. If Argentina wants to be a serious contender to win it all, they must stabilize their defense and find an offensive alternative to Messi.

In one of the easier games to predict, Switzerland won the game handily. The Swiss also proved that possession soccer is not necessarily the best way to play. Xherdan Shaqiri’s hat trick, the first of the tournament, came from a Swiss team who were more interested in directly attacking rather than trying to pass the ball around the field. This was a good sign for Switzerland going into a tough match against Argentina and a confidence boost for their star player. Switzerland got the help they needed from France, but they have a chance to take an impressive scalp in the Round of 16.

A goal seemed inevitable in the intercontinental match, but poor shooting from the Ecuadorians and unlucky bounces from France left the game scoreless. Unfortunately for Ecuador, Antonio Valencia’s red card changed the game for the South American nation, as they could not put anything together in the final third once they went down a man. It is unfortunate to see Ecuador leave early as they created a lot of offensive opportunities. Alas, they will be the first South American team to bite the dust on their home continent. — Nick Barton

Images courtesy of The Daily Mail, Bleacher Report, The Guardian, Yahoo Sports, The Mirror

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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