2014 World Cup: Knockout Stage – Top Half (6/28)

Well, we have gotten through the group stage and the field is cut in half.  We have gotten rid of most of the rifraf, and we are ready for some futbol.  The stakes are raised exponentially, as it has become a one-and-done tournament.  Throw out a clunker, and you will have 4 years to think about it.  Let’s go!

This post will be updated through the Quarterfinals for the top half of the bracket.

6/28, noon – Brazil vs. Chile – Round of 16
Well, the Chileans got through a really tough Group B and what is their reward?  Not only do they draw their arch-nemeses and the side that has eliminated them multiple times in World Cup play, including 2010 in the Round of 16, but now they have to play them on their home soil, where they just about never lose.  A tall task for any nation, particularly one that is not a traditional soccer superpower.  However, if there ever was a Chilean team that could do it, it would be this one.  They have probably looked the better side in this Cup (I think that if the two sides switches groups, Chile would have won Group A and Brazil would have finished 2nd in Group B – at least how they each have played).  Their attacking style can throw off a Brazilian backline that is actually pretty shaky other than Thiago Silva.  And, the Brazilian midfield seems to lack the typical Brazilian magic.  They do have the red-hot goalscorer, Neymar, and a ridiculous homefield advantage (something that Chile has enjoyed all tournament, but will not in this one).  I will be rooting for Chile and think that they have a legit shot here, but it would be disingenuous to think that Brazil wouldn’t clearly be favored to win this one.  Either way, it should be a GREAT start to the knockout round.

6/28, 4:00 – Colombia vs. Uruguay – Round of 16
And, the South American Invitational continues on Saturday, as all four sides playing on the first day of the knockout round are from the host continent.  These four outstanding soccer nations will battle for one spot in the semis.  The nightcap pits a red-hot Colombia side that looks like a legit sleeper to make noise here in the knockout stage against a Uruguay side that will be without their enigmatic biter, Luis Suarez.  While Uruguay may have the more accomplished history and another top ten team currently, the Colombians would probably be the favorites here even if Suarez were playing.  And, without him, the Uruguayans are decided underdogs here.  That being said, they still have a lot of quality and are capable of beating anyone (as evidenced by their successive must-win victories over England and Italy in the group stage).  I like Colombia here, but should be another great match on a fantastic day to get us going in the all-important knockout stage.

2014 World Cup – Group G (Day Three Preview)

This post will be updated as Group G progresses…

Group G Preview (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)
The proverbial “Group of Death.”  Now, obviously, it is not good for the American chances to be placed in such a ridiculous group, but it also should be looked at as subtle praise from the worldwide community.  If Team USA was given no respect, then this would not exactly be a “Group of Death” now would it?  That being said, the Stars & Bars are decided underdogs to get out of this group and may be the fourth-best team in the group.  Germany would be the class of any group they are in, as they are here to win the whole thing, not just survive some difficult group.  Portugal is now quite as strong as they have been in the past, but they do boast a transcendent player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and a wealth of talent elsewhere on the roster.  (While we’re here, I just have to say that it seems ridiculous that Portugal never gets a spot in that top bucket for the draw.  It almost assures that they will be in a ridiculous group because they are of the quality of the top teams and yet are selected amongst teams like Algeria, Croatia, and Greece.)  And, then there is the Ghana team that has eliminated Team USA in the past two World Cups and might have their best team ever.  I feel worse for the Ghanaians to have to be in this group than anyone because they can really make some noise in this tournament if their group position was switched with, say, Nigeria or Cameroon.  In the end, ‘ze Germans are clearly strong enough to survive any group, even this one, and the Portugese are probably the best bet to be the other qualifier.  Though, if they stumble, both USA and Ghana are both good enough to qualify.  Just getting out of the group stage here for the Red, White, and Blue would be quite the accomplishment.

6/16, noon – Germany vs. Portugal
What an incredible match to kick off the “Group of Death.”  With all respect to Spain-Netherlands, this is probably the best match of the entire group stage.  I am glad that it is an opening match because if this were Day Three or even Day Two, these two sides could just sit back and be content with a draw.  But, hopefully, the excitement of the moment and the fact that this is such a tough group and this is only the first match will lead to some wide open play from two sides that can really excite.  Anything can happen here and a loss here wouldn’t be the end of the world for either side, but Germany certainly has to be considered the favorites here, so a draw would be more uplifting for Portugal than Germany.  A Portugal win would definitely force the rest of the field to take notice both of the Portugese success and the Germans rough start.

Germany 4 – Portugal 0
I don’t claim to be a soccer officianado.  And, I don’t even follow club soccer.  But, I have now paid very serious attention to the last 5 major international tournaments (the World Cups in ’06, ’10, and ’14 and the Euro Championships in ’08 and ’12), and there is one thing to which I have grown all to accustomed.  While ultra-talented and experienced, the Portugese squad simply wilts under any adversity.  The minute things go south, they lose their heads and they fail to execute.  I have no idea why this is, but it is almost a given.  Another thing I have learned is that, if you don’t stay focused defensively, the Germans could drop a 4=spot on you in a HURRY.  Both of those things showed through in spades in the first game of Group G, as the Germans looked incredibly sharp and the Portugese gave an incredibly embarrassing performance.  For fans of the USA, this game couldn’t have gone better, as not only did Portugal lose by 4, but three key contributors will probably miss Sunday’s match with the USA, due to injuries and a red card to Pepe.  Germany made a statement here, and I’m guessing it was heard loud and clear around Group G and beyond.

6/16, 6:00 – Ghana vs. USA
Starting with Ghana could be a blessing or a curse for our national team.  One, it allows the US to get its easiest match of the tournament out of the way early.  However, this “easiest match” is really, really tough, so a defeat here might effectively end the tournament the same day it starts for our hometown boys.  And, a defeat here is certainly in the cards.  The Ghanaians are pretty much in the exact same position, as this is their easiest match, as well, so both teams will be desperate to get a good result here in advance of dates with a pair of World Top 5s.  This may actually be one of those matches where both teams really need 3 – which is a recipe for some terrific entertainment.  I think a draw here might spell trouble for both squads, where at least if there is a winner, that side will have a real shot to make it through.  Either way, it should be interesting.  And, either way, I’m so torn because these are the two teams I most strongly support in this year’s field.  Obviously, as an American, I want my country to acquit itself well, but I also have a real soft spot for West Africa and, Ghana, in particular, having lived for two years in the neighboring Togo.  Is it out of the question that these two teams could actually be the two knockout stage representatives from Group H?  Uh…ya, probably.

USA 2 – Ghana 1
This is probably the first match all tournament where the winning side was clearly outplayed all game.  The Americans shot out like a rocket, scoring in :29 seconds, but then went on to be thoroughly dominated for about 85 minutes.  Fortunately, for the Stars & Stripes, they only conceded one Ghanaian goal (Tim Howard is RIDICULOUS) and ended up scoring another one of their own in the 86th minute.  You have to hand it to guys like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, who played out of their minds on defense.  However, on a day that was almost entirely great for the Americans, there was some bad news, as Jozy Altidore – probably the least replaceable player on the American side – may be lost for the tournament.  Still, this was a GIGANTIC three points for the Patriots and a crushing blow to Ghana, who has to somehow regroup in time for a crazy difficult match with Germany where a loss would all but end their tournament.

Day One Recap
Day One sure threw the Group of Death for a loop, as the Portugese had a nightmare of a day, while the Americans had the perfect opening day.  While the Germans reaffirmed that they were the class of this very difficult group, Team USA may have established itself as the odds-on favorite to qualify behind ‘Ze Germans here.  Portugal’s disaster, however, will be all but forgotten if they can come through with a pair of victories over USA and Ghana.  The Ghanaians must be sick about their result, as they dominated the Americans in a loss and with Portugal wounded, that second spot could have easily been theirs.  Now, they have a date with Germany where they have to get a point or go home.

6/21, 3:00 – Germany vs. Ghana
The Ghanaians certainly have the backs against the wall here, now, after dominating the Americans only to come away with nothing.  The Germans, who embarrassed Portugal, 4-0, in the opener present a ridiculously tough challenge here if Ghana is really going to try and make it out of the Group of Death.  A draw here would be an extraordinary effort for one of Africa’s elite sides, and that still might not be enough to get them through.  Fans of the US should be rooting hard for Germany here because the best shot the Americans have of pulling out a point in the final match against the Germans is if they have very little to play for.  Hell a red card for Mueller or Ozul or something like that wouldn’t hurt, either, haha.

Germany 2 – Ghana 2
Doogan said he missed the second half of this match, well, my friend, you probably missed the best 45 minutes of soccer we have seen yet in Brazil.  After an interesting, but relatively uneventful first half, the second half was THRILLING.  Both sides had leads; both sides were attacking and showing individual brilliance as well as team brilliance.  In the end, the Ghanaians got what they needed to stay alive (though a second yellow for Sully Mutari in stoppage time could really hurt going forward in their final match with Portugal).  It was a little disappointing for the Black Stars, as they did hold a lead late, but a loss would have been devastating, so they will take it.  The Germans are now sitting on 4 points with a date with the Americans and a goal differential advantage, so their mission is clear – draw with Team USA and win the group.

6/22, 6:00 – Portugal vs. USA
The one we are all waiting for comes Sunday evening.  Cristiano Ronaldo and his band of frustrated Portugese take on America’s Team, fresh off being dominated in their 2-1 victory over Ghana.  Fortune seems to be smiling on the Stars and Stripes, as Portugal may be without at least 3 important players (Pepe due to a red card and two others due to injury).  Ronaldo also was reported to leave a recent practice with a knee injury, but it is hard to believe that he won’t be suited up and ready to go.  What Coach Klinsmann does about the Jozy Altidore injury should be really interesting, as Aron Johannson looked overmatched against Ghana, and there are no other real options on the roster.  As much talk as there is about the team right now, there is no doubt that the Portugese are decided favorites in this match.  But, then again, one quick goal seems to unravel the Portugese at these major tournaments, so we will see if the boys can strike quickly again.

Portugal 2 – USA 2
There is no doubt that the US got a draw out of a match where they played considerably better than they did in their opening victory.  This was a very encouraging draw, despite the fact that they gave up a terrible goal in the 5th minute and blew a lead in the 95th minute.  Jermaine Jones (who has been the player player on the roster so far for the Americans) looked really good, while Clint Dempsey continued to look like a bonafied world class creator up front.  Michael Bradley looked better in this one than his nightmarish performance against Ghana, which is a good sign, and Tim Howard continues to show why he is one of the best in the world at tending net.  While the Americans were literally seconds away from qualification, and the Portugese were seconds away from elimination, things are still looking good for Team USA.  First of all, all they need to do to advance is to draw against a Germany team that only needs a draw to win the group.  But, even if they lose to Germany, they should retain a considerable enough goal differential advantage over Portugal to carry the day.  The real concern for the Americans now is if Ghana goes out and gets a multi-goal victory over Portugal and the USA loses to Germany, the Ghanaians could go through.  But, right now, the smart money should be on Germany winning the group and the USA following them to the knockout stage where they would take on a yet-to-get-going Belgium side.

Day Two Recap
What a fascinating round of 2-2 draws.  Honestly.  Maybe the three best matches of the tournament were all draws (I think these two are probably a half-step behind the Mexico-Brazil 0-0 draw, which I still believe was the best match of the tournament thus far).  This might be the most fascinating groups left entering the final round of matches.  Germany and the USA are sitting on 4 points, while Ghana and Portugal are on 1.  The leaders play each other and the chasers play each other.  So, the stage is set for great theatrics on Thursday afternoon.  Obviously, a Ghana-Portugal draw would eliminate both sides (which means we could see some crazy, wide-open play), while a Germany-USA draw would qualify both sides (which means we could see some boring, conservative play).  With Germany holding the edge in goal differential, they have nothing to gain from winning over drawing, and with the Americans happy to get through, things are set up nicely for a draw there.  If your an American fan and you are worried about getting beat by Germany, the real hope here is to just keep it close and root for Portugal to beat (but not blow out) Ghana.  This should be great!

