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Some Thoughts on the 2014 FIFA World Cup Group Stages

With this afternoon’s games, the group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup have come to a close.  32 teams went to Brazil and 16 are going home – with some already gone to face the music.  We can talk about the 16 teams that punched their tickets to the Round of 16, but let’s first take a look back at what has happened the last two weeks of non-stop soccer.

World Cup - RioThe scoring has been awesome: Through today, we’ve seen 136 goals scored in total at an average of 2.83 goals per game. That’s 35 away from the record 171 goals scored in France 1998, which given teams like Germany, Chile, Brazil and Netherlands are still around could be challenged.  It’ll be close with 15 games left in the tournament and goals becoming more and more premium as teams advance.  That said, it’s unlikely that 2.83 record will eclipse the 5.38 goals per match average from Switzerland 1954.  You could honestly make a case for any of 10 different forwards or midfielders to be the player of the tournament so far, but I’d struggle to name more than 2 or 3 defenders in the discussion.  It’s a shift from the far more defensive-minded World Cups of South Africa 2010 (145 total goals) or Germany 2006 (147 total goals).  Perhaps that also highlighted…

The fall of the giants: Spain, Italy, England and Portugal all came into this World Cup with expectations of at least making it to the knockout stages, if not outright competing for the trophy itself.  Instead, for two of them, their first games proved too big a hurdle.  Spain’s tiki-taka was felled by clinical Dutch counter-attack in a 5-1 beating that the Spaniards could never overcome.  Meanwhile Portugal, a side dealing with injuries and losses, was taken apart by the German’s great scorers 4-0 in their opening match.   Meanwhile, Italy and England played a thrilling opening match but then found themselves unable to overcome the might of Costa Rica or the talents of Uruguay.  (We’ll deal with both in a moment).  The question obviously is whether or not this was a moment of transition for these nations or if it’s a momentary blip caused by injuries to key players.World Cup - The End

What happened to the teams from the Asian Confederation?:  Four teams arrived from Asia: Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea.  Tonight, they’re all going home with 0 wins, 3 draws, 9 losses and –16 goal differential.  To be fair, Iran were unlucky to not get a draw against Argentina – felled by a Lionel Messi wondergoal – while Australia gave Netherlands all they could handle.  Australia, Japan and South Korea are teams that have made the knockout stages and have talent.  But what now for them?  Is this a case of back to the drawing board?  Or do they get overtaken by other Asian teams like China or India?

How average Brazil, Belgium and Argentina looked in spite of their wins: Don’t get me wrong.  Being critical of the Brazilians, Belgians or Argentinians is not a mark of being bad.  Rather that they’re teams we expect more out of these teams.  The Brazilians were really only the Brazilians in their last game against the already-eliminated Cameroonians and they’ve looked to Neymar to be their everything.  Likewise, Argentina has needed Lionel Messi to bail them in every game they’ve played – and he has so far.  As for Belgium, it’s been 3 very dull games punctuated by a bailing from one of their stars.  Now look, they could all turn it on in the knockout stages and there’s history of teams putting it all together when it counts the most.  But if Neymar, Messi or Hazard don’t carry their teams, it’s tough to see who is going to be that sparkplug for them.

The form of Netherlands, France and Colombia:  If Italy, England and Spain failed to deliver in this World Cup, the Dutch, French and Colombians have lived up to billing.   The Dutch began their campaign by leveling Spain 5-1, surviving a feisty Australia 3-2 and then defeating a tough Chile side 2-0.  It’s been a race to see who scores more between Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.  The French thrashed Honduras 3-0 and the Swiss 5-2 before playing out a dull, but unneeded 0-0 draw with Ecuador.  As for Colombia, led by James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez, they’ve taken Greece to the shed 3-0 and Japan 4-1 and beat Ivory Coast 2-1.  All three squads have been exciting and looked great.  Now the question becomes: what happens when sides begin to play more compact and scoring gets more difficult?  Or when teams with equal-levels of talent are attacking their defenders?

