Thursday brought closure to the first round of the World Cup and set up the eight matches that will bring us the quarter- finalists of Brazil’s tournament. The pairings include a number of teams that were not expected to progress but did so via different avenues, together with a number of pre-tournament favorites, and some familiar dark horse suspects. In a two part series we look at the Group of 16 match-ups.
Brazil, a pre-tournament favorite, progressed in a stumbling fashion as it required a two-goal gift from the referee in the opening game against Croatia to set the hosts on their way. Croatia played well but were deprived of a critical point and fell to a surprisingly cohesive and peaking Mexican squad who had to go to a playoff to book its ticket to Brazil. Australia was always going to need a miracle to move on and though they played bravely they were simply outclassed. Brazil and Mexico were the strongest sides, and despite Croatia’s misfortune, it was always the Mexicans who were jelling at the right time.
Spain came into the cup not only as reigning world champions but also as back-to-back European champions. They came in playing a style their coach, Vicente del Bosque, called a system that required no starters, simply plug in the pieces and the machinery worked as it always had. Then, inexplicably, he changed the chemistry and system from short passing possession to long-ball, simply by placing an out of form Diego Costa as a starter in their two critical games.
How he could do this, particularly after witnessing in his last warm-up in Washington DC, what the change he was contemplating wreaked on his team, and then how well they reacted when returning to their long-held style, will be one of those tragedies of sport, regardless of the future explanations. Spain self-destructed in approach and execution and their deserved exit blew the tournament wide open, favoring Argentina over Germany and Brazil, the other two other remaining pre-tournament favorites, who are still on a semifinals collision course.
The Netherlands were the surprised beneficiaries of the Spanish gift and they took to it with relish. On the way to the second round they also developed a chemistry and a trust in their coach Louis van Gaal, the one-time Barcelona coach, who seems to be coming into his own with this national team. The Dutch were deserving winners of this group and are peaking at the right time.
Chile was always a dangerous team, one of the strongest in South American qualifying and they proved themselves worthy of a chance to play Brazil. Their wins against Spain and Australia sufficed to progress, but realizing their full potential awaits having all their players healthy.
A Brazil-Chile match tilts to the hosts who are not yet playing well and will have trouble with this opponent. The game should be close with the exception of anyone scoring early. If Brazil scores early it could turn into a rout, but if Chile does the game will become tense and could go either way.
At this early stage in the tournament this is a titanic clash. Both teams are playing their best football in years and are jelling as players with one another and with their coaches. Frankly, this is too close to call. It would seem the Dutch have the advantage in star power, but they are suspect to falling behind and then becoming the self-destructive side we have seen in cups past. The potential inner divisiveness is precisely what the Mexicans have overcome to get here. If both teams play their game and neither gets too many lucky breaks the Mexicans will win. But if the game hinges on a bad call or a lucky score, the Mexicans have used up their fairy dust.
Colombia were the favored team hear together with the Ivory Coast. The missing Radamel Falcao cast a long shadow over this group until the first Colombia game, and thereafter he has been a helpful fan but not a needed piece of their puzzle. The South Americans progressed well, beating all comers, and will be a confident force to compete against. The Ivorians had the second spot of the group in their grasps and let the Greeks take it from them in Tuesday’s showdown. Greece wanted it more and deserved their win the Ivorians will say goodbye to one of their greatest generations of players. Japan played their game well, making it hard on all but Colombia, but they never had the firepower to compete in this group.
The second major surprise group of the cup, after Group B, this quartet was loaded with three past World Cup champs and a lowly CONCACAF team that many did not consider at all. That Costa Rica should be moving on at the expense of Italy and England is a testament to a team that has played some of the best football of the tournament. Italy played well against a surprisingly tough, creative and offensive-minded England, but their loss to Costa Rica was costly and their loss to Uruguay predictable. Uruguay always rise to the occasion at the World Cup and this one was no exception, but Luis Suarez is the difference maker on this team and his biting incident cast a shadow over his team’s progression. This team will have a hard time of it without him against any opponent.
If Suarez were playing the nod might have gone to his team, but without him Uruguay will have to play a great game to progress. Colombia is the favorite here and should advance. The only caveat will be the form of Edinson Cavani, Diego Lugano, and Diego Forlan, if they can capture their past forms then the game is a toss-up.
Most will say that as in any major tournament or playoff game, once the next level is reached all of what happened in the previous stages goes out the door. Only it doesn’t always, and in this case what Costa Rica built seems enduring and what Greece achieved seems foundational. That said, the Central Americans’ edifice is already there while the Greeks seem to be building theirs as they go. Costa Rica should win this match.
Watch for part two of this two-part series.