6/26, noon – Germany vs. USA
6/26, noon – Ghana vs. Portugal

There is some intrigue here in Group G, but not as much as one might think.  With Germany only needing a draw to win the group, and the USA only needing a draw to qualify (which is fine with them), there is a VERY high likelihood that this game will end in a draw.  I am sick of people here coming to the same conclusion and then insinuating some sort of collusion.  There is no collusion here.  Just think about it this way – Germany will be no better with a win than a draw.  The USA, while advantaged by a win, would not consider winning the group as much of a positive as missing the group would be a negative.  So, they would be very content with a draw.  That doesn’t mean that the teams will just kick the ball around for 90 minutes and call it a day, but what it DOES mean is that both sides are likely to approach the game from the opening minute AS IF THEY HELD A 1-0 LEAD.  Does that mean that neither team will try and score?  Not at all.  Does that mean that neither team will score?  Absolutely not.  We see 1-0 games get tied 1-1 all the time.  We also see 1-0 games go to 2-0.  However, teams do change the way they play based on being ahead, behind, or tied, right?  Teams up a goal get a little more conservative and defensive-minded, while the team that is down gets more aggressive in their attacks even though it might leave them vulnerable on the back side.  Well, in a case like this BOTH teams will play as if they held the lead.  That does not – in any way – GUARANTEE a draw, but it certainly increases its likelihood.  And, unless there is a result in the Germany-USA match, this group is decided.  If there is a result (much more likely a German win than an American one), then it really comes down to Ghana.  For the reasons described above, it is VERY unlikely that the Germany-USA game is a rout, so if there is a result, let’s assume a 1-0 Germany win.  That means that for Portugal to qualify, they would need to beat Ghana by 4+ goals.  That is highly unlikely, so Portugal is an incredible longshot.  Ghana, on the other hand, does have a shot.  They would either need to beat Portugal by 2+ goals or win a 1-goal game in which they scored at least 2.  If they win 1-0 and Germany wins 1-0, the USA still goes through on the strength of the third tiebreaker – head-to-head.  Let us just say that the Americans are VERY safe right now.  So safe, in fact, that Vegas has set the line at -900 that Team USA qualifies for the knockout stage.  That means that to win $100 by the US qualifying, you would have to risk $900!  This group is essentially over.  Germany will be G1, and USA will be G2.  Write it in – save yourself some vacation time for the knockout stage.

2014 World Cup – Group H (Day Three Preview)

This post will be updated as Group H progresses.

Group H Preview (Algeria, Belgium, Russia, South Korea)
The final group kicks off on Tuesday, as we welcome the very popular sleeper pick, Belgium, to the dance.  Doogan has been talking up this Belgium team for a long time now, and it seems the rest of us casual fans have caught up to him on them, as they are now generally considered only about a half-step down from the “Big Four” favorites in this tournament (Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Germany).  Having literally never seen a soccer match that included a Belgian team, I am very eager to see what all this hype is about.  And, not only are they talented, but they were placed in one of the easier groups.  It would be a real surprise if they didn’t come out as the Group H champion.  Russia is probably the next best team in this group, and they are nowhere near an elite level.  Algeria might be dangerous (and my pick as the second qualifier from Group H), as the Algerians have finally started being able to allure many of the French-raised Algerians to come play for the national team across the Sea.  Imagine if they had been able to do this a couple decades ago and lured players like Zinedine Zidane and others to come play for Algeria.  The course of soccer history would have been different.  The fourth team is also not a pushover, in South Korea, but they are not exactly a juggernaut, either.  There are no free points in this group, but also no one that should present any real challenge to the Belgians.

6/17, noon – Algeria vs. Belgium
The much-anticipated debut of the Belgians comes here as the final group opens this afternoon.  Belgium, with their high expectations, has to deal with an Algerian side that can really give problems.  Then again, the Algerians were a shot off the post away from not even making the Cup in their qualifier against Burkina Faso (who has never made the World Cup).  There is no doubt that anything shy of 3 points here for the Belgians would be a disappointment, and, on the flip side, a draw would be huge for Algeria.

Belgium 2 – Algeria 1
Well, Algeria came to play and nearly stole a point here.  They defensive style was causing fits for a Belgium team that looked – for a half – like the weight of expectations was weighing them down.  But, they came out determined in the second half and showed that they are just flat-out better than their Algerian counterparts.  The questions about Belgium’s chances to really threaten for a World Cup championship were certainly not answered by this somewhat shaky victory, but a win is a win and the first match for inexperienced players with the weight of a nation on their shoulders cannot be easy.  As for Algeria, I think they acquitted themselves well here and probably made people who believe that they can get out of this group (including Yours Truly) feel pretty good about that opinion.

6/17, 6:00 – Russia vs. South Korea
With Belgium as clearly the class of this group and the other three sides all relatively equal, the three matches that do not include Belgium are all going to be enormous in deciding the second qualifier from this wide open group.  Russia, as the better side here, is really looking for 3 points, while the Koreans would probably be okay with a draw, though are probably also looking to pick up 3.  This doesn’t have all that much cache on paper, but might be a pretty entertaining game if they decide to open up and play.

Russia 1 – South Korea 1
There is no doubt that the Russians are better and were better on this day.  But, the very first game after the most incredible goalkeeping performance I have ever seen came maybe the worst overall goalkeeping performance I have seen.  And, it wasn’t just the ridiculous goal that the Russian keeper allowed (a soft shot that went right through his hands), but it was a slew of miscues that led up to that.  Fortunately for Igor the Keeper, his teammates sort of bailed him out by scoring shortly after his debacle.  But, it is hard not to think that goalkeeping is the reason that the Russians only have 1 point right now and not 3.  Then again, with all the chances they had, they should have put more than one into the back of the net.  It was domination from the start and yet it ended with a draw.  A nice point for the Koreans, as they now have a shot to get out of this group.

Day One Recap
I have to say that Group H probably gave us the lowest quality of soccer of any of the groups – at least according to this untrained eye.  The Belgians did not live up to expectations, though they got their 3 points against a decent Algerian squad.  The Russia-South Korea match, while entertaining, was not played at an incredibly high level.  I still think that the Russians are probably the most likely side to come out of the group after Belgium, but their draw with Korea means that they may have to either beat Algeria outright – a feat that did not look incredibly easy given how the two sides performed on Day One.

6/22, noon – Belgium vs. Russia
These are supposed to be the two best sides of this group, but after the first round of matches, Algeria looks like they may be the front-runner to take the second qualifying position, not Russia.  Though, obviously, most of that will be decided on the pitch when the two sides face off on the final day of group play.  As for now, the Russians will have to regroup from a disappointing draw with Korea and try to eke out a point against a Belgian side that looks to be the class of this group.  Belgium actually went down to Algeria, but rallied for two second-half goals to pull out the victory.  Another 3 points here should lock up the group for everybody’s favorite “sleeper.”  A draw would be okay for Belgium, considering they already beat Algeria and only have Korea left, but they really should outclass the Russians and take the 3 points.  Russia would probably be perfectly content with a draw.

 Belgium 1 – Russia 0
A late goal saves the Belgians, crushes the Ruskies, and wins me money.  Our beer- and chocolate-loving friends came through again with an unimpressive victory against a side, though, that is better than people may give credit for.  Russia, while playing 23 players that all play domestically (the only side in the tournament that can say that), is still a threat to get through and would be a tough draw in any group.  Algeria is also not a pushover, so the two Belgium wins, while not making headlines for their brilliance, are not all that uninspiring.  Now, having already qualified, they will try and finish it off by winning the group in order to escape a date with Germany in the Round of 16.  Russia is still very much alive and probably playing a win-and-you’re-in match with Algeria in the final round.

6/22, 3:00 – Algeria vs. South Korea
Again, I am not sure why Vegas has Korea favored in this one, but I definitely placed a solid wager on the Algerian side here.  The Desert Foxes looked rather solid against Belgium in defeat, while Korea was rather fortunate to get some abysmal goalkeeping by the Russians to give them a point.  After a close loss to Belgium and in advance of a huge match with Russia, the Algerians need to stay focused and come to play and pick up 3 points that are well within reach here.  The Koreans, while looking like the worst of the four sides in this group, do officially sit at 1 point, so if they can get a win here, they can put themselves in really good position for a surprise qualification out of Group H.

Algeria 4 – South Korea 2
The Desert Foxes made national history and continental history on this day, as they won their first ever World Cup match and, in the process, became the first African side to ever net 4 goals in a WC match.  And, they could have had more.  They were all over the Korean defense from the opening kick.  They did not exactly have their patented stingy defense, but that may be a product of going up early.  They did get an important 3 points and now face Russia in an elimination game for the second spot from this group.  A draw or win for the North Africans would put them through.

Day Two Recap
As Doogan aptly put it, let’s not get too hasty on our citing the Belgian performance thus far as “disappointing,” seeing as they have 6 points, are going to win the group, and couldn’t really have done more.  As he mentioned, Spain is out, Brazil and Germany have just 4 points and are still in danger or elimination, and the Argentines, while sitting on 6, have not exactly looked great against competition worse than the Belgians have faced.  As for the Group H also-rans, the Koreans, expectedly, are a non-factor (making that draw against Russia look even more devastating for the Ruskies than it did previously), and Algeria and Russia will sort it all out on the pitch.  Algeria – who, frankly, has looked the considerably better side – will only need a draw to get through, while Russia and their high hopes need to beat the Desert Foxes to qualify.  Either way, don’t expect any second-place side from Group H to make any noise, as they are likely staring at a Round of 16 date with ‘Ze Germans.

6/26, 4:00 – Algeria vs. Russia
6/26, 4:00 – Belgium vs. South Korea

This group is harkening back to the first couple of groups, where the top and bottom sides were all but set and the second qualification would be decided on the pitch.  Belgium is going to win this group, while South Korea is going home.  The only question that remains is who will be the second qualifier – Algeria or Russia?  And, that will be decided on the pitch at 4:00.  This is an interesting match between an Algeria side that has looked a LOT better than most people thought they would (not this guy, though – I believed) and a Russian side that has not looked all that good.  Algeria will go through with a draw, so they may pack it in (which they like to do anyway), while Russia should get out and attack.  The best-case scenario for the viewer is if Russia scores early.  That could open up the match, and we could see some up-and-down play.  But, it is more likely that the Desert Foxes bunker down and put up their wall.  I like Algeria to either get the draw they need or maybe even win the match with a well-timed counterattack.  Hell, I have a bet on them at 30-1 to win this group, which is still a possibility, but would require a South Korean win over Belgium.

2014 World Cup – Group F (FINAL)

This post will be updated as Group F progresses.

Group F Preview (Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria)
The Argentina group is just a pretty insignificant battle for that second spot, as the Argentines are BY FAR the class of this group and they are playing rather close to home.  Both Doogan and I have Messi & Co. going to the finals, and I can’t imagine many people not taking them to win this group.  Iran is not very good.  Nigeria is not very good.  That leaves a pretty nice situation for an up-and-coming Bosnian squad to get into the knockout round.

6/15, 6:00 – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Argentina should come out with a clean 9 points, but if not, this might be the match that ruins that.  The Bosnian side has been playing well of late, though they are nowhere near the caliber of Argentina.  A point here for Bosnia – however unlikely that may be – might be all they need to secure that second spot from this group.

