Some random observations after the third group fixtures:
Netherlands 2-0 Chile: Smart defending from the Chileans; they closed down the Dutch on the flanks, preventing them from getting off their supersonic counterattack. The Dutch still controlled the possession for most of the game, just not a vast amount like in previous fixtures. What a difference a frontman makes; Not that Jermaine Lens isn’t a quality finisher, but he isn’t Robin van Persie; Lens certainly has more pace but he doesn’t have van Persie’s shooting touch. Both teams were interrupting the opposition attack in the midfield. The shortest team in this tournament, Chile were pounded repeatedly in the air by the Netherlands. Chile’s direct approach seemed more disorganized, while the Netherlands were more patient in their buildup. When Chile brought in a winger, Jean Beauséjour, to replace a central midfielder, they inadvertently opened up the center for the Dutch attack to exploit, and that proved fatal. No team has gotten better contributions from their bench than the Netherlands. Memphis Depay scored his second goal off the bench in two games, and Leroy Fer scored the opening goal of the match off the bench. The Dutch win Group B, while Chile gets Brazil in the Round of 16.
Croatia 1-3 Mexico: Surprisingly pacey, athletic game and both teams played to their strengths. Mexico looked to take advantage of the flanks with Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar introducing the attack, midfield playmakers Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado finding the open players, and Giovanni dos Santos linking up with Oribe Peralta in the box. Croatia looked to do basically the same, with Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic finding space to use their speed to get the ball into the final third, Danijel Pranjic and Ivan Perisic creating the attack, and Luka Modric linking up with target man Mario Mandzukic in the penalty area. Croatia tried to get at Mexico’s weakness: defending set pieces and corners. Even though both teams were frequently getting into the final third (Croatia had the slightly better possession) for the first 72 minutes neither was getting any quality shots off on goal. As much as the Croatians were pounding the ball into the box to Mandzukic, the central defensive pair of Francisco Rodríguez and Rafael Marquez did a fantastic job of closing him down. Equally, I just don’t see the use of dos Santos; he didn’t make space for himself up top, didn’t run into channels, he didn’t do anything off the ball, didn’t get a lot of service, and pretty much didn’t get involved in any game he played. Clearly Mexico was much better served with Chicharito in the game instead. Not that Croatia’s backline can be excused for Mexico’s goals, but those first two goals were shots that keeper Stipe Pletikosa could have gotten to had he had the quick-twitch reactions required by an elite goalkeeper, which he clearly is not anymore, and I think Croatia would be better served with somebody else in goal. A total breakdown in the back coupled with a certain lack of attention and organization in the back is why a team as talented as Croatia is going home in the group stage for the third consecutive World Cup.
Italy 0-1 Uruguay: Italy coach Cesare Prandelli made two critical changes: (1) he brought in three central defenders familiar with each other from Juventus to thwart Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and (2) he brought in Ciro Immobile to link up top with Mario Balotelli. Uruguay played narrow in the midfield to stop Italy from gaining control of the central area, The dilemma for Uruguay was for Alvaro Pereira and Martin Caceras to stay more in the rear defensively or to come forward and take on Italy’s flank head on. Mostly a cautious, probing game, as if neither team wanted to make a mistake. Surprisingly when not in possession Chile’s Cavani spent his time dropping back into midfield shadowing Italian talisman Andrea Pirlo, which opened up Chielini and Verate to come up from the center-half into the attacking third. Play was interrupted more by the record number of fouls than by any defensive acuity by either team, though both were stout in defense. The two-man strike partnership up front – whether it be Immobile and Balotelli or Immobile and Antonio Cassano – didn’t work for Italy, who I think were better served with just a lone target man up front. Apparently Suarez, a graduate of the Mike Tyson school of biting, will do anything to win a game. Once they got down a score, a sluggish Italy could not rev it up to be a real threat to the Uruguayan penalty area. Italy has only itself to blame for its exit.
Greece 1-0 Ivory Coast: About what I expected from these two; a lot of play down the flanks with some deep crosses and throughballs. Of course, both teams knew they needed to score to get through the group stage, and of course Greece were going to do it while crowding their end of the pitch. One of the best players in the world in the air and on set pieces over the last 10-12 years has been Didier Drogba, and he played from the jump this time. Despite Kolo Toure looking 6’s&7’s in the back due to inactivity the first two games, Greece looked indecisive going forward. The focal point of the Ivorian attack was clearly Drogba, but Gervinho has quietly had a good tournament with his diagonal runs and taking advantage of space up front. Neither team was willing to devote too many players in attack at the expense of giving up spacing in the back. I expected more out of Yaya Toure and Salomen Kalou. One brief lapse of concentration can be fatal in the World Cup; the Ivorians can attest to that. And as they are finding out, just like the Italians earlier in the day, it is hard to stick it into fifth gear when you have been playing passively most of the game. The Ivorian attack was not that organized in the second half; it was more a function of make runs through to the final third, throw some bodies forward, then just take a shot through a crowded defense. At the end of the day, stupid mistakes are what cost the Ivory Coast a place in the last 16 and sent a team that clearly did not deserve it.
