So, that was the group stage, and for the most part it was pretty good. Let's have a run down of the 8 groups and see what we learned from what happened.
Group A: I said Brazil would have a 100% record and Mexico would get past Croatia for second place. Ok, so Brazil only drew against Mexico, but everything else was spot on. Mexico have looked a better side than their qualification campaign would have suggested, and have enough to offer to add value to the knockout stages, especially in the calm and strong defending. Croatia were a bit unlucky with the refereeing in the opening game against Brazil, and will fare better another time. Cameroon were poor, no excuses, and finished as the worst team in the World Cup, with no points and a goal difference of -8. Which brings up to Brazil; how good are they? Well, I would say they only have a chance to win this World Cup because of home advantage; without that, nobody would take their chances too seriously.
Group B: I always believed Chile were good enough to get through this group and naturally assumed they would be accompnaied by Spain; hence the Dutch could only go home. I am very glad to be wrong. By saying that I don't like the Spain that won the 2010 World Cup, I mean that I believe the success of teams that grind out 1-0 wins to be detrimental to the development of football. 8 goals in 7 games to win a tounrament is miserable in the extreme. In many ways the heroes of group B were Australia. Given no hope by anyone they played a full part in vey entertaining matches against both Chile and the Netherlands. Tim Cahill's goal may be the goal of the tournament, though Robin van Persie's operner agianst Spain was also special. This was a good group; top on goals scored, great entertainment and some juicy shocks too!
Group C: This felt like quite an open group. I confess to not knowing enough about a Colombia side without Falcao, but they have been wonderful; for me, they are the team of the group stage, especially in midfield with Rodriguez, Cuadrado and young Quintero. At the back, the 38 year old Yepes even outdoes Mexico's Rafael Marquez for cool chic and seems to exude a feeling that he will be just as good in another 4 years. Their 100% record was thoroughly deserved. Ivory Coast were my strong tip to go through and they have been very disappointing. There are, of course, some mitigating factors for the Toure family and it is unknown the extent to which their berevement affected others in the squad. With some ageing stars, you would think the chance has gone for this generation, which is a shame as they have represented African football valiently over the last decade. Japan were predictably nice but a bit lightweight, so the opportunists of this group were really Greece, who looked fairly poor throughout, but muddled on through to the Last 16, and a terrific draw there.
Group D: This was always a tough group, but to label it the 'group of death', as some did, was wrong compared to groups B and G. In fact this turned out to be the 'group of sleep' with only 12 goals and some below par performances from the stronger teams. The disappointment for both Italy and England is that their first game was of a very high standard and both teams looked capable of building on that and going deeper into the tournament, But both failed to play in the remaining games and went home. Uruguay at least progressed the other way – well, partially – after a poor start, the win over England was a lot better. And what of Costa Rica? Nobody gave them a prayer, but they topped the group unbeaten and, in Joel Campbell, unearthed a talented striker. But, i will let you into a secret here: I don't believe that Costa Rica are very good! Their Last 16 match against Greece looks to be far and away the poorest fixture of the second round…I am bound to be wrong about that.
Group E: This was a very predicatable group, with France and Switzerland progressing, although I did predict that Ecuador would sneak in ahead of the Swiss. But for a stoppage time goal conceded to the Swiss, that would have happened as I said. I must confess that I have underestimated the Swiss; they play a far more enterprising game than in 2010 or 2006 and could be very awkward opponents in the knockout phase. If Ecuador were a touch unlucky, then Honduras got what they deserved and finished last, with an emphasis on destruction rather than creation. France look the part and could beat highly fancied teams deep into the tournament.
Group F: This always looked easy for Argentina, but despite a 100% record, it generally was not, as evidenced by 3 games won by a single goal. Where would they be without Messi? The battle for second went the way of Nigeria who were better than their reputation, ahead of Bosnia, the tournament's only rookies, who did not get the rub iof the green, especially from the linesman against Nigeria, and went home. They did quite well and had more to offer than Iran, who could defend, but not if they had ambitions to attack. It true that it is not good to peak too early, but Argentina need to raise their game now, with Switzerland up next.
Group G: This was a hard fought group, although after the first round of matches it looked to be somewhat softer than we predicted. Germany dismantled Portugal, and the game between USA and Ghana lacked quality. but from then on, the group was consistently high quality with full commitment. The support from the USA fans was wonderful to see, and they are worthy qualifiers along with Germany. The USA could cause Belgium some problems in the Last 16.
Group H: For me, this was a disappointing group. Belgium have not looked the part yet, and rather like Argentina, need to raise their game now. The bright spot of the group was the unexpected positive play of Algeria who reached the second round for the first time, ahead of the rather dull Russians and Koreans. They at least were united by one factor: having probably the worst goalkeeping in the tournament.
Group Stage Team of the Tournament
GK Ochoa (Mexico) – uncontested as the best goalkeeper following his performance against Brazil
RB Isla (Chile) – Chile's attacking flair depends heavily on their wing backs, who delivered
CB Marquez (Mexico) – the legend is still leading by example as Mexico's captain; he scored too
CB Yepes (Colombia) – another cool operator in the twilight of his career; his leadership could take Colombia far into the tournament
LB Blind (Netherlands) – some terrific assists to add to competent defending
MFPogba (France) – the key part in the well-oiled machine that is the French midfield
MFRodriguez (Colombia) – player of the tournament so far, creative quality and goals as well; he can do it all
MFOscar (Brazil) – was terrific in the first game against Croatia; was quieter thereafter, but nobody else has done enough to take his place
FW Muller (Germany) – makes scoring and creating chances loko so easy; 9 World Cup goals at 24, and half a tournament to go!
FW Benzema (France) – could have scored even more goals, and has created as well; more potent than Neymar and Messi thus far
FW Robben (Netherlands) – incredibly direct; runs straight at goal and then seems to score quite often; why is it so simple?