After 11 days, 32 matches and 94 goals the 2014 World Cup is well underway. With each country played two games each it is time to look at which teams are looking strong and which are yet to get started in their quest to win the World Cup.
Undoubtedly, the biggest story so far has been the fall of world champions Spain who have crashed out of the World Cup after abject defeats to the Netherlands and Chile. England will also exit the championships early after defeats to Italy and Uruguay, their earliest exit since 1950. Host nation Brazil are of to a shaky start after relying on a dubious penalty in their 3-1 win in the opening match against Croatia and a 0-0 stalemate against Mexico.
- The Netherland’s 5-1 victory over defending champions Spain sent shock waves around world football in one of the biggest upsets of recent championships. Spain went 1-0 up in the first half and had chances to extend their lead but the manner of their subsequent collapse as well as the speed and efficiency of the previously unfancied Dutch attack surprised everyone. Forwards Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben scored two goals each, including a stunning header from Van Persie and a 50 yard solo run and finish from Arjen Robben. However, for the Netherlands to progress further in the tournament they must protect their defence which is mainly made up players from the Dutch domestic leagues and lower Premier League teams, unlike their attacking players from big European sides. Their following 3-2 victory over Australia showed their attacking prowess but also highlighted defensive frailties.
- Chile entered the tournament surrounded by a lot of hype from British media after their 2-0 victory over England in November and were expected to be tricky opponents for Spain and the Netherlands, the two finalists from 2010. They were expected to beat Australia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, and were 2-0 up after 15 minutes after two fine examples of their attacking movement and fluidity, exemplified by Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez, which is the key component to Chile’s game. They eventually won 3-1 but in their next match Spain were fancied to hit back after their shocking defeat to the Netherlands. Chile had other ideas however, and in the iconic Maracana stadium in Rio packed with passionate Chile fans they outperformed a shocked Spain side and knocked them out of the tournament with a 2-0 win. Chile now face the Netherlands in their final group B match and with both teams already qualified they will be trying to win the group and avoid a probable second round match with Brazil. Chile, heavily backed by their colourful noisy supporters who have made the journey across the continent, with their busy energetic midfield lead by Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and their attacking fluidity lead by Sanchez will be difficult opponents to any team in the knockout rounds.
- Colombia, who qualified as a top 8 seeded team after their impressive qualifying results, received a fortunate draw and were drawn alongside the Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan in Group C but were then extremely unfortunate to lose their star player and talisman Radamel Falcao. Without their leading forward the question was could Colombia, playing in their first World Cup since 1998, defeat solid teams with recent World Cup experience? They opened strongly overcoming Greece’s resolute defence to win 3-0 and backed it up by beating Ivory Coast 2-1 to qualify. Heavily backed by a strong Colombian following in Brazil, Belo Hozionte and Brasilia were a sea of yellow shirts for their matches and their young stars have come out to shine so far in Brazil. James Rodriguez is thriving in the number 10 role behind the striker and has already scored two goals and has made two assists and Juan Caudrado with his three assists has also impressed. Colombia, similarly to Chile, will be a tricky opponent to any team and will probably play the winner of Italy and Uruguay in Group D.
- 4 years ago the French were in disarray. The infamous player strike which surrounded their shambolic World Cup resulted in the rebuilding of the national team. Now, this young fresh French side have made a wonderful start to their 2014 campaign. Although drawn into a favourable group containing Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras, France, who are currently 17th in the world, have impressed in their 3-0 and 5-2 victories over Honduras and Switzerland respectively. From the defensive pairing of Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho to the blend of skill, power and pace in the midfield group of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi to the attacking skill of Karim Benzema, who has scored 3 goals so far, supported by Mathieu Valbeuna, France have been solid in every department. After entering the tournament with relatively low expectations, the hype around this exciting team will grow after each successful match. At the moment they are dark horses and until they play one of the world’s top sides, even though they comfortably dispatched Switzerland who are ranked 6th in the world, they will remain outsiders. France will be looking forward to Euro 2016 which they host, with a genuine hope that this young team can win it.
