So the first half of the World Cup is over – and what a tournament it has been so far. Lots of goals, some great games and more than a few shocks. And one big name player who has disgraced himself, not for the first time.
Yes, this is definitely a tournament with bite.
Half of the thirty two teams who arrived in Brazil are now on their way home, including several very big European names. It is no shock that the countries from the Americas are doing so well – but who will be lifting the trophy in the Maracana when the tournament ends?
Luis Suarez had a very eventful trip to Brazil. Injury ruled him out of Uruguay’s opening defeat to Costa Rica but he returned to score twice against England, giving his country a route back into the tournament. Then his attempt to take a bite out of the shoulder of an Italian opponent brought him to the attention of the world’s media for all the wrong reasons. A lengthy ban resulted – although perhaps UEFA were lenient with a four month suspension given that this is the third biting incident of his controversial career.
Some of the world’s other footballing superstars have concentrated more on scoring goals than leading with their teeth. Argentina’s Messi and Brazil’s Naymar lead the Golden Boot race with four each after three games, along with the 2010 top scorer, Thomas Muller of Germany. And with other big names like Benzema, Robben and Van Persie on three there is real competition for the prize.
So just who is still in the race for the World Cup after the group stage?
Group A saw Brazil and Mexico qualify with Croatia and Cameroon going out. It was all fairly straightforward, although the host nation has still to find its top form. Look out if they do.
Group B saw the competition’s first big shock. Netherlands v Spain was always going to be one of the highlights of the opening round, but few predicted a 5-1 Dutch demolition of the defending champions. And it got worse when an impressive Chile beat the Spaniards 2–0 to send the holders home. Tim Cahill’s fine volley, a contender for Goal of the Tournament, gave Australia something to remember but ultimately it was Netherlands and Chile who went through.
Group C saw Columbia in fine form with three wins, but the second qualifying place was not decided until injury time in the final match. Japan were out of contention and Ivory Coast looked to have secured the draw they needed against Greece. But when Georgios Samaras was brought down in injury time the former Celtic striker picked himself up and scored an ultra cool penalty to put his country through.
Group D was always going to be a difficult one for England. And a pair of 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay made their final match irrelevant, giving a very early exit for Roy Hodgson’s men. The surprise side of the tournament were Costa Rica who defeated both of England’s conquerors to win the group. Uruguay beat Italy to second place but the Suarez incident left a bad taste in the mouth.
Group E bucked the geographical trend with European sides France and Switzerland qualifying comfortably, leaving Ecuador and Honduras with relatively short journeys home.
Group F was fairly easy for Argentina with three wins, although a 1-0 win over a brave Iranian team was closer than most expected. Nigeria are the one African country to retain an interest after edging out Bosnia for second place.
Group G was labelled the Group Of Death. Well, there has to be one in every tournament. Germany ended up on top although it wasn’t straightforward for the favourites. The USA, brave and organised, hard working and difficult to beat, almost secured a surprise win over Ronaldo’s Portugal before an injury time equaliser. But the Americans had the last laugh, sending yet another European team home on goal difference.
Group H was topped by Belgium, many people’s tip as dark horses in the tournament, although three narrow wins did not show them at their best. The surprise came when Algeria finished runners up, a final draw against Fabio Capello’s Russia leaving them and South Korea out in the cold.
The knock out stages have given us some intriguing match ups to lock forward to. The Round of 16, as it seems to be called, starts with Brazil v Chile in the first of two all South American clashes with the winners meeting Columbia or Uruguay.
France will be favourites to put Nigeria out and a clash with Germany should await as the Germans are likely to be much too strong for Algeria.
Netherlands v Mexico is an intriguing clash of two attaching sides with the winner surely seeing a tie against Costa Rica or Greece as a great chance to make the semi finals.
Argentine will likely be too good for Switzerland while USA v Belgium could be one that goes to extra time and even all the way to penalties. Both teams are strong defensively and hard to beat so there might not be too much goalmouth action.
The potential line up for the semi finals then is Brazil v Germany and Netherlands v Argentina. Two clashes of the titans, South America against Europe in both games. There are twelve other nations who will be trying to provide yet ore surprises, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the four favourites in the penultimate stage.
The knock out stage of the World Cup is when things get serious. There are no second chances now, defeat means elimination. And that will add to the tension and hopefully to the excitement. There are some fine teams left in the competition and if the attacking ethos that has dominated so far continues we will be in for a treat.
Bring it on!