Wish for the World Cup: this tournament will see an average of >3 goals per game for the first time since 1958.
The World Cup Final
Before the World Cup kicked off, the brain's trust at the Daily Rant had a conflab and decided to invest a modest amount of money with Uncle Betfair in the finalists being Argentina and Germany, so on a simplistic basis, this is a very satisfactory ending to the tournament. Germany have certainly deserved their place in the final with the demolition of Brazil, and earlier of the faniced Portugal, but Argentina have honestly been somewhat underdone. There is nobody they have beaten well for all the threat of Messi. Mascherano has stepped up to be the best defensive midfielder in the competition but beyond that the star names have not really delivered. Conversely, the Germans have provided 5 or 6 of the stand out players in the tournament. The only other team that has really stood out has been Colombia, and it would have been fitting to see Colombia against Germany both at their best in the semi-final, but it wasn't to be. I expect the Germans to play the first half at a high tempo, trying to benefit from the extra day's rest and comparatively easier semi-final, and to have the match well in hand by half time, with perhaps a 2-0 lead. I cannot see how Mascherano can cover the all the possible threats, such is the variety of the German attack and the speed of their passing. Muller will find clever position mainly on the right, and the midfield trio of Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos are adept at finding the right ball at the right time to unlock the door; the only slightly weak link moving forward is Ozil, who has been a bit below par in this World Cup. Prediction: Germany to win 2-1 after a 2-0 half time lead.
Outcome: Argentina 0 Germany 1 (after extra time): This was a decent final despite being 0-0 at 90 minutes, and was ultimately won by a goal worthy of winning the World Cup final. Did the right team win? Yes. Even though Argentina had a few great chances, the fact that they failed to hit the target even once during the match is quite a damning statistic, and Germany had the better of possession and controlled the pace of the game. Germany were also without doubt the best team over the whole World Cup. The last minute absence of Khedira, injured during the pre-match warm-up, was a blow to Germany and made for more of an even contest. Mascherano for Argentina, and Schweinsteiger were real warriors for their sides, whereas the more attacking players struggled to make an impact. Messi was disappointing, completing a full house of disappointing performances in the knockout phase for him. Amazingly though, the panel of "experts" still chose him as the winner of the golden ball: the tournament's best player. There must have been 4 or 5 better candidates, and again smacks of FIFA and the media putting more emphasis on reputation rather than performance. Neuer rightly won the golden glove, despite some memorable goalkeeping performances from several other goalkeepers in the competition. So it is congratulations to Germany on a well deserved triumph; I imagine they are already favourites to retain their crown in Russia in 2018.
3rd Place Match
Ah yes, the thrill of the meaningless dead rubber between the semi-final losers, I can't wait! Does anyone in the Brazil squad actually want to play after the 7-1 slaughter of Tuesday night? It is a difficult situation for them as another right hammering would be beyond embarrassing, and surely, even Louis van Gaal might realise that Brazil are there for the taking and go on the attack rather than play for penalties. History shows 2 wins each out of the 4 previous encounters, with the Dutch winning in 1974 and 2010 and the Brazilians in 1994 and 1998, when penalties were needed. The Dutch went on to lose the 3rd place match to Croatia on that occasion. Brazil have won 2 out of 3 3rd place matches, winning in 1938 against Sweden and in 1978 against Italy, but losing to Poland in 1974.
All this probably has no bearing at all on the game; I believe Brazil will be desperate to put in a decent performance, whereas the Dutch may or may not be terribly bothered. I don't like these games, especially as this meaningless fixture can distort the World Cup record books, as happened in 1958 when Just Fontaine scored 4 goals to reach 13 for the tournament, a record which still stands today. If Robben were to score 4 today and win the golden boot on the back of it, it would seem wrong to me. Here is hoping for an entertaining 2-1 with the goalscorers not in contention for any awards and please please please, no extra time!
Outcome: Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Well, at least we were spared extra time, but this was another horror story for Brazil! It seems crazy that a few matches ago, journalists were commonly writing that the strength of this Brazil team was its defence – yes, they really did say this! – and David Luiz was the FIFA top ranked player in the tournament; how daft can you get? The 3rd place game saw a beautiful headed assist from Luiz, laying the ball on a plate by the penalty spot for Daley Blind to score a well-taken goal. Brazil were a touch unlucky in a couple of cases; the penalty in the third minute was probably the wrong call, as contact was outside the box and had ceased by the time Robben reached the box, but it should have been a red card, and morally the penalty was justified as it was a horrible professional foul to stop a probable goal. Then there was Oscar's booking a for a dive when there was clear contact in the area; it looked at the time, and in replay, a clear penalty and quite a bad mistake by the referee. All that said, Brazil have looked incredibly weak in defence with a naive central midfield who don't track back and pick up unmarked players around the edge of the area, and full backs, who have clearly signed up to the Roberto Carlos school of defending; that attack is the only form of defence. Watching the game on ITV, I did like the comment from Martin O'Neill that David Luiz does not have a defensive bone in his body! PSG must be ruing the GBP 50 million they splashed on their new defensive supremo. Thiago Silva, Oscar, Neymar and perhaps Willian and Fernandinho will be retained for the future; the others…who knows?
So the Dutch deserved their first third place, and had a good tournament, especially given the formation and personnel changes they made quite late in the day before this World Cup. It is a shame that their form dipped during the knockout stage, and they had to go to 0-0 and penalites a couple of times. But their 5-1 thrashing of Spain was one of the highlights of the competition and, I hope, has consigned the template of the tiki taka 1-0 grind to the dustbin of World Cup history. Spain's 8 goals in 7 matches to win the World Cup in 2010 remains one of the enduring scars on the game's history.
Second Semi-Final Preview
Whereas Brazil and Germany had met only once before in the World Cup until yesterday, Argentina and the Netherlands have clashed 4 times, and it is 2 wins to the Dutch, 1 to Argentina and 1 draw. The draw was a 0-0 in the 2006 group stage, which was not a memorable game, but the other 3 have been classics. Who can forget Dennis Bergkamp's sublime winner in the 1998 quarter final (there is a clip in the '1998 France' section of the 'years' tab if you want to see it again)? And the Dutch also won in the very first encounter in 1974, a Johan Cruyff inspried 4-0 thrashing in the second round group. But it was the 1978 World Cup final which Argentina won as hosts which counts for the most, a bad tempered but entertaining match.
So what should we expect from the 2014 clash? The Ducth have shown more consistent form in the tournament so far, with Arjen Robben the main threat. Wesley Sneijder is starting to look like the star player he was 4 years ago, so I expect the Dutch to give a good account of themselves. But I am going to stick to my earlier prediction that Argentina will make the final, even though the injury to Di Maria, just coming into club form, is a big blow to the creativity in attack. Somehow Messi and Higuain will get Argentina through, and Mascherano will do a job on Robben, perhaps 2-1 and maybe after extra time.
Outcome: Argentina 0 Netherlands 0 (Penalties: Argentina 4 Netherlands 2): After the seismic events of the first semi-final, this was a turgid snooze-fest. Both sides set up with safety first in mind, to neutralise Messi for Argentina and Robben for the Netherlands. The Dutch wing backs became purely defensive in a 5-3-2, with Robben and van Persie starved of possession. For Argentina, Mascherano played so deep he was mostly a third centre back. Messi went without the ball for long periods of time, and Higuain was living off scraps. So to penalties, and with 3 substitutes used, Krul could not be deployed as a secret weapon, and it was Romero who made two saves for Argentina, who just about deserved to go through. The Germans will be quaking in their boots!
