After four years of anticipation, the world’s eyes finally had the chance to turn to their televisions and watch the greatest sports competition kick off at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Thursday afternoon. It is shocking to consider that the tournament is just three days old. As I write, Netherlands throttled defending champion Spain just last night, yet it already feels like a distant memory.
Thus far, it is tough to dispute that the World Cup has been absolutely fantastic. I have thoroughly enjoyed every single one of the matches so far. During the first set of group matches, we often see draw after draw as teams play cautiously and try simply not to lose. This year, we have yet to see a draw through eight games, and each of the games has been highly competitive with lots of up-and-down play. The matches so far have averaged a whopping 3.5 goals per game.
As much as I have loved the matches so far, I would like to quickly explain the issue with a statement that has gone around the last couple of days—something we do often around here at DCIAB. Many fans have excitedly proclaimed, “This is already the best/my favorite World Cup ever.” While I support the enthusiasm, this notion does not actually make sense. If we were to quantify the relative quality of a World Cup, the value is something that could rise or fall depending upon what happens. For instance, the 2010 FIFA World Cup was a great competition, but the relatively pedestrian final may have lowered the perceived overall quality level of that year’s competition. Now, for people to say this year’s tournament is “already” the greatest ever would mean that the value of a World Cup’s quality can only increase, and this value has already surpassed that of any previous World Cup—which is simply not true. Remember when this year’s NBA Playoffs was the best ever after the first round, and we have since seen almost exclusively uncompetitive rounds? Basically, we have a long way to go, so chill before calling this the greatest World Cup ever.
Anyway, I am going to get into some quick thoughts on the first set of games. I plan on doing this every eight games in the Group Stage, so probably every few days. Any thoughts, comments, agreements, disagreements, questions, please let me know! I always enjoy an informed soccer discussion.
Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)
This section will mostly discuss the Brazil-Croatia match, since that is the one everyone watched and cares about.
There were many positives and negatives to be taken from this game regarding the heavy title favorites Brazil. Many people have already jumped off the “BRAZIL WILL WIN THE CUP” brigade, which is extremely foolish. The 3-1 win over a strong Croatia side is a quality result, and was no less than what anybody had expected heading into the match. In 2010, Spain lost its first match 1-0 to Switzerland before marching to the Cup. A 3-1 win over Croatia is pretty damn good. Harry pointed out that Brazil practically slept through that game, yet got a strong result.
While that is a fair point, the fact that, despite the victory, Brazil’s looking shaky worries people. The penalty leading to Neymar’s second goal was ridiculous. Yes, there was contact, but hardly any at all. It is, however, difficult to blame the referee there. Fred flopped, the crowd went nuts, and it took all of us multiple replays to decide that it was not a penalty. Give the man a break. Regardless, quality goalkeeping would have stopped each of the three goals, and a controversially disallowed Croatia goal in the final ten minutes could have put the Croats on the board again. The 3-1 result may be a little deceptive.
For better or worse, Brazil’s back four each confirmed my opinions on the players heading into them.
Marcelo is talented both going forward and defending, but sometimes his inexperience can show in both his positioning and execution. The own-goal was hardly his fault, as his teammates failed to clear the ball that he could not even see.
At center-back, Thiago Silva remained quietly consistent as he cleaned up the messes of his younger teammates and continues his reign as the world’s best central defender. His partner, David Luiz showed once again that he is dangerous going forward, but is all over the place at the back line. Luckily, Silva will continue to be his center-back partner following Luiz’s way-too-high $85 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Yes, $85 million for a guy who failed to start at Chelsea.
Finally, Barcelona’s Dani Alves stayed forward almost all game, which gave Ivica Olic acres of space behind him and led to the majority of Croatia’s chances. Alves’s abandonment of his defensive responsibilities caused Oscar to repeatedly scream at the right-back to wake up.
On the attacking end, Neymar’s two goals fulfilled the high expectations set by the media and fans in the build-up to the World Cup. He made some quality runs all afternoon, but also gave away the ball too easily at times and did little to help the Selecao defense.
The real star of the match was midfield partner Oscar. The Chelsea youngster was all over the park, never running out of energy whether attacking or defending. His bold tackling challenges—something we could see more often from him—impressed me at least as much as his brilliant linking play going forward. He, Neymar, and Hulk often changed positions throughout the match, and Oscar always led the way. This performance came just hours after Chelsea had bought Spanish star midfielder Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, perhaps to compete with Oscar for his position. Analysts have said Fabregas will end up starting just in front of the holding Nemanja Matic, while Oscar will play just off of striker Diego Costa, but that is a conversation for another day.
Croatia themselves turned in a respectable performance, potentially one good enough to defeat Brazil on a luckier day. Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, fresh off a major haircut (compare his hair in the Champions League Final last month to now), had an outstanding performance. The entire side ran through him, and he exhibited exceptional poise on the ball despite the constant pressing from the talented opposition. On the wing, the aforementioned Olic gave Alves fits and proved to be a worthwhile attacking threat. After watching Mexico’s solid but unspectacular win over Cameroon, I stand by my prediction that Croatia will advance behind the Brazilians.
Group B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)
Similarly to the last section, I will focus mostly on Netherlands’ groundbreaking 5-1 win over Spain. Despite the absurdly one-sided result, La Roja actually played pretty well. They dominated possession, the middle of the park, field position, and scoring chances in the first half. The fluidity in the midfield was beautiful, as David Silva, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez roamed around the pitch receiving and sending quick passes to their teammates. Fans love to refer to Spain’s tactics as simply “tiki-taka,” but the side operated a little differently on Friday. The insertion of a more traditional striker in Diego Costa led to the Spanish midfielders’ bombing long balls over the Dutch defense, a tactic that has potential but needs some development and more imagination.
