As the last round of group matches got under way at the FIFA World Cup, Ste Topping rounds up the talking points from a busy day in Brazil and looks ahead to an English goodbye.
Monday’s action began in Group B, as Chile took on the Netherlands in a showdown for top spot in the table. The first half was a cagey affair, with Chile just edging the match. They controlled the bulk of possession, showing great movement on and off the ball; Sanchez and Vargas took turns to press on or collect the ball from deep, looking for the runs of the wing backs or the energetic Gutiérrez and Aranguiz in midfield. The runners frequently found space, but couldn’t quite get the final ball right. Set pieces were useful for the Chileans. Alexis Sanchez drilled in a corner which Gutierrez hit first time, only for the shot to fly over the bar, whilst the same man also finding a free header from a free kick going wide.
The Dutch were frustrated, but did show some moments of true quality. Robben’s pace took him from his own half to the opposition box, only for him to drag a shot wide, whilst a similar run from Jeremain Lens led to a shot blasted over the bar. The best chance for the Oranje came from a Robben free kick, with Stefan De Vrij heading just wide. Chile had three penalty shouts all turned down by the referee, but each time the forward went down too easily.
The second half begun as the first had ended. The Dutch were refused their own way by the hard working Chileans, who forced their opponents wide in attack and limited their potency. Louis Van Gaal’s men were equal to the task though, with dogged defensive performances from Nigel De Jong and Dirk Kuyt – who surprisingly played left wing back – preventing Chile from attacking. Van Gaal’s masterstroke came late on, with the substitution of Lens for youngster Memphis Depay. Depay looked lively, and had a sweet shot tipped over the bar by Claudio Bravo. The resulting corner was cleared, only to find Daryl Janmaat who whipped in a fine cross for the head of substitute Leroy Fer to make the score 1-0.
Chile were firmly camped in the opposition half for the last 15 minutes, but could not find a moment of quality to make the difference. Sanchez tried a shot from a tight angle to no avail, before a corner was scrambled away to Diaz, who fired over the bar. Chile kept coming forward and ultimately committed too many men in the opposition half, when Nigel De Jong picked out a fine ball forward for Arjen Robben to chase. Bayern’s flying winger raced down the left before picking out Depay at the far post to make the final score 2-0 to a Netherlands side which executed van Gaal’s game plan to perfection.
Meanwhile, Spain played out a 3-0 victory against Australia to salvage some pride. The reigning champions brought Pepe Reina in to replace the erratic Iker Cassias, and he played a key role in keeping the Spanish clean sheet. The Socceroos started the game brightly, moving the ball forwards with pace, but struggled throughout the game to find a decent final ball. Spain struggled initially; the famed tiki taka passing game never really came off, and stars such as Alonso and Torres looked to be playing with plenty of nerves. David Villa, on his final cap, looked the sharpest, but he volleyed well wide after reaching a sublime pass by Iniesta.
New York City’s first signing kept coming forwards though, and was rewarded for his persistence as the first half neared its end, reaching a fine pass from Juanfran to score his final international goal. Spanish nerves finally settled, and were in control for most of the game from then on. Santi Cazorla looked lively, and had a shot cleared away before the break, and Spain continued their dominance in the second half. Iniesta picked out a great pass for Torres, who finished well to score his only goal in the tournament, before Mata beat the offside trap late on to reach Fabregas’ through ball and make the final score 3-0.
Group A’s fixtures followed on, with the host nation taking on Cameroon, hoping to finish top of the table and avoid facing the Netherlands in the next round. Brazil started the game on the front foot, winning early corners and putting the African nation under pressure, but Cameroon broke away regularly throughout the game – only for a lack of quality in the final third to harm their chances. Poster boy Neymar Jr scored the opener for Brazil, as Luiz Gustavo took the ball off Moukandjo with ease before drilling a low cross to the Barcelona striker. The lead was short lived though, as Allan Nyom jinked past Daniel Alves to fire a low cross at Joel Matip for the equaliser. Brazil were rocked, with their game affected for a while until Marcelo fed Neymar who dribbled and fired home his second goal.
