Saturday, 21 June 2014

England Fall Short With A Match To Spare

 As it turns out, Greg Dyke's cut-throat gesture was accurate all along. The England chairman's worst fears in terms if results were realised, as successive 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay put paid to hopes of his troops finally punching above their weight. Here is Queen's University Belfast Student's Union's reaction. Not everyone was supporting England, I can tell you that!

Let's be honest, I don't think anyone really expected anything different. Putting money on victories in either match would have been throwing your money away, but England in major competitions always elicit the most irrational of feelings and predictions. Draws to Ecuador and Honduras (who themselves both put on quite a decent show last night) should have raised alarms that this was a team on a hiding to nothing.

Pride can still be salvaged. Victory against Costa Rica would be welcome, in a 'doing what Italy and Uruguay failed to do' sort of way. It will also give Roy Hodgson an excuse to drop the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, to truly throw off the shackles of an expectant nation, and experiment ahead of the qualification process for Euro 2016. Treating it as an extra friendly would be a bonus, seeing as England managers never have a great deal of time with their players. Wallowing in self-pity should be kept to a minimum - the work starts here for two years down the line.

As it happens, there is really no need for the usual cat-calls and 'root-and-branch reviews' that have dogged previous England sides in the past decade. Aside from the occasional ropey sub, I think it is fair to say Hodgson did all he could. It isn't his fault John Terry's antics have rendered him un-selectable and in early retirement. Michael Carrick and Ashley Cole however, are possibly players he might have used, and would not have taken the place of any up-and-coming youngsters. In hindsight, Gerrard and Baines would have been the ones to make way. We may yet see the retirement of Gerrard in the coming days.

Rooney came in for more than his fair share of criticism over these opening two games, yet he provided the assist for one goal, and scored the other. He was arguably the best player against Uruguay - deployed in a more central role. His vast experience is vital to England's attack, amidst all the furore over Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. A fluid interchangable forward line is emerging, and even Ricky Lambert may have a role to play in the coming years - his intelligence and thunderous finishing ability was criminally under-used.

The most pressing concern remains the defence. Hodgson, and whoever succeeds him, will be praying that Phil Jones starts to emerge as the power-house defender everyone prematurely wet themselves over in excitment on joining Manchester United. Jack Rodwell also needs to re-discover his mojo, and a place in someone's starting eleven. Both those players could yet be a key part of England's future, along with Luke Shaw, and whoever eventually takes the place of Glen Johnson.

The effort was there, but like most England appearances at major tournaments, the organisation was not. Hodgson will probably be given a stay of execution, but a victory against Costa Rica is a must if he wants to inspire hope that there are better days ahead.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

An Incomplete Day 3 Round-Up

Saturday brought the end of this writer's unbroken streak of viewing. Bills to pay etc. Colombia v Greece I kept interesting from afar by attempting to take advantage of my free bet - 5-1 for Colombia to win and both teams to score.

Greece, true to form, screwed me over, and themselves it has to be said. Based on the three minutes of highlights I saw, they had their chances, but Colombia on South American soil will be a tough ask for anyone.

As it turned out, Uruguay succumbed to the first total shock of the tournament, in a match I followed first on radio, then on my computer screen. 1-0 seemed a fair score at the break and in all honesty as I unpacked my laptop I expected a sleepy second-half with little action other than perhaps a Luis Suarez run-out and a second goal.

As the screen flickered on, I noticed it was 1-1 - before I could even come to terms with this the second goal went in. The game then took on a Spain v Holland feel, albeit with less goals and drama, but still an unbelievable night for the Costa Ricans.

I will skip right ahead and say that I am yet to see Ivory Coast v Japan. I write this from my bed, with the aformentioned game waiting on the BT Vision, having conceded defeat in my all-nighter attempt. Hoping for both Toures to score and their infectious street chant to take over Brazil for a few days.

Anyway, to England v Italy. The match played out as nearly everybody sensible must surely have expected. Raheem Stirling was England's best player, Andrea Pirlo passed the ball a lot, and lots of long shots were skied.

With a little more patience, and faith in their own abilities, England would have won the game. Daniel Sturridge's goal came from the rare instance where they actually found the killer pass instead of attempting to re-create Michael Owen's France '98 wonder-goal.

The performance was by no means bad, just not quite good enough. Leighton Baines will be looking over his shoulder at Luke Shaw after a poor display, but the real congratulations must go to Italy. At 2-1 they always looked in control, even when under the cosh, as if they knew England would burn themselves out.

A well-worked corner routine brought their opening goal, and Mario Balotelli capped a quietly-threatening display with the winner. I fancy Italy to go a long way, but can England recover in time to qualify out of the group? They better hope Suarez is unfit, or they'll be praying for a miracle.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A Day Of De-Throning?

After the previous night's incompetence, the day's opening salvo of action was something of an encore for the officials. This time it was the linesman (not Russian, Colombian) who did his best to spoil the party. This time however he was merely delaying the inevitable, as his two incorrect offside calls were insufficent to stop Mexico brushing Cameroon aside. Both defences were somewhat shoddy, but it will take a more on-form striker than Samuel Eto'o to breach the Mexican rearguard. Neymar will be licking his lips.

