Saturday, 14 June 2014

World Cup 2014: We Have Liftoff

Well, I've been off for a while, haven't I? The vagaries of travel and of unreliable internet kept me from holding forth on a variety of subjects the last couple of weekends, but now I'm back, and celebrating my return with some thoughts on the World Cup in Brazil!

We've had two matchdays so far, which comes out to four matches. All four ended in wins, which is perhaps not that surprising for this early stage of the tournament, and only one big upset, during the Netherlands' 5-1 thrashing of Spain.

We have goal-line technology, now we need football-boot technology

We've also already picked up our big refereeing controversy of the tournament - if the South Africa tournament was characterized by ghost goals, this one already seems to have more than its fair share of goals disallowed for offside. In fact, not a single match has passed so far without it - in some cases fairly, and in other cases less so. The question, beyond what can be done about it, is: does this herald a new attacking mentality in the global game?

It's kind of become a truism among football's eminences grises that the quality of World Cup football isn't what it used to be. And it's true that we've frequently had games that were dour to the point of Scottishness. Although one of the main purveyors of this talk is Scottish himself, Sir Alex Ferguson - and he's never been above making statements like that to promote his own interests (namely, not letting his best players leave for international duty).

But for this tournament so far, it looks like the teams are really going for it, which is positive. Even Australia, which yielded to the inevitable last night and lost 3-1 against Chile, kept on playing up until the 90th minute, and looked like equalizing at several points (they had a goal disallowed too, albeit justly). This trend will probably end when we get the mid-tier European teams playing, like Switzerland (who have some terrible, terrible games in their past).

So I'm hoping that we keep seeing offsides, with concomitant disallowed goals, for the rest of the tournament. As a friend in college always said, it means the teams are getting forward and going for goal.

Group A: First blood goes to the New World

Everybody talks about the Group of Death, and it's defined differently depending on who you ask. But the one thing that's not in doubt is that Brazil will get out of its group - after a number of tournaments held in countries that weren't particularly strong (Japan in 2002, South Africa in 2010), it's nice to see another tournament where the host is expected to do well. And they got off to a good start with their 3-1 win against Croatia.

A couple of people I chatted to suggested that Croatia could have gone on to win, but that's just fanciful. Croatia never seriously looked like scoring, and the only reason they did was because of an own goal. My thought, and I'm ready to be proved wrong, is that Croatia's still reliant on too many players who've been around forever - Pletikosa and Olic, for instance.

Mexico seems to have broken with its past a little more (ie, Cuauhtemoc Blanco has finally retired from international football), but they looked to have the same problem with finishing. Although in their 1-0 win against Cameroon, they suffered two disallowed goals, so the scoreline could have been much higher.

Given that Brazil is clearly the strongest team in the group, the question now is who will come second, and follow them into the next round. Mexico is best-placed to do so currently, but still needs to get at least a point against Croatia to advance. However, Croatia's already finished the hard task of playing the hosts, so they're probably banking on gaining their points from Mexico and Cameroon anyway.

And Cameroon? My initial guess had been that they'd come second in the group, possibly for emotional rather than footballing reasons, but that looks unlikely now. Their next match is against Croatia, who desperately need points to progress, but even if Cameroon wins they'll face Brazil next, and their only hope then will be a draw against hosts who are already through and looking to rest key players. But it's Brazil's first World Cup at home since 1950, and they'll be looking to dominate.

Group B: Rematch

Now this was a real Group of Death. World and European champions Spain, 2010 finalists the Netherlands, and wild card Chile looked like the ones with the best chances of going through, and poor, creaky Australia looked like it was there to make up the numbers. Now that each team has played its first match, the group still looks that way, although I don't think anyone was expecting the Dutch to beat Spain so handily.

It's a cliche that you never know which Dutch team will show up on the day. Even in 2010, they got to the final in stylish fashion, only to change their approach at the last minute and act like they were up for a gold medal in taekwondo rather than football.

So it was a bit surprising to see them so rampant against Spain last night. Interestingly, at half-time it was pretty even, with both teams on the scoresheet. But then Spain inexplicably collapsed and let in 4 in the second half, suggesting that they aren't quite as invincible as in previous tournaments.

Australia, meanwhile, went down fairly predictably against Chile, although as I said, they didn't exactly roll over. After pulling one goal back, through a great header by Tim Cahill, they looked like equalizing until about the very end. Unfortunately, this may be the high point for them, as they now have to play an apparently in-form Netherlands next, followed by a Spanish team that will be both desperate to progress and good enough to do so. They'll be unlucky not to snatch the wooden spoon, to be honest.

In fact, I still think Spain and the Netherlands will be the ones to go through to the next round, as Spain will have taken last night's result as a big wake-up call, and I don't believe Chile has the ability to counteract Spain's normal tactics. The question, though, will be how far they go beyond the group stage. I initially guessed Spain would win the group, which would allow them to avoid Brazil until the final - but now it looks like they'll come second, and will face the hosts immediately.

In that case, it could be a short tournament for Spain, as Brazil famously thrashed them in the Confederations Cup last year. But given that Spain won in 2010 after losing their opening game (albeit not so spectacularly), it would be premature to rule them out even so. And if they do beat Brazil in the next round, it'll be hard to see who can beat them after that.