Argentina 2 – Bosnia & Herzegovina 1
Lionel Messi showed why he is considered the greatest player in the world, as he dominated the Bosnian midfielders all game and scored what proved to be a very important (and utterly beautiful) second goal in the 65th minute.  Argentina jumped in front 1-0 early, but seemed to settle in a little too much before Messi’s goal.  Bosnia added one late and even threatened a couple times for an equalizer, but in the end, it was 3 nice points for the Argentines.  Overall, however, I have to say it was a relatively unimpressive win for Argentina, but that may just be a case of Bosnia being really solid.  This match just reinforced my belief that Bosnia will be in the knockout stage as the second representative from this group.

6/16, 3:00 – Iran vs. Nigeria
This is one of the worst matches that the 2014 World Cup offers.  Neither of these sides are very good, though I do think Nigeria has a shot to steal the second spot from this group from Bosnia.  They will need 3 points here, though.  If Iran is going to make it out of this group, 3 points here is probably a must.

Iran 0 – Nigeria 0
Well, I have a new least-favorite team, and it is Iran.  I don’t really mind the Greek style of playing defense and counter-attacking.  I really DO mind the Iranian style of playing defense and NOT counter-attacking.  It was incredibly boring and a little disappointing that they seemed completely content with a 0-0 draw.  I am all for doing whatever it takes to give your team the best chance to win, but to simply show up at the World Cup trying to draw 0-0 seems very disappointing to me.  That being said, the Nigerians completely dominated this game and really should have had at least 1-2 goals, but simply failed to execute.  As much as I blame the Iranian style of play for this 0-0 draw, I also blame the lack of execution and scoring ability of the Nigerians.  It was an overall disappointing result for the Super Eagles.

Day One Recap
The one side that actually lost today probably made the most progress here in this group, as the Bosnians played right with Argentina, while the Iranians look like they’re content in just showing up to this Cup, and the Nigerians look unable to make any real waves here.  I am more convinced today that it will be Argentina and B&H to come out of Group F than I was previously.

6/21, noon – Argentina vs. Iran
This is probably the worst match of the entire group stage, as the Iranians are going to be so outclassed here, it is ridiculous.  They can play all the boring, conservative defense they want, they will not pull out their coveted 0-0 draw here.

Argentina 1 – Iran 0
“They can play all the boring, conservative defense they want, they will not pull out their coveted 0-0 draw here.”  Some genius said that before this match, and if not for Lionel Messi’s brilliance, he would have looked like the second dumbest person in the world predicting this game behind the dude that put $350,000 on Argentina to win $30,000 – which he won, but probably cost himself 10 years off his life in the process.  (By the way, the novice soccer fan I am can see how Messi – and Ronaldo – are just playing the game on another level; they seem to be the only ones I have seen that do not almost entirely rely on other players on the pitch).  Anyway, Iran is actually alive in this group, despite not really even coming close to scoring a goal.  Argentina, more importantly, has looked rather unimpressive in two touchy victories over Croatia and Iran, but 6 points is 6 points.  They should consider themselves fortunate to be in such a soft group.  Then again, nothing makes me think that they are any less of a threat to win the whole thing, but that might be my Western sports mentality of “survive and advance.”  That doesn’t seem to resonate as much with the international soccer community, who more believes in their teams being “in good form.”

6/21, 6:00 – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Nigeria
Nigeria had a very disappointing 0-0 draw against Iran, but they played somewhat well and had many chances.  They did not convert any, which is partly on them, but we should not give up on them quite yet.  Bosnia actually played rather well in a 2-1 loss to Argentina and are certainly very much in the mix to take that second spot out of this group, especially considering the Nigeria draw with Iran.  The Bosnias only lost by 1 goal to Argentina and still have Iran to come, so they may only need to draw here with Nigeria, who only drew with Iran and still have Argentina ahead.  So, while the Nigerians will certainly be pushing for a much-needed 3 points, the Bosnians will be content to sit back and take counter-attack chances when they come.  This is one of the more interesting and important matches of the second round of action.

Nigeria 1 – Bosnia & Herzegovina 0
Pride for the Africans!  Nigeria snaps a 10-game winless streak at the World Cup and puts themselves in the driver’s seat to earn a spot in the knockout stage.  For all of their offensive frustration against Iran, though, it is not like they seemed to solve anything here, as they still only put one shot in the back of the net, and it was a questionable one, at that, as it seemed to some that Emenike (who was BY FAR the best player on the pitch on this day) may have committed a foul before the pass that netted the game’s only goal.  More officiating heartache for the Bosnians, who just a couple minutes prior, had a perfectly legal goal called back on a bogus offsides call.  This frustrating World Cup will end for the Bosnias regardless of their result with Iran.  The Nigerians, on the other hand, only need a draw with Argentina (tall task) and maybe not even that to get through.

Day Two Recap
Well, the Bosnians still appear to be the second-best side in this group and yet they are the only ones eliminated here after the second round of matches.  The Argentines are through to the Round of 16, despite looking shaky in both contests.  They are still incredibly dangerous and Messi seems quite “on form,” so the world should take notice – especially the Swiss, who are the likely Round of 16 opponent for Messi & Co.  Things look really good for Nigeria, who may have played themselves into a Round of 16 date with France.

6/25, noon – Argentina vs. Nigeria
6/25, noon – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Nigeria

Somehow, there really isn’t a whole lot going on here in Group F.  Argentina has already clinched advancement to the knockout round and only need to draw with a subpar Nigeria side to win the group (which would be adviseable considering the second-place side here will likely face an so far impressive French side in the Round of 16).  Nigeria – despite an underwhelming performance thus far – looks in really good shape to advance on the heels of their win over Bosnia because any result against the Argentines puts them through, but as long as they stay relatively close to avoid getting caught by Iran.  Then again, getting caught by Iran would require Iran winning and Iran winning would require Iran scoring, which they have shown absolutely no ability (or desire) to do thus far.  They will probably take their 0-0 draw and go home thinking that 2 points and 0 goals was some sort of success.

Argentina 3 – Nigeria 2
Bosnia & Herzegovina 3 – Iran 1
Lionel Messi is leaving no doubt as to who the best player in the world is.  He has been – without a doubt – the best player in this tournament and has led his otherwise unimpressive side to a sweep of Group F.  Messi has already scored 4 times (at least 3 of which were entirely of his own creation), including at least once in all 3 matches.  And, they were gigantic goals, as the Argentines won each of their three matches by a single goal.  Messi scored twice in the first half against Nigeria (in a game that was tied 1-1 by the 5th minute), both of which were needed, as the Africans put two in the back of the Argentine net.  In the end, it was too much Argentina, but Nigeria looked good again and moves on to the knockout stage.  The other big story is that Iran actually scored!  They also gave up 3 to B&H, as the Iranians exit the Cup with an unimpressive 1 point.  They probably looked better than Cameroon, so you can put them at 31st from this tournament.  B&H looks good enough to play in the knockout phase, but it wasn’t meant to be in this, their debut World Cup.

Group F Final Recap
1. Argentina
– Messi almost single-handedly swept this group.  It was almost assuredly the weakest group, though, so the Argentines will need to play better than they have if they want to win the whole thing – which is absolutely their goal.  While their group play was soft, their path through the knockout stage will not be.  They will open with a very tricky Round of 16 match against a solid Switzerland squad followed by a potential quarterfinal date with either Belgium or the second team from Group G (likely now to be the Stars & Stripes, but it could also be Ghana or even Germany or Portugal).  The performances they have put in so far will not get the job done as the competition gets much stiffer.

2. Nigeria – The only African side to qualify for the knockout stage so far (Ghana is still alive, though they need help, and Algeria looks like a toss-up), Nigeria has actually looked somewhat decent.  I did not expect all that much from this side coming in, but they have been buoyed by two stars – goalkeeper Vincent Anyeama and striker Emmanuel Emenike.  Both have looked as good at their respective positions as anyone in this tournament thus far.  And, when you get elite play out of your goalkeeper and goal scorer, you can beat quite dangerous.  The Nigerians will face France in the Round of 16 – the first ever WC match for these two – and may just be able to shock the world.

3. Bosnia & Herzegovina – Along with their neighbors, Croatia, B&H looks like an eliminated side that really deserves to keep playing.  They played Argentina awfully tough and then had an incredibly controversial loss to Nigeria that did them in.  They finished strong with 3 goals against Iran, but you have to think this side wishes they could take a shot in the knockout stage.  As Doogan pointed out in the beginning of this tournament – how good would a Yugoslavian team be right now?  With Croatia and B&H both looking very good in this WC plus a very solid Serbian squad that didn’t qualify, wouldn’t that be a loaded team?

4. Iran – Goodbye, Iran, no one will miss you.  The Iranians played with heart – I will give them that – but they just were not on the same level and tried to compensate for that by playing all 10 outfield players in their own end.  It was boring and annoying (though rather smart, strategically).  I don’t blame them because it was the best way to try and compete against players that are just much better, but I really just don’t want to watch them anymore.

2014 World Cup – Group E (FINAL)

This post will be updated as Group E progresses.

Group E Preview (Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland)
Don’t look now, but Switzerland is ranked 6th in the world.  Now, from what I understand (or, more apt, DON’T understand), that ranking is very much inflated by, well, something that I don’t understand.  And, people “in the know” think it’s laughable to think that there are only 5 sides in the world better than the Swiss, but still.  As for the others in this group, France is 17th, Ecuador is 26th, and Honduras is 33rd.  And, yes, the betting odds have France as the heavy favorite to win this group, even without their best (and ugliest) goal-scorer, Franck Ribery.  Honduras is probably a longshot here, but, personally, I would not count out Ecuador from ruining the group stage for one of the European sides.  (Hopefully not Switzerland, as I have them at 3:1 to win this group and 100:1 to win it all.)

6/15, noon – Ecuador vs. Switzerland
Ecuador gets a shot to play spoiler right away, as they take on that “overrated” Swiss side.  This should be a very interesting “measuring stick” kind of a match.  We may know right away whether the FIFA rankings seem bogus and/or whether or not the Ecuadorians are the sleepers that I think they could be.  A draw here wouldn’t be devastating for the Swiss, but it isn’t what they are looking for, that’s for sure.  Ecuador would take the point and run.

Switzerland 2 – Ecuador 1
Wow!  Yet another team that scores first loses, and this one was in spectacularly devastating fashion for the Ecuadorians, as they held a 1-0 lead at halftime before giving up the equalizer right after the intermission.  It stayed 1-1 for 45 minutes into stoppage time.  To their credit, Ecuador did not seem content with the draw and kept attacking into the stoppage time – nearly scoring themselves a couple of times.  However, that attacking style eventually cost them dearly, as the Swiss took a counterattack and scored the game-winner in the 3rd minute of stoppage time.  Ecuador definitely looked like a really dangerous sleeper, but they came away with zero points.  Then again, it was against maybe the best team in the group.  The Swiss picked up a big 3 points here.

6/15, 3:00 – France vs. Honduras
We all remember the debacle that was South Africa 2010 for the L’Equipe Nationale.  Well, apparently, they have totally revamped the roster and are ready to turn the page on that.  They get a pretty cushy spot to do that here, as the Hondurans will most likely be overmatched by the Frenchies.  Then again, does anyone trust the French to be mentally “tough?”

France 3 – Honduras 0
As if it wasn’t a task tall enough for the Hondurans to come in here and play with one of the world’s most talented and potent soccer nations.  But, a yellow card in the box, which happened to be a second yellow for Wilson Palacios, not only put them down 1-0, but also down a man.  It was pretty much over at that point, and the Frogs cruise to a opening victory.  This showed us very little about either team that we didn’t already know.  The Hondurans are not contenders, and the French are.

Day One Recap
The two Euro teams pick up victories over their Western hemisphere opponents.  The French took care of business against Honduras (which the Swiss and probably the Ecuadrians will do, too, so nothing much gained for them), while Switzerland picked up a huge win against an Ecuadorian team that will not be a pushover in their date with France.