After the break Fred looked on fire, forcing a corner from a shot outside the area, before heading home a Marcelo cross soon after. The hosts looked comfortable for the rest of the game, with moments of pressure being caused by their own occasional errors. Any nerves amongst the Brazilian fans were put to rest late on though, as Fernandinho scored a fine goal following a smart passing move to give Brazil a 4-1 win, setting up a clash with Chile in the next round.
With Croatia requiring a victory to qualify, Niko Kovac’s team needed to get off to a good start against Mexico, but the first half played out to a stalemate. Their forwards worked hard to try and get in behind the Mexican defence, but neither Modric nor Rakitic could provide decent service to them. Perisic broke away down the right early on, but when he squared to Ivica Olic his teammate was nowhere to be seen. As the half went on Croatia grew increasingly frustrated, and Mexico settled into the game. Hector Herrera hit a 30 yard strike which struck the crossbar, before Oribe Peralta slipped over on his way to missing a great chance.
At half time Kovac made no substitutions, but moved Modric into a deeper role to try and assert some dominance on the ball, but the switch was to no avail. Mexico’s 3-5-2 formation came into its own in the second period as the wingbacks pushed forwards and troubled the Croatian back line. The first signs of crack began to appear when Javier Hernandez’s shot appeared to be handled in the area by Darijo Srna; no penalty, but inspiration for Mexico as the corner that followed was headed in by captain Rafael Marquez. Two minutes later and Andreas Guardado had latched on to Oribe Peralta’s cross to make it 2-0.
Ante Rebic was thrown on to provide extra attacking impetus for Croatia, and he provided a spark for the side, hitting a shot which was cleared off the line by Hector Moreno. His impact didn’t last too long though, as another Mexico corner led to another goal, this time Marquez’s flick on provided Hernandez with a simple header at the far post. Ivan Perisic did manage to pull a goal back, following a smart one-two with Barcelona bound Rakitic, but hopes of a comeback were dashed when Rebic received a red card for a dangerous lunge on the shin of Carlos Pena. Perisic hit an ambitious volley late on, but it was well saved by Ochoa, and the game ended 3-1 to Mexico, who will face the Netherlands in the last 16.
Tonight will see England’s disastrous World Cup campaign come to an end as the Three Lions take on the tournament’s biggest surprise package, Costa Rica, at Belo Horizonte. A win against Los Ticos would at least provide England fans with some encouragement for the future, but the match will be far from the walkover many predicted it would be before the tournament began. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto has assembled an energetic and disciplined side, whilst Arsenal’s Joel Campbell has been in sparkling form for his country. Having already qualified for the knockout stages, Pinto could rest some key players, although he will be keen to see his side finish as the surprise leaders of Group D.
As for England, the post mortem of a dismal summer has already begun, but so far both supporters and the media have been fairly kind. FA chairman Greg Dyke has confirmed that Hodgson will remain in charge for the European Championships in 2016, a move largely supported by fans who appreciated his attempts to bring through younger talent, whilst Steven Gerrard will be given time to consider his future as the national team captain. With only pride to play for, Hodgson will shuffle the pack tonight, providing youngsters such as Luke Shaw a World Cup start and a possible farewell appearance to 36 year old Frank Lampard.
Elsewhere in the group, Italy will face Uruguay in a showdown for the second qualifying space. Both teams picked up three points at England’s expense, but both failed to overcome Costa Rica. The Azzurri will be missing midfield anchor Daniele De Rossi, and will need Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli to step up after their disappointing displays against Los Ticos. Uruguay, meanwhile, were undoubtedly boosted by the return of Luis Suarez against England, whilst Edinson Cavani still has something to prove in this tournament. With both sides vying for the win, this match could be a thriller.
The situation in Group C is more complex. Colombia are through following two wins whilst Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece all have a chance of joining of them should results go in their favour. Ivory Coast are the favourites to do this, as they have three points and face a Greek side that hasn’t scored a goal so far in this tournament. For a side boasting the attacking prowess of Didier Drogba, Gervinho and Yaya Toure, the Ivory Coast are yet to hit top form, but should be able to get past a solid but uninspiring Greek side. For Japan to go through, they must beat Colombia, whilst hoping that the Ivory Coast doesn’t win and that their own goal difference is superior. The puzzle makes for an interesting but nervous evening in prospect.
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