The beauty of a tournament so short like the World Cup is that while at first, and only then, there is room for second chances, not every team will react similarly to the inevitable hiccup. Croatia and Cameroon, Greece and Japan, Uruguay and England, Ecuador and Honduras, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ghana and Portugal, and Algeria have all lost their openers. Some by the slightest margin allowable and others beyond a reasonable recovery. The two I left out, Spain and Australia, are both eliminated. I figured Spain was too shocked to mount a bounceback win because a breakdown in morale usually follows a categorical defeat. Their companion in misery in the group, Australia, unanimously unfancied from the start, always had a better chance to recover. And it showed in how it traded leads in its elimination loss.
Groups F & G
Of the teams I mentioned, Ghana and Portugal suffered draining losses not too dissimilar to the one dealt to Spain. Sure, they were lesser in magnitude, but psychologically speaking, the what-ifs will linger into their next games. Cogitate to agitate. So, accordingly I don’t like their chances against a clinical Germany, and a confident, organized US team.
Bosnia & Herzegovina will very likely leapfrog Nigeria and Iran having already gotten the forthgone conclusion of losing to Argentina out of the way. There is no shame in losing to Argentina, whether it’s your first, second, or final group game. But there can be some in not beating Iran and Nigeria. That’s equally an indictment of the former two as it is a warning for the Bosnians.
Now, Argentina. Was their 5-3-2 a gameday decision or the go-to lineup? It certainly is a risky proposition to start with it only to have to take off one central defender like they did for a forward later. I mean Messi should have less resistance against Iran and Nigeria if they play him high up the forward line again. Okay, maybe not Nigeria. But if their coach opts to avoid the uncertainty of that, and why not, then scrap the formation and play a back four. Of course their backline is softer in the center than they’d like it to be. But I feel they’re strong enough in midfield to switch Javier Mascherano to central defense to bloster that area and not lose the battle in the middle. Especially if you want to protect Messi by having him start the attack a little deeper. Man, I truly missed my calling. Kidding, kidding!
I’m going to go ahead and write off Ecuador and Honduras. For the former, the manner of their loss to Switzerland, the only realistic shot at a tide changing upset, is thematically rich. Being made to pay for missing the game-winning play in the ensuing fastbreak is an ordeal few top sides are experienced enough to learn so quickly from. Mind you, this was the last play of the game. As for Honduras, they never had a chance to begin with and are, with all respect, a formality of sorts to whomever plays them last. France and Switzerland will be highly motivated as to avoid a date with an Argentina who could find its flow against favorable matchups. Look for the French to play with aggression in their next game so they can enter their group finale in the right mood. The Swiss have the easier final game but if they don’t get the result they want from the French, however much padded their goal differential can get against Honduras won’t matter. It will be tricky how they maneuver the schedule. That’s why you just win, and worry about the chips later.
The most difficult to predict. Clearly, the Colombians hold a lead. The second best poised for Game 2 among one-game teams so far. Their matchup with the Ivorians will go a long way in determining who plays Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica or England. I haven’t seen the Japan game but the quickfire by Ivory Coast points to a resilience and mental toughness only shown by the Dutch in the crucial middle third of their game against Spain. They may very well win their first ever group game if Colombia fails to shore up their backline. A win by either Greece or Japan in the next game will open up the standings. But this is one I can not comment on how it will finish this early.
You can be forgiven for thinking Uruguay are the frauds of this tournament. However do not expect similar treatment if you want to spout off some karmic comeuppance for 2010. Diego Godin and Martin Caceres clearly should have been the first choice in centerback for Uruguay. It wasn’t the case, so case closed. They depend too much on Luis Suarez. The idea that Diego Forlan is still the best suited to fill in for him shows no confidence in, or a failure to blood in, new guys. You may argue they underestimated Costa Rica, taking the first three points for granted and were duly punished for slacking off. How they rebound against England today could salvage their hopes.
The English. On paper a 2-1 loss to Italy is better than the 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica. On paper the only difference is one digit. So there’s that. No one knows their defense like Suarez except he’s too hobbled to make that count. There is no pedigree up front and if relying on veterans to score from deep is the alternate then that’s a recipe for disaster. At this point Rooney may get benched. If he is played in position he’s still under pressure to break his duck. Is a tie a fair result? Very much not.
Italy will very surely bring the Ticos back to earth, setting up an elimination game for England after a loss and a tie. Possibly two losses. They (Italy) sweep the group while the other three trade wins and losses in the other two games.
