The first stage of the World Cup has concluded in Brazil after a frenetic opening fortnight featuring 136 goals and plenty of shocks.
Hosts Brazil emerged safely from Group A as expected after coming from behind to defeat Croatia in the curtain raiser and stuffing hapless Cameroon. Inspired Mexican goalkeeper Ochoa proved impassable during the two sides’ goalless draw in Fortaleza. Luis Felipe Scolari though will be pleased, not only that his side are through as group winners, but that poster boy Neymar has lived up to his billing with four group stage goals. Mexico will join the hosts in the last 16 after comprehensively beating Croatia 3-1 in a winner-takes-all final group game, much to the delight of hysterical manager Miguel Herrera. Not the fourth officials’ favourite head coach of the tournament I imagine. Croatia are going home after failing to win that decisive game against the Mexicans, and they’ll be joined by whipping boys Cameroon who shipped nine goals in their three games.
Group B played host to the game of the tournament so far, as reigning champions Spain were thrashed 5-1 by a ruthless Netherlands. The sluggish Spaniards had no answer to the pace of Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben – unplayable upfront for the Dutch. It was the perfect start for Man Utd bound Dutch boss Louis Van Gaal, and he then steered the Oranje to the last 16 as group winners after an enthralling 3-2 victory over Australia and more a straightforward success against Chile. Meanwhile the Spaniards faced Chile knowing their domination of World football would be over with defeat. It was a tournament too far for Del Bosque’s old guard as they had no match for a hard-working, dogged Chile side, who strolled to a comfortable 2-0 victory. The reigning champions were out in the group stage for the second World Cup in succession after Italy’s early exit in 2010. Humiliation for Spain, delight for Chile who next face Brazil in an intriguing knockout tie.
Group C was arguably the weakest of the lot. Stand-out team Colombia eased into the knockout stages with three victories. Forward James Rodriguez impressed, notching three goals, and he will need to maintain top form if the Colombians are to challenge in the latter stages of the competition. Despite scoring nine goals in their group, José Pékerman’s side still remain the unknowns of the tournament due to the inferior opposition faced, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against better sides. Joining the South Americans in the last 16 are Greece, who always seem to find a way to scrape through their group at major tournaments despite lacking quality. Whilst their defensive approach is not particularly pleasing on the eye, it certainly seems to work for Fernando Santos’ men. They left it late in the decisive final group game against Ivory Coast, though, booking their place in the last 16 with a last minute Georgios Samaras winner from the penalty spot. Heartbreak for Didier Drogba and his teammates as they join Japan at the Airport.
Pre-tournament favourites to qualify from Group D were Italy and England. Instead they’ll be the sides going home after struggling with the Brazilian heat and humidity. For England the same old sorry story: a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal and defensive naivety ensured that Hodgson’s boys would fly home after the group stage of a World Cup for the first time since 1958. This was soon followed by the now bi-annual lamentation of the lack of English coaches and home grown players in the Premier League, though all will be forgotten when Sky returns with its shiny ‘Super Sundays’ in August. The Manaus heat certainly appeared to take its toll on Italy, who limped to a shock 1-0 defeat to surprise package Costa Rica. Uruguay’s victory over hapless England ensured a winner-takes-all clash between the two sides. It was the Uruguayans who triumphed, sending the Italians packing. Luis Suarez’s ban for that bite on Chiellini is a serious blow for the South Americans, though, and they’ll be weakened for the knockout tie against Colombia on Saturday. Greece await for Costa Rica in the weakest game of the last 16.
The draw Gods were certainly kind on France, who emerged from the weak Group E with relative ease after defeating the Honduran hooligans and thrashing Switzerland 5-2. The less said about their final group game – a dour 0-0 draw against Ecuador – the better. That said, with a straightforward-looking last 16 tie against Nigeria on Monday and an exciting young squad at Didier Deschamps’ disposal, don’t be surprised to see the French go far in the competition. Neighbours Switzerland will join France in the last 16, with their last minute winner against Ecuador in the opening game of the group proving crucial. Xherdan Shaqiri’s hat-trick against Honduras in their final group game confirmed progress for Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team. The Hondurans have won no friends for their aggressive approach and their exit will not be met with any sympathy. Ecuador fell just short and will be ruing that last-minute goal they conceded against the Swiss.
Group F was kind to Argentina, who topped the group with three wins from three. They were far from convincing victories, though, particularly against Iran, and will need to up their game in the latter stages if they are to lift the famous trophy in the Maracana. A big positive, however, is that Lionel Messi has hit top form at last in the World Cup – joint top-scoring with four goals. Nigeria progress along with Argentina after a 1-0 triumph in the group’s crucial game against Bosnia-Herzegovina. They impressed too in a 3-2 defeat to the Argentines, but face a tough ask in Brasilia against the French. Iran head home after some battling displays, most notably against the Argentines, but fell short in the end. Boss Carlos Queiroz, the former Man Utd assistant, has announced his resignation after three years in Tehran.
Group G was labelled the ‘Group of Death’ prior to the tournament, but flattered to deceive slightly. Portugal were dismal in their 4-0 opening game defeat against the Germans, who ruthlessly dispatched them in typical fashion. Meanwhile, the USA secured a crucial 2-1 victory over Ghana thanks to a last gasp John Brooks header. The next round of games saw a pair of 2-2 draws, meaning it was as you were heading into the final round of games. Former German managerial colleagues Joachim Loew and Jurgen Klinsmann, now USA boss, knew that a draw would see both sides safely through to the last 16. Thankfully a pre-arranged draw didn’t occur and the Germans prevailed 1-0 in appalling conditions. That result put the Americans’ progress into doubt, but Portugal’s 2-1 win over Ghana ensured Klinsmann’s men would qualify, with Portugal’s opening 4-0 tonking coming back to haunt them in the goal difference column. Despite qualifying comfortably, the Germans have played in second gear for much of the tournament so far, an ominous sign for potential opponents. Their defence, consisting of four central defenders, could be exploited by some sides however.
The overwhelming favourites in Group H were Belgium, and Marc Wilmot’s men justified their billing, topping the group with three narrow one-goal margin victories. Despite their attacking prowess, it has been their defence – conceding one goal – that has seen them safely through to the last 16. Improvements in the attacking department will be needed in the latter stages, though, particularly from the unimpressive Romelu Lukaku. Incredibly, Algeria, the least fancied team in the group, will join the Belgians in the knockout stages thanks to a late equaliser against Russia in which Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev appeared to have a laser shone in his eye. It is the second tournament running that Fabio Capello, who performed his best Postman Pat impression in Curitiba, has failed to impress on the international stage, meaning Russia trudge home with South Korea after a fortnight in Brazil.
The knockout stage begins tomorrow with Brazil v Chile in Belo Horizonte. If the first fortnight is anything to go by, we are in for a treat.