Earlier this month, a FIFA friendlies avalanche produced more telling results than routine ones. Some final score lines were downright revelations, providing peeks at what may come this summer in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a series of articles we dissect the significance of 16 of those matches.
France 2, Netherlands 0
In a World Cup preparatory friendly between Brazil bound teams France hosted the Netherlands on Wednesday March 5, 2014, in a match fraught with import for each team. Neither side had been consistent over the past couple of years. Both were going into group stage matches this summer that would require they be at their best. On match day, both teams needed to perform.
The Dutch, despite their pedigree and roster have simply not been playing consistently great football since making the finals of the 2010 World Cup. In Euro 2012 the Netherlands lost to Denmark, Germany, and Portugal in the group stage and were eliminated. In qualification for the 2014 World Cup, the team had a relatively easy group and came through unbeaten.
But in their last seven friendlies leading up to this match the Oranje had only won against Indonesia and China away, while they tied all other matches, with Italy and Colombia at home and away to Portugal, Estonia, and Japan. No losses, but no spectacular play either. The team needed to show what they were made of against comparable competition a mere three months away from the World Cup.
The French team, with a more recent pedigree and a good roster had a mixed bag of results over the past few years since their disastrous one-draw-two-loss 2010 World Cup. Les Bleus qualified for Brazil by defeating Ukraine in Paris, in the second leg of a playoff, by one goal. Their friendlies, over the past year, have not produced much better results against good competition—they lost to Uruguay, Brazil and Germany, tied with Belgium and beat Australia in Paris. The good news, though, was that the French were on a roll over their last seven games, having scored 16 goals while conceding only four.
This preparatory game resulted in 2-0 win for France with first half scoring from Karim Benzema (32’) and Blaise Matuidi (41’). The game was not poorly played but it was no showcase for long stretches. In the end, the win was deserved. Tellingly the Dutch seemed psychologically undone before halftime despite not showing it for most of the second half.
What was revealed in this match was that the French are playing their best football at this point in time and that if they can avoid coming in second in their World Cup group this summer their only trouble will come in the quarterfinals where they will probably play Germany. If they come in second in their group, they will be meeting Argentina in the round of 16 and that will be the end of their cup. What was revealed about the Dutch is that in their group pairing this summer, only Australia will be obliging, while Spain and Chile will likely be the ones advancing. Even assuming Robin Van Persie recovers from his recent injury well, and is in form by June, the Netherlands need to move through quite a few emotional and technical gears to have any chance in Brazil.
Japan 4, New Zealand 2
Japan hosted New Zealand at Saitama Stadium, and proceeded to demolish their guests 4-2 with a first half scoring avalanche that had Shinji Okazaki open the tally at the 4th minute and then Shinji Kagawa at the 8th, and Masato Morishige at the 11th add on before Okazaki closed the books at the 17th minute with his brace. New Zealand discounted at the 39th and 80th minutes both courtesy of Chris Wood, but the contest had already been decided.
There was little surprise here, just a restatement of the Japanese potential this coming summer and that in and of itself may be revelation enough. This team is not as talented as many going to Brazil this summer, in fact they are relative minnows. But what they have is explosiveness and the four goals in ten minutes were simply an indication of what could happen to an opponent if they did not take Japan seriously. The Japanese will probably not make it out of their cup group, but they may be the group’s spoilers
The Samurai Blue have been steadily building up steam since last fall, with easy wins over Guatemala and Ghana, a tough 3-2 win over seeded Belgium in Brussels, a 2-2 tie with the Netherlands in Genk, and close away loses to Serbia and Belarus. Given their Group C pairing with Greece, Colombia, and Ivory Coast, the Japanese have their work cut out for them, but if Colombia plays without Falcao, and Greece rely on their defensive stance against the fast Japanese strikers, and if the Ivory Coast and the other two group members make the mistake of dismissing the Asian team, then Japan might just be the wild card in this deck.