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Jun 2014
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The European riddle, by Rafa Benítez

Brazil 2014

Rafa Benítez

As the group stages carried on, we witnessed more of the same and added some surprises as is always the way with these stages. If Spain and England were the first to be eliminated, Italy, Portugal and Russia, among others have also fallen victim. We continue to enjoy a World Cup willing to yield many surprises and continue throw up some interesting surprises and results. We move on to offer a more or less detailed analysis of the latest games in the group stages of the 2014 tournament.

In Group A, Brazil beat Cameroon (4-1) to confirm top spot in the group. Mexico hoped that the goal difference would allow them to qualify first when they were beating Croatia (3-1) but the hosts did not want to miss their chance and thanks to a Neymar strike - they prevailed and left the door open for hope in the face of upcoming engagements. Showing nothing special tactically with phases of intense pressure and others in which the team looked in no hurry but as ever they have players who alone can win a game. That is their strength, coupled with an ability to showcase some brilliant football. This is what now awaits Chile, another good 'touchstone' for intensity and conviction that has been evident in all of their matches.

For its part, Mexico achieved their goal and beat Croatia, who again started the game well, losing energy and ultimately making way for the superiority of Mexico. The same scenario occurred in the second half, with a good start by Croatia but Mexico gradually prevailed and played with the hope of achieving the top spot. They finished second and will now face the Netherlands on Sunday in a game that will not be easy for either of the two teams.

In Group B, Spain won (3-0) against Australia and left us with a highlight goal from David Villa with a sublime finish. Gradually, Spain relaxed allowing quality finishes from Torres and Mata completing the score. It wasn’t a great game but showed some of the play that we had grown accustomed to seeing with Spain - high quality passing with some phases of good play, but everyone expected more from this team that still has the quality to return to the level has been shown in recent years.

The Netherlands surpassed Chile in a rare game, the Chileans took the initiative and Holland was forced to adapt to its rival. Playing on the counter and making aggressive individual attempts to try to recover the ball and exit at speed. With a defensive intensity from both sides it became clear that there were not be many visible chances on goal. However, in the second half Holland were most frequently pressing forward and playing with a defensive line of five, allowing their wingers to began to expand out a little more.. Robben was seen as the danger but the goals came from elsewhere within the Holland setup with Chile conceding two goals. They may have lost the match but never gave up and always looked for the victory. They will not be easy opponents for Brazil.

Holland dazzled in their first game against Spain with a five-man defense, managing to win all three games but has been too dependent on their opponent and also very dependent on Robben. While few question the style of play if games are won and look spectacular whilst at the same time bringing an intensity to the game.

Entering Group C, Colombia finished by beating Japan, even though the 'coffee growers' were already qualified. Colombia's coach, Argentine Jose Pekerman, ushered in new players and they did not disappoint contributing to a good match. Jackson Martinez scored twice and Cuadrado with a penalty and Jason Rodriguez scoring the other two that allowed them to impose on a willful Japan with Kagawa as their most outstanding player. Both teams played a back four and you have to give congratulations to Colombia who qualified from the group on merit, with a good defensive balance and a great attack - all reinforced by motivation and a group that now believes more in itself.

In the other group match, the Ivory Coast started as favorite against Greece but the Greeks have shown in several tournaments that are able to exploit their skills and get results. And that was precisely what they did in this match. Going ahead on the scoreboard, looking like they were going to stay the course when the Ivorians leveled through Swansea player Wilfried Bony, but as ever with football, a stoppage time penalty by Samaras allowed them to score the deciding goal and complete a new surprise, thus classifying Greece for the next phase as second in the group, which means they now face Costa Rica and have to say that whatever happens next, reaching the quarters is a real surprise.

Already in Group D, England and Costa Rica had nothing to dispute ahead of qualifying but the English team, with many changes in the starting lineup could not afford to give a bad performance in order to avoid the increasing negative reviews already received.

Costa Rica opened the game with security and was more offensive than in other matchups but persevering with the same error, but had not paid for it earlier when committed against Italy. Playing five in the back and looking for offside when players were forward- also leaving plenty of space between lines, as the England players received there and they were able to turn and play forward. Something that they did not take advantage of to change the outcome.

England now say goodbye to the tournament leaving a bitter taste for failing to achieve the full potential. They failed to counteract Italy from a tactical point of view and could not match Uruguay from a physical point of view - the same thing happened to other European teams, but that's no consolation.

The commitment that these two teams played move them to the next stage, Italy and Uruguay decided to start the match with several defense back five. Italy seemed to control the game and a draw was enough to finish second, but everything changed with the expulsion of Marchisio - highly protested by the Italians but ultimately left them at a disadvantage, though still with a tie on the scoreboard. Despite numerical superiority, Uruguay could not create chances and had only one shot that deflected from Luis Suarez. Moreover, a long run in from the side from backward areas lead to accumulation of players in the area to try to exploit them but had no patience or clarity to create something in attack. However, Godin once again proved decisive with a corner and that goal - forcing Italy to attack. These minutes were the best with Italy driving the ball, making walls and creating danger in the opponent's area. Ultimately this did not change the score and allowed to knock out another of the big European teams. As a point to note, we all saw the incident between Luis Suarez and Chiellini and there certainly has been much talk in the media but we like to focus more on the football whenever possible.


