Well, after all that talk, we’ve finally seen some real, live soccer. And it was… interesting. Brazil wound up meeting pre-match expectations with a 3-1 win, but that score isn’t indicative of how close the match really was. Brazil was sweating, for sure, and they’ll know that they’ll need to improve if they want to go deep into this tournament. I thought Oscar was their best player, and Neymar scoring twice is obviously a good sign for the home team. On the flip side, Julio Cesar looked shaky, Hulk and Paulinho were poor, and most of the others were anonymous. I suppose the biggest compliment I can give them is that beat a good team by two goals, despite not being anywhere near their best.
Croatia will feel like they deserved a draw here, and it’s hard to argue with them. They did everything they wanted to do, making things difficult for Brazil, and getting that critical early goal (or, rather, letting Brazil get it for them). Giving up the lead before halftime didn’t help, but I thought they were managing the second half pretty well until the penalty against Lovren undid all of their good work. It was a ridiculous call, as the Croatian defender did nothing other then watch Fred fall over in front of him. The referee missed it completely, and the Croatian players were rightly enraged. It happens, though, and the Croatians will need to get over it. At the end of the day, they’re no worse off than they probably expected to be at this point. Their tournament was always about beating Mexico and Cameroon, and that hasn’t changed.
One last word on this match – I usually stick up for goalkeepers, and I’ll stick up for Stipe Pletikosa here. I don’t think he saw Neymar’s first goal until late, and Oscar’s toe-poke caught him off-guard. Funny enough, I thought the one shot that he probably should have saved was Neymar’s penalty. It was at a comfortable height, Pletikosa guessed the direction correctly, and he got two hands on the ball. He probably should have managed to keep that one out, but it’s hard to blame a goalkeeper for a goal scored via penalty kick. On the other two, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I mentioned Belgium in my Group G Preview, as an example of a nation that’s undergone a complete restructuring in their approach to the game. Now, they’re reaping the rewards for the work they put in, and the talent at their disposal is impressive. Thibaut Courtois was the hottest goalkeeper in Europe last season; Vincent Kompany was a mainstay on defense in Manchester City’s title-winning team; teenager Adnan Januzaj was one of the few bright spots at Manchester United; Eden Hazard was Chelsea’s leading scorer; and Romelu Lukaku was a big part of Everton’s climb to a Europa League place. The list goes on, too: Witsel, De Bruyne, Dembele, Mirallas… these guys are loaded.
They have also been blessed with the tournament’s weakest group. The only real threat here will be Russia, but their hopes have been dealt a blow by the absence of their captain, Roman Shirokov. Former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov will take his place on the left side of the Russian midfield, and fifth-grade boys all over the country will snigger every time he touches the ball and the television announcer says something that sounds an awful lot like “jerkoff.”
Belgium is probably more talented, but Russia has a very experienced manager in Fabio Capello, and they will certainly be ready to pounce if the young Belgians falter.
South Korea is another team that I can’t pretend to know much about. Their starting striker, Park Chu-young, plays for Arsenal. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t play – he’s appeared in a grand total of seven minutes of Premier League action over the last three years. They also made a hash of qualifying, using 45 different players and barely getting through against less-than-stellar opposition. Finally, they were absolutely steamrolled by Ghana in their final pre-tournament friendly. If these guys have a reason to be optimistic, I must be missing it.
Word is that Algeria has improved, and that they actually look to play quickly and attack, at least some of the time. That would be a departure from past practice (they scored zero goals in three games in 2010), and, if nothing else, they should be more watchable this time around. Not sure it’ll help them get any results, though – they seem outclassed, once again.
Group H Winner: Belgium
Group H Runner-Up: Russia