The Semi-Finals Preview
Let's start today's "Rant" with a trivia question: "how many participants have there been in this World Cup with the surname 'Rodriguez'"? If you have answered '5', you are probably feeling smug, remembering Francisco from Mexico, James from Colombia, Christian from Uruguay, Ricardo from Switzerland, and Maxi from Argentina. But the real answer is '6', as the referee for the super-charged semi-final between Brazil and Germany is Marco Rodriguez from Mexico, and he could be the most influential Rodriguez of this World Cup, even more so than James! Already Joachim Low has talked publically about the 'brutal' Brazilian tackling in the Colombia match with 31 fouls committed against 23 from Colombia, and Brazil will also be looking for protection too after what happened to Neymar. So Mr Rodriguez is a man under pressure. The situation is not helped by the fact that he was the referee who failed to spot Luis Suarez 'falling teeth first on Chiellini's shoulder'; his reward was to be given charge of this highly tense game. I fear it does not augur well.
Betfair currently have Brazil as marginal favourites, but Neymar and Thiago Silva are big shoes to fill and someone really has to step up. David Luiz has, to my astonishment, been appointed captain, and perhaps it is time I started to go a bit easier on the guy as he has had a good tournament, and from memory only drifted off once so far. I am looking for Oscar to have a repeat of his opening game performance, where he ran the show and scored a quality goal. For Germany, things ought to be a bit easier as the flu should have gone by now, and Schweinsteiger and Khedira will be more or less fully fit. I expect another goalkeeper / sweeper masterclass from Neuer to cover the short-comings of the German back four, and for Thomas Muller to shred Marcelo down the German right. It is going to be an ugly and controversial match, I fear, going to extra time and a narrow win for Germany…but I will probably be wrong, and indeed hope that I am and we get a memorable high scoring classic.
Outcome: Brazil 1 Germany 7: KROOS-ified! Without going into all the gory details, Brazil proved that they are unquestionably a 2-man team: Thiago Silva to run the defence and Neymar to be the attack. Germany played perhaps even better than they did against Portugal, when they simply dismantled the opposition; this was a more clinical dissection. With Schweinstieger and Khedira back to full fitness, the German midfield trio of these two plus Kroos is without peer in this tournament, and Lahm can revert to being probably the finest full back in the world, and it makes a difference to the balance of the team. Add in Muller's exceptional positional play – he is like a young Teddy Sheringham, but with pace – and all the ingredients are there to beat a far stronger team than the apology that showed up this evening in yelloe shirts. Hats off to Klose for setting a new high in individual World Cup goals of 16, although his goals per 90 min tally is still below that of countryman Gerd Muller, who remains the best goalscorer in World Cup history on most important measures. And hats off too to Thomas Muller for joining the 10 World Cup goals club, which now extends to 13 players. He is still only 24, and barring injury must have a great chance of beating Klose's mark. Any of Khedira, Kroos, Lahm, Muller and even Neuer could have been man of the match. For the record, Mr Rodriguez, the referee had a great game and no amount of refereeing incompetence could have made a difference to the outcome of this match!
And what of Brazil? I have been waiting for a true David Luiz moment for most of the tournament, and this game showed it really is like waiting for a London bus; we must have had about half a dozen this evening, and all were for the same destination: a goal for Germany! How he has been the top ranked FIFA player in the tournament (until today) is mind-boggling. What I have been avoiding saying so far, for fear of tempting fate, is that I don't Scolari teams, and you may have inferred by his nomination as the 2006 villain of the World Cup for what he did to an extremely talented Portuugal squad. But his side was rudderless and contained 3 or 4 players at least who should not have been wearing a Brazil shirt – pick 3 or 4 from Maicon, Marcelo, Hulk, Fred, Paulinho, Fernandinho – as well as having a tendency to cynical fouling in a tight spot. I am glad that Vittorio Pozzo's record as the only coach to win the World Cup twice remains in tact after this. The good news for the Brazil players is that none of them will shoulder the blame as all were equally terrible and perhaps this is kinder than having one player miss a deciding penalty. The bad news, if I can dip into another sport here, is that rather like England being completely humiliated in the Ashes, the players may well carry the scars from this game throughout their careers, and Brazil may need to undertake some radical rebuilding, starting with Scolari. At least the names of Thiago Silva and Neymar can be retained for the future.
Finally, a paragraph about leadership. One feature of this tournament has been the contrast in on the pitch leadership between teams who have played well and those who have crashed. I have previously underrated the importance of having the right captain in football, regarding it as secondary to either cricket or rugby, but this World Cup has thrown up some interesting cases of terrible leadership combined with dire team performances: the difference between Brazil in the semi-final, without Thiago Silva was stark. Portugal's capitulation against Germany under Cristiano Ronaldo's sulking in the group was in contrast to the spirited performances of the USA, Ghana and Algeria against the same side; England's flat performance against Uruguay was in conjunction with a stinker of a game from Steven Gerrard; Iker Casillas was awful for Spain. Messi leads by example. Bryan Ruiz was inspirational for Costa Rica in this tournament. Mario Yepes was a rock for Colombia; Rafael Marquez the same for Mexico; Gokhan Inler almost carried Switzerland to penalties against Argentina…the list goes on. I will not underestimate the role of a football captain again!
Key Questions for the Quarter Finals – Part 2
Argentina v Belgium: Can we please have a proper game of football and have these two supposed contenders step up and play as a team (or two teams)? Argentina must have learned by now that the strategy of giving the ball to Messi and expecting him to do everything is not going to hack it. Has Di Maria finally thrown off the sloth and come alive after his extra time exploits against Switzerland? If so, Argentina could build towards a World Cup winning effort. Belgium v USA was one of the better knockout matches, but Belgium still have not really been convincing all tournament. For the first time they will now be underdogs. Will this help them to relax and play as we know they can?
Netherlands v Costa Rica: Surely this is time for Costa Rica to bow out with heads held high, if that is not an oxymoron! But both these sides prefer to counter-attack so we could have something of a Mexican stand off for 80 minutes and then a mad scramble to try to win the game. Will the Dutch feel confident enough to press throughout the game? They may feel that, having been the Mexicans they can beat a Mexican stand off too.
Outcome: Argentina 1 Belgium 0: Another disappointing game after a decent start, with Argentina getting the early goal the game needed. Di Maria looked to be on form and when he left, injured, the game suffered a lack of creative spark despite Messi's best efforts. Belgium have been a huge disappointment and will not be missed after their departure. So much more was expected than the turgid brand of football they have brought to Brazil and it is hard to remember that their star player, Eden Hazard, was even at the tournament.
Outcome: Netherlands 0 Costa Rica 0 (Penalties: Netherlands 4 Costa Rica 3). So it is goodbye to plucky little Costa Rica and not before time; I am not sure how many more 0-0 games I could take! They have proven to be experts in closing down the opposition and, errrr, that is about it. Their moment in the sun was the 3-1 win over Uruguay which was followed by stifling performances against Italy, England, Greece and the Netherlands. Louis van Gaal proved he had big ones by substituting his goalkeeper in time for the penalty shoot out and Tim Krul came up with two decent saves as well as an MBA in mind games, so he was vindicated.