In Group E, the duel that France and Ecuador played, Ecuador needed to win to qualify and secure as it progressed both parties knew that Switzerland was already beating Honduras, so the need to get the three points was even more evident. However, they did not have many chances - just a header from Valencia and little else. France had rotated some of their players and did not play with the same speed as in previous commitments. Their theoretical 1-4-3-3 was not so, because Griezman, starting at the left was always moving inward to reach the area behind Benzema.

A clear chance from Griezman started the second half with the expulsion of Antonio Valencia definitely changing the game. Ecuador defended and when possible played on the counter. France looked for more continuity and created more chances, although they all inevitably ended up in the hands of the keeper- Dominguez who had a great performance. The third goal from Switzerland in the other game made everything very difficult for Ecuador, which nevertheless kept trying until the end. It is only fair to congratulate them for their excellent attitude and commitment.

Switzerland overcame Honduras leading (2-0) at halftime, with two goals from Shaqiri - the first an excellent goal. This result meant they had already qualified. Finishing three-nil meant that the Swiss finished as second and next face Argentina. The game itself had little to highlight before that first goal from Shaqiri, finishing with tranquility and confidence. Shaqiri, with those three goals, will now have the added motivation to achieve more in the race for the “Golden Boot” and only being one behind Messi who he faces in the next round.

In Group F, Argentina played with a 1-4-3-1-2, with two forwards and a 'hook', which in this case is a high level player in Messi. Clearly Alejandro Sabella wants to maximize his quality in attack using Higuain and Aguero alongside Messi. However, the spotlight was nearly taken by Ahmed Musa, scoring two goals. But Messi leveled the scoreboard and, with one more from Marcos Rojo, ultimately gaining the victory.

The victory of Bosnia-Herzegovina against Iran meant that Nigeria also classified as second in the group. The start of the game, with two goals in a few minutes, the same as the start of the second period created an entertaining clash, with many very fine performances like the one from the Nigerian goalkeeper - Vincent Enyeama, one of the highlights of the game. As coach Alejandro Sabella said, "we catch the tempo as it progresses in the World Cup and are improving the structure of the team", Argentina confirm what was expected of them and will without any doubt be one of the favorites to win the tournament.

Interesting duels in Group G, with Germany and USA top and Ghana and Portugal trying to move through to the next round if any of the above failed. The Americans played with a 1-4-2-3-1 with Dempsey behind Bradley, who was his center forward and the Germans with their usual 1-4-3-3 with Ozil on the left with his tendency to go in and make room for Boateng. Playing a relatively high defensive line from the American side and as the Germans, with possession of the ball. Gradually the Americans 'stretched' but Germany continued to control the game. After the rest period the move of Podolski, trying to be more offensive led to Müller scoring the only goal after 55 minutes. Another positive note was the German goalkeeper –Neuer’s position. Being a very offensive team, Neuer is very advanced and can avoid some dangerous counterattacks, as happened during the second half in this game. Meanwhile, the United States qualified by mainly showing order, discipline and teamwork, but could be more accurate in the counter attack if they want to progress in the competition.

Portugal went with Nani, Ronaldo and Eder, resulting in the opening minutes with an attempt hitting the crossbar. Ghana, with a dangerous edge and a line of three players behind continually swapped positions throughout the game.

After the own goal from Boye, the game had a moment of excitement for the draw of Ghana and the American defeat in the other game; leaving open the possibility that one goal would change the final standings. But both marked by Ronaldo in the 80th minute seemed resolved to leave the cast of passes to the next round. In the end, Germany will face Algeria, second in Group H and the United States as second will face Belgium.

Finally, we speak of Group H. We do this by starting with another match in which both teams qualifying, Russia played against Algeria. Both teams start with 1-4-2-3-1, with good pace and looking on target because they both knew that a goal tipped the scales one way or the other. Russia took the lead with a header and then Kokorin had no doubts: Algeria had to attack and try to score if qualification was to be achieved at the end sending another European team home.

The first half was played with a lot of speed, quite remarkable tension and nervousness on the part of the two squads. Russia controlled the match and Algeria had few chances, perhaps the clearest one being a corner on 43 minutes, and a header from Slimani. In the second half, another header from Slimani resulted in a goal and tied the game. Russia tightened until the end, but do not get the second goal needed and is sent home out of the tournament.

South Korea was measured as they had already qualified and with some changes in the lineup against Belgium. Both teams had chances and the most dangerous player in the first time I must say with great satisfaction was Dries Mertens. To give a greater incentive to match, 44 minutes of the first half came close to expelling Defour, who left his team with ten for the entire second half and in turn, gave some hope to South Korea. Fellaini delayed and Belgium defended its position with 1-4-4-1. The chances for both teams encouraged the pace of the game. So, after 59 minutes and the departing of Januzaj and the entering of Mertens, Chadli and Origi by Belgian, looking up speed and power in midfield.

At 77 minutes Origi had an attempt on goal and Vertonghen scored on the clearance, Belgium prevailed despite playing with a man down. The last few minutes witnessed several chances for both teams and a very entertaining end, but ultimately no change in the score.

Belgium qualifies as group winners securing victories in all three games and Algeria is the surprise qualification from the group, leaving out another favorite in Russia.

The group stages produced more than a few expected surprises and with many affecting many so-called 'big' European nations. Spain, England, Italy, Portugal, Russia ... have now arrived home already or are on their way. So far it seems that the South American superiority continues in this tournament, which takes place in the home continent.