This is one of the most open World Cups in recent memory. Seven sides have won both of their first two group games: the Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Argentina and Belgium. Picking apart those records, however, leaves few sides which are looking like they can genuinely take on anybody. Other pre-tournament favourites such as Germany and Brazil faltered in their second group games. Former winners England and defending champions Spain are out already, Uruguay and Italy head into a vital game to decide qualification from group D while 2010 darlings Ghana and Ronaldo’s Portugal teeter on the brink of elimination over in Group G.
The opener between the Netherlands and Spain will go down as one of the most famous matches of this World Cup. A sweet revenge for the humiliation of 2010, the scoreline may flatter the Netherlands a bit. Mistakes from Iker Casillas and Spain’s willingness to continue attacking rather than salvage their pride by limiting the damage allowed the Oranje to rack up the goals. A nervy encounter with Australia confirmed that, while strong, the Dutch are by no means invincible.
It is easy to become enthralled by the fairy tale of the underdog. Costa Rica performed admirably against Italy and Uruguay, but they will still struggle to make it past the round of 16. If Mario Balotelli had showed slightly more composure or Andrea Pirlo had been replaced by a player who can actually run, the Italy game could have gone very differently. Likewise, the Uruguay that fell to Costa Rica was a different team to the Uruguay that felled England; the first did not have Luis Suarez, the second did.
France are one of the few sides to come through two matches with few question marks over their heads. Bar one moment from Paul Pogba, they kept their cool against a Honduras side who appear to spend their free time practising martial arts, far easier said than done. A demolition of a decent Swiss side followed. Two late goals give some cause of concern, but France can be forgiven for a lapse in concentration when they were than far ahead. The only reason to doubt this France side at the moment is the absence of a game against one of the true favourites. Given a likely round of 16 opponent of Nigeria or Iran, that is unlikely to happen before a prospective quarter final with Germany.
Argentina lack balance behind one of the best forward lines in history. While the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi and Di Maria offer a wealth of attacking options, Argentina can barely boast a single defender or midfielder of that quality. Consequently, they have struggled in their first two games. Bosnia and Herzegovina continually threatened in the opener, and it took a moment of Messi magic to unlock a dogged Iran, who have done their manager Carlos Quieroz proud.
Belgium’s team, while strong on paper, is also struggling. Lacking true fullbacks has forced the Belgians to field a towering wall of centre backs. Against Algeria and Russia, this has restricted their attacking options going forward. Against a team with top class wingers, they could come unstuck. Going forward too, they lack ideas or any semblance of a coherent team identity or vision. No player seems quite sure what to do with the ball, and even less sure where his teammates are.
The similarities between the two
In contrast to a sluggish Belgium side, both Chile and Colombia boast very strong identities. Chile press hard, winning the ball high up the pitch and attacking with pace. Colombia sit deeper, drawing opponents in before, again, attacking with pace. Both sides can claim, unlike many of the sides here in Brazil, to be stronger than the sum of their parts. Each squad currently boasts one standout attacking player – Sanchez and Rodriguez respectively – ably supported by hardworking teammates.
Crucially, each side demonstrates a level of collective understanding that is rare in international football, and their managers deserve a lot of credit for fostering that. Having such clear team identities makes everyone’s job easier. Each player looks like they know where runners will be, which makes everyone’s job easier: they can look up once and play the pass, rather than having to check back and slow down the attack.
It may even be beneficial for Colombia that Falcao is out. The absence of a world class centre forward forces the whole team to rally around, and encourages the team to play the best pass, rather than forcing it to their superstar. Portugal were guilty of this at times last night; the entire side seemed overly eager to give Ronaldo the ball. While this is natural, and getting the ball to Ronaldo eventually should be a cornerstone of the Portuguese strategy, the ball into the Madrid forward often looked forced. Rather than wait until Ronaldo was well-positioned, the Portuguese midfielder gave him the ball early, allowing an organised American defence to move to neutralise his threat each time. Had Ronaldo received the ball in more threatening positions, the ability of the Americans to close him down before he did anything might have been greatly diminished.
Leading the side in place of the Monaco striker is his clubmate James Rodriguez, my favourite player of the tournament so far. Rodriguez plays with level of class and maturity that one might expect from a player entering the twilight of their career, and yet he is only 22 years of age. It is Rodriguez who makes this team tick – his vision and technique make Colombia extremely threatening whenever they are in possession. Rodriguez combines the rare ability to see two or three passes ahead with speed, dribbling ability, composure and excellent passing and shooting.
Against Cote d’Ivoire, the organisation and teamwork of the Colombians was highlighted. At both ends of the field the generals of the African side – Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora – looked frustrated with their teammates, regularly marshalling players into position and berating them once the ball went out of play. At times, Yaya Toure looked almost disgusted with the lack of support he was receiving, and the Ivorians rarely looked snappy going forward. Their goal too contrasted with the Colombian side – a moment of magic from the talented yet frustrated Gervinho rather than crafted goals full of intelligent runs and quick passing.
Stopping Colombia will necessarily mean stopping Rodriguez. The other players in the Colombian attack have the pace and technique to threaten, but it is Rodriguez who is the architect, the brains of the operation. Should Colombia top their group, as expected, they will face Uruguay, Italy or Costa Rica in the round of 16. Uruguay might be the most dangerous – the prospect of Suarez and Cavani taking on the experienced and determined yet somewhat-over-the-hill Mario Yepes is not one that will fill Colombian hearts with joy. Italy’s struggles against Costa Rica suggest that they are vulnerable to counter-attacking football, and Colombia do that better than Costa Rica who, for all their effort in the first two games, are simply not quite as good as we want them to be.