6/20, 3:00 – France vs. Switzerland
Another Day Two match between two sides sitting on 3 points after opening round victories.  This is one of the more fascinating matches of the second round, as France is considered the favorite to win this group, despite Switzerland’s higher FIFA ranking, higher qualifying status, and overall better form coming into the Cup.  What do people know about France and/or Switzerland that I do not?  I see the Swiss as the better side here – what am I missing?  Anyway, the winner here is in great shape to win this group and would most likely avoid Argentina in the Round of 16.  Both sides are looking for a victory, but both would probably be okay with a draw, particularly Switzerland, as they have an overmatched Honduras squad in their final match, so a draw here should put them right on track to end with 7 points.  France, with a tough Ecuador side coming up, is probably looking for 3 here.

France 5 – Switzerland 2
Well, one thing I can do is admit when I am wrong.  And, I was VERY wrong on this one.  My sportsbook account took a hit here, too, as I had Switzerland (+280) to win the group and France (+450) not to make it out.  Both of those bets took a serious drubbing with this result, as France looks like the clear class of this group and may be a tough out down the line.  The Swiss, who were somewhat lucky to get 3 points from Ecuador, are still in decent position if they can put it together and beat a bad Honduras side, but this didn’t engender too much confidence in them going forward.

6/20, 6:00 – Ecuador vs Honduras
As good as CONCACAF has been in this tournament, Honduras is not really a good representative because, well, they are not very good.  They got trounced by France in the opener and will likely leave Brazil with 0 points.  Ecuador, coming off of a heartbreaker against Switzerland, gets a real scheduling break here, as they can right themselves against an inferior Honduras side before preparing for their all-important final match against France.  Anything shy of 3 points for the South Americans here would be devastating.

Ecuador 2 – Honduras 1
In a surprisingly entertaining match, Ecuador had to summon the brilliance of Enner Valencia to overcome a 1-0 deficit against a feisty Honduras side.  I am not sure if this was just Honduras coming up and playing well or if this is an indication of an Ecuador side that just isn’t all that good.  The Ecuadorians will need at least a point from France, maybe 3, since the Swiss take on Honduras.

Day Two Recap
The French are the story here and are in really good shape to win this group even if they lose to Ecuador because of their +6 goal differential.  The interesting thing about this group is that there is a somewhat legitimate chance that we could have the first ever elimination of a side sitting on 6 points.  If Switzerland beats Honduras (probable) and Ecuador beats France (at least possible), then all three sides will be on 6 points.  France should be safe with their goal differential, but someone will be out with 6 (probably Switzerland unless they crush Honduras).  Either way, the French should not mess around because the second-place side here gets Argentina in the Round of 16, while the winner likely gets Bosnia or Nigeria.

6/25, 4:00 – Ecuador vs. France
6/25, 4:00 – Honduras vs. Switzerland

This pair of matches gives us one of those interesting battles between two sides for a final spot who are not playing each other.  So, this will require some scoreboard watching and adjustments accordingly.  France is through and, barring a 2-goal loss to Ecuador, will win the group and avoid Argentina.  Honduras is not out officially, but needs a minor miracle in these final matches to sneak through.  That means that we are down to two sides – Ecuador and Switzerland – playing for one spot – E2.  But, they obviously are not playing each other.  At the moment, they are both on 3 points and Ecuador has a 2-goal edge in differential.  But, Ecuador is facing a really good French side, while Switzerland is taking on a rather poor Honduras side.  If Ecuador can get the same result as Switzerland, they are likely to move through, but if the Ecuadorians can only draw with France, while the Swiss beat Honduras, Switzerland will move on.  I have $500 ($5 at 100-1) at stake for the Swiss to win this tournament, so that’s where my rooting interests lie.

Ecuador 0 – France 0
Switzerland 3 – Honduras 0

Switzerland did exactly what they needed to do – they got a 3-goal victory over Honduras, which would clinched their knockout stage qualification unless France lost by multiple goals to Ecuador.  And, once Antonio Valencia went off with a red card (and Shaqiri had already netted a hat trick for the Swiss), it was pretty much a done deal.  The Ecuadorians played hard and played well, holding a potent French offense scoreless, but, in the end, that stoppage time goal that they allowed to Switzerland in the very first match ended up being the difference.

Group E Final Recap
1. France
– I think it is safe to say that maybe only the Netherlands have looked more impressive than the French so far in this tournament.  They scored 8 goals in their first two matches before playing a conservative 0-0 draw against Ecuador to move them through.  In the last 9 World Cups, the French were completely feast or famine.  They have been eliminated in the group stage 4 times and at least made the semifinals the other 5.  So, history tells us that if they get out of group play, they are very dangerous.  This year, they will move to the Round of 16 and a date with Nigeria.  Looking further ahead, the bracket sets us up for a pretty incredible France-Germany quarterfinal if they both take care of business beforehand.  I think it’s officially safe to say that, regardless of their performance from here on out, the nightmarish 2010 World Cup is officially behind them. 

2. Switzerland – The Swiss were not especially impressive, but they stayed the course and have qualified out of a somewhat treacherous group.  The thrashing of Honduras was a good sign to try and get them on the right track heading into the knockout stage, though they better be ready to go right away because Lionel Messi and the Argentines await in the Round of 16.

3. Ecuador – All in all, you have to say that the Ecuadorians acquitted themselves well despite being the only South Americans not to make the knockout stage.  That stoppage time goal they conceded to Switzerland in their very first match proved to be their undoing, as they put themselves in a must-beat-France position, which proved to be just too tough.  Either way, they can leave with their heads held high, and Enner Valencia can leave with his star a good bit brighter.

4. Honduras – An overmatched side in a somewhat difficult group, Honduras cannot be all that surprised or disappointed to be leaving without a point.  They did look good in their middle match against Ecuador, but were simply overwhelmed by the two European sides who abused them on their way out of the group.  The only CONCACAF side not to qualify for the knockout stage was clearly the weakest from that Confederation going in.  The Hondurans should just be proud back-to-back Cup qualifications.

2014 World Cup – Group D (FINAL)

This post will be updated as Group D progresses.

Group D Preview (Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay)
One of the most underrated groups when it comes to toughness, Group D is no joke, and the two survivors of this group will have earned their places in the knockout stage.  Uruguay – a semifinalist in South Africa in 2010 – is probably the odds-on favorites to win this group, but no one will be surprised if they don’t even qualify given the pedigree of their fellow Group D’ers.  Particularly, the two European squads that are loaded with international stars.  The Italians are aging, but incredibly talented and always seem to perform their best on the biggest of stages (in all international sporting events).  They are also trying to erase the memories of a painful 2010 World Cup, where they finished last in their group behind the likes of Paraguay, Slovakia, and even the lowly All-Whites from New Zealand.  England at least got out of the Group Stage in 2010 before getting plastered by Germany in the Round of 16.  The Brits are back with a host of EPL all-stars to see if they can erase their country’s long-standing disappointment in the World Cup.  And, then there is the darkhorse of the group, Costa Rica.  The “sharp” soccer handicappers have been taking long odds on Costa Rica to come out of this group.  Just sayin’.

6/14, 3:00 – Costa Rica vs. Uruguay
Uruguay avoids an opening game against either of the big Euro sides, but instead better come to play against a Costa Rica team that has been playing rather well of late.  Not much is expected of the Costa Ricans, so anything here would be enormous, but if they can pull out at least a draw, they might have a lot of confidence going forward against those Euro sides.

Costa Rica 3 – Uruguay 1
While the 5-1 final in the Netherlands-Spain match may have been the most surprising overall result so far in the Cup, this was the most surprising winner.  Uruguay came in knowing that they had to bring their best efforts since they were in a group with both Italy and England, but Costa Rica was supposed to be the beatable side in this group.  But, you have to hand it to the Vegas “sharps,” who were all over Costa Rica in pretournament betting.  And, they sure looked like the better side on this day.  This group just got even more interesting than it already was, as we now can look ahead to Italy and England taking on a suddenly reeling Uruguay squad and a suddenly dangerous and confident Costa Rican side.

6/14, 5:00 – England vs. Italy
What a great way for both of these sides to get their 2014 campaign going.  They are not exactly the best of friends on the pitch, and they have certainly had their fair share of tussles in the past.  This should be intense and ugly – and must-see TV.  The only problem is that, as the opening game between two teams that will not be satisfied with anything other than a deep run, this wreaks of a conservatively-played draw.  If either side does pick up 3 points here, it would (obviously) be gigantic for their chances to get out of this group.

Italy 2 – England 1
My favorite result so far because there isn’t a side that I enjoy rooting against more than England, and, seeing as my last name ends in “I,” I am always rooting for my descendants.  This match was really good for a half and then pretty uninteresting after the Italians took the 2-1 lead.  Maybe it was the heat and humidity; maybe it was the Italian defense.  Either way, the Azzurri picked up a really important opening win and are solid shape to potentially win a group that looked dangerous to even get out of.

Day One Recap
Costa Rica pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament thus far, while Italy picked up one of the more important victories.  It is still far too early to close the book on either England or Uruguay, but both did not help themselves and neither looked all that good, to be honest.  Costa Rica is certainly going to make this group interesting, and Italy has now gone from maybe the third choice to most likely winner in one eventful day.  More INCREDIBLY interesting matches upcoming – stay tuned to Group D – it’s just getting started!

6/19, 3:00 – England vs. Uruguay
This is a fantastic match with two Top Ten teams up against the wall and staring at potential elimination.  Uruguay, who was shockingly upset by Costa Rica in their opening match, now somehow need to probably get at least 4 points out of England and Italy – no small feat at all.  And, the way the Italians looked 5 days ago, that probably means that beating England today is an absolute must.  On the flip side, things are a little rosier for the Brits, but not much.  Knowing they have Costa Rica as their third match might be a little most promising, but the Costa Ricans proved to be no pushovers and they still need points from this match here against a Uruguay team that is as solid as any in the world.  This is one of the better matches of the first round, and it is made even more interesting by the razor’s edge on which both of these teams sit after disappointing openers.

Uruguay 2 – England 1
Luis Suarez – the EPL’s leading goal scorer by a ridiculously wide margin – broke the hearts of the country in which he earns his living.  Two impressive goals (which also exemplified impressively poor defense from the English) by Suarez effectively ended the 2014 World Cup for the Three Lions.  This was an interesting match that showed some elite offensive performances around some shoddy defense.  The English outplayed Uruguay for most of the match, but missed chance after chance after chance.  They finally got the equalizer (and looked like they were heading for AT LEAST a 1-1 draw) from the one and only Wayne Rooney, but Suarez crushed their hopes just a couple minutes later, getting free against some terrible defense and putting in the game-winner.  Uruguay is alive and well now and will get ready for a VERY important and interesting match with Italy.  The English are all but done, though they do have a very beatable Costa Rica to close out the group.  However, if Italy does not beat Costa Rica on Friday, the English will have nothing to play for.  Wow!

6/20, noon – Costa Rica vs. Italy
The shocker of the first round of games was the Costa Rica upset of Uruguay.  But, no rest for the weary, as they now face an Italian team that looked very good in a win over England.  With both of these teams sitting on 3 points, a winner here would be in total control of this group, obviously.  While Costa Rica would certainly be okay with a draw, Italy is clearly looking for 3 more points to put this group away in advance of their finale with Uruguay.  Do the scary underdogs have another trick in their bag today against another one of the world’s soccer superpowers?  If so – and all CR needs is a draw – the English will be eliminated.

Costa Rica 1 – Italy 0
DVR issues cost me this one, but according to Doogan, this was really a show of great team defense by the Costa Ricans, who scored late in the first half and held on.  Looking at the numbers, I was taken by one figure in particular – 11 offsides calls on the Italians.  That cannot be a good way to generate offense.  I have to thank the Vegas sharps for making me money on this on, as I took Costa Rica at 10:1 just to get out of the group.  I should have listened more and taken them at 30:1 to win the group, which looks likely at this point.

