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After yesterday’s adventures, three teams have now been eliminated from the World Cup. In some cases, the elimination carries with it an air of inevitability – the draw is often unkind, and teams who managed the considerable achievement of qualifying at all are sent packing early. In others, though, it’s a shock of epic proportions.

So yeah, Cameroon are out. Australia are out. Neither of these comes as much of a surprise.

Spain are out. I’ll say this again, because at some point soon I need to start believing it.

Spain. Are out.

The phenomenon of a ‘golden generation’ of players is not an unusual one. A particular group of unusually talented players, often from a single club, develop at the academy level, graduate into the senior side around the same time, develop a tactical understanding and ultimately form the backbone of the national side. This was especially true at Barcelona, where a stellar crop of La Masia graduates propelled Barca to a period of almost unparalleled dominance, and became the core of an all-conquering Spanish side which won the last World Cup as well as the European Championship to either side of it.

But all good things, as they say, must come to an end. Long experience, while useful, has also taken its toll in terms of pace. Opponents have caught onto what made the team tick. And in their two games so far, they have been outscored and outclassed.

At this point, the Netherlands still have to face Chile, and Spain still have to face Australia. For the latter two, it is merely a matter of saving face at this point, but the former two will be vying for the top spot in their group and the avoidance of a probable meeting with Brazil in the next round.

Today brings two more matches in Group C, and the England vs. Uruguay game in Group D. This too is a crucial clash, since the losing team will be eliminated. In the event of a tie, both will have to hope that other results go their way if they are to progress. The winner, though, could well be right back in the mix.

Here, too, is another potential twist in the tale: If (and it’s a pretty big if) Croatia and Mexico battle their way to a scoring draw in the closing games of Group A, and Cameroon, now freed of any pressure, manage to beat Brazil, then Brazil will also be eliminated. That would be a twist for the ages.

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Each team has by now played one game (due to the scheduling, Brazil and Mexico will have already played their second by the time of posting, and we’ll get to that too.) It is not yet mathematically possible for any team to be out of the tournament, but there will now be teams with a heavy advantage, especially considering that of those 16 matches, only two(!) have ended in draws. So there are lots of teams on three points, and lots on none.

Group A: Brazil and Mexico both claimed victories, Brazil a 3-1 over Croatia (albeit with a hotly debated penalty) and Mexico with an unconvincing 1-0 over Cameroon. It’s no surprise that Brazil are in the driving seat for this group, being favorites to win the entire tournament, but who will take second place? I believe that Brazil will defeat Mexico this afternoon, and Croatia will overcome Cameroon, a scenario which will see the two teams enter the final game of the group phase with only goal difference separating them, if that. I still fancy Croatia to edge Mexico in that final game to claim second spot.

Group B: Well, the Dutch threw us quite a curveball, didn’t they? Oh – wrong sport. Robben, van Persie and their compatriots gave the viewers a masterclass to feast their eyes on as they crushed Spain 5-1, a game which will be long remembered. You could almost forget that there was another game in Group B, a comparatively ordinary yet nonetheless well-earned 3-1 victory by Chile over Australia. Spain come up against Chile next, and will be looking to redeem themselves. A convincing win would put them back in the mix, and a loss would probably put them on the next plane back to Madrid. Vital game there. The Netherlands also face Australia, and should be able to get a win. Maybe not as stylish and overpowering as the first game, but a win. That will effectively send Australia home, and leave Spain and Chile to fight it out for the right to face Brazil in the following round.

Group C: Is it just me, or is this group not very exciting? For some reason, I’m having a hard time getting all that interested in any of the teams drawn together in this group. Nevertheless, Colombia put on a convincing display to cruise past Greece, while Ivory Coast snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, coming back from 1-0 down to defeat Japan 2-1.  The two winning sides will face off this Thursday, and I imagine Ivory Coast will be playing a much more attacking strategy than Greece. Look for another hard-fought victory for the Ivorian team to top the group outright, and for either a Japan win or a scrappy draw with Greece.

Group D: Oh, England. They fought harder for their 2-1 defeat against Italy than they have fought in many of their past wins. I can only hope that the same battling spirit blesses them in their next two games. England next face Uruguay, who will be smarting from their shock 3-1 loss to Costa Rica. The question is, will they be demoralized, and thereby easy prey, or will they strike back like a cornered tiger? The answer to that question may well determine England’s fate, since the disciplined Italian defence will probably be too much for even breakout Ticos star Joel Campbell to unlock. So in a major revision to my expectations from Group D, I’m going to suggest that Italy are now favoured to win the group, and any of the other three could yet take second (but of course I’m still holding out for it to be England.)

Group E: France got off to a flyer here, Karim Benzema netting the first of two hat tricks so far as France ran out 3-0 winners against Honduras. Switzerland became yet another comeback story with a goal in the dying seconds of the game to beat Ecuador 2-1. These two winners face off next, and you’ve got to fancy the winner of that game to take the top spot in the group, possibly with the other still taking second.