Key Questions for the Quarter Finals – Part 1
France v Germany: How can France rediscover their spark from the group stage? Benzema has gone off the boil but everything looked better when Griezman replaced Giroud; surely Griezman will start against Germany. Valbuena was the source of most of France's creativity against Nigeria and may need to step up again. The Germans have been suffering from a bout of sore throat lurgi, and Hummels missed the last game because of flu. How can the Germans restore faith in their struggling back four? This is solvable; move Philip Lahm to where he is best; full back. Why play your best full back in midfield when you are already short of full backs? Much that I admire Joachim Low as a coach, this is senseless, especially with Sammi Khedira ideal for the midfield role.
Brazil v Colombia: How can Brazil get Hulk and Fred to step up and help Neymar drive the attack? It is hard to see Neymar continue to do it on his own as the stakes get higher. At the back can they avoid a "David Luiz moment"? One against Chile cost a goal and losing concentration against Colombia will be even more dangerous. How can Colombia withstand the pressure and keep cool? If they can maintain their form from earlier in the tournament, Colombia should win this, but the crowd will be a factor, as may the referee!
Outcome: France 0 Germany 1: Is it just me, or is this tournament in danger of relapsing back into something akin to Italia '90? We had a thoroughly exciting group stage with plenty of teams taking risks and throwing everything into attack, and we had great goals, upsets and close finishes. The knockout stage, however, has been a crushing disappointment, as teams have sat back, and the goal count has suffered. This game should have been a classic, and the perceived wisdom from the commentators was that the game got the early goal it needed to bring France into a more attacking mode. But it didn't happen. France failed to break free of the shackles and Germany lacked the quality to kill the game off. Neuer and Hummels looked the best players on the pitch, and neither midfield really got a grip on the game.
Outcome: Brazil 2 Colombia 1: Compelling to watch, but the play was desperate, both in terms of the challenges and the creative quality. The one moment that stood out was indeed a "David Luiz moment" although it was a positive attacking one, and not a defensive lapse of concentration. Colombia were unable to play with with the composure they showed in the previous matches. Everything seemed rushed; challenges flew in and either resulted in fouls or feigned fouls. This continued throughout the match and was not helped by the Spanish referee's reluctance to wave yellow cards, which might have calmed things down a bit. Although Colombia did not do enough to win this, I still feel they have been the best and most refreshing team in Brazil 2014, and it would be a better tournament had they won this.
Last 16 – Day 4
Outcome: Argentina 1 Switzerland 0 (after extra time): Argentina failed to raise their game as mentioned in the Daily Rant's preview, and came oh so close to losing to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Switzerland did revert to type with limited ambition and came to park the bus. For Argentina it seemed, once again, that the master plan started and ended with 'give the ball to Messi', and he was mostly crowded out by the swarm of the Swiss defence. Angel Di Maria, who had a stinker of a game, suddenly woke up in extra time and scored and nearly added a long-range second. Near misses from Switzerland, including hitting the post and missing the rebound served to ensure that the drama remained high until the final whistle. Whilst I love to see an upset, it is never difficult to say goodbye to the Swiss.
Outcome: Belgium 2 USA 1 (after extra time): This was a far more engaging 0-0 than the Argentina game with much more goalmouth activity. Tim Howard apparently made 15 saves for the USA, which is supposedly a new World Cup record in a single match. Just when it seemed the match was dead and buried with Belgium 2-0 up in extra time, the USA made an inspired substitution and pulled one back and then came ever so close to levelling the match, with a clever free kick routine. It is much harder to say goodbye to the USA, especially as their support has been so wonderfully loud and colourful. An upset here would been good for the tournament, I believe.
So, the Last 16 ended with every one of the 8 group winners getting through to the quarter finals. This has not happened before and the Daily Rant does not like things quite so ordered. This World Cup's fun has been built on the mad cap group stage with plenty of upsets and the Last 16 has been, on balance, disappointing, notwithstanding some very exciting late scrambles from 80 minutes on and in extra time. Fortunately only 2 matches went to penalties as it looked as if there could have several more with the inability of teams to score in 90 minutes.
Last 16 – Day 3
Outcome: France 2 Nigeria 0: France always looked the likely winner although this was not comfortable, Pogba getting the first goal in the 80th minute. It was a shame for Enyeama, in goal for Nigeria, as a flap at a cross was not a fair reflection of his play, which rivalled Ochoa and Navas for brilliance. France looked much better when Griezman replaced Giroud, and Valbuena was lively throughout. Benzema was largely peripheral, and may lose his place in the 'Team of the Tounament' when WorldCupStory puts out an update after the conclusion of the Last 16 matches.
Outcome: Germany 2 Algeria 1 (after extra time): How close this was to proper revenge for the 1982 match fixing! Algeria really took the game to Germany and bossed the first half. Germany's defence was all at sea, and it remains a mystery why Philipp Lahm is selected to play in midfield when he is the only credible full back in the squad, especially with midfield general, Sami Khedira sitting on the bench. When the switch was finally made, Germany looked far better, and took a strngelhold on the game in extra time. Schurrle gave better options coming off the bench than did Gotze, who started. Germany will hope that this was just a bad day at the office as they need to be better against France in the quarter final.
And so we wave a tearful goodbye to the African teams. I doubt many would have picked Nigeria and Algeria as the two most likely contenders from Africa; Ivory Coast and Ghana, even with the latter's tough group, were favoured to do better, but it's been that kind of World Cup. Nigeria showed a greater level of development and maturity than their reputation, but the real surprise was Algeria, who were a positive force in the tournament and thoroughly deserved their Last 16 place; perhaps they even deserved to go further, as they most certainly unsettled the Germans.
Last 16 – Day 2
Outcome: Netherlands 2 Mexico 1: That was certainly the late late show from the Dutch and, to be honest there has to be a serious question mark over Mexico's game management in the last 10 minutes, or even longer. They seemed to cede too much of the initiative after taking off Dos Santos on the hour. I think we have rumbled van Gaal's genius tactical plan, it is to give the ball to Arjen Robben as often as possible and get him to fall over in the box; it's a masterstroke! Mexico were the more measured side for much of this game and they will feel they shold have won. However, Ochoa was once again the busier 'keeper on the pitch, so certainly Dutch had more than their share of the chances.
Outcome: Costa Rica 1 Greece 1 (Penalties: Costa Rica 5 Greece 3): As predicted, this was a low quality game, with the main excitement coming from the increasing tiredness of the players in extra time and the escalating card count. it was a good quality penalty shoot out, however, and Navas made a cracking save in the decisive moment. I doubt that Costa Rica will trouble the Dutch too much in the quarter final, but they have proven difficult to beat so far and they will certainly be up for it.
Last 16 – Day 1
Outcome: Brazil 1 Chile 1 (Penalties: Brazil 3 Chile 2): How narrow the margins between success and failure can be. Chile hit the bar right at the end of extra time, with the goalkeeper nowhere, and so to penalties. Two failures on each side saw the score at 3-2 with Chile's final penalty to come, and Jara hit the insode of the post and the ball rebounded away. I have mixed feelings about this. I would have preferred Chile to win, have greatly enjoyed their brand of attacking football in this World Cup. But then again, how deflated would the atmosphere be if Brazil had been eliminated at this stage? But, no question, I will be cheering for Colombia in the quarter final.
