The World Cup group stage passes again with it usual splendor, perennial giants seemingly collapsed, new chosen ones in their place, the stereotypical upsets, referee gaffes, miscellaneous action, and repeated history. Each group providing its two champions leaves its stamp on the tournament and its unique tale in the history of the world tournament.
The history of the World Cup provides a beautiful window into the expectations for gameplay each year. The success of European, South American, Latin American nations, etc. can be very easily predicted by their success in previous tournaments. The success of South American nations in these tournaments in South American venues is very easily compared to the success of Uruguay, who won the very first World Cup in 1930 (they were hosting, and they beat Argentina) and then again in 1950 (hosted in Brazil), the first competition held after the intermission in lieu of World War II. History has repeated itself several times throughout FIFA's governance of the World Cup and continues during this year's celebration.
In a competitive Group A, Brazil and Mexico advance over defeated Cameroonian and Croatian sides. Mexico's ability to earn a point in all three matches in the group stage reveals an incredible resiliency to this Mexican squad just months after their 2013 implosion in the CONCACAF qualifiers. Brazil, although drawing Mexico, personified the true class of group A scoring seven goals during the group stage, four contributed by Brazilian chosen one, Neymar Jr. Guillermo Ochoa provided several highlight reel saves to preserve the Mexican campaign at this year's World Cup.
In a long-winded shocker, Spain, the 2008 and 2012 European Cup winners and 2010 World Cup victors, failed to advance from their difficult group including the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. Netherlands would go onto control the group winning all three group stage matches, including a 5-1 trouncing they delivered to Spain. Strong play by long time Dutch notable, Arjen Robben, has the Netherlands playing undoubtedly their best football since their extra time defeat by Spain in 2010. Chile, impressively handled Spain as well to earn their essential second win in the group, guaranteeing that their journey continue after the group stage. Although, a minor talking point, Australian midfielder Tim Cahill turned many heads with a clear shoe-in for goal of the tournament when he beat Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillesseen with a cross-body, weak-foot volley.
Next week's matchups pit the teams advancing from groups A and B against each other, as Mexico faces the Netherlands at 12 p.m. on Sunday, and Brazil faces Chile in Belo Horizonte on Saturday at 12 p.m.
In Group C, we witnessed history repeat itself in a few ways. We saw a South American nation advance, Colombia doing so extremely convincingly, but we also saw Greece advance again in the most difficult fashion. Yet again, we saw the Greeks earning tough points playing their defensive catenaccio football style. Colombia, also, becomes a feel-good story, as the nation, whose heartbeat ties inherently to its national team, returns strongly to the world scene. The Ivory Coast was unable to advance, ending Didier Drogba's international career just short of the Knockout Round. Japan's run ended quite briefly as the team's evident lack of a target front man left their side with great difficulty going forward.
Group D illustrates the phenomenon of history repeating itself most evidently. In a group set for the success of two established European powerhouses, both are exited from the tournament quickly and rather unceremoniously. Both England and Italy took back seats to Costa Rica and Uruguay, as England failed to win a single match, and Italy lost a player to a quick red card, in spite of Suarez' on field antics. Costa Rica, in particular, was able to perform incredibly well on defense, surrendering only one goal in three games throughout the group stage, meanwhile they scored four goals securing first place in the group. In England's defense, they were able to play a much better brand of football that was free-flowing and played through the middle, but they were unable to preserve results for the full run time. In the next round, Costa Rica will play Greece, and Colombia plays Uruguay.
In Group E, France displayed a form that many did not expect, as they dominated their group with two wins and their third match drawn against Ecuador. Switzerland's defeat of Ecuador became essential in their quest for the Knockout Round. Karim Benzema's play was particularly high as he not only scored three goals for France, but also assisted two goals. Xherdan Shaqiri, the Swiss midfielder playing for Bayern Munich, has started a strong World Cup campaign with three goals through the group stage.
Argentina handled business as usual, calmly and assuredly capturing first in their easier group. The battle for second in Group F, easily could have fallen to either team left in the group. Bosnia-Herzegovina can certainly feel claim to second following review of an Edin Dzeko goal wrongfully disallowed for an offside position against Nigeria. The play occurred early enough that you cannot say the call determined the game, but it certainly changes the complexion of the game and group as Nigeria went on to win the match by a single goal, and eventually, second place in the group over Bosnia by one point. Next round, France will play Nigeria, while Argentina plays Switzerland in the next round.
In Group G, the officially designated "Group of Death," Germany and the United States advance. Germany, as many expected and predicted, cruised to a first-place finish in the group with two wins and a surprise draw 2-2 against the Ghanaians. The victory in the third match against the USA did not eliminate the USA, actually -- as Ronaldo's simultaneous, late-game athletics against Ghana become heroics for the USA's efforts in the group table. The USA's advancement from this group becomes a pivotal event in the growth of the sport in the country, thus the next match itself becomes even more important. The Germans will look forward to conducting business as usual in their next match.
Belgium, as expected, dominated their group with three wins in a row, handling the defensive challenge of Algeria's Feghouli and Russia's Kokorin and surrendering only one goal throughout the stage. The Belgians did win close matches, leading by a single goal each game. The Algerians managed to capture second place in the group by holding a 1-1 draw against Russia in their final group stage match. In the next round, Belgium will kick off against the United States, a reminder of the closely, cancelled pre-World Cup friendly, and Germany will play Algeria.
As the World Cup goes forward look for the continued success of the South American Nations at Brazil, the winning streaks of the Netherlands and Belgium, definitely, the continued success of the USMNT and as many goals as we have seen so far in Brazil, a happy departure from the precious commodity they were in South Africa. The games resume Saturday at noon.
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