Day Two Recap
Costa Rica is the story here, as they have already beaten Uruguay and Italy and now take on a rattled English side needing only a point to win the group outright…WOW!  Uruguay’s win over England sets up a FASCINATING matchup between Uruguay and Italy with elimination on the line.  Italy only needs a draw, but Uruguay’s attacking style could make this great.  The second-place side here would get a solid, but beatable Colombia in the Round of 16, so there is a TON at stake here.

6/24, noon – Costa Rica vs. England
6/24, noon – Italy vs. Uruguay

Again, for the third straight time in these simultaneous starts, we really only need to focus on one match – which is nice because it is a FANTASTIC match.  While I said that the Mexico-Croatia match would be my favorite of the third round, I was wrong, because this Italy-Uruguay match is better.  It has all the same scenarios at stake with higher-profile and flat-out better teams involved.  Two top ten international sides will battle in a flat-out elimination match (with Italy going through with a draw).  This should be fantastic.  Alternatively, how great is it that the “Group of Champions” (dubbed so because they had three nations that have a WC title in their history) will most likely be won by the third qualifier from CONCACAF – and, obviously, the only one without a championship?  The shocking Costa Ricans (who shocked everyone except the Vegas sharps) only need a draw with England to win the group and avoid Colombia in the Round of 16.  They may even still win it with a loss, but that will come down to goal differential.

Costa Rica 0 – England 0
Uruguay 1 – Italy 0
So, apparently Luis Suarez bites people?  Like, regularly?!?  He’s a grown man, right?  I really don’t get it.  Trust me, I totally understand competitiveness and “in the heat of the game,” but biting?  Seriously?  Well, at least we’ve likely seen the last of him.  We have not, however, seen the last of his Uruguay teammates, as they picked up a late goal against a 10-manned Italian side to move on through.  The winning goal came on – literally – the very next play after the bite and happened, in part, due to a seemingly out of place Chiellini.  Was he rattled by just being bitten by another human being?  Possibly.  So, in consecutive World Cups, Luis Suarez saves a game-winning goal with his hand in the quarterfinals against Ghana (with which I had ABSOLUTELY no problem) and then potentially sets up a game-winning goal in a group stage elimination game against Italy by biting a defender (with which I couldn’t possibly have more of a problem).  In the end, this match – which was very good – will be remembered for the weird, primal, hilarious act by Suarez and not for a passionate Italian side that fought off the game-winner for 40 about minutes with just 10 men, and then nearly placed another equalizer with those 10 men (including goalkeeper Buffon, who they played their final ball to in the box).  For the record, how great would it have been if Buffon headed in the equalizer at the final whistle?  Anyway, the Uruguayans go through and will take on a red-hot Colombia side in the Round of 16.  I will be honest, I did not watch one second of the other match, and I could not be more satisfied with that decision.  Farewell, England, we will miss you.  Costa Rica – congrats!

Group D Final Recap
1. Costa Rica
– The Cup of the Americas continues, as every Western hemisphere side is still alive with all but Honduras looking good to move on through to the knockout stage (and Ecuador is a bit of a toss-up to get through).  Costa Rica, the surprise of them all, ends up winning the “Group of Champions” and relatively easily, as they end the group stage with wins over Uruguay and Italy and a draw with England in a match where they only needed 1 point.  Now, they match up with possibly the worst knockout qualifier, Greece, in the Round of 16 before a potential quarterfinal date with the Netherlands (unless fellow CONCACAF’er, Mexico, can shock the Dutch). 

2. Uruguay – Not exactly how they drew it up, but the 2010 semifinalists are through their group by winning tough matches against England and Italy in the wake of a shocking opening loss to Costa Rica.  The 6 points they needed weren’t likely to all come from the Euro sides in the group, but that’s what happened and now the South Americans will join 3 continent-mates in the top quadrant of the bracket.  They will take on Colombia in the Round of 16 in advance of a possible quarterfinal against the Brazil-Chile winner.  Without Suarez, though, they have to go in as decided underdogs against a smoking hot Colombia side.

3. Italy – After an inspired win over rival England, the Italians dropped back-to-back matches against Costa Rica and Uruguay and are eliminated in group play for the second straight World Cup.  As Doogan points out, it will be a much different looking Italian side the next time we see them internationally, as the core is aging, most notably midfielder, Pirlo, and goalkeeper, Buffon.

4. England – Ah, leave it to England to bow out un-unceremoniously.  This time around, they were bitten by sloppy midfield play and downright poor defense.  I am sure the English media will be all over the failures of this iteration, so I will save any more of my amateur assessment, but I was impressed by several of their attacking midfielders and strikers.  I have no idea where they go from here, but I am sure they will be back to disappoint in future tournaments.

2014 World Cup – Group C (FINAL)

This post will be updated as Group C progresses.

Group C Preview (Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Greece, Japan)
This is expected to be an extremely fascinating group, from my perspective.  You have four sides from four corners of the globe, who all have vastly different styles of play.  [Queue the ill-informed soccer stereotypes that seem to be rooted in at least a little objectivity:]  The attacking South Americans (Colombia), the defensive-oriented, precision-passing Europeans, the patient and disciplined Asians (Japan), and the open, risk-takingly aggressive Africans (Cote d’Ivoire).  The Colombians might be slight favorites here to win this group, as they have been really good lately and are playing on their home continent, but, they are not world-beaters and the other three sides are more than competent, meaning that this group is really up for grabs.  Probably the next favorite is the boring, European team from Greece.  They play an excruciatingly slow, plodding style of play that I would imagine could be likened to the neutral-zone trap that the New Jersey Devils used to strip the NHL of all its watchability (now, I have really lost it – making a hockey reference).  But, the Greeks are always dangerous and did win the last Euro Championship that wasn’t won by Spain (I’m rooting for the Greeks because I have money on them at 9-1 to win this group and 250-1 to win the whole thing…).  Right along with Greece is the best side from the continent of Africa, the Ivoirians.  Cote d’Ivoire is always good and exciting and are probably the most disciplined African side, which allows them to really utilize their elite athleticism.  And, then there are the Japanese.  Never a side that will beat themselves, and therefore always a threat.  I think they should have the longest odds to get out of this group, but that does not mean that they won’t give fits to all three opponents here.

6/14, noon – Colombia vs. Greece
Let us get this contest out of the way early, as probably the two favorites in Group C battle right out of the shoot.  This should be an interesting battle of styles, as the Colombians will want to attack, while the Greeks are perfectly content sitting in their own end, playing suffocating defense and waiting until you tire yourselves out and then pounce on a counter.  This is a very dangerous match for Colombia and a draw here might not be the worst thing for either side.

Colombia 3 – Greece 0
As Doogan mentioned in his Day Three recap, the Colombians (their players and fans) debuted in very impressive fashion and they are looking like a legitimately scary squad going forward, even without their best player, Falcao.  For the Greeks to concede three times in their opening game does not portend well for a team that relies almost exclusively on stingy defense.  The fact that they continue to seem simply unable to truly defend set pieces is a really bad sign for their future here in Brazil.  They should not be counted out just yet, as the group is still wide open, but this was a nightmare start.  As for Colombia, they got 3 key points in their quest to win this group.

6/14, 9:00 – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan
Another interesting match in an interesting group.  The Ivoirians could really use a quick 3 points here, but they had better be careful because a lapse or two could be all it takes for the disciplined Japanese to pounce.  The difference in athleticism should be apparent all match, but that does not always lead to a decisive victory.  This is a dangerous matchup, as the Japanese could steal not just one point, but all three, if the Coast isn’t careful.

Cote d’Ivoire 2 – Japan 1
This game signified two early trends in the 2014 World Cup – one of which is not unusual for the sport and the other one is (at least in little experience as a fan). First of all, soccer matches, despite their lack of scoring and seeming dependence on fortunate plays or referee decisions, really seem to often be won by the team that played better that day.  That may seem like an obvious comment, but that really is not the case in many sports around the world.  This about an American football game.  How many times has one team outplayed the other all game only to be victimized by a poorly-timed turnover or two and lose the game.  Same with baseball, if there are runners left on, and especially that awful sport called ice hockey.  Well, the better side today won here, as the Ivoirians outplayed Japan all match.  The other trend of this World Cup has been the fact that the side that scores first is often not winning the match.  From Croatia to Spain to Uruguay and now Japan, there have been more comeback victories already this year than I can remember in year’s past.  This was another, as the Japanese had a 1-0 lead for about 60 minutes.  Then, the Ivoirians put in African god, Didier Drogba, and just like that, they went up 2-1 and never looked back.  This was a GIGANTIC win for the Coast, as they are coming to the end of their “Golden Era” of soccer talent and have never escaped group play (mostly due to ridiculous drawings in the previous two World Cups).  Now, they have a manageable draw, and they may be able to take advantage of it.  Let’s go, Les Elephants!

Day One Recap
A couple of big wins to open the group for Colombia and Cote d’Ivoire, and those two will battle it out on the 19th for Group C bragging rights.  Both teams looks good, but Colombia looked REALLY good.  We will see if Japan and Greece can bounce back from tough losses, as their roads are pretty tough now.  Either way, I think that the major takeaway from Day One in Group C is…Watch out for Colombia.

6/19, noon – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
This is a fantastic match to open the second day of competition in Group C.  Both sides picked up nice wins in the first round, so a winner here would be in complete control of the group.  As Doogan has mentioned, the Colombian support in their first match against Greece was so impressive, you may have thought the match was being played in Bogota.  If they receive similar support today (and there is no reason to think that they won’t), they will be tough.  However, Les Elephants looked really good in the second half against a decent Japanese side, and they have the experience and talent to make some noise here this month.  I think the Colombians have to be the favorites here, but no result would be shocking.  It will be interesting to see just how aggressive these teams are considering they already have 3 points in the bag.  If it wasn’t a match between two attacking sides, I might look for some conservative gameplans, but I am not sure it is in the makeup of either of these sides to play that way.  I am excited for this one.

Colombia 2 – Cote d’Ivoire 1
Just like in the first match, as soon as Cote d’Ivoire put in Didier Drogba off the bench, the entire game changed.  However, this time it was for the worse for the Africans.  As soon as Drogba came in to a scoreless tie, the Colombians netted a pair of goals and didn’t look back.  Les Elephants came back with one and a strong fury to try and get the equalizer, but, in the end, it was Colombia taking control of Group C and looking good to win the group.  Cote d’Ivoire went down valiantly, and it probably is not the last we hear of them, as they have the inside track on the second qualifying spot from this group.

6/19, 6:00 – Greece vs. Japan
The Greeks were rather disappointing – yet again – in their opener against Colombia.  In something eerily similar to their 2010 performance, they looked uninspired and overwhelmed.  That may have been more a product of the excellence of the Colombians, but we will find out tonight.  Japan played well against the Ivoirians in their opener, but conceded two second-half goals to take a tough defeat.  They are still very much alive in this group, but need 3 points from this one.  Keisuke Honda is amazing and from his last two WC performances has officially become one of my favorite players to watch.  We will see if the Greek defensive approach can stifle him at all.  This is probably a must-win for both sides, as neither can much afford a draw, so if they have any attacking ability in them, they need to show it today.

Greece 0 – Japan 0
A boring match played by two boring sides actually got more exciting when Greece went down a man late in the first half.  The Greeks seemed to gain some energy and actually started attacking.  In the end, though, it didn’t matter, as this match ended in the ole nil-nil draw.  Neither side can be happy with the one point, but the Japanese, in particular, really needed this win.  Greece still has Cote d’Ivoire on their docket, and a win there should get them through to the knockout stage.  Whereas, the Japanese, who have already lost to the Coast, would have to beat Colombia and that still might not be enough.