Outcome: Colombia 2 Uruguay 0: I cannnot say enough good things about Colombia and James Rodriguez in particular. Without wishing to stick the knife into Uruguay any further since the Suarez debacle, this was the right result for the World Cup, with the best team so far moving on and the distraction that Uruguay has become now goes away to a large extent. The quarter final will be a cracker and it will a blow to lose either Brazil or Colombia at the this stage; let's hope Colombia prevail.
Day 15 – the last day of the group phase
Group G: USA v Germany; Portugal v Ghana; Group H: South Korea v Belgium; Algeria v Russia
Technically Germany and the USA each need a point to qualify, so there is always the nagging worry that this could be a very tame affair. However, I don't see that happening, especially with Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the USA, who will want to put one over his successor. Germany are much the stronger side, but the USA play with a fine a spirit. I expect the Germans to win. Portugal and Ghana each must win to have a chance of progressing and Portugal need to overturn a 5-goal inferior goal difference compared to the USA. So they will hope for help from Germany. Ghana will go through with any kind of win if Germany can beat USA. The Germans would probably have to lose by 2 or 3 to give Ghana or Portugal a chance of overtaking them. I can see Portugal and Ghana drawing and the USA going through, but there have been so many late goals in tight games, that a narrow win for either would not be a surprise. Belgium are already through but will want to finish with a 100% record. The Koreans have a slim chance of making it if they beat Belgium, but need to win by at least 2 goals which will not happen; Belgium to win this. Algeria are in the driving seat for the Russia game and a draw will be enough. They have been a positive force in this World Cup and deserve to represent African football in the knockout.
Outcome: USA 0 Germany 1: No question about the veracity of this match, given that a tame draw would have suited both sides. This was a proper match with plenty of attacking intent, laudable in the weather conditions, and a smartly taken winner from the scarily prolific Thomas Muller, who moves on to 9 goals on the all-time list. Germany controlled most of the game but the USA kept at it and are worthy qualifiers, and they will give Belgium a quite uncomfortable match. The great joy for me in this game was to see the fantastic support for the USA. Perhaps I am being a bit patronising here, but I do not associate Americans with travelling overseas to support their national team playing against another nation in what is still a minority sport. They were noisy and colourful and it was great to see; hats off!
Outcome: Portugal 2 Ghana 1: This was a right ding-dong battle and there could have a hatful of goals. Ronaldo could have had almost as many goals as he pulled pouty faces, but was denied on several occasions by good goalkeeping, with 2 point blank saves being especially noteworthy. It thus ironic that Ronaldo's goal came from a classic keystone cops goalkeeping moment, presenting Cristiano with the ball about 5 years out and the goal at his mercy. Asamoah Gyan's equaliser, following the catastrophic own goal, was a well taken header from a stunning cross delivered with the outside of the left boot from the left wing by Kwadwo Asamoah; this was a high degree of difficulty and brilliantly executed. To be honest, Portugal deserved to go out, and Ghana are not quite the team they were 4 years ago. It may be time to rebuild.
Outcome: South Korea 0 Belgium 1: When are Belgium going to come to the party? They finished the group with a 100% record but scraped through each match by a single goal, not exactly spectacular stuff in what still looks to have been a fairly easy group. Vertonghen poked in following a spill by the goalkeeper. Goalkeeping has been poor in this group, especially Russia and Korea, which makes the Belgian performances seem even more anaemic. Let's see how they go against the USA.
Outcome: Algeria 1 Russia 1: A rousing cheer for Algeria, please, surprising qualifiers for the knockout for the first time ever and deservedly so. They have taken a positive approach in all matches and now have a couple of strikers in Slimani and Feghouli who are a genuine handful. This qualification will put to rest the ghosts of 1982 when they were cheated out of the second round by West Germany and Austria fixing their match in the Schande von Gijon, known in Algeria simply as Anschluss! And to cap it all, the most delicious irony is that they now play Germany. If the World Cup gods are intent on finishing the revenge we will see Algeria in the quarter final against France.
Group F: Bosnia v Iran; Nigeria v Argentina; Group E: Ecuador v France; Honduras v Switzerland
Bosnia cannot qualify, so it is a straight battle between Nigeria and Iran for qualification with Argentina. If Argentina beat Nigeria, which will be heavily favoured, then Iran will go through with any kind of win against Bosnia. You would expect Bosnia to be the better side, but motivation could be the key factor. This could draw Iran out of their shell as they go for the critical win, which will be a nice change from parking the bus. Argentina need to continue to build momentum in readiness for the serious part of the competition, so a win over Nigeria by at least 2 goals is likely, hence Nigeria will be relying on Bosnia to take at least a point off Iran; I think they will and Nigeria will qualify. France can only fail to qualify if they lose by at 4 goals and Switzerland also win by a similar margin, which just will not happen. Ecuador are a reasonable side, but France have been very good and measured so far, and will win again. This leaves the door open for Switerland to qualify by not losing to Central America's answer to Millwall, Honduras. The Swiss may not really be anywhere near their supposed world ranking of 6, but they are a decent side and ought to manage this without drama. This has been surely the most predictable of groups and it always looked like a France and Switzerland progression, once the Swiss had sneaked past Ecuador with that late late winner.
Outcome: Bosnia 3 Iran 1: The tournament's only rookies ended their campaign with a win and may relflect on what might have been. Their 1-0 defeat to Nigeria, including having a perfectly good goal ruled out was offside was unlucky and that decision has ultimately cost them a place in the Last 16. Iran, as expected, proved to be one-dimensional and when they came to play rather than to park the bus it proved to be their undoing.
Outcome: Nigeria 2 Argentina 3: A plucky display from Nigeria who have gone through to the knockout despite the defeat, but Argentina will be buoyed by Messi's growing confidence with 2 goals here. No surprise at all that Argentina achieved a 100% record in this group, but all 3 games were won by a single goal, which may concern them as the going gets tougher; next up for Argentina, the Swiss.
Outcome: Ecuador 0 France 0: France dominated this game but did not really get out of second gear. It is a shame they did not need to do more than this to qualify as we did not see the real France which was disappointing. Ecuador, who had to win to have a chance of progressing, lost their chance when Antonio Valencia was sent off for a studs up tackle and thus have dubious distinction of being the only one of six South American teams not to reach the knockout phase.
Outcome: Honduras 0 Switzerland 3: To my great surprise this was a far better match than the French game, and I will have to be less negative about Switzerland than I have been. Even Honduras came out to play and to a large degree shed their negative image. 3-0 did flatter the Swiss and Benaglio, in goal, was kept busy by the Honduran forwards. Xherdan Shaqiri (not to be confused with Shakira) registered the second hatrick of the tournament, both by Bayern Munich players. It's a crazy thought, but perhaps the Swiss could be capable of shocking Argentina in the Last 16!
Group D: Italy v Uruguay; Costa Rica v England; Group C: Japan v Colombia; Greece v Ivory Coast.
A draw will see Italy through to the Last 16, but playing for 0-0 would be extremely dangerous. From the first round of matches, this would have looked nailed on for Italy, but they struggled against Costa Rica and Uruguay improved significantly for their second game. With the Suarez momentum, I am going to stick my neck out and say this is a narrow Uruguay win. The pressure could not be more off for England than this, but they will want to win for the sake of pride. Costa Rica need only a point to top the group, which is important to avoid a likely clash with in-form Colombia, and this should be sufficient motivation to achieve that. In group C, Colombia ought to complete a 100% record by seeing off Japan fairly comfortably, and it is to be hoped that Ivory Coast get the point they need to put the dull Greeks on a plane home. Second place could be the place to be in this group, if Costa Rica win group D. It avoids the winner of Italy v Uruguay and a potential quarter clash against the hosts. Who would you rather face: Costa Rica and the Netherlands, or Uruguay and Brazil?