Group F: This group was always going to be about Argentina, and I think it still is. They started a little more slowly than they will have wanted, and Bosnia certainly gave them a scare late on, but they held on for a 2-1 win. A 0-0 bore draw between Iran and Nigeria will be a boost to a Bosnia team which certainly matched Argentina for firepower at times. My prediction here is unchanged, Argentina topping the group and Bosnia going through in second.

Group G: God Bless The USA, says the song, and it’s not hard to imagine that some benevolent entity was looking out for the American team as they found the net in the first half minute of the match, then survived a torrent of chances as Ghana outshot them by a factor of three to one. A late goal gave the Black Stars hope, but John Brooks sealed the three points and a 2-1 win for the USA. Ghana now face Germany, a tough fixture for any team.

And then there was Germany and Portugal. That game was a massacre, and but for some profligate shooting from the Germans, it could easily have ended 7-0 or even more. A needless red card for Pepe, an injury to Coentrao and a full 90 minutes for a star player struggling to stay fit only compounded Portugal’s misery. The Portuguese will face the USA next as a much diminished force, and if the Americans take that game too they will seal second place in the group behind Germany.

Group H: In the sixth (!) come-from-behind win of the tournament so far, Belgium outfought Algeria 2-1 while Russia and South Korea battled to a 1-1 tie. Belgium play Russia next, a clash which will very much determine the course of the group – a win will assure Belgium of qualification to the next round, but a loss would leave the group wide open. Similarly, a win for Algeria against South Korea would leave them very much in the mix, but a loss would effectively put an end to their World Cup.

 

Everything still to play for, but a hard road emerging for some teams.

And now that Brazil and Mexico have played again, let’s revisit Group A: the two teams scratched out a 0-0 tie in their second round to go level on 4 points at the top of the group. Brazil are ahead on goal difference by a solitary strike, which means that much will now come down to the final game, with another tie almost enough to automatically clinch qualification for either one.

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Who would have guessed that on a field populated by global megastars that the biggest moment of the night would belong to Yuichi Nishimura?

nishimura

The Japanese referee made a number of questionable calls, but none more so than the awarding of a penalty to Brazil in the 71st minute. We’ll get to that shortly.

The game started out with no small amount of fire on both sides. It was end-to-end stuff, the kind of play one loves to see at the sport’s showcase event. Brazil started with all the passion and prowess one would expect of an immensely talented team playing in front of their home fans. The last time Brazil played a World Cup game on home turf, the great Pele was only nine years old, and the team looked like they intended to make up those 64 years in the space of a single match.

Nevertheless, Croatia looked very dangerous on the break, and in the 11th minute they were the ones to make it count, as they broke through the back line of yellow shirts and bore down on goal. Full-back Marcelo got a foot to the ball but only succeeded in directing it into his own net – the first time Brazil have ever scored an own goal in a World Cup tournament.

A major upset was on the cards, as Brazil attempted to recover and Croatia pushed for a second. With Brazil heavily favored to go all the way and finally erase the pain of the infamous Maracanazo (the 1950 final, where Brazil somehow lost 2-1 to Uruguay in front of 200,000 of their fans), things were not going according to plan for O Seleção.

The following 15 minutes saw both goalkeepers tested, with Croatia’s Stipe Pletikosa summoning up a fantastic save in the 23rd minute to deny a swerving shot from Oscar. Brazil began to re-assert their dominance, and though he received a yellow card for clattering Luka Modric, it was the host nation’s great hope Neymar who made the breakthrough. Oscar fought his way through a determined defence and got the pass through, and Neymar made no mistake, nestling the ball snugly in the bottom corner of the goal. That was his 32rd goal for O Seleção, and at the tender age of 22 fully expect him to add extensively to that tally.

The goal didn’t take the wind out of Croatia’s sails too much, though, as they instantly pushed to restore their lead. Both teams put in some hard work for the next 15 minutes, and the half-time scoreline was a well-deserved 1-1.

Brazil started brightly in the second half, indeed claiming over 90% of the possession for the first ten minutes of the half. The heat and humidity were beginning to take their toll, though, and it showed on the players as they began to slow, with Vedran Corluka going into the book for a hard challenge on Neymar. A couple of substitutions saw some fresher legs take to the field, but the next big moment had little to do with the new faces.

Striker Fred, twisting and turning to get his sights on the Croatia goal, backed into defender Dejan Lovren and fell to the ground. Some felt it was a mere slip, others thought Fred took a dive. The referee, however, pointed to the spot. As if anticipating the vociferous protests he would receive, he sprinted to the end line to officiate the ensuing penalty. I’m not sure he moved that fast at any other time in the game.