While Colombia have, like France, yet to test their mettle against a true favourite, the game against Greece provides some indication of how their will face against top class defences. The Greek side – still haunted by the ghost of their Euro 2004 win – know only one way to play: defensively. They remained fairly tight at the back throughout against Colombia, and were never excessive risk-takers. It is the Colombian defence which is the worry here. They managed to largely contain Yaya Toure, but the few of the Ivorian midfielders came close to him – either in terms of positioning or quality. He lacked supporting runners much of the time, and when he had them they were not that useful.
Should Colombia top their group and win their round of 16 tie, they will face either the winners of group A (probably Brazil) or the runners up from group B (the Netherlands or Chile), which will no doubt be a tough game. However, World Cup quarter finals are not meant to be easy. If they face the Netherlands or Brazil, it is likely that the heavyweight side will feel the need to attack Colombia. The pace of the Colombians on the counter-attack could punish the extremely aggressive fullback pairing of Marcelo and Dani Alves, who are both likely to spend a lot of time camped in the Colombian half. For the Netherlands, some individual quality going forward and an organised side will be dangerous, and both defences could struggling to contain the attacking threats; a high-scoring tie is on the cards if the two meet.
The current Chile side is the brainchild of Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa. Formerly a manager of the Argentine national side as well, the potential of his Chile team first became apparent following a 1-0 over his native Argentina, Chile’s first in a competitive match against their neighbours. Prior to the Bielsa appointment in 2007, Chile had lingered between about 30 and 50 in the Elo rankings for a decade, and had featured in only two of the prior six World Cups. They come into this tournament ranked 9th in the world under Bielsa disciple Sampaoli, and look good value for it.
As with Colombia, Chile are lead by an exciting forward at this World Cup. Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona’s fourth-choice forward, leads the line, and unlike some national superstars is more than willing to put in the effort required of him by the Bielsa-Sampaoli system. The pressing of the Chile side requires that each player closes down the ball quickly when the responsibility falls on them. If but one player begins to fail in their duty, the system falls apart, as it relies on each player trusting in their teammates to cover the whole they leave by pressing the next player on the ball.
So far Chile have been able to do that, but World Cups are won over seven games, not two, and a heavy schedule can begin to take its toll. Even at the end of the Spain game, Chile looked exhausted, and should a knockout tie played in a hot, humid arena go to extra time, Chile could fall apart completely. Chile have more than enough quality to win a tie in 90 minutes, with the marauding wingbacks, biting defence, tireless midfield and classy attack sufficient to give even the very best sides pause for thought.
Nowhere is the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts nature of the Chile team highlighted more than in the goalscoring record of Eduoardo Vargas. When he signed for Napoli in 2012, some at the Italian club were convinced that they had signed the player to take them to the next level. Finally threatening the business end of Serie A for the first time since the departure of Maradona, Partenopei had an exciting young forward to enthuse over. In 19 league games for the Italian club, he has yet to score a goal. In his last 19 for the national side, over roughly the same period of time, he has 12. The goals are not merely being racked up in friendlies against poor opposition either; in two games against Spain – one last week and one friendly in 2013 – he has three goals. Likewise, Vargas netted in two 2013 friendlies against Brazil and bagged three goals in the last four games of the notoriously tough South American qualifying league, including strikes against Uruguay and Colombia.
Chile’s game against the Netherlands will be crucial in determining their fate. Lose, and it is a case of out of the frying pan into the fire for Sampaoli’s side. After surviving what is possibly the toughest group – only D and G come close – they would set up a tough tie with hosts Brazil. Should they make it through they, they will most likely see Colombia, Italy or Uruguay in the quarters. Win, and things look somewhat more promising. A round-of-16 tie with – in all likelihood – Mexico or Croatia would be set up. Chile look better than both, and should progress to face the winners of group D – Costa Rica, Italy or Uruguay – or the runners up of group C – most likely a poor Cote D’Ivoire side.
Uruguay would be a tough game, Cavani and Suarez are easily enough to trouble any side. Italy don’t look overly convincing, but of course have the quality to make a game of it. For Italy, the pace of the Chileans may simply be too much. Fullbacks Abate and Darmian have the legs to keep up with the Chilean counter-attack, but they may well be deployed far forward in an attempt to overload the wingbacks and create mismatches on the flanks. The centre backs and midfielders – Motta excluded – look sluggish in comparison. Costa Rica, despite prospering against a Suarez-less Uruguay and a wasteful Italy, would surely come unstuck here. Cote d’Ivoire lack the organisation to let their stars shine, and would likely be picked apart by Chile. A semi-final against France or Germany is on the cards.
Everything to play for
With the World Cup set up as it is, every side still mathematically able to qualify for the knockout phase must be dreaming of victory. While England and Spain are left wishing that the last two weeks were only a bad dream, Chile and Colombia rejoice. Perennial heavyweights Brazil and Germany both faltered in their second group games, which should give every team still in it hope. Reach the semi finals, and two moments of luck can change the course of footballing history. Should Chile or Colombia win in Brazil, the stars leading their sides will become genuine legends in their homelands, and the World Cup will have perhaps its greatest underdog story yet.