There are no games in Brazil today, so we have a chance to catch our breath before we kick off the knockout rounds tomorrow. The group stage was fun, but now we’re down to the nitty gritty, where a small mistake could send your team packing. Yesterday, four more teams punched their tickets into the Round of 16:
Runner-Up: United States
I’m awfully happy to have been proven wrong here. The U.S. found a way to win that crucial first game against Ghana, despite bieng outplayed for most of the ninety minutes, and it gave them an advantage that they managed to maintain until the end (with a little help). No matter – this group was a big test, and we passed it. I don’t think that anyone can say that we don’t deserve our spot in the next round.
“Resiliant” is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Portugal’s team, but when they were a goal down after 93 minutes against the U.S. (after getting hammerred 4-0 by Germany in their opener), it would have been easy to pack it in and get on the plane back to Lisbon. They definitely deserve some credit for picking up four points from that position, especially since they always understood that they were never likely to overcome their goal differential in a tiebreaker.
Even though they finished last, Ghana are the team that will feel like they let this one slip away. I’m sure they felt like they deserved to get something out of the U.S. game, and they made Germany work for a draw. Even after all of that, they found themselves tied 1-1 with Portugal with half an hour to go on Thursday, knowing that a 2-1 win would likely get them through. The goal never came (in fact, they conceded one), and that was that. It really was that close, though.
The U.S. kept it tight against Germany, but the game was almost completely one-sided. The U.S. never really looked a threat to score. Yes, Zusi sent a decent shot over the bar in the first half, and there was that little flurry right at the end of the game, but that was pretty much it. Germany looked comfortable throughout, and you could see them kick it up a notch at the start of the second half, until they got their goal.
From here on out, all of our potential opponents will be likely to dominate possession against us. Playing without the ball isn’t automatically a problem, and, one or two mistakes aside, our defense has looked solid enough. Unless we can pair that capacity to soak up pressure with an ability to counter-attack effectively, though, we’ll just keep hanging on by our fingernails. You can get away with that for a while, but eventually you’ll lose your grip.
The weakest group on paper proved to be the weakest group on the pitch. Belgium left it late against both Algeria and Russia, but they got goals when they needed them. I was actually impressed by their ability to adapt – down 1-0 to Algeria in their opener, they brought Fellaini on, changed their approach, and won the game. It’s nice to have a Plan B.
The rest of the group were pretty abysmal. I didn’t expect much from South Korea, but they managed to be even worse than I’d thought. In their final game, Belgium rested a handful of their first-choice players, went down to ten men before half time, and still beat them. A few days earlier, the hapless Koreans had somehow managed to concede four goals to a not-exactly free scoring Algerian side, and their lone point came when the Russian goalkeeper fumbled the ball into his own net and handed them a draw. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about their adventure in Brazil.
Russia weren’t all that much better, with only two draws to show for for their uninspired efforts. They’ll be the hosts in 2018, and changes are needed if they want to avoid embarassing themselves on home soil.
Algeria took advantage of their opponents’ shortcomings, and, after scoring no goals in three games in 2010, put in six this time around. Their progress was well-deserved, but their reward is a second round game against Germany, in what looks to be the most lopsided match-up in the final sixteen. One has to think that this as far as the Desert Foxes will go.
ROUND OF 16 MATCH-UPS (PREDICTED WINNER IN BOLD)
Germany vs. Algeria
Belgium vs. USA
There is some intriguing soccer history between Germany and Algeria, going all the way back to 1982. In that year’s World Cup, West Germany and Austria met in the final game of the first round, knowing that a 1-0 victory for West Germany would guarantee both of them passage through to the next stage. West Germany duly took a 1-0 lead after ten minutes, and then the two teams spent the remainder of the match kicking the ball around aimlessly, with neither one trying to score. The team that sufferred from this bit of German-speaking collusion? Algeria, of course, who would have advanced if Germany had won by more than two goals. It was this match that spurred FIFA to adopt the current format wherein the final games of each group are played simultaneously, but that didn’t help Algeria at the time. Their protests were dismissed and they were out of the tournament.
Obviously, 1982 will be on a lot of Algerian minds during the build-up to this game, and I’m sure that they’d love nothing more than to take their revenge in Brazil. Given the gulf in talent between these two sides, though, it’s hard to see that happening. 2-0 to Germany.
Once again, I’m hoping that the U.S. team will prove me wrong. It’s certainly not beyond them, but it’s an uphill climb. The Americans will make it difficult for their opponents, as always, but I think the quality of the Belgian attack wins out. 2-1, Belgium.