Only two days left until kickoff! No time to waste – we’re on to Groups C and D today.
I like Arsene Wenger, and I respect everything that he’s accomplished with Arsenal over the years, but I’m going to pick on him a bit here. Every time that Arsenal fails to beat the likes of Stoke or West Ham, Mr. Wenger seems to make a point of taking umbrage with his opponent’s tactics. According to his narrative, Arsenal are always the good guys, trying to play the “right way,” while other teams are cynical, joyless bastards, commited only to spoiling Arsenal’s art, rather than creating something beautiful of their own.
It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that everyone should play the way that Mr. Wenger wants Arsenal to play – all possession and passing and movement and the ball always on the floor. That’s the “beautiful game” that we hear so much about, right? You can almost understand why supporters of bigger clubs infuse all of this with an almost moralistic aspect. Their players are out there trying to create, trying to play, and the only thing that their small-minded foes want to do is thump the ball away. It just seems like an afront to the spirit of the game.
That is, of course, until you remember that all of that is a bunch of self-serving nonsense. Arsene Wenger understands, as we all do, that if teams like Stoke and West Ham tried to play Arsenal’s game against Arsenal, then Arsenal would win by five or six goals every time. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and teams that want to win things need to figure out ways to overcome negativity. Fielding a team of hard men who push people around and play long balls toward a tall striker is as valid a tactic as any other. It might not be as fun to watch, but sometimes it’s the smart play. No team should set themselves up to lose in the name of aesthetics.
All of that is a very roundabout way to getting to a discussion of Greece, as they are perhaps the best example of the “defense-first” approach in the field this year. They took that path in Euro 2004, and were widely derided for it; I’m not sure how much they lamented being unloved as they lifted that trophy. Their approach doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last ten years. They will be hard to beat, but it’s unclear who will provide the goals. They may not need many, but at least a few will be required if they’re going to advance.
I confess to not being all that familiar with Japan’s squad, so I may well be underrating them here. I do know that Shinji Kagawa’s reputation has sufferred since his move to England (although, to be fair, no one at Manchester United covered themselves in glory last season). One possibility is that he uses the World Cup as a platform to re-energize his career, and reminds everyone why he was held in such high regard in Germany. Perhaps more likely, he struggles to regain his sharpness after a season of sporadic and largely disappointing action. Their other highest-profile player, Keisuke Honda, is in the same boat, more or less. Okazaki and Uchida are quality players as well, but Japan’s recent inconsistency makes me hesitatant to back them to get out of Group C.
Colombia probably has the most talented squad in Group C, but their hopes have been dented by the injury to Radamel Falcao. Jackson Martinez had a great season at Porto, but he hasn’t yet shown the ability to do it at the highest level. They are playing close to home and determined to re-establish themselves as a South American power.
Ivory Coast features two huge stars in Didier Drobga and Yaya Toure. Drogba is a few years removed from terrorizing Premier League defenders in a Chelsea shirt, but he remains a formidable player even at the age of 36. Toure, on the other hand, still looks to be in his prime at 31 and is capable of dominating matches from the midfield. When you throw in Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Wilfried Bony, it’s easy to see this team scoring plenty of goals. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to see them conceding plenty of goals. A leaky defense isn’t usually a recipe for tournament success, and it will probably limit their ability to progress beyond the Round of 16, but their firepower should get them out of this group.
It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if any one of these teams won Group C, but I’m going with:
Group C Winner: Colombia
Group C Runner-Up: Ivory Coast
Certain narratives seem to attach themselves to national teams over time. Some, like “Spain can’t win the big one,” are eventually overtaken by events and fade away; others, like “England will never, ever, ever win on penalties,” persist even as entirely new generations of players replace those that went before. Italy are a nation with a good deal of soccer history, and they have the repuation to match. Defensively solid. Not prone to making mistakes. Good on the big stage. A very dangerous tournament team.
