With the first round of group matches coming to a close, there have already been some significant shocks and controversial highlights to whet our footballing appetites for the remainder of the group stage.
The main talking point of Group A was of course Brazil who, with all eyes on them and Barcelona star Neymar, kicked off their home tournament in a spectacular match against Croatia last Thursday. The hosts emerged victorious with a 3-1 win over the Balkan side; this was, however, not without controversy. With the match poised at 1-1, Japanese referee Nishimura judged a Fred dive worthy of a penalty. Neymar, who ended up stealing the show, dispatched the spot-kick, his second goal in the match. Croatia had a goal disallowed late on for a spurious foul on Brazil No. 1 Cesar. Oscar scored in injury time to rub salt in the already stinging wounds of Croatia. It was an encouraging start for the hosts and Neymar, who many are backing to truly announce him on the world stage.
In the group’s other game, Mexico convincingly triumphed 1-0 over an impotent Cameroon, with the winning goal coming from striker Oribe Peralta.
This group kicked off with the blockbuster sequel of the final from four years ago, with the Netherlands inflicting ruthless revenge on the reigning champions Spain with a 5-1 drubbing. Everyone thought that normal Spanish service had resumed when Alonso’s penalty sent them in to the lead, however a truly stunning diving header from Van Persie drew the Dutch level before half time. This catalyzed a sumptuous second half Dutch performance with the irresistible Robben causing mayhem in the Spanish defense with his pace, scoring a brace for his troubles. Van Persie scored his second, before a De Vrij header completed the shocking capitulation of indomitable Spain.
The other game involved an exciting Chile and an inexperienced Australia, with the South Americans showing superior attacking prowess to run out 3-1 winners. Stalwart Tim Cahill managed to score his fourth World Cup goal and the Socceroos solitary goal in the match but ultimately in vain as the South Americans proved deserved winners.
This group is billed to be a tight affair, as there are no noticeable heavyweights; however Colombia crushed a hapless Greek side 3-0 in the opening fixture, with Greece looking like they could well be the weakest link. They would have to summon the much depleted “spirit of 2004” if they were to qualify for the second round. Japan , however, showed glimpses of brilliance and led the Ivory Coast through Keisuke Honda, before two quick-fire goals from Swansea striker Bony and Arsenal old boy Gervinho handed Africa’s leading lights three points.
Avoiding obvious English bias, England and Italy was overshadowed as the prominent fixture of Group D, as Central American minnows Costa Rica provided the shock of the tournament so far with 3-1
victory over Uruguay. With a recovering Luis Suarez confined to the bench, the Uruguayans were swept aside by a heroic performance from the Costa Ricans and their main man Arsenal’s Joel Campbell. This stunning victory has surely signalled a warning to the Italians and Hodgson’s men that the spirited Costa Ricans cannot be taken lightly, also perhaps helpfully highlighting for England, Uruguay’s defensive weaknesses.
Despite a resolute English performance, with Sterling and Sturridge showing glimpses of their attacking potency for Liverpool leading up to Brazil, England went down 2-1 to 2006 winners Italy. Pirlo was allowed to pull the strings in midfield and set up Italian’s first goal through Marchisio. Sturridge equalised, before England’s obvious defensive frailties were punished by a Mario Balotelli headed winner.
Group E begun with heavy expectation on France, who arguably have been handed the easiest group of any World Cup heavyweight. France’s greater quality showed in their 3-0 demolition job of minnows Honduras, who promptly attempted to kick the technically superior French off the park. Palacios was sent off by cynically bringing down Benzema in the box, who dispatched the spot kick. Benzema’s second goal for the French was the first consultation of goal line technology in the tournament’s history. The opening game was between the two sides expected to fight it out for the second qualification spot Switzerland and Ecuador. Ecuador failed to make the most of their climatic advantage, as they were edged 2-1 by the Swiss with a 90th minute winner from Seferovic.
Group F kicked off with hotly tipped Argentina and debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia boasting the likes of Manchester City’s Dzeko did not disgrace themselves on their debut; holding an extremely lacklustre Argentina in the first half only going behind to an unfortunate own goal 3 minutes in. Argentina improved after the break and, under intense pressure from football world to perform; Lionel Messi finally stamped himself on a World Cup with a sublime solo effort to make it 2-0. This was Messi’s first World Cup goal since the 2006. Bosnia deservedly halved the deficit with a late Ibisevic strike. In the other match Iran and Nigeria played out a drab goalless draw.
The flagship match of this group was the all-European clash between Germany and Portugal. Despite prior knowledge of Germany’s class, many were surprised to see the Germans thrash the hapless Portuguese 4-0. Portugal looked vulnerable and unable to supply a frustrated main man Cristiano Ronaldo, their total reliance on him was telling. Thomas Muller stole the show as he opened his 2014 account within 12 minutes and with characteristic ruthlessness despatched two other chances to bag his hat-trick. A Hummels header in the first half had made it 2-0 .Portugal’s prospects in the match were worsened by the indiscipline of Pepe, as he saw red after an altercation with Muller. The groups other match saw Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA triumph 2-1 over a youthful Ghana, with Clint Dempsey scoring the fifth fastest World Cup within 30 seconds. Ghana equalised through Ayew, before defender John Brooks netted a late headed winner.
Many feel the much lauded Belgium could be dark horses this tournament; however it took some effort to overcome a determined Algeria with a tight 2-1 victory. Algeria took the lead with Feghouli tucking away a 25th minute penalty. The Belgians turned it around after the restart with goals from Fellaini and Napoli’s Mertens. Both Russia and South Korea were unconvincing as they played out a 1-1 draw. Fabio Capello was haunted by another World Cup goalkeeping howler from Akinfeev to gift South Korea the lead, before substitute Kerzhakov earned Russia a point.
Looking ahead to today’s matches and it is a must not lose match for both Croatia and Cameroon in Group A; after Brazil and Mexico played out an exciting goalless draw it leaves both teams on four points. With Croatia and Cameroon both pointless after first round defeats another loss for either side will see their competition ended within six days of the tournament beginning. Croatia will have taken great heart from a spirited display against hosts Brazil in the tournament’s opening game, and will be itching to set the record straight after that infamous penalty decision. Cameroon will be strong and physical, but Croatia should have what it takes to see off the African outfit.
Another team who could well be sent packing today, unbelievably, are world champions Spain; defeat to Chile could all but seal their fate. After dubious performances in both the Champions League final and Spain’s opener all eyes will be on the much maligned Iker Casillas, the veteran has been under scrutiny recently and another poor performance here could mean curtains for the Spaniards. Chile boast a pacey front line which could cause the Spanish back line problems; Barcelona star Alexis Sanchez will be looking to add to his goal against Australia in their first match.
Confidence in the Netherlands camp will be sky high after such a dominating victory against the Spanish, and they will be hoping for a repeat performance when they take on Australia. The Dutch have gone from the team people thought may miss out on qualification to potential group winners, with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie proving themselves at the World’s toughest stage. Australia will be fearful of another defeat and with the Oranje in such domineering form you can’t see any other result here.