- Ranked 28th in the world and drawn into Group D, the group of death containing three previous champions Italy, Uruguay and England, Costa Rica were expected to be the whipping boys of the other teams. Head Coach Jorge Luis Pinto disagreed however stating that there were ‘4 good teams’ in Group D, including Costa Rica. Then, to the surprise of the world, Costa Rica played like they were equal to their opponents. First against Uruguay, 4th placed in 2010 but missing Luis Suarez, Costa Rica were 1-0 down at half time but fought back to win 3-1. They then went on to not only beat but dominate Italy 1-0, shutting out a team that impressed in a 2-1 victory over England and stopping the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. In doing so the minnows of Group D escaped the group of death. Costa Rica are the classic example of a team that accepts it limitations but builds around its strengths. They don’t have a star player to use as an outlet and they don’t have the number of technically sound players needed to play open and expansive football. Instead Jorge Luis Pinto has used a back 5 to limit the attacking talent of the oppositions, but the full backs have freedom to attack and supply the likes of Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, who scored the winner against Italy. Costa Rica now play already eliminated England in their last group match as they attempt to win their group, hence avoiding Colombia from group C and instead facing either the Ivory Coast, Greece or Japan. England will want to exit the tournament with a win but if Costa Rica perform as they did against Italy and Uruguay, then there is no reason win the group of death.
Yet to Perform
- One year ag0, Brazil hosted and won the Confederations Cup. Not only did they win it but they did so in style beating Spain 3-0 in the final while riding on a wave of home support in the Maracana stadium. Therefore on top of the expectation from the home fans to win their 6th World Cup there is an expectation to play with flair, to entertain, to play like Brazil. Many expected Brazil to continue their form from the Confederations but their campaign got off to the worst possible start and conceded after 10 minutes to Croatia. Brazil then had to show a different side and be mentally strong enough to recover. After pulling level through the poster boy of the tournament; Neymar, many expected Brazil to run riot but were often frustrated by Croatia who defended well and had chances of their own. In the end a dubious penalty, converted by Neymar, was not the way they were expected to win. Mexico continued the frustration in the 2nd match and a sublime goalkeeping performance by Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa denied Brazil and Neymar of their 2nd win in a 0-0 stalemate. There is a hope in the country that the hosts will grow with the tournament but they will need to find their attacking rhythm soon and before a potentially tricky encounter with Chile in the second round.
- Argentina are among the favourites to win the World Cup this summer simply because of Lionel Messi who is looking to secure his status as one of the world’s greatest ever players by leading Argentina to their 3rd championship. Messi and the rest of the ‘fantastic four’ – Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero – make Argentina’s front line the most dangerous in the tournament. Therefore, when Argentina were drawn alongside Bosnia – Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran most people expected fireworks and plenty of goals from 4 of the world’s best attackers in the prime of their careers. Two games in however, and although Argentina sit on top of the group with 2 wins they have barely squeezed through and could only manage a 2-1 victory over Bosnia – Herzegovina and a last minute 1-0 victory over Iran. At least Lionel Messi has performed and has scored two sensational goals, first in the game in the Maracana stadium against Bosnia – Herzegovina and then in stoppage time against Iran having been held at 0-0 for 90 minutes by a resolute Iranian defence. He has been the difference so far. Argentina have yet to face a side that has been brave enough to open up and have a go at them, maybe then we will see the speed and skill of the Argentina attack. However, Argentina have also yet to face a side that can challenge their frail defence and goalkeeper, which are not to the same standard as their attack.
- Belgium went from failing to qualify for the 2012 European championships to becoming a seeded team and one of the favourites for the 2014 World Cup in only two years. Their incredible rise to the top of the international game is down to the emergence of the young Belgian talent in many of Europe’s top leagues such as Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany. Although Belgium are currently leading their group on 6 points ahead of Algeria, Russia and South Korea they had to come from behind to beat Algeria 2-1 and snatched 3 points with a last minute winner against Russia. In both games the starting eleven has been ineffective and all three goals scored by Belgium have been scored by substitutes. Despite all of their individual talent Belgium haven’t appeared to gel as a team on the field in the way they did in the qualifying rounds and we definitely haven’t seen the best of Belgium yet. They would be expected to beat the runners up of Group G, either Ghana, Portugal or the USA, if on top form and then they could be a serious challenge to any top side in the quarter finals. Belgium may find their most joy in frustrating the big teams and utilising their pace on the wings by hitting them on the counter attack.