Have you noticed how much Chile’s coach looks like Andre Agassi? Surely they must be related!
Andre Agassi talks about the importance of using wing-backs to drive Chile's attacks; Jorge Sampaoli digs deep to reveal the pressures of teenage stardom in tennis.
Outcome: Italy 0 Uruguay 1: with 79 minutes on the clock and both attacks lacking teeth, Luis Suarez decided to take matters into his own hands and provide some bite. He does have previous of course, and has now bitten for Ajax, Liverpool, and at international level, for Uruguay, surely a unique hatrick! Impress your mates down the pub with this: 'what do Otman Bakkal, Branislav Ivanovic and Giorgos Chiellini have in common?' Answer: they have all been bitten by Luis Suarez (during a match, on camera etc)'. It was a poor game, with only a couple of Buffon saves really to pique the interest until the final charged 10 minutes. I take only a modicum of pleasure in having said in yesterday's Rant that Uruguay would claim a narrow win.
Outcome: Costa Rica 0 England 0: England had the better of possession and chances in a fairly turgid game. As predicted in yesterday's Rant, Costa Rica secured the point they needed to win the group and face the mighty Greeks rather than Colombia in the Last 16. England fans expecting a glimpse of the future saw a glimpse of the past through the captaincy of 36 year old, Frank Lampard. Steven Gerrard even had a short run out as a substitute and managed not to do anything too calamitous.
Outcome: Japan 1 Colombia 4: At half time the game was 1-1 and Colombia made a couple of substitutions. On came James Rodriguez and he proceeded to set up 2 goals for Jackson Martinez and score an elegant gem of a goal himself. This man is head and shoulders above anyone else in this World Cup and I can only imagine that Monaco will really struggle to keep him for next season. Apologies for labouring the point, but until last week if you asked 1,000 people who is their favourite Colombian, at least 999 would answer 'Shakira', with good reason. I would hazard a guess that there will now be a few answers in favour of James Rodriguez, and no Colombian player has had this kind of impact since Carlos Valderrama in the mid 1990s, blond afro and all. Seriously, if you have not seen James Rodrigues play yet, do not miss Colombia's next match. Colombia's reward for a 100% record in the group is a Last 16 match against Uruguay, followed by the prospect of a quarter final against Brazil; nice.
Outcome: Greece 2 Ivory Coast 1: Oh, Ivory Coast, what have you done? After the last 2 World Cups with wretchedly tough groups, finally this was a great chance for this worthy team, the generation of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, to reach the knockout. Oh, Ivory Coast, you only had to get past the hapless Greeks, or rather, you had to fail to lose to the hapless Greeks!. in mitigation, this should have been a drawn game. The last minute penalty through which the Greeks won, was awarded when Giorgos Samaras fell over his own feet, which can only be the result of some ancient Greek curse or jinx. You cannot help but think Ivory Coast will not have such a chance for a few more tournaments. The Greeks reward is a game against Costa Rica, with the winners meeting the Netherlands or Mexico; van Persie and co must be quaking in their boots.
Day 12 – the start of the final round of group games
Group B: Australia v Spain; Netherlands v Chile; Group A: Cameroon v Brazil; Croatia v Mexico. In group B the important clash, all joking aside, is between the Netherlands and Chile to see who will win the group. The Dutch need only a draw but are without suspended petulant one, Robin van Persie. I feel Chile have the momentum here and will win by the odd goal. Australia v Spain will probably end up being a magnificent match; there is no pressure except the opportunity for Australia to pick up some great world ranking points should they beat the world ranked number 1 team in a World Cup finals. The loser could end up as statistically the worst team in the tournament, but there are a few other contenders still. Cameroon v Brazil has big win for Brazil written all over it. This is not a great Cameroon team, lacking in preparation, and Brazil are coming off the frustration of the 0-0 with Mexico and will be desperate for a morale boosting scoreline. 5-0 would not surprise me. Croatia v Mexico is where the tension will be. Mexico need only a draw to reach the knockout, whereas Croatia must win. On balance I feel Mexico deserve it, but Croatia were hard done by in the opening fixture against Brazil with Fred's swallow dive yielding a penalty and a decisive goal.
Outcome: Australia 0 Spain 3: Spain played in some very un-Spanish colours; perhaps they were in disguise after the aberrations of the first 2 matches. With plenty of changes to the starting XI, including the sensible moves of dropping Casillas, Busquets and Azpilicueta, Spain looked more like a team and ran out 3-0 winners. David Villa scored to move on to 9 World Cup goals, but at 32 will he get another chance in 4 years to join the exclusive list of 12 players on 10 or more World Cup goals (see 'Lists and Stats')? Australia can hold their heads up and did not end up as statistically the worst team in the competition.
Outcome: Netherlands 2 Chile 0: Rather a scrappy and uninspiring game, won with 2 late goals from substitutes. Even though I am happy to be wrong about the Dutch in this group, it is gratifying to have been confident that Chile would qualify in second place and go through to meet Brazil. If they play like this, they will go out, but may have a chance if they can re-capture the form they showed against Spain. The Dutch wil benefit from the return of van Persie in the Last 16. Apparently this was the first match since 1996 when there was nobody called 'van' in the Dutch starting XI.
Outcome: Cameroon 1 Brazil 4: a totally expected result but it looked very frantic and lacking in composure. The players seemed intent in whipping up the crowd into a frenzy and this translated back to the players. Still, 4-1 blew out a few cobwebs before the knockout, got Fred into the charts, and sets up Brazil for a supercharged clash against Chile. Chile, despite all their refreshing attacking prowess, are one of the best teams in terms of playing the referee and, I hope I am wrong here, but I can see the Brazil v Chile game really kicking off. Cameroon finally scored a goal, but are now in pole position to finish as officially the tournament's worst team.
Outcome: Croatia 1 Mexico 3: It is satisfying to have called this group correctly despite the bookies favouring Croatia for second place. Croatia can consider themselves a bit unlucky. They got the worst of the refereeing in that opening game against Brazil, and if they had managed to hang on for a point in that match, the group dynamic would have very different. That said, Mexico have been good. Their defensive has been one of the most well organised with Marquez leading by example, and Ochoa has delivered the stand out goalkeeping performance of the World Cup so far in Brazil encounter. Their Last 16 game against the Netherlands will be a challenge, however.
Belgium v Russia; South Korea v Algeria; Portugal v USA. Now they have warmed up, we expect to see the real Belgium rather than the half baked version we saw in the first match. Russia too will look to improve on a halting performance against South Korea, especially goalkeeping. If both sides do show up, this will be a good game and one that Belgium ought to win. Algeria played with enterprise against Belgium and will fancy their chances of taking 3 points against dogged South Korea. Portugal v USA is a huge match. Portugal need a transformation from the dreadful nightmare of the Germany match, especially agaisnt a USA side with a win under their belt already. Portugal are out if they lose and even a draw may not be enough, given their goal difference. Though Portugal will be favoured to win, I expect Klinsmann to prepare this USA side well and would not be surprised to see the USA get at least a draw.