As far as Mexican's own goal threat goes, well boss Miguel Herrera felt confident enough to leave poacher-supreme Javier Hernandez out, although the shanked effort that would have made it 2-0 after his introduction as substitute would suggest the right call was made. Oribe Peralta scored the decisive goal, in a pleasingly predatory fashion, although Giovanni dos Santos will feel mighty aggrieved should he finish two goals shy of the golden boot award at the tournament's end. His first disallowed goal was a combination of perfectly-timed run and perfectly-timed volley.

Cameroon showed little to suggest they can trouble either Croatia or Brazil, and will be preparing for a fruitless exit, much to my distaste, as I was landed with them in my work sweepstake!

Next, as Thierry Henry claimed in the aftermath, 'The Dutch got their style back'. Man United fans will be salivating at the sight of their star striker and new coach dismantling the holders. A 5-1 victory over Spain will go down as one of the most stunning results in World Cup history, yet Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben are already world-renowned. Should we really be that shocked? Well yes. Spain were yet to even concede one goal in this calendar year, and to leak five in one game was shocking.

Yet the first half had provided little to suggest the mayhem ahead. Van Persie's fabulous header was already the best goal so far in the tournament, but Robben's second and Holland's fifth was a magnificent solo effort, making household names such as Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas look silly before composing himself and finding the corner.

The second half will surely go down as the defining image of the tournament - the moment where football took a final definitive turn away from the Barcelona/Spain monopoly - and it looks like Spain's crown has been snatched away. They may yet make it out of their group, but are looking long shots to defend their title. In boxing, this would make Holland world champions, and you would have to say, if this was a final, they would be worthy of that title. Cue two defeats, and an early exit. In all seriousness, this was a warning shot to the rest of the world. Anyone to beat the Dutch will go far.

Chile looked set to fire a warning shot of their own, racing into a two-goal lead with less than 20 minutes gone, but Tim Cahill and Australia made them sweat it out, pulling a goal back and doggedly staying in the game before Jean Beausejour's resounding finish finally put the game beyond doubt.

If you switched off after the 2nd goal, you'd have missed a surprising Aussie revival, and better teams than them will take advantage of Chile's soft centre. All hope is not lost for Spain in this group.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Brazil 3-1 Croatia - Hosts Lucky To Escape With Victory

The 2014 World Cup got off to a somewhat predictable start, with the plucky underdogs of Croatia being cast aside by the right-at-home juggernaut that is Brazil. Well, sort of. The first half was an even affair, with Brazil enjoying the greater possession, but Croatia providing a considerable threat on the counter attack.

The opening goal for Croatia wasn't a total shock, based on the opening proceedings. The eventually tireless Oscar was proving wasteful early on, leading to the chequered stripes finding joy down Brazil's right flank. Ivica Olic, the work-horse recently linked with Stoke, broke free down the left and sent a teasing cross where a mishit shot from Nikica Jelavic found its way to goal via a key deflection off Marcelo. David Luiz was also at fault for allowing Jelavic to even make contact, but Marcelo will go down in history as the first Brazilian ever to score an own-goal in a World Cup.

Thankfully for him, the luck evened itself out, as every Brazil goal had an element of good fortune about it, depending on which side you were rooting for. Neymar was arguably lucky to remain on the pitch after losing control of his arm, allowing it to slam into Luka Modric's face in the midst of a jostle for a header. Minutes later, he had found himself space for a shot, which he very slightly mishit yet still gave it the accuracy to beat the Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa, who could perhaps have done better.

The remainder of the first half played out with Brazil enjoying possession, and Croatia happy to hang on for the break. The second half continued in this vein, although as the action wore on, the Europeans were growing more and more assured. Cue of course an unexpected and undeserved penalty. Fred went down under the slightest touch from Croat defender Dejan Lovren and gave Neymar the opportunity to score his 33rd Brazil goal, still at the tender age of 22. And score he did, despite Pletikosa getting more than a decent hand to it after a stuttered run-up. Two arguably fortunate goals and Brazil were on the way to victory.

Olic's arguably soft challenge on Julio Cesar was what stopped what looked like a perfectly good equaliser, as Croatia began to up the ante. Croatia had shown flashes of potential throughout the game, with Modric and Ivan Rakitic, the new Barcelona recruit, causing the Brazil defence a number of problems. David Luiz made a number of key interceptions and tackles, and Luis Gustavo put in a warrior-like shift in front of the back four, but Ivan Perisic was a brilliant Julio Cesar save away from rescuing a deserved point for Croatia.

Instead, as stoppage time began, Brazil went straight up the other end, with Oscar making another one of his lung-bursting runs before toe-poking a hopeful yet well-placed effort inexplicably beyond Pletikosa, who should have dealt with it.

So 3-1 it ended, and with Neymar lucky to remain on the pitch, Brazil can see themselves lucky to have chalked up their first win. Other than lively substitute Bernard, an admittedly hard-working side was somewhat blunt in attack. Croatia, were it not for some strange referee decisions and some slow goalkeeping reactions, could have earnt at least a point. On this evidence they will surely progress, with Mexico and Cameroon still to play, but there is now little room for error.

Brazil on the other hand can already consider themselves with one foot in the last 16, as Neymar staked an early claim for both the player of the tournament and the golden boot.