Day Two Recap
This group has taken definitive shape.  Colombia has all but wrapped up the top spot from this group, while Cote d’Ivoire probably only needs a draw with Greece to go through as the second qualifier.  Barring a big Japanese upset of Colombia, the Greeks need to beat the Ivoirians to get themselves in.  Japan needs a big win over Colombia and some help.

6/24, 4:00 – Colombia vs. Japan
6/24, 4:00 – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Greece

The first group to enter the final round of matches with all four sides still alive is Group C.  So, we may get some simultaneous drama Tuesday afternoon.  Colombia is already through, but has not definitively won the group.  I am interested to see how they play this.  By the time this match kicks off, they will know whether or not Costa Rica has won Group D.  If so, they figure to be the easier draw than the second qualifier from the group (Italy/Uruguay).  Does that mean that Colombia plays for second in the group?  And, what does that mean for everyone else.  For Colombia to get second, they would have to lose to Japan, and a Japanese victory (particularly a multi-goal victory) puts everyone else in danger.  That does throw a wrench in everything, as Cote d’Ivoire may not be okay with just a draw against Greece – they may need to play for a win (which would be exactly what Colombia is looking for to finish second).  Greece would now need a win AND a goal differential edge on Japan.  If Colombia doesn’t take care of business against Japan (for whatever reason), these Group C finales could get CRAZY.  If they do, though, it’s simple – a win or draw for Ivory Coast puts them through, while Greece needs a win.  Either way, Greece will be on the attack, which is always a dicey proposition.

Colombia 4 – Japan 1
Greece 2 – Cote d’Ivoire 1
Absolute utter heartache for the Ivoirians (one of the teams for which I peronally root most heavily, due to my affinity for all things West African)!  Even for this novice soccer fan, the term “golden generation” seems to have become painstakingly cliche, but for a nation like the Ivory Coast to have Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure come along at the same time (along with a host of other solid supporting players) is incredibly fortunate and ushered in what could have been a true golden era for this small, poor nation that lacks any real infrastructure to develop future generations of quality athletes.  In 2006, they were young and inexperienced and put into the Group of Death, where they lost two heartbreakers to Argentina and the Netherlands before beating a solid Serbian side to finish 3rd in a brutal group.  Then, in 2010, they were again put into a ridiculously tough group that featured two of the world’s 3 best teams when their iconic midfielder, Drogba, had a broken arm.  They earned a great draw with Portugal, then lost a really tough match to Brazil before pounding North Korea.  The problem is that Portugal and Brazil played in the final match, where Brazil only needed a draw to win the group and Portugal only needed a draw to move on through ahead of Ivory Coast.  And, the two nations (with a long history of shared cultures and such) played to an incredibly suspect 0-0 draw that was essentially the equivalent of kicking the ball around for 90 minutes waiting for the final whistle and a place in the knockout stage for each.  And, now…in 2014.  They finally get a manageable group, and they lose their place in the knockout stage (which would be the first ever for their nation) on a questionable penalty call in the 93rd minute?  WOW!  I am not saying it wasn’t a penalty or shouldn’t have been called (I actually think it was the right call), but how heart-wrenching?  In the end, though, Les Elephants have no ones to blame but themselves, as they really did not play all that well all tournament.  They needed two second-half goals to beat Japan.  Then, they floundered away a possible win (or at least a draw) against Colombia, and now they didn’t put away a Greece team that wasn’t as good as they were.  And, their downfall?  The same thing that seems to bring down all the African sides eventually – lack of discipline and hustle.  All they needed to do was kill 5 minutes to go on through, and they kept attacking and giving up counters where the forwards were late in getting back.  And, then the coup de grace was that senseless penalty in the box.  Ugh…  Good for the Greeks, who qualify for the knockout stage for the first time in their history and will have a winnable game against Costa Rica in the Round of 16.  As for the other match, Colombia took it to the Japanese, sweeping the group and looking rather strong.  They take a lot of momentumwill take on a Uruguay side that will likely be without Suarez.

Group C Final Recap
1. Colombia – Can’t ask for more than 9 points, and that is what the Colombians came away with.  Their 9 goals scored are second only to the Netherlands with 10, and they only allowed 2.  Considering the confidence and competence with which they are playing and then incredible fan support they have been receiving, this is an incredibly dangerous team that no one is going to want to face in the knockout stage.  They will play Uruguay in the Round of 16 where the winner will play an awesome 4th of July quarterfinal against the Brazil-Chile winner.  As Doogan pointed out, it is kind of a shame that all four of the sides in this quadrant of the bracket are South American, which means that three of these exceptional South American teams will be eliminated before the semis.  Then again, it does make for some incredible intrigue.

2. Greece – The Greeks are through the group stage for the first time ever.  Their boring style (which somehow won them the 2004 Euro championship) was enough to get them through here.  They are now set up with a winnable Round of 16 match against Costa Rica before a potential quarterfinal with the Netherlands-Mexico winner.  The road is not incredibly tough right now for this unimpressive side, and the $1,250 that I will win if they win the tournament is still in play ($5 at 250-1).  Let’s go, Greece!

3. Cote d’Ivoire – What an incredibly devastating way to end this era of Ivoirian soccer!  A stoppage time goal allowed to a Greece team that looked like they couldn’t score at all sends Les Elephants home early yet again.  They could have played better, though, as this was a manageable group, and the just didn’t manage it.  It is sad to see it end, though.

4. Japan – I still love me some Keisuke Honda, but this team just wasn’t all that good.  They were overmatched even in this mediocre group, and the Japanese are sent packing.

2014 World Cup – Group B (FINAL)

This post will be updated as Group B progresses.  Man, it is hard to not use “game,” “team,” or “field,” but I’m doing my best…

Group B Preview (Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain)
Group B is one of the toughest groups out there – and is probably the toughest group if you only count the top 3 teams.  “The Group of Death” (Group G) has 4 quality sides, which makes it tougher, but I might argue that this group has a better 1-2-3.  First of all, they boast the world’s #1 in Spain.  And, it’s a ranking that is well-deserved, as the Spaniards on in the midst of the greatest run in international soccer history, having won the past two Euro titles and the 2010 World Cup.  And, who do they get in their very first game of this World Cup?  None other than the sidethey had to beat to win that 2010 World Cup, Netherlands.  The Dutch are back, though aging, and will be a tough out.  This group also boasts Chile (and my favorite soccer player – for no real reason – Alexis Sanchez).  The Chileans are going to be a tough out, as well, so the Dutch better be careful.  Australia might be the ultimate also-ran in this tournament and the best bet to leave Brazil without a single point.  In the end, I don’t think anyone in this group will beat Spain or lose to Australia, so the final qualifying spot from this group will come down to the final day’s Chile-Netherlands match.  It is important for these two sides to stay close to Spain and blow out the Aussies because the leader in the tiebreaker heading into that match will have the huge advantage of only needing a draw.

6/13, 3:00 – Netherlands vs. Spain
It only took until the third match of the tournament for us to see a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final.  While still supremely talented, the Dutch may have missed their best chance four years ago because these four years probably took more out of them than it did the Spanish side.  This great era of Dutch soccer, unfortunately, coincided with the best era of soccer we may have ever seen – this Spanish dominance.  And, as much as I love the Dutch people (and their soccer team), I am enthralled by the precision with which the Spaniards play this game.  When they are on their best form, they put the “beautiful” in the beautiful game.

Netherlands 5 – Spain 1
Yes, you read that right.  The Spanish side, which gave up two goals during the ENTIRE 2010 World Cup, gave up 5 in their opener against the Netherlands.  For the first 20 minutes, they looked pretty solid, even taking a 1-0 lead.  They looked like a slightly less crisp version of the championship squad, but with an added huge presence in the middle.  But, then two INCREDIBLE services by some guy named Daley Blind.  I have never heard of that guy and I sure don’t know the game very well at all, but from my untrained eye, that dude put together one of the best matches I have seen in my limited soccer watching experience.  But, no matter why it happened, that just happened.  The world’s #1, the defending champs, just got plastered in a group that does not give you a whole lot of margin for error – for several reasons.  First of all, the 4-goal defeat means that Spain essentially MUST beat both Australia (no problem) and Chile (big problem).  Any draw now probably eliminates the champs.  But, the second big fallout from this result is that they need a lot of help now in order to win this group, and a second-place finish probably means a date with Brazil in the Round of 16.  This was a potential Cup-changing result on the second day.

6/13, 6:00 – Australia vs. Chile
The Aussies are probably heading home without a point, but it is not because they are the worst side in this tournament.  It has everything to do with the fact that they are in a group that has three sides that are vastly superior and rarely ever lose (or even draw) to sides like Australia.  Chile is on that level now and would be devastated to come away with anything but a resounding victory.  In fact, they should probably be thinking about running it up because goal differential may really come into play with the way the schedule looks for Group B.

Chile 3 – Australia 1
Nothing all that surprising at all from this result, as the Chileans simply took care of business, led by the man – Alexis Sanchez (that dude is awesome).  The were done no favors with their draw and are almost assuredly heading for 3 straight Ls and a trip home.

Day One Recap
Well, is there anything else to talk about other than the SHOCKING 5-1 Dutch win over the champs?  It is not incredibly surprising that they won, considering there is a ton of talent and pride on that Dutch side, but the manner in which they simply dominated the Spaniards was shocking.  The 4-goal differential is gigantic, too, and because of that, you can make the case that the Chileans benefited almost as much from that result as the Dutch did.  Now, it is almost assured that Chile – regardless of their result against the Netherlands – only needs a draw with Spain to move on.  Unless, of course, the Spanish can drop a half-dozen on the Aussies.  In either case, this group just got real interesting and this day’s results are going to have major implications on the tournament going forward.  Hey, even the Brazilians were affected because the World’s #1 just came very much into play as a potential Round of 16 opponent for the host nation.

6/18, noon – Australia vs. Netherlands
Well, if the Dutch can drop a 5-spot on the world’s #1 team, I can’t imagine what they can do against the Socceroos.  I know, different day, different match, so don’t expect another 5 goals.  But, you can expect a decisive victory here for the Dutch.  The Socceroos are just overmatched in this group.

Netherlands 3 – Australia 2
A match that was supposed to be lopsided and boring actually turned out to be incredibly hard-fought and flat-out thrilling.  When the Dutch opened the scoring with another Arjen Robben goal at the 20-minute mark, it looked like it might be the end of the interest in this game, but a mere :70 seconds later, Tim Cahill (who is pretty amazing, by the way) put in one of the best goals I have ever seen to even the scoring.  Then, early in the second half, the Aussies actually took the lead on a PK, and things kind of got nuts.  But, the Dutch responded two minutes later with a Robin Van Persie goal and then a couple minutes after that sunk the game-winner from distance.  It was a very inspired performance by the Socceroos, but the Dutch officially punched their ticket to the knockout stage.  They hold the slimest of goal differential margins over Chile, so they only need a draw in their final match to win the group and avoid Brazil.

6/18, 3:00 – Chile vs. Spain
This is going to be a GREAT match.  The Spanish are trying to regroup from the drubbing by the Dutch, while Chile is possible ready to establish themselves in this tournament, coming off a ho-hum victory over Australia.  Because of the big Spanish loss, the Chileans may be quite alright with a draw here, giving then an inside track to get out of this really tough group.   My favorite international player, Alexis Sanchez, scored early against the Aussies and will look to expose the age of the Spanish back line.  But, let’s not forget that this Spanish side is the best in the world, and they now have their backs against the wall.  And, the Spanish have Australia to finish the group and 6 points has never not qualified for the knockout stage, so a win today should get the world’s #1 through.  Then again, the conditions are ripe for the first ever 6-point team to be left out and with a -4 goal differential, Spain would be the one.  Oh, and if Spain should lose today (which is certainly possible), they would be officially eliminated (assuming the Dutch at least draw with Australia).  This should be REALLY good.