Outcome: Belgium 1 Russia 0: Belgium still have not really hit their straps despite the 100% record at this stage. Russian striker, Kokorin, missed a glorious first half chance and headed wide when seemingly easier to score and it took some very late Hazard magic to lay on the winning goal. Witsel and Fellaini, in the Belgian midfield, look as if they have escaped from a mid 1980s epsiode of Brookside, and surely only their mothers can tell them apart. Belgium are through to the knockout but will need to raise their game to get any further.
Outcome: South Korea 2 Algeria 4: Great to see Algeria carry on from their enterprising start against Belgium. They have good, big and strong players and by half time South Korea had been well and truly mugged. We have to hope they finish the job against Russia and I cannot see anyone wanting to play Algeria in the Last 16. Harking back to 1982, it would be a delicious irony if they faced Germany, which is a highly plausible outcome now, to have the chance of revenge for the "Scandal of Gijon" (see 'Years', 1982 Spain).
Outcome: Portugal 2 USA 2: Yet another cracking match played in the stifling Manaus in a fantastic atmosphere. Portugal were better than they had been against Germany – not hard – but came up against exactly what you would expect from a well prepared USA team, a 100% physical effort with a decent amount of pace and skill thrown in. The drama certainly built in the second half as USA came from behind to lead, only for Portugal to equalise in the fifth and final minute of stoppage time to keep their slim chances of raching the knockout alive. With a goal difference of -4, they will have to beat Ghana well and will probably need Germany to put a few past the USA too. Portugal deserve to be on the plane home.
Argentina v Iran; Germany v Ghana; Nigeria v Bosnia. Surely this is an Argentina win and with plenty of goals given their potent striking options. the bigger question maybe over selection especially if Higuain is now fully fit. Can Iran manage to park the us and become the first team to seure two 0-0 draws? Germany v Ghana again looks like a clear win for Germany who impressed so much in the demolition of Portugal. Ghana looked, harsh to say, a little over the hill against the USA and it be another shock if they can get anything apart from a defeat from this game. Statisticians will be watching to see if Thomas Muller can progress even further up the all-time World Cup goalscoring charts, already on 8 he could become the 13th player to reach double figures. Nigeria v Bosnia looks like a narrow win for Bosnia to me. They put up a good performance against Argentina and Nigeria struggled to make headway against pedestrian Iran, so that is the logical conclusion here…but will logic go out of the window again?
Outcome: Argentina 1 Iran 0: A late stoppage time goal from Messi saw some semblamce of justice here. Iran came to park the bus and they did it well, stifling Argentina to such an extent that few chances came. As is often the way in these matches, Iran managed to generate a few gilt edged chances themselves and could have stolen the 3 points despite a complete lack of ambition. I fully expected Argentina to score plenty of goals in this group and, sorry to say, I have been completely wrong; very disappointing.
Outcome: Germany 2 Ghana 2: Cracking game, especially the second half, all the more laudable due to the extreme heat and humidity. Both sides kept going admirably and produced a game of high tempo and excitement. Ghana stepped up their game hugely from the USA encounter, were worthy contributors and deserved their point. Germany had the wonderful option of bringing on Schweinsteiger and Klose when they were chasing the game and within two minutes Klose had scored to join Ronaldo at the top of the all-time goalscoring charts with 15 World Cup goals – bravo!
Outcome: Nigeria 1 Bosnia 0: How fickle is this tournament! Only a few days ago we were lauding Bosnia's fighting performance against Argentina and confidently predictong their passage through to the Last 16. Now the only tournament rookies are out. We can hope Bosnia will play with enough commitment against Iran to see Nigeria and Argentina through to the knockout.
Italy v Costa Rica; Swtizerland v France; Honduras v Ecuador. England will be hoping that Italy beat Costa Rica to keep their slim hopes alive. Can Costa Rica show they are really a much better team than their reputation and back up their strong showing against Uruguay. Look out for Joel Campbell up front, whose touch was so good that you had to wonder why on earth Arsenal have been loaning him to Olympiakos. For Italy, the man to watch again is the maestro, Andrea Pirlo. Switzerland v France is the battle to be top dog in group E. I would have to go for France, even though Switzerland were much more positive against Ecuador than expected. France look unusually settled and, dare I say, happy, and Benzema is a genuine contender for Golden Boot. The midfield of Pogba, Matuidi and Cabaye has a nice balance to it. Honduras v Ecuador is a little hard to get excited about, except to hope that Ecuador win and keep the unpopular Hondurans down at heel. This one could be another game with more red cards than goals; the highlights could be more appealing than the live event.
Outcome: Italy 0 Costa Rica 1: Tell me this isn't happening; it can't be! Where have Costa Rica been hiding all this time? Maximum points after 2 games and with the easy match (against England) to come; there must be a few of us wishing for a TARDIS to go back in time and bet rather differently on this group. It is hard to argue this was not deserved. The Costa Rica goalkeeper was not exactly busy and their midfield did the impossible and kept Pirlo relatively quiet. I suppose the only silver lining is that Balotelli will not get that kiss on the cheek from the Queen now! So, England are out, and will be joined by Uruguay or Italy if Uruguay win that final match.
Outcome: Switzerland 2 France 5: Barking mad scoreline; if it's Switzerland it has to be 0-0. There must be some very confused bookies after this. The crazy thing is that Benzema missed a penalty and 'scored' a spectacular volley about half a second after the referee blew for full time; so it was nearly 2-7. The great mystery is why the French look so happy (remember 2010?!) Perhaps leaving Nasri out of the squad was indeed a real masterstroke. Whatever the cause it is working and translating into some terrific football. It would appear that France are on a collision course for a quarter final against Germany, which would bring back memories of the those classic semi-final encounters in 1982 and 1986. But maybe I am looking too far ahead.
Outcome: Honduras 1 Ecuador 2: Lots of content neutrals here as the nasty Hondurans lost again. The lesser known of the Valencias in the squad socred both Ecuador goals and now has a heady 3 in the tournament. Luckily the Costly goal for Honduras was not costly for Ecuador. They will probably need to beat France to progress which looks a long shot unless Switzerland can slip up against Honduras.
Colombia v Ivory Coast; Uruguay v England; Japan v Greece. The first match will decide who wins group C and these teams had contrasting matches last time out. Colombia beat Greece at a stroll, whereas Ivory Coast had to dig deep to come from behind to beat Japan 2-1. I doubt there will be much in this. James Rodriguez will dictate play for Colombia and will come up against Yaya Toure doing the same for Ivory Coast. Assuming Falcao is still injured, Ivory Coast look to have a bit more up front, and this could make the difference. Uruguay v England in group D also looks an evenly balanced match. Uruguay will be lifted by the return of Luis Suarez in what may seem to him like a club training match. England may just scrape this if they can build on the confidence from a decent performance against Italy, albeit in a losing cause. Japan v Greece is a game between the likely 3rd and 4th place teams from group C. Japan fared better in the last game and the Greeks need to step up if they are to get anything out of this; a draw would not be a surprise.
Outcome: Colombia 2 Ivory Coast 1: It took a while to get going but in the second half this turned out to be a very good match, and Colombia were impressive, especially two of their young players: James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero (careful how you say this one!). Ivory Coast offered much endeavour but were disappointing in their lack of craft, despite Gervinho's excellent solo goal. It will take a good team to beat Colombia.