The Spaniards were a Silva breakaway conversion away from going up 2-0 into halftime, a score that would be tough to come back from for the defense-oriented Dutch. Instead, Silva missed on a respectable chip-shot attempt, and Netherlands responded with a stunning goal from Robin van Persie off of a textbook cross from Daley Blind.
In the end, this match was a nightmare for Spain. We have all played in sporting events during which we know we are the better side, but nothing will turn up positive. While the result was certainly impressive, I still firmly believe that Spain are the better side. So, what happened?
Every one of Netherlands’ five goals came down to a mistake by one or more of Spain’s center-backs, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, or the keeper, Iker Casillas. In their defense, these men were left on an island all game, but Spain’s tactics call for perfection from their world-class defenders. Fullbacks Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta (whom I love, which we can talk about some other time) constantly pushed up to add some more attacking ideas after Spain had trouble breaking through the rock-solid Dutch defense. As soon as Spain lost possession, Netherlands would quickly bomb the ball to the top-quality trio of van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder. The three attackers utilized the massive gaps, often facing little opposition beyond Pique, Ramos, Casillas, and a bunch of open space. Then, the Dutch capitalized on essentially every mistake made by the three.
The Oranje also deserve immense amounts of credit for their skill on the attack. Few players in the world would have gotten in position and finished like van Persie and Robben did on each of their goals.
Still, we must talk about the form of the Spanish captain, Casillas. The Real Madrid legend made some brutal mistakes, debatably on all five goals and especially on the third. All keepers make mistakes, but it is tough to watch such a heralded man make a series of mistakes like that, especially following an uninspiring performance in last month’s UEFA Champions League Final. Spain teems with world-class goalies, so why settle for someone who makes all these mistakes? Well, at this point, Casillas deserves the benefit of the doubt in Wednesday’s must-win match versus Chile. However, if he makes more clear mistakes, calls for backup David de Gea may be worth a listen.
FiveThirtyEight’s formula has dropped Spain’s chance of advancing all the way down to 25 percent. The path towards advancement begins with three massive points over Chile on Wednesday.
Group C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)
Colombia have become early favorites for my second-favorite team in this tournament. The passion coming from the yellow-clad Colombian fans on Saturday drowned out the commentary and filled my living room. An uninformed person would have guessed that the World Cup is being played in Colombia after that experience, especially since the Brazilian fans on Thursday were far from matching the Colombians’ excitement. The Brazilians were nervous. The Colombians were having fun, just happy to be there.
Perhaps more lovable, the Colombian team on the pitch personifies the fans’ inexplicable passion for the game. From back to front, the men in yellow play no-fucks-given soccer for all ninety minutes. While Greece attacked, Colombia uniformly thought, Press, press, press, get the ball, LET’S FUCKING GO. This desire coupled with wicked pace up and down the pitch make Colombia the most fun of any team to play so far. Just please start Jackson Martinez next time.
On the other side, Greece was Greece. Well-organized, had some quality chances, but ultimately were out-classed by the far more talented opposition. The 2004 UEFA European champions still have a shot at the group, but they face an uphill battle as Ivory Coast gained three points against a solid Japan side.
Down 1-0 after the first hour of Saturday’s match, Les Elephants subbed on Didier Drogba and nabbed two quick goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho. The Ivoirians showed exceptional talent going forward but an overall lack of organization—nothing new from the African side. Manchester City star Yaya Toure (whom I love, which, again, we can talk about some other time) repeatedly winced in pain after making runs. We as fans should keep our fingers crossed that a player of his quality can turn in a good, quality performance on the world stage.
Japan and Greece each has a couple chances to make up some points in this group, but I fail to see them catching up with two superior teams.
Group D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy)
LOL, Uruguay. I have been saying for a while now that this squad is pretty brutal aside from Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, and Fernando Muslera. Even Diego Forlan, whose five goals in the 2010 FIFA World Cup tied for the most of the tournament, has declined since the last go-around.
Aside from converting a penalty won by the hilariously bad captain Diego Lugano’s standing in the box and getting football tackled, Uruguay hardly did anything against Costa Rica. The defense and midfield could not hold onto the ball, so Cavani never even had an opportunity to show his magic. I don’t see that changing once Suarez joins the squad.
Costa Rica made the CONCACAF proud with its 3-1 victory. Each of its goals were truly high quality, with striker Joel Campbell turning in a man-of-the-match performance. The 21-year-old has been at Arsenal for three years but has yet to make an experience for the club, instead scoring Champions League goals against Manchester United while on loan at Olympiakos.
Finally, the England-Italy match has been my favorite of the young competition. While neither the result nor the play was groundbreaking, both sides knew that the world was watching and that a win was essential. The match came down to the Italians’ controlling the ball, and, more importantly, the middle of the park. It felt like the immortal Andrea Pirlo—who is 35 freaking years old—dictated everything happening throughout the match. In the end, a few more chances converted could have delivered England one or even three points. Wayne Rooney, you can get that first World Cup goal any time now.
For the first time in forever, nobody expects England to be a title threat. Now, with lowered expectations, I have constantly said that they could surprise people. The team offers a plethora of fantastic young talents in Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson, and Adam Lallana. While English sides have traditionally been 23 slow guys sending long balls to each other and praying they will work, the 2014 squad shows exceptional pace and quality. Whether they advance from the group or not, this English side will be a fun watch.
Sorry for such a long post. They will probably be shorter in the future. Today, I promise you will not regret watching Argentina take on the attack-minded Bosnia-Herzegovina. I also think there is a match or two (three, actually) on Monday.