Chile 2 – Spain 0
Wow!  The #1 team in the world and defending world champs are gone – just like that.  They were actually the very first team to be officially eliminated from the competition after a lackluster, shoddy performance against Chile.  Taking nothing away from the Chileans, though, who looked excellent and have officially moved through to the knockout stage for the second straight Cup.  The story, however, has to be all about Spain and their ignominious exit from this tournament.  They just looked awful – honestly.  There is nothing that can change the greatest run in international soccer history, but this was a stunningly sudden end to that run.  As for Chile, they are good enough to really make some noise here, though they need to beat the Netherlands in their final match to win the group and avoid their arch-nemesis Brazil.

Day Two Recap
Just another day at the World Cup, as the #1 team in the world is eliminated, and another legit title contender needs everything they can muster to get by an under-talented Australia side.  Chile, who handled Australia easily and then took it to a desperate Spanish side, seems more than ready for the big stage.  And, they will need to be, as they now have a date with the Netherlands with all of Group B on the line.  As you may or may not have heard, Spain is done.  Wow…just wow!

6/23, noon – Australia vs. Spain
6/23, noon – Chile vs. Netherlands

While these matches will be played simultaneously, there is really only one that matters.  Spain is – kind of – playing for pride, even though they really don’t have any left and can’t really gain any back by beating Australia.  That match is simply to see just how much of a train wreck this Spanish World Cup can become.  Australia – as they showed against the Dutch – is not on the elite level, but is not a total rollover.  I could see the Aussies winning this match.  But that doesn’t really matter.  The big one here is Chile-Netherlands.  The Netherlands only need a draw here, but they will be without their goal-scoring star, Robin Van Persie.  Chile has looked really good in two matches and are already accustomed to an attacking style, so they will have no problem going for the win.  This could be a really exciting game that, despite both teams having already qualified, should be heated and with a lot at stake.  Basically, these two sides are playing to avoid the host Brazilians in the Round of 16.  The winner of this group would get either Croatia or Mexico, while second-place would get Brazil.

Spain 3 – Australia 0
Netherlands 2 – Chile 0
The Dutch complete a rather impressive sweep of Group B and were probably the most dominant side in group play. 
They still have not done enough for me to put them on the same level as Brazil, Germany, or Argentina, in terms of title contenders, but they certainly have been more impressive than any of those three so far.  The strange thing is that they seemed to sweep this group in the opposite fashion as expected.  Their most difficult match was against Australia, while their seemingly easiest match was against Spain.  Yesterday, against Chile, they just looked the better side, even without the great RVP.  The Chileans, despite this loss, have to be feeling good about getting through a group that also included the two finalists from the last World Cup.  The only problem is that since they finished second, they will get a Brazilian side that they can just never seem to beat – and who never loses on their home soil.  The Dutch came out and took this one, avoiding Brazil and setting themselves up with a much easier match against Mexico.  As for the other match of the day, the Spanish second-team played for pride and got some back, easily handling the Aussies, 3-0.

Group B Final Recap
1. Netherlands – The Dutch sweep the group, putting in the most dominant group stage performance of this year’s Cup.  Then again, Argentina was the most dominant in the 2010 World Cup’s group stage, and they got slaughtered in the quarterfinals by Germany. 
This year’s Dutch team has a lot of experience, but also a lot of youthful vigor.  They are deep and talented and play very well together.  They have a world-class striker (RVP), a world-class creator (Arjen Robben, still), and a very solid back line.  Like I said above, I still think that Brazil, Argentina, and Germany are at least a half-step above the Netherlands right now, but they have played their way into the title conversation.  Now, they get a Mexico side that is dangerous, but certainly not incredibly scary.  Then (looking way ahead), in the quarters, they are likely to have either Costa Rica or Cote d’Ivoire.  There is a clear path for the Dutch to roll into the semis.

(INTERESTING NOTE:  I was thinking about how the Dutch were 3-0 in group stage in 2010, so I did a little research and found that the Netherlands has not lost a group stage match at the World Cup in MY LIFETIME!  They were 3-0 this year and in 2010.  They were 2-0-1 in 2006, moving on behind Argentina in their group.  They missed the Cup in 2002.  They won their group in both 1998 (1-0-2) and 1994 (2-0-1).  In 1990, they drew all 3 group stage matches and moved on through.  And, they missed the Cup in both 1986 and 1982.  On June 11, 1978, the lost 3-2 to Scotland in the final match of group play, but still qualified behind Peru.  In fact, digging some more, I found that the Netherlands has NEVER been eliminated in the group stage in any World Cup for which they have qualified.  I feel like this is a stat we would have been bombarded with if soccer was big in this country, but I had to go through all the WC Wikipedia pages to figure that out.  Where’s ESPN Stats & Info on international soccer???) 

2. Chile – Ever since my deep dive into international soccer, I have really loved this Chile side.  Maybe it is their all-out attacking style.  Maybe it’s…never mind, it’s DEFINITELY their all-out attacking style and probably nothing else.  They were stifled by the Dutch on Monday, but still got through a very tough group and into the knockout stage for the second straight Cup.  The problem is – for the second straight Cup – they will meet the one side they probably wanted to meet least of all, Brazil.  Their fellow South Americans have dominated Chile since the invention of the sport, eliminating them in 3 previous Cups, including the 2010 Round of 16.  I am not sure this year will be any different, but the match will be fun to watch, regardless.

3. Spain – The End of an Era.  And, it was a great one.  The Era that indoctrinated me to the “beautiful game.”  These players grew up playing together since adolescence and accomplished more than any other national soccer program has ever accomplished.  But, it is over.  The swan song on Monday was nice, as they trounced Australia and got goals from Villa and Torres and some brilliant midfield play from Iniesta.  But, it wasn’t to be this year.  And, while we lament what could have been, let us actually think about how this may have been as much a product of a really tough group as anything else.  They lost in disappointing fashion, but they lost to an elite Netherlands side and a possibly-elite Chile side before handling Australia with ease.  You mean if they switched places with Belgium or Colombia or Argentina or even Brazil or Switzerland, they wouldn’t still be going through?  I certainly think so.  They just got placed in one of the two or three groups that had enough firepower to expose them.  I am not saying that if they were in Group H, they would have won another Cup, I am just saying that we might be talking about their tough quarterfinal loss to Argentina instead of the conversation being about how a great era has come CRASHING DOWN RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES.  You soccer fans are so dramatic…which is one of the reasons I love your sport…haha!

4. Australia – The Aussies got – as easily predicted – ousted without a point.  They acquitted themselves well, though, particularly in that match versus the Netherlands.  The Socceroos just didn’t have the firepower to compete in such a difficult group.  You can’t say that this was a disappointing Cup for the Socceroos, despite a 0-point performance.

2014 World Cup – Group A (FINAL)

So, four years (and two kids) ago, I was able to preview and review every single match of the 2010 World Cup (and it was all done in a mere THIRTY THOUSAND WORDS as the early games were even cut off…what, who reads 30,000 words of anything let alone soccer commentary from a guy that thinks these are all “games” played by “teams” on “fields?”).  It seems a much more daunting task this time around, but, hey why not give it a shot, right?  Anyway, here we go.  This post will be updated as Group A develops.

Group A Preview (Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico)
So, here we go with the 2014 World Cup – the greatest sporting event in the world (or, at least on par with the NCAA Tournament, which happens every year, so it is slightly less exciting to lead up to).  Group A – as the alphabet suggests – is our kickoff group and has our host nation, Brazil.  The #3 team in the world, playing at home, is the odds-on favorite to win the title, though I believe that Germany and Argentina might be better picks.  Either way, the Brazilians have a group that, on their home soil, they should absolutely win.  Croatia is probably the best bet (and my pick) as the other qualifier from this group, though Mexico, depite their qualification struggles, could challenge for that qualification spot.  While I will be rooting hard for all African teams, especially Cameroon, I really don’t see them challenging for a qualification spot, though they might decide it because I think they could draw with Mexico, which would give Croatia a big edge.  The way I see it playing out is Brazil going 3-0, Croatia beating Cameroon, while Mexico only draws with Cameroon.  That means that, on the final day of the group, Croatia would only need a draw with Mexico to move on, while the Mexicans would have to beat the Croats, which I don’t see happening, so I’ll take Brazil and Croatia to move on out of Group A.

The interesting thing to note here is that Group B has Spain, so if, for whatever reason, either Brazil or Spain somehow finish second in their respective groups, these two powerhouses will play in the Round of 16.  So, winning this group is very important for Brazil if they want to avoid facing Spain immediately in the knockout stage.

6/12, 4:00 – Brazil vs. Croatia
The host country – as tradition holds – opens the tournament with the stage to themselves, as they open with Croatia.  This first match for the home team is probably the one with the largest advantage.  The home team not only gets a huge jolt from the craziness of the home fans watching their team for the first time in World Cup play, but it also is the first match the visiting team will play under these specific conditions.  This is a great matchup for the home team to get with their largest advantage because this figures to be the toughest group test the Brazilians will face.  Croatia is a very solid team that – under neutral conditions – might be a sleeper pick to win this group.  They will be very lucky to come away with even 1 point, though, under these conditions.  Look for the Brazilians to make a statement early.

Brazil 3 – Croatia 1
While we are comparing this sporting event to the NCAA Tournament, we might as well use the ole phrase “survive and advance” because that is what our tournament hosts did in their opening match.  They were significantly outplayed for the first 25 minutes and trailed 1-0.  But, they picked up the equalizer from Neymar at 29 minutes, which seemed to calm their nerves and reminded them that it’s just another match – not a World Cup opener on their home soil.  They pretty much dominated the rest of the game, which makes the events that led to this victory a little easier to swallow.  They scored the game-winner (Neymar again) on a penalty kick resulting from an incredibly awful foul call in the penalty area.  Then, they played some atrocious defense in the final 5 minutes and got really lucky not to give up a late equalizer before scoring a late goal from Oscar that was just a result of the entire Croatian team attacking.  In the end, the better overall side and the better side on this day won the match, but it was not anything resembling the “beautiful game” that Team Brazil usually produces.  A performance like today is likely to send them packing once we hit the knockout phase.  Fortunately, they did just get a W in their most difficult group match.  As for Croatia, they looked good and had chances, but did come away with an L.  They will have to regroup and get ready for Cameroon on Wednesday.

6/13, noon – Cameroon vs. Mexico
This could be a very important game for Croatia, as well.  I think that the Cameroonians will probably not factor into the qualifying from this group, but they definitely could rise up and steal a draw from either Mexico or Croatia, in which case that would be a huge advantage for the other side.  It will be interesting to see just what kind of form Mexico is in after a really shaky qualifying campaign.  Even a loss here for the Mexicans is not completely out of the question and would be devastating.

Mexico 1 – Cameroon 0
Another match, another refereeing controversy (apparently, while watching soccer, and only while watching soccer, it’s pronounced con-TROV-ersy)…or two.  But, fortunately for the refereeing community and those of us who prefer watching sports not talking heads spout off about sports, the questionable referee calls (which cost Mexico TWO goals in the first half) didn’t matter in the final result, just the final score, as the Mexicans proved a far superior side.  Cameroon, while definitely the superior athletes on the pitch, were overmatched in class.

Day One Recap
The favorites of the group, Brazil, got a nice (potentially referee-aided) victory over maybe their toughest opponent, while Mexico avoided what would have been a tough draw to swallow.  In the end, nothing has really changed here, as Brazil is still the clear favorite to win the group, while the Croatia-Mexico match should decide the second qualifier.

6/17, 3:00 – Brazil vs. Mexico
The two unimpressive winners on Day One of this group will face off in the first match of the second round of Cup play.  Brazil had a controversial win over Croatia, while the Mexicans dominated an over-matched Cameroon, but only scored once.  The winner of this match will clinch the group, while a draw here probably favors Brazil, who is only staring at a date with Cameroon in the final round.  That being said, Mexico would probably be happy with a draw, which would mean that they only need a draw with Croatia to move on through.  The Croats are clearly rooting for the home side here, as a Mexican win would be a big blow to Croatia’s chances of moving through.