Freebie picks: ENG 1-2 URU; ITA 3-1 CRC; URU 1-2 ITA; CRC 1-2 ENG.
Final standings (points, goals for, against, goal differential)
ITA 9-7-2 +5
CRC 3-5-5 0
ENG 3-4-5 -1
URU 3-4-6 -2
Mexico or Croatia to join Brazil?
You may use common opponents to determine the strength of a team. As a tiebreaker FIFA will use your record against said teams. You may try that now using the logic of if a > b, and b > c, then a > c. Except it won’t work here. Croatia thrashed Cameroon by 4 unanswered goals while Mexico only scored one goal so far. To their credit they haven’t lost yet and gave the Brazilian fits in a scoreless draw for the ages. Not only that, they’re also sitting one point ahead of Croatia. They lock horns in the last group game. Brazil will run away with sole possession of first place. Possibly by way of a 3-0 win to prove the irrelevance of the mathamatical logic introduced above because they beat the team who scored more against a team projected to go winless. I want to pick Croatia because the prospect of a streak to build on is not only now possible, but is ample motivation to get a win. But I have to acknowledge that Mexico haven’t allowed a goal yet, and know five points will see them through. Their streak was broken but it’s not like they needed one or have had to win out. One is a more talented team, the other the epitome of organized. If Chicharito is fit to start it could tip the scale Mexico’s way. Win or tie, Mexico may very achieve the feat of scraping by while looking convincing enough to belong among the last 16. It’s peculiar.
Chile or Netherlands for first place?
I was surprised at how quickly Chile tired in the opener after a frantic first half. Alarmed almost to the point of expecting it to backfire at some point. But I couldn’t look away because the potential for a spectacle was always there. To their advantage it has paid off. They secured qualification, and of their five goals scored only one came in the second half. And very late. That was against Australia when fatigue settled in but it was against the run of play. So kudos to them.
Netherlands on the other hand has scored the majority of its goals late. Their engine takes some warming up I guess. The defining moment came in the middle spell of their game against Spain, starting with the first half winding down to a close. A Hail Mary of sorts gave them the equalizer. And when they took the lead it forced Spain out of their shape to be susceptible to more goals. Next they were made to sweat for the crucial 6 points and the qualification they almost always guarantee. The traded leads but sealed the one they wouldn’t relinquish midway in the second half.
It will be an intriguing game as they only need a draw to maintain the status quo and avoid Brazil in the Round of 16. But Chile has shown an appetite for the early bird special regardless of the menu. The second half will likely stamp classic as they are buoyed by the belief they can get the goals early and late if necessary.
Regarding the exhaustion in their opener. I am not certain how a change in tactics imposed by the opponent or tailored to it (in this case Spain) can factor into their fatigue or tempo management. They fielded similar formations but the intensity from the Australia game was well rationed I suppose. This tournament has shown how much of a double edged sword an early goal can be. Ask Argentina, Croatia, and the United States. Also of the formation, a few thoughts are worth mention. Both Netherlands and Chile played a 3-5-2. Generally you want to avoid mirroring the opposing lineup, but nowhere more so than in a 3-5-2. So it will be interesting to see who flinches first and whether that will be exploited as a sign of submission. Regardless of formation it will be an intense encounter if the trends shown by both teams sustain through this game. Chile will look to strike first and force the Dutch to answer back at some point. Meanwhile Netherlands will continue to probe for an opener well into the second half if it’s still scoreless after the half. We may have a five-goal thriller if Chile draws first blood early.
No consolation for Algeria. You don’t start defending a slender 1-0 lead the moment you earn it. And definitely when it comes early, and against the likes of Belgium. As a formality, or maybe even one half of a meaningless game, let’s lump them with Honduras. unless Russia amounts a direct challenge to Belgium. Which takes us to one of two highly anticipated games in the group, both involving the forerunners. How South Korea builds on its fortune and how the Russians rebound from misfortune next is crucial. I can’t say I want to write either off since I haven’t watched them play. I’m not sold on Belgium yet nor was I ever at any point. I feel both Russia and South Korea could draw against Belgium, seriously denting their confidence going into the do-or-die stage of the tournament. So much can be said of first game jitters and if any could be found in the game versus Algeria, you’d almost want to chalk that up to falling behind. That’s not how group favorites should react. Sorry, but my laziness and lack of interest prevents me from making any sense or informed guesstimates. Another post, maybe.