Outcome: Uruguay 2 England 1: Uruguay played much better than in their defeat to Costa Rica; England were a level below their clash with Italy. You would honestly think that, with 5 Liverpool players in the starting line-up, they might know a thing or two about Luis Suarez, but apparently the idea of not giving him space or letting him elude his marker was an alien concept, and England were suitably punished. Steven Gerrard had an absolute stinker of a game, was at fault for both the goals, and delivered such a consistent mediocrity in his set pieces that England posed no threat whatsoever from free kicks and corners. It would have been a brave decision, but the expert opinion chez The Rant, was that Roy Hodgson is paid the big bucks for the big decisions and should have made a change at half time. Perhaps it was expecting too much that England could play well two games in a row. It is now in the lap of the gods; England need Italy to beat both Costa Rica and Uruguay, and then a 2-0 over Costa Rica in the final game would see England through…but we are clutching at straws here.
Outcome: Japan 0 Greece 0: It is shame for Japan; they always play nice football and deserve better than to have to grind down a miserable 10-man Greek team, who seem to be bent on rivalling Honduras for least liked team. This result confirmed Colombia's qualification to the second stage and Ivory Coast will be very short odds to join them with a final group match against Greece to come. Greece have more red cards than goals and that is all anyone needs to know about their quality.
Australia v Netherlands; Spain v Chile; Cameroon v Croatia. The first match looks like a routine win for the Dutch, although surely it will not flow so perfectly as against Spain, and Australia played with great spirit, as always, against Chile, so this could be more of a struggle than the media headlines might suggest. Spain v Chile is an intriguing match. Spain will surely bounce back from the depths of the Dutch game, but Chile have a refreshing attack oriented approach and this will be a classic clash of styles. Spain do much of their work in the 'wrong part of the pitch', as evidenced by the stats from Dutch game which indicated the highest number of completed passes was between Ramos and Busquets, so from central defence to defensive midfield. My personal wish is for Chile to prevail and go through with the Netherlands for the overall good of football, but there is a sneaking feeling that Spain will get their act together for this game. If Chile have a weakness it would be in central defence, particularly in the air, so Spain will use Diego Costa as a regular target. Cameroon v Croatia in group A sees the losers from the first round of games meet. Croatia looked better in those games and ought to beat Cameroon. Mexico's draw with Brazil has not helped the cause of either of these two teams.
Outcome: Australia 2 Netherlands 3: Great game, and total respect to Australia who were supposed just to make up the numbers in group B. This was a proper World Cup match and Tim Cahill's goal was of a such a ridiculous degree of difficulty that it could only go into row Z in the stand; in off the underside of the bar was simply not an option. van Persie could not help himself and misses the final group game and was fortunate not to receive a second yellow for his challenge on Jedinak.
Outcome: Spain 0 Chile 2: The unmistakable end of an era as Vicente Del Bosque finally injected some new blood into his team, too late. Chile continue to be refreshing to watch as their all out attack prevailed again, much to the delight of their Andre Agassi look-a-like coach. Chile now need to beat the Netherlands to avoid meeting Brazil in the Last 16, so it is all to play for. It will be anyone's guess to see who lines up for Spain against Australia, a match they could well lose, which might see them officially labelled as the tournment's worst team and this while ranked as the official world's number one team.
Outcome: Cameroon 0 Croatia 4: Croatia's expected win was made to be a stroll in the park after Alex Song needlessly saw red for violent conduct towards the end of the first half. From then it was just a question of how many and who on the Croatia side wanted to get on the score sheet; all very anti-climactic. Cameroon are going home, and Croatia now need to beat Mexico to avoid the same fate in what ought to be a tight and competitive final match.
Belgium v Algeria; Brazil v Mexico; Russia v South Korea. With all the anticipation over the Begians, there is much to look forward to here in what ought to be a routine win. The World Cup gods do owe Algeria ever since the appalling match fixing in 1982 deprived them of a place in the second round, but on the other they did qualify for Brazil 2014 on away goals at the expense of Burkina Faso, who would have been the most exotic of World Cup rookies! Brazil get to play their second match before group H has completed round 1, and history says they will beat Mexico comfortably, even without the likely collusion of tame refereeing; look for Fred to fall over a lot in the penalty area. Finally, Russia will be too strong for South Korea who will give 100% effort and acquit themselves well.
Outcome: Belgium 2 Algeria 1: It looked as if the World Cup gods were going to pay their debt to Algeria for a good while in this game, but after being completely devoid of attacking threat, Belgium made a couple of substitutions which changed the game, and they produced yet another 'come from behind' win. It seemed a tad harsh on Algeria, who contributed a lot to this match. Despite his reputation, the Algerian goalkeeper looked really solid.
Outcome: Brazil 0 Mexico 0: Brazil looked really quite ordinary in this match, although Ochoa, in goal for Mexico, played an absolute blinder and contributed two candidates for save of the tournament. I was left with the sense that Brazil need to find some creative inspiration from somewhere, especially as Oscar had a much quieter game. Mexico will fancy their chances of at least drawing with Croatia to progress.
Outcome: Russia 1 South Korea 1: Apart from the Portugal performance, these have to be two of worst goalkeepers in the World Cup. Akinfeev had one moment for the Korean goal where he probably wanted to die but also spilled a few shots into the danger zone, whereas Korea's Mr 'Safe Hands' showed a remarkable consistency by flapping at anything in the air. If Russia looked as bad as England in 2010, you may have noticed the familiar face of Fabio Capello on the sidelines. Not a great match, and group H looks rather short on quality unless the Belgians can raise their performance.
Germany v Portugal; Iran v Nigeria; Ghana v USA. It does not get much bigger than the first match between teams ranked 2nd and 4th in the world. Could we see the tournament's first draw here? Germany rarely have a bad match and Portugal, despite Cristiano Ronaldo's attacking prowess, are always hard to break down. A 1-1 draw would not surprise me. Iran v Nigeria, by contrast, does not really get the pulse racing. Nigeria should have the edge in talent and ought to win this. Finally it is Ghana v USA, who have previously met twice in the World Cup. On both occasions, Ghana have won close matches, and this ought to be tight again, although both sides will surely push for a win in the hope of stealing a march on the big 2 in this ultra tough group.
Outcome: Germany 4 Portugal 0: Dismantled; that is the first word that comes to mind. The Germans knew exactly which buttons to push to initiate the Portugal self-destruct sequence. What Portugal desperately lacked was any kind of leadership, with Cristiano Ronaldo joining the petulant team sulk rather tham making any attempt to rally the troops. When you see this you wonder why Portugal bothered to beat Sweden in the play-off to bok their ticket to Brazil. Thomas Muller, at 24, is setting a remarkable record. He now has had 8 shots on target at 2 World Cups and scored 8 goals. He could be very close to the top of the all-time list by the end of this World Cup. You are unlikely to see a worse goalkeeping performance in this tournament than Patricio's lame effort today, especially for the 3rd and 4th goals.
Outcome: Iran 0 Nigeria 0: By all accounts this was not a game to wait up for. Unfortunately I have backed this group to be the highest scoring, as Argentina are laden with attacking talent, so it was a blow to see the first nil nil in this game. Nigeria ought to have been better than this, but they do lack experience.
