Free scoring, but till when?

By : Fernando Duarte

You are forgiven if you are excited. The 2014 World Cup started with a bang: the first round was the most free-scoring since 1954 and there have been surprisingly spectacular results such as Holland’s demolition of world champions Spain. But as we approach the beginning of the second round of group games it is quite tempting to wonder how long the free spirit we have seen so far will be in place.

The reason is simple: while the first round offered enough incentives for more risky behavior, the second could nudge teams into protecting their gains and being more conservative. After their “surprise” 3-1 win over Uruguay, Costa Rica are not under massive pressure to throw themselves against Italy. The Central Americans had a very decent qualifying campaign, finishing only behind the US in the search for a place in the World Cup and their brand of fast football was too much for an Uruguay team that at certain point in the South American qualifiers risked missing out on the tournament.

Even Holland don’t need to rush against Australia, as much as the win over Spain has fired them up. That was a strange game and the scoreline reflected much more Spain’s psychological meltdown than anything else. After another bad season for Barcelona, the team whose style has been guiding La Furia for the last few years, it was always likely that Spain would not have a walk in the park. Now Xavi, Iniesta and Co. are in deep trouble and will face a Chile side fancying their chances of at least keeping them at bay. The Chileans, no matter how attacking they have been so far, can exploit Spain’s desperation. Holland should be able to deal with Australia, no matter their weird record against them — zero wins in three friendless. They understandably have become the darlings of the tournament after the 5-1 win but even some Dutch players looked quite baffled by the result at Salvador. Having switched to a 5-3-2 formation just a month ahead of the World Cup, manager Louis Van Gaal faced a public outcry for apparently renouncing Holland’s commitment to attacking football to focus instead on breaking down Spain’s rhythm. It worked beyond his wildest dreams.

Argentina, after a lukewarm display against Bosnia, now have two reasonably uncomplicated games against Iran and Nigeria, two opponents that are highly unlikely to do anything else than park the bus against Lionel Messi and his friends. Bosnia gave Argentina a good game, having benefited from Alessandro Sabella’s quite peculiar decision to line-up in a 3-5-2 formation that made things difficult for Messi. In the first 45 minutes the Barcelona man looked isolated and easier to be closed down thanks also to the Bosnian manager’s decision to assign several players to look after Messi rather than having close quarters men marking. Messi did not look comfortable but things improved considerably when Sabella reverted to a 4-3-3 plan and it was no coincidence that the four-time Balon D’Or winner found more space and even scored a beauty of a goal in an individual moment. That the goal was only Messi’s second in 9 World Cup games goes to show how complicated his relationship with this tournament still is.

Hosts Brazil went through a rollercoaster of emotions against Croatia in the opening match. Playing at home in front of a packed stadium singing the national anthem a capella clearly affected the players emotionally and they were caught up by a very determined Croatian side. Concentration wasn’t at the highest level when Ivica Olic exploited the well-known gap Dani Alves leaves when going forward. It took Thiago Silva a fraction of a second too much to close down the aisle and that allowed Olic to whip in a cross that Marcelo ended up deflecting to his own net. Brazil’s reaction was much more thanks to Neymar and Oscar’s individual efforts than a to proper collective display. The Seleção were also dominated in the second half and failed to produce the same tenacity they had in abundance at last year’s Confederations Cup — it worrying to see Brazil’s midfield duo Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo without the same coordination of last year. They were also very lucky to get the softest of penalties at a time Croatia had been the best team on the pitch.

Italy did their job against England in a very professional way although they know a draw would be the fairer result for what the English did in the first half. With Raheem Sterling not fazed at all by his World Cup debut, Roy Hodgson’s team created very decent chances and put the Azzurri under pressure. Then came Pirlo’s dummy and England looked a bit naïve to have given Italy so much space. They bounced back remarkably with Sturridge but one couldn’t help thinking that England would not be able to sustain that pace throughout 90 minutes in humid and warm conditions in Manaus. It proved to be the case and Italy had the last laugh but by no means Sterling and Co. should put their heads down.

It just means that England vs. Uruguay has everything to be one of the most exciting games of this World Cup. Uruguay cannot afford to bet everything in their last round duel with Italy and England certainly need some cushion for what could be a very tough battle with a Costa Rica side that has proved to be much more than the group linchpins. Interesting days….



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