It was of course Neymar who stepped up to take the penalty, throwing in a little flashy footwork to try to fool Pletikosa and then unleashing a shot which could have come from a cannon. Pletikosa guessed right, dived right, got a firm hand to the ball, but couldn’t keep it from going into the goal behind him. A save would have been justice, but it was not to be. Neymar now on 33 goals for Brazil, matching the tallies of such illustrious names as Jairzinho and Ronaldinho. Rivaldo is just ahead of him on 34, and it would be foolhardy to bet against Neymar overtaking him too.

The 83rd minute saw another questionable call as Croatia’s Ivica Olic headed the ball into Brazil’s goal but was instead called for a foul on goalie Julio Cesar. Should have been 2-2, but Brazil got the benefit of the refereeing once again.

Croatia continued to push for an equaliser in the final minutes with a near miss from Corluka followed by a fantastic diving save from Julio Cesar to deny Ivan Perisic. Tragedy then struck for the men in the red and white as a long ball downfield found Oscar at the other end. A turn and a toe-poke, and it was 3-1.

The final whistle blew, and Brazil took the three points.

Croatia will feel hard done by, and rightly so, but if they can play like this in their next two games, they won’t have any difficulty taking second in the group and going through to the next round.

My own prediction for this game was a 2-1 victory for Brazil, and that’s perhaps what should have happened today.

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One more day until the 2014 World Cup kicks off!

Host nation Brazil will be inaugurating their tournament against Croatia in the first Group A game, and Mexico and Cameroon will face off the next day.

brazil

Within this group, few would bet against Brazil coming out on top, and indeed it seems likely that they will do so with the maximum haul of nine points. O Seleção may no longer be the paramount force in world football – their 1982 squad is arguably the best team to not have won the Cup – but it would be a foolhardy team that underestimated them.

While the mantle of “world’s best player” is a subjective one, and passes swiftly from one player to another, it’s safe to say that Barcelona striker Neymar is one of the élite, a worthy successor to stars such as Rivaldo, Romario and Ronaldinho. The 22-year-old isn’t playing on his own, though; atypically for a Brazil squad, this one seems to have been built from the back, with the safe hands of Julio Cesar in goal, solid defenders including Thiago Silva and David Luiz, flying fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Alves, and midfield maestro Oscar linking up play and providing the distribution channel for Neymar and the rest of the strike force.

The question is, though, who will fare best among the other Group A teams? On their day, any of the three could beat any other, and as such the teams’ fate may be determined in part by who loses to Brazil by the smallest margin.

croatia

Croatia have been dangerous for some time, as evidenced by Davor Šuker taking home the Golden Boot for the most goals scored in the 1998 tournament. Though Šuker has hung up his boots, Mario Mandžukić is proving to be quite able to strike terror in the hearts of opposing defences himself. In the national side, the Bayern Munich man is ably assisted by tricky Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modrić. While Croatia are by no means a two-man side, these two alone are enough to cause problems for a back line, and should not be written off.

Trivia: Croatia striker Eduardo da Silva is Brazilian by birth, and has pledged to sing both anthems ahead of tomorrow’s match. Don’t expect him to go easy on Brazil, though – Eduardo is two goals away from surpassing Šuker as Croatia’s all-time top goalscorer, and will be looking to break that record at this tournament.

mexico

Mexico are the puzzle of Group A – though they took Olympic gold two years ago (beating Brazil in the final), El Tri came within a hair’s breadth of failing to qualify for the World Cup at all, going through four coaches in six weeks. It appeared as though Panama would qualify in their stead, until a pair of late defensive slip-ups allowed the USA to beat Panama 2-1 and effectively hand Mexico a berth at the World Cup.

This story would suggest a team short on confidence and potentially easy to overcome, but when the strike partnership of Oribe Peralta and Javier Hernandez hits its stride, there is definite danger. Opposing teams will also need to watch their right side for winger Andres Guardado, who is a master at finding space from which to deliver a cross.

cameroon

Last but not least is the threat posed by Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have a short but eventful history at the World Cup, having defeated defending champions Argentina in their opening game of the 1990 Cup, having the oldest player ever to score a World Cup goal (Roger Milla in 1994, at age 42), and racking up the highest count of red and yellow cards per game in 1998. Oddities have surrounded the team at other international tournaments since, including controversy over unconventional kits and the tragic on-pitch heart attack of midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé.

This year’s team is largely dependent on the strength and work-rate of striker and captain Samuel Eto’o. The 33-year old might be thought of as past his prime, but while he has lost a little of his former pace, his goalscoring instincts are still extremely sharp, and if he receives good service from midfielders such as Alex Song, Stéphane Mbia and Jean Makoun, there may be a further surprise or two still up Cameroon’s sleeve.

I’m predicting Brazil for first place in the group, with near 100% confidence. Shading second place… let’s go with Croatia.

Predicted group standings:

Brazil
Croatia
Mexico
Cameroon

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