Nigeria 2-3 Argentina: Lionel Messi: Right Place, Right Time! Good to see Javier Mascherano finally getting involved in the attack; Argentina’s best chance at winning this tournament is if he has an offensive impact. The Nigerian’s first goal worked the way it was designed to all tournament long; Michael Babatunde and Ahmed Musa in combination on the break. Good combination play from Argentina, who are taking advantage of the space the Nigerians are allowing in the center and on the flanks. I get the impression that Messi is getting ready to take over this tournament. He’ll have to, because Argentina are barely getting any contributions from their other two front men Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Emmanuel Eminike may not be scoring goals, but he did well to assist in Ahmed Musa’s second goal. Things opened up for both teams, and when that happens there is room in the attacking end to take advantage of holes in the opposition defense – and when that happens mistakes get made and goals get scored. Nigeria was less able to absorb this with their already fragile backline. Even though they lost this game, I’m glad Nigeria is going through to the Round of 16; Iran so did not deserve it.
Ecuador 0-0 France: With advancement already guaranteed, France made six changes to their starting lineup in order to give bench players some much-needed playing time. After all, you never know if or when you may need those players. I like what I saw from Paul Pogba in the middle; he was at the center of the combination play going forward and was very accurate at introducing the attack in the final third. The Ecuadorian backline had a hard time with the combination passing through the center from the French. The ball didn’t find its way to Antonio Valencia on the left flank that often but when it did he did a good job of getting the ball forward quickly; when he moved to the center, the Ecuador attack stalled. A rather static match that did not have many quality shots on goal.
United States 0-1 Germany: Germany came out with great rhythm, keeping possession and waiting patiently. The US needed to push their backline forward a little more to press the opposition. Jerome Boateng was having his way on the right flank for Germany, Brad Davis was not providing cover in the back for DeMarcus Beasley, but the US I think would have been better served with an out-and-out left fullback than a winger. The US was not closing down the center in the final third, allowing way too much one-touch short passing in combination. Germany keeps making the US backline confused with its forward trio of Mesut Oezel, Thomas Mueller and Lukas Podolski freely moving from side to side, not just through the center, and finding space in the final third. Tim Howard really came up big, and Gawd knows if the US was going to give up a 2-1 advantage in possession, they needed him to; Germany took many more shots on goal than the US. The attack for the US in this World Cup was supposed to go through Michael Bradley. To say the least he has been disappointing, losing possession, getting confused and not being any impact in attack whatsoever. Jermaine Jones, on the other hand, has been a revelation, getting forward, introducing the attack, finding open players, and getting on the end of service and getting shots off. In the end, the US only had 79 touches all told in the German end, Germany had 244 touches in the US end. It was obvious from the beginning that the US was running on fumes and just looked to survive, because they hardly had any chances on goal.
South Korea 0-1 Belgium: With 6’6” striker Kim Shomwook starting as the target man up front, the Korean attack consisted of getting the ball in the box directly to Kim, holding it up and getting the ball to Ki SungYeung, Son Heungmin and Koo Jaechyol trailing into space. This is the third game of the group stage and I’m still not clear exactly what it is Belgium are trying to do. Despite having two wins they’ve been very underwhelming and sloppy with their possession. That said, the Belgians looked pretty comfortable, maybe not playing with any urgency or continuity but certainly looking the side more at ease with themselves (having already qualified for the knockout stages will do that for you). As the game wore on, Koo was less of a target man; he dropped off and became more of a linkup guy. The Taeguk Warriors rarely threatened to score; it looked as if they had forgotten how to, so off target were their chances. The effort was there, it always is. The players gave everything, and if anything, perhaps tried a little too hard. Time and time again, Korea got within sight of the Belgium penalty area, but just never really had the creativity or the imagination to do anything of much note. Hopeful balls, overhit passes, blocked shots – you name it. Korea worked hard but just couldn’t find a way through the Belgian back line, which despite all the changes from previous games was just as stout and unforgiving. Belgium defended stoutly and looked to get forward at every opportunity and Korea soon realized that opportunities were not simply going to materialize even with the increased space available. There were lots of balls by Korea into the box, behind the defense and just floated in, but the vast majority were cleared, blocked or rolled out of play. Korea exited the tournament with a whimper and without ever showing what they can do… And quite frankly, Belgium wasn’t much better.