Outcome: Ghana 1 USA 2: This was long on huff and puff and short on quality, which means I would still expect Portugal to survive this group. We went into today's game believing this to be a group of 4 strong teams, but have emerged two games later with 1 real contender for the World Cup and 3 teams who really aren't good enough to reach the knockout. The USA deserved the win as they were more fosued than Ghana, who struggled to create much in the final third. The USA do have a chance to progress at Portugal's expense under the shrewd guidance of Jurgen Klinsmann and it will help that they play them next with the wounds of defeat still fresh and injuries and suspension real.
Switzerland v Ecuador; France v Honduras, Argentina v Bosnia. The Swiss game is intriguing; normally we would expect the Swiss to grind out a 0-0, but that has not been the rhythm of this World Cup. Will the Swiss come to the party? Ecuador will feel somewhat at home in South America and could cause a surprise against a team ranked number 6 in the world. France ought to beat Honduras, even though Honduras had a decent warm-up to the tournament. Look for Benzema to fire for the French. And finally, bring on Argentina. Surely a side set up for attack to this extent will gel with the tournament and I am looking for Argentina to rack up the goals in this group; Bosnia may be their toughest test.
Outcome: Switzerland 2 Ecuador 1: The first really late winner of this World Cup for the Swiss, who managed to come to the party. 2 goals for the Swiss is normally enough for a whole tournament. I did suggest this would be close and so it proved, with the likelihood now of both European teams progressing from this group. Ecuador may have been the first team to slightly flaunt Sepp Blatter's shaving cream, by moving the ball about a foot out of the official mark, which was the case for their goal.
Outcome: France 3 Honduras 0: All neutrals will be cheering this result as Honduras seem intent on out-Millwalling Millwall and being the purveyors of general nastiness (sorry, Millwall fans, I don't really mean it). It is good to Benzema live up to his pre-match billing and be a genuine contender for the Golden Boot. We can also now start a new World Cup countdown: "only 2 more games until Honduras go home".
Outcome: Argentina 2 Bosnia 1: Argentina fans can take heart from the fact that they have clearly not started this World Cup at full tilt, as nobody wants to peak too early. Bosnia, the tournament's only rookies, put up a good show and deserved their consolation goal. Messi scored a good goal, which of course is being described across the football media as 'great' because Messi scored it; it wasn't half as good as van Persie's opener for the Dutch which would be the only goal so far potentially to merit the 'great' tag.
Colombia v Greece; England v Italy; Uruguay v Costa Rica; Ivory Coast v Japan. I don't believe it is being too harsh to say that Greece are one of the more anonymous of European teams. Colombia finished second in South American qualifying and, even without Falcao, who may still be injured, I expect Colombia to win this, perhaps just by one goal. England and Italy look well matched to me and I will say this looks like a cagey draw (even if events of the first 2 days may suggest teams are playing in a more attack minded manner). Uruguay are surely too good for Costa Rica and will win by at least two goals. This leaves Ivory Coast v Japan and I see Ivory Coast as too strong for Japan who may play some lovely football but will simply be outmuscled by the experienced African side; I will go for 2-0 to Ivory Coast in this one. It all sounds so simple, but then again, I did have Spain to beat the Netherlands!
Outcome: Colombia 3 Greece 0: "The Greeks are not noted for scoring goals" said the TV commentator. Judging by this match the Greeks are not noted for their defending either, which begs the question: how on earth are they world ranked number 12, ahead of Chile, the Netherlands, and France? Colombia really did not have to be more than functional to win this ar a canter, so I don't think we have learned much about their chances later in the competition. The Greeks will be going home.
Outcome: Uruguay 1 Cota Rica 3: Massive upset, game of two halves, all the cliches at once! At half time, with Uruguay 1-0 up, a soft penalty from an idiotic piece of defending, a win for Uruguay seemed a formality. Then Costa Rica came to life; Joel Campbell showed himself to be the best player on the pitch, a Nicaraguan born defender scored a precise header, and a Colombian coach was celebrating. Finally Uruguayan disciplne snapped and a red card was shown, never a total surprpise with Uruguay. It all adds to the intrigue in this tough group D.
Outcome: England 1 Italy 2: Tough on England to play this well, dominate possession with good attacking intent, and still lose. But that is Italy for you, always hard to beat and this was a high quality game. Pirlo purred for the Italians, Sturridge and Sterling buzzed around with good intent for England. This, ironically, was probably England's best performance in a World Cup match since the 1990 semi-final, and they should take confidence into the Uruguay game next. But, the shock of the day is that it is Costa Rica who top the group after the first round of matches.
Outcome: Ivory Coast 2 Japan 1: Another 'come from behind' win. Ivory Cosst lacked ideas in the first half and Japan deservedly led, through the excellent Honda. But what an inspiration Didier Drogba is to the team. Even though he did not play a part in the goals, his entrance lifted the team and within a few minutes of his introduction Ivory Coast were ahead. Bony's header was a delight, but Gervinho's winner should have been saved. This result should see Ivory Coast and Colombia through, unless either Greece or Japan can step up significantly.
Mexico v Cameroon; Spain v Holland; Chile v Australia. I am expecting Cameroon to be quite weak, so anything less than 3 points for Mexico will be disappointing, and Chile should see off a very dogged Australia. It will be interesting to gauge if Chile are genuinely a threat in this tournament and for them this is very much the hors d'oeuvre. The main event is clearly the clash between the 2010 finalists, a bad tempered affair. I would love to see the Dutch get revenge and the Spanish their come uppance, but I cannot see this happening. The Spanish are very savvy and Dutch defence are just out of primary school.
Outcome: Mexico 1 Cameroon 0: Mexico certainly did that the hard way in a monsoon, with Giovanni Dos Santos having two perfectly good goals flagged offside by the Colombian linesman with a twitchy finger. At least the right team won, but Mexico may rue goal difference if they should draw with Croatia later.
Outcome: Spain 1 Netherlands 5: Wow, I am so happy to be so wrong! That was a great exhibition of counter-attacking football in the second half, and Spain looked very short of pace. Perhaps the Dutch took inspiration from van Persie's equaliser on the cusp of half time which was a beauty. Serious cat amongst the pigeons now, with Brazil awating the group runners-up.
Echoes from World Cup history: in 1986, Spain met Denmark in the Last 16 and went 1-0 down before winning 5-1, Emilio Butragueno scoring 4. How the boot is on the other foot today!
Outcome: Chile 3 Australia 1: Super match, mad, frantic attacking from both sides. If Chile are going to make serious inroads later in the tournament, they surely need to find a central defender who can head the ball; Tim Cahill ran amok today.
Brazil v Croatia Like everyone else, I am expecting a Brazil win, but one nagging thought is that, if Brazil are so good, how come they have so many Chelsea players, when Chelsea have been so dull? So I think 2-0 may be about right, with Neymar and Fred likely scorers. Croatia will miss the suspended Mandzukic so a Brazil clean sheet seems probable, unless they have a "David Luiz moment". Will Hulk be 'incredible'?
Outcome: Brazil 3 Croatia 1; Oh dear, first match and once again we see a case of blatant cheating being rewarded with a goal. Fred's dive for the penalty was as lame it could be, and yet the Japanese referee, who otherwise had a fine game, was duped. Did FIFA decree this? Croatia were plucky and caused a few keystone cops moments in the Brazil defence. Hulk was poor, Oscar stood out.