That reputation took a bit of a hit in 2010, when they failed to win a single game and finished last in their group. They managed to bounce back with run to the final in Euro 2012, and I expect them to be difficult customers in Brazil as well. As eccentric as he may be, Mario Balotelli is a handful for any defender to deal with.
As you might expect, I have a lot of thoughts about England. All of their players play in their domestic league, which happens to be the league I follow most closely. That means that I’ve seen more of them than I have of anyone else, including the U.S.A. players. I’ve also taken in a fair bit of English press coverage, which, I have to admit, seems to have become less hyperbolic this time around. Historically, the tendency in the papers there has been to foster unrealistic expectations, and then label everyone connected with the national team as incompetent when those expectations are inevitably not met.
In 2014, there finally seems to be a broad national acceptance of what England’s team actually is: a collection of good to very good players, most of whom, as individuals, would not be out of place on very big club teams, but which doesn’t quite have the quality that you find in truly elite sides. That said, I actually like this team. It doesn’t hurt that at least four Liverpool players are likely to start (Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Sturridge), and Sterling will probably be involved as well. If Wayne Rooney plays well, and Sturridge finds the form that he displayed earlier in the season, England’s attack could be pretty effective.
I’m more concerned about the defensive end of things. Cahill and Jagielka are solid enough, but their not the fleetest of foot, and (lack of) speed kills at this level. Also, I wonder how much support they’ll get on their flanks. On the right, Glen Johnson is known for being very good going forward, not so good when it comes to defending. On the left, Baines’ defensive reputation is not as questionable as Johnson’s, but he’s relatively new to this role on the England team, having only recently taken the position from the long-serving Ashley Cole. Picking Baines was absolutely the correct choice, given Cole’s advancing age and lack of playing time at Chelsea, but it’s still a risk.
All of that seems to add up to Gerrard and Henderson having to sit very deep in order to support the center-backs, and the onus will be on Henderson, particularly, to do a ton of running in order to get forward to join the attack as well. On a bad day, I can see Rooney drifting way too far back into midfield to try to get on the ball, while Sturridge is left all alone up top. If that happens, England games will not make for good watching.
There is another Liverpool player whose shadow looms over this group, and he doesn’t play for England. I’m talking, of course, about Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. He’s a fascinating character who probably deserves his own, completely separate discussion. You will remember that it was his deliberate hand ball (together with the ensuing missed penalty) that knocked Ghana out of the quarterfinals in South Africa four years ago. Since then, he’s had two long suspensions in England (one for making racist remarks to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, the other for biting – yes, biting, with his teeth – Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea). He also has a reputation for taking dives in order to get referees to call penalties against his opponents (although referees have become hyper-aware of this and it feels like his legitmate claims are now ignored more often than his spurious claims are rewarded).
He may be an unsavory character, but he’s capable of doing stuff like this. And these. Whether or not any of that should be enough to make us forget about his flaws and cheer his name is a topic for another day. For our purposes, we just need to appreciate that he is a hell of a goal-scorer.
Unfortunately for Uruguay, he’s also injured. He recently had knee surgery, and his ability to impact this World Cup is very much up in the air. If he were fit, he is exactly the kind of player that England’s aforementioned center-back pairing would struggle mightly to contain. If he misses that match, or is less than his usual self, playing against Uruguay isn’t quite as daunting.
But that’s not to say they’ll be easy to beat, even without their star striker. They made the semi-finals in 2010, and now they are on their home continent. Edinson Cavani is no slouch, and all signs point to Suarez participating to some extent. I’m looking for them to go through.
Costa Rica rounds out this group, and while they had a nice qualifying campaign, they’re likely to find the going much tougher in Brazil. Not sure they’ll get a point out of this group.
In slightly easier company, I would back England to progress, as I think that they’ll play pretty well. At this level, though, good performances can be undone by small errors. England seems more likely to make a mistake than Italy, so I’m picking:
Group D Winner: Italy
Group D Runner-Up: Uruguay
At least England won’t have to endure the trauma of being eliminated on penalties this time around…