Costa Rica’s Successes:  Two of those giants found themselves going home early thanks to the surprise of the tournament, Los Ticos.  They finished second in CONCACAF’S Hexagonal with 5 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses (at Honduras and at USA in the famous “Snow Game”).  Perhaps indicative of their tough qualifying process, they’ve managed to scrap and win games against bigger fish – beating Uruguay 3-1, Italy 1-0 and then managing a 0-0 draw against England.  Kudos to young Joel Campbell who has been a minor revelation here as well as to the defense of Oscar Duarte, Cristian Gamboa and Giancarlo Gonzales.  Their triumphs earn them a game against the Greeks and a chance to make history for their small nation by going further than they’ve ever gone before.World Cup - Ticos

How Mexico played well in spite of poor qualification run:  There’s always a team that struggles in qualification then gets to the Finals group stages and turns it on.  Now, obviously, Mexico battled to get their 1-0 win against Cameroon and their 0-0 draw against hosts Brazil.  But having their future in their hands, they found a way to take it to a pretty good Croatian side and win 3-1.  Miguel Herrera has to be commended for righting the ship and finding a way to get Mexico not just going in the right direction, but playing as a team.  His hard work means now a date against mighty Netherlands on Sunday.

Team USA: Everyone predicted the end for the US after the draw put them against Germany, Portugal and Ghana.  Everyone railed when Jurgen Klinsmann left Landon Donovan behind – specially when Jozy Altidore’s hamstring went.  But Klinsmann called it out correctly:  beat Ghana and get something out of Portugal and the US would be in position to advance.  Much of the success has been built on the form of Tim Howard, who has been a rock for the Americans.  They’ve scrapped and fought and held their own and but a last minute mistake against Cristiano Ronaldo and a wonder goal by Thomas Muller, they would have qualified with ease.  It’s been a team effort and it will have to be to have any chance against a talented Belgian side.

Goal of the tournament: Tim Cahill’s vs Netherlands.  It’s a beautifully-taken volley that seems to happen almost by design.  That’s what’s scary: it looks like he meant to do it.

Performance of the tournament: Guillermo Ochoa vs Brazil.  Facing off against the hosts is always tough.  Facing off against Mighty Brazil is something else.  But the Mexican keeper took every shot in stride and made several amazing saves that helped get Mexico a key point for their qualification.  So good was Ochoa that he ended the game amidst Twitter rumors of having six fingers in a hand.  Which wasn’t true.

Player of the tournament: (tie) Lionel Messi, Argentina and James Rodriguez, Colombia.  I’m calling it a draw between the Colombian midfield creator and the Argentinian wunderkind who has been the savior of his nation.  Messi has been the savior time and again for his side, finding the bit of magic that makes draws become wins.  Rodriguez, meanwhile, has pulled the strings for a terrific Colombian attack and been both a composer and director.  They’re unlikely to meet unless they find themselves in the Final on July 13th.

Shock of the tournament: Netherlands 5 – Spain 1.  It was the first result that told us that this was not going to be the World Cup we expected.  Spain came as true contenders and left it in shambles and full of recriminations between the socios of Real Madrid and the cules of Barcelona for whose players had the bigger blame.

World Cup - SuarezDisappointment of the tournament: Luis Suarez.  Just last Saturday, I was talking with a big Liverpool supporter about how dominant Suarez had been and how difficult it would be for the Reds to manage to hang onto him as he announced his abilities on this stage.  He looked to have turned opinions of him around to his amazing talent. Then he went and bit Georgio Chiellini and we’re back talking about his odious behavior.  What’s worse is the conspiracy nonsense his coach, teammates and federation are spinning in order to cover up for Suarez’s third bite at an opponent in the last 4 years.  As if FIFA wants to dismiss one of the game’s biggest stars and ruin one of the best teams?  Their accusations are akin to Jennifer Lawrence if she started saying that Hollywood has a conspiracy against beautiful, talented blonde actresses.  Ridiculous.

Team of the World Cup:  I opted for a 4-3-3 although, if I’m honest, it’s easier to make it a 3-2-5 and just fill it with forwards! Obviously, this will change before everything’s said and done.  But I just wanted to highlight some players who’ve performed well so far.

GK: Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico

RB: Fabian Johnson, United States

CB: Oscar Duarte, Costa Rica

CB: Gonzalo Jara, Chile

LB: Pablo Armero, Colombia

DM: Luis Gustavo, Brazil

CM: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)

CM: James Rodriguez, Colombia

F: Neymar, Brazil

F: Thomas Muller, Germany

F: Lionel Messi, Argentina

Subs: Tim Howard (USA), Rafael Marquez (Mexico), Omar Gonzalez (USA), Phillip Lahm (Germany), Juan Cuadrado (Colombia), Karim Benzema (France), Robin van Persie (Netherlands)

NOW WITH THE FIRST COURSE OUT OF THE WAY, BRING ON THE KNOCKOUT STAGES!!

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