The group stages are finished and as we await the start of the knockout stages on Saturday it’s time to reflect on what was the most entertaining group stage of the World Cup in memory.
Undoubtedly it’s been the tournament of the Americas so far with five South American and three Central/North American nations progressing from their group and of those Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia can retain realistic hopes of reaching the final.
As in the previous editions of football’s quadrennial jamboree on the other side of the Atlantic, the European nations have struggled with only six of their 13 participants still standing. Traditional powers such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and England have already exited in a fog of recriminations and with post-mortems into their failure having barely completed their initial investigations while of those remaining, only France and Germany have a sturdy case for reaching the semi-finals.
With two African sides through to the last 16, the continent has achieved about par although disciplinary issues and arguments over money have dragged some of their competing nations’ through the mud once again.
After the supposed ‘breakthrough’ of 2002, Asian football will again be analysing how it can bridge the gap with the rest of the football world after none of its’ teams survived the group stages for the second time in the three tournaments which have followed.
It is certainly one of the most open World Cups in recent decades with perhaps 5-6 realistic contenders and no team has yet performed at a level far superior to the rest and none have greatly impressed – save for Colombia – across their three matches.
In keeping with the attacking nature of the Brazil 2014 – which has seen 35% more goals than after the same stage in South Africa, a lot more shocks and 1,000% more unprovoked bites – we’ve stuck with our kamikaze 3-2-3-2 formation and so here is our lopsided but highly adventurous team of the tournament.
While no goalkeeper has yet been consistently outstanding, one has mixed a superb display with overall assuredness and that is Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa. The free agent will have no shortage of offers after his performances in Brazil and the club who were rumoured to be leading the chase for his signature last month, Marseilles, made now find bigger sharks sniffing around the 28-year-old. A brilliant save from Neymar capped a man-of-the-match turn against the hosts while the only goal Ochoa has conceded in the three games was a late consolation against a well-beaten Croatia.
Honourable mentions: Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria), Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Proving that a creaking body can be compensated for by intelligence, timing and immaculate positional play is Mario Yepes. The 38-year-old had a well-earned rest against Japan but his performances against Greece and Ivory Coast in particular demonstrated that a quick brain is often a more valuable attribute than quick legs.
Captaining our side is Ochoa’s team-mate Rafael Marquez. As if skippering Mexico at a record fourth-straight World Cup wasn’t enough for the 35-year-old, the classy defender also found time to score the crucial opening goal in their winner-takes-all clash with Croatia and has superbly marshalled a solid defence as well as launching numerous attacking moves from the heart of their three-man defence.
Substantially lowering our defence’s average age is Oscar Duarte. The 25-year-old has been the standout performer in a Costa Rica defence which conceded just a single goal as it ignored reputations and the bookmakers’ odds to finish above Uruguay, Italy and England to top Group D. Will surely be clubs from Europe’s top leagues interested in securing his services from his current employers, Club Brugge.
Honourable mentions: Rafik Halliche (Algeria), Daley Blind (Netherlands), Marcos Rojo (Argentina), Jalal Hosseini (Iran)
Providing cover for the defence and intelligent passing to release his attackers is Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich player makes the headlines for his excellent long-range shooting but his positional play and range of passing is often overlooked. A real all-round midfielder who will be key to Germany’s chances of beating the top nations.
Epitomising his national side and much that is good about the game is Giorgos Karagounis. Left out of the starting XI for his side’s opening defeat to Colombia, the 37-year-old started the remaining two matches and his doggedness, tireless work-rate and sheer bloody-mindedness laid the platform for Greece’s qualification for the final 16. Although his legs are almost gone, Karagounis is a reminder that there can be also be great joy found in watching someone playing with their heart and their head and their is a beauty in his ability to get the job done.
Honourable mentions: Arturo Vidal (Chile), Charles Aranguiz (Chile), Mile Jedinak (Australia)
With an abundance of attacking midfielders having caught the eye in Brazil, this was easily the toughest field to narrow but three have stood out above all others and the first is Arjen Robben. The 30-year-old is a player at the peak of his powers and proved too hot for Spain and Australia to handle, bagging three goals and running both sides’ – the defending champions in particular – ragged. Showed in his electrifying run and assist for the Netherlands’ second against Chile that any defence playing a high line against Robben in the knockout stages will do so at their peril.
Perhaps the player of the tournament so far is James Rodriguez. The Colombian has been quite brilliant, scoring in each of his games, the pick of which was the jinking run and exquisite chip he produced against Japan which showcased the imagination, guile, razor-sharpness and sheer quality which he is fast-becoming renowned for. When anyone tells you Wayne Rooney is a world-class number 10, tell them to watch Rodriguez in action in that role and see if they keep that opinion.
Slotting in on the left-side of our trio – but with all three having the licence to roam and interlink at will – is Alexis Sanchez. The Barcelona man perfectly sums up this exciting Chile side, combining high-intensity pressing with constant movement in search of space, vision, a deft touch and a razor sharp football brain. Any club offered the chance to sign the 25-year-old this summer should write Barca a blank cheque in return.
Honourable mentions: Juan Cuadrado (Colombia), Yacine Brahimi (Algeria), Emmanuel Emenike (Nigeria), Ivan Perisic (Croatia), Thomas Muller (Germany).
Having the hopes of 200m people placed on your young shoulders and an under-performing/inadequate supporting cast to assist would cause many to crumble under the pressure but not Neymar. The Barca attacker has been the star turn in an at-best functional Brazil side and his four goals have him as joint-top scorer. The hosts’ will need his imagination and touch in spades if they are to progress deep into the tournament.
Joining Neymar on four goals and up front is Lionel Messi. The little maestro has had a tournament of excellent moments rather than an excellent tournament; awful in the first half against Bosnia, quiet for 92 minutes against Iran while unable to quite provide incisive through balls for his Argentinian teammates. However, his second-half display against the Bosnians, moment of magic to secure the three points against Iran and his wonderful brace against Nigeria were reminders of his genius and unluckily for the rest of the remaining sides he looks like he’s only warming up.
Honourable mentions: Robin Van Persie (Netherlands), Karim Benzema (France), Enner Valencia (Ecuador), Tim Cahill (Australia)
In a tournament of surprises and with many nations performing above expectations it’s impossible to choose one so here are the six who have stood out Jorge Luis Pinto (Costa Rica), Louis Van Gaal (Netherlands), Jose Pekerman (Colombia), Vahid Halilhodzic (Algeria), Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany), Jorge Sampaoli (Chile).
Cian O’Callaghan, Pundit Arena.