Brazil 0 – Mexico 0
To all those Ugly Americans who think that soccer isn’t exciting because no one ever scores, I give you this one.  The best match I have seen all tournament was a nil-nil draw.  This was up-and-down with attacking and free-flowing play for 90 straight minutes.  The Brazilians dominated for the first 30 minutes, but the Mexicans then looked like the better side for a solid 20-25 minutes.  The end of the game was played more in Mexico’s end, but they held up.  And, their goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, was INCREDIBLE.  I have no idea if he is any good or not, but that was literally the best match I have ever seen a keeper play.  He was EVERYWHERE.  It was simply a fantastic match, and I gained a ton of newfound respect for the Mexicans and now cannot wait for their win-and-you’re-in match with Croatia.  While Brazil probably should have won this match, I am sure they are content with their point in advance of a match with a hapless Cameroonian squad.   They should take care of business against the Africans and win this group.

6/18, 6:00 – Cameroon vs. Croatia
The Croats feel robbed in their opening match with Brazil, but they need to get it together because they still hold their fate in their hands, and they should have plenty to get past the Indomitable Lions, who were thoroughly dominated by Mexico in their first match.  Anything but 3 points here for Croatia would be crushing.  And, while a draw would probably mean that Cameroon played well, the Lions are staring at Brazil in the final round, so they really need 3 here or their tournament is pretty much over.

Croatia 4 – Cameroon 0
In easily the most embarrassing performance of this year’s Cup, the Cameroonians got absolutely hammered – mostly by their own doing, picking up an insanely idiotic red card near the end of the first half.  They were already down 1-0, and they did not look like they were going to really threaten the Croats, but to flat-out punch a dude in the back is one of the dumbest things I have seen a professional athlete do.  It was embarrassing to all of us who root for Cameroon.  It is time to just bow out of this tournament now because the match with Brazil might get ugly.  As I have been saying all week now, Croatia’s match with Mexico should be the decider on who moves on to the knockout round.  And, with the way these two sides have been playing, I am even more excited for this match.  It might be the highlight of the final round of matches.

Day Two Recap
The best match of the tournament so far gave us a 0-0 draw between Brazil and Mexico.  It also set up a possibility for Brazil to be eliminated.  Well, not really.  Cameroon has been – BY FAR – the worst side in this tournament and Brazil still has them left, only needing a draw to get through.  A win for Brazil over Cameroon will give them the Group A title and a date with the second-place side from Group B in the Round of 16.  As for Croatia, they did win 4-0 and looked great, but that was more of a terrible performance by the Cameroonians.  I still believe them to be the better side than Mexico, but they will have to beat the Mexicans to qualify, since they lost to Brazil and Mexico got a draw.

6/23, 4:00 – Brazil vs. Cameroon
6/23, 4:00 – Croatia vs. Mexico

In a (fantastic) change that is only in its third World Cup, the final matches of group play are played simultaneously, so as to try and keep all matches as relevant as possible.  Both of Monday’s groups (Group A & B) would not really matter either way, as the sides playing for positioning all play each other.  Brazil should easily get past Cameroon, which would clinch the group win for them.  And, then the second spot will be decided on the pitch in the other match.  Mexico, sitting on 4 points, only needs a draw against Croatia, who is sitting on 3.  Both sides are coming off VERY impressive performances and should be ready to go.  The Croatian attack looks fierce, while the Mexican goalkeeper put in probably the best performance I have ever seen.  Though, as Doogan notes, he is not exactly in high regard internationally, so it may have just been the game of his life.  This Croatia-Mexico match might be my most anticipate matches of the third round.  I like the Croats to get the win, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mexico sneak through.  The winner of the second spot is looking at a date with the Chile-Netherlands winner of Group B.

Brazil 4 – Cameroon 1
Mexico 3 – Croatia 1

Well, the Mexico-Croatia match lived up to the hype in intrigue and excitement, even if the play was a bit sloppy at times.  The intensity was at a real peak level for the entirety of the match, and there was an up-and-down, wide open style that led to some really exciting stuff.  The Mexican defense continued to be inpenetrable, though, even by the potent Croatian attack.  The Mexican offense, however, looked a bit stymied, having only scored one goal in the first 250+ minutes of WC play this year.  But, finally Rafa Marquez (who was incredible all match) put in a ridiculous header to put the Mexicanos up 1-0 and the flood gates opened.  Mexico scored twice more actually opening up the possibility of winning the group before allowing their first goal of the tournament late, sending them to a second-place finish.  Brazil did what they needed to do in handling a bad Cameroonian side, 4-1, clinching the Group A title.

Group A Final Recap
1. Brazil – The host nation took care of business in somewhat unimpressive fashion.  But, no matter how they got here, they got here as A1.  And, while they didn’t look that good, they did beat a solid Croatia side, 3-1, and pounded a not solid Cameroon side 4-1, with a well-played 0-0 draw with Mexico in between.  The pre-tournament favorites are alive and well into the Round of 16 for a date with an inter-continental rival, Chile, whom they have dominated for generations.

2. Mexico – Gotta think that this has already been a success for a side that barely even qualified.  Then again, their first two goals of this tournament against Cameroon were contraversially disallowed.  If both of those had been properly allowed, Mexico may have won the group and gotten to avoid the side that has probably been the most impressive thus far, the Netherlands, in the Round of 16.  That being said, I am not ruling out a Mexican upset there.

3. Croatia – Heartbreak for the Croats, who may end up being one of the more impressive sides not to qualify out of group play.  They nearly got an impossible draw against the host nation in the tournament opener (and probably should have), then pounded Cameroon, before a hard-fought loss to Mexico.  This can’t be a happy ending for fans of Team Croatia.

4. Cameroon – The single-worst team in the tournament, start to finish, will almost certainly end up by the Indomitable Lions, who didn’t just look domitable, but rather pathetic, at times.  Giving up 4 goals each in their final two matches and just flat-out giving up is not a good sign for the future of one of the continent’s better programs, historically.

World Cup 2014 Draw – Predicting the Tournament

NOTE: This originally ran in December when the draw came out, but I figured it was probably a good time to run it again.  You will notice that Doogan and I both went with the same surprise champion – Germany – and the exact same Final Four.  We did not collaborate, we must just have the same limited knowledge…haha.)

Well, it’s that time of year again.  It’s a World Cup year – which can only mean one thing.  A whole lot of soccer commentary from guys who knows next to nothing about the sport.  But, you soccer elitists should take it as a compliment and not just blow it off.  The compliment is that I LOVE YOUR SPORT.  I just don’t have the time or energy to dive into for more than 3 weeks every other year (World Cup and EuroCup).  But, when I get in, I really get in.  As evidenced by this manic compulsion to post my opinions on “The Draw” (which are educated by very little other than word of mouth and the World FIFA rankings).  I hope that my analysis, while completely devoid of the intricacies of the sport or the backstory of its players, actually is relevant due the fact that I am fluent in the language of “sport.”  Hey, at least it’s a “fresh” take because, well, I don’t really follow it…haha. 

Either way, here are my takeaways on each group that was decided today – in order of hardest to easiest – and then my picks for the knockout stage.

Group G
Germany (2)
Portugal (5)
USA (14)
Ghana (24)

The group that will undeniably be brandished with the ever-popular “Group of Death” label.  Not only does this group have the World’s #2 team in ‘Ze Germans, but its lowest-ranked team, Ghana, is the second-best African team in the world and possesses a wealth of international experience at the highest level.  Portugal, at #5 in the world, would be favored to WIN half of the groups.  And, then there are the pesky Americans (another reason to love soccer – USA actually gets to play the role of underdog in something – it’s kind of refreshing).  Clearly, Germany and Portugal would be slated to come out of any group they were placed in, but this one won’t be easy.  Whoever does win this group, though, has a nice path in the knockout round…which they will have certainly earned.

Group B
Spain (1)
Netherlands (9)
Chile (15)
Australia (59)

While the #2 team was hit with the hardest group, the #1 team (and defending WC and Euro champions) was hit – in my opinion – with the second-hardest group.  Not only is #1 Spain joined in Group B by the team they defeated in the 2010 World Cup Final, but also by a very good Chile team, with my favorite international player (which isn’t saying much because I can probably only name a dozen or so), Alexis Sanchez.  The good news for the top 3 in this group are that they get to play the lowest-ranked team in the entire field, Australia.  But, the Aussies can jump up and bite you if you’re not careful and one ill-fated draw to the boys from Down Under could be the difference between moving on and being eliminated from this group.  Obviously, I will go with #1 Spain to come out of this group and, as much as I love the Dutch, I am going to pick an upset and take Chile to be the second team from this brutal Group B.

Group D
Uruguay (6)
Italy (7)
England (13)
Costa Rica (31)

There can easily be an argument made that this group will be tougher to come out of than Group B, but I ranked B higher because they have the two finalists from last World Cup.  But, there is no doubt that this is a really tough group, especially if you factor in the potential advantages that two of these teams have of playing on or very near their native continents (Uruguay and Costa Rica).  I think Uruguay on their home continent should be able to navigate this group, and I am also going with my descendants in Italy to join them, meaning those crazy Brits will have to suffer through a group-stage elimination.

Group C
Colombia (4)
Greece (12)
Cote D’Ivoire (17)
Japan (48)

If you asked a random sports fan that doesn’t follow international soccer all that closely to name the best South American soccer team right now, they might go through a half-dozen countries before guessing Colombia (if they guessed them at all).  Do you know how I know this?  Beacuse I am a random sports fan who doesn’t follow international soccer all that closely, and I would have never come up with Colombia as the best South American team right now.  Granted, the right answer might actually Argentina or Chile, but there are plenty of people “in the know” that would tell you that Colombia might be the best side.  They are joined in a relatively tough group by the ever-dangerous (and boring) Greece and the ever-dangerous (and exciting) Cote D’Ivoire.  Japan is probably an also-ran here, but can never be taken lightly.  I think Colombia should come through here and win the group, but to follow them, I am going out on a limb and taking the best African team in the world, Cote D’Ivoire to qualify for the knockout stage and send the Greeks packing.

Group A
Brazil (10)
Croatia (16)
Mexico (20)
Cameroon (51)

The Mexicans barely qualified and now they get sent to the group with the host country.  However, the Brazilians don’t exactly have their best team here in the year the Cup finally gets to their place.  However, they did dodge the landmines of Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands, so they should be okay.  Croatia and Mexico are solid and Cameroon is usually feisty (though undisciplined), but I can’t see the hosts losing a match in the group stage, so I am picking Brazil to win this group, followed (relatively easily, I think) by Croatia.

Group E
Switzerland (8)
France (19)
Ecuador (23)
Honduras (41)

Memories of the 2010 World Cup debacle that ended for France with a crushing 2-1 defeat to South Africa will try to be erased here in a manageable Group E.  The Swiss are solid, but not unbeatable and then there are a couple of Central and South American teams in Ecuador and Honduras.  This group is completely up in the air, so I am going to go out on a limb here.  Having beaten Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay in qualifying, I think the Ecuadorians are ready and confident right now and poised to have a really nice showing here.  I am going to pick Ecuador not only to advance out of, but to win Group E.  And, then I am going to say that France somehow gets is done and moves on through, thus ending what figures to be a very disappointing 2014 World Cup for the Swiss.

Group F
Argentina (3)
Bosnia & Herzegovina (21)
Nigeria (36)
Iran (45)

Could the draw have been any nicer to Messi & Co.?  Wow!  Now, admittedly, I have never seen Bosnia & Herzegovina in any match ever, but even if they are incredibe, the Argentines still get to play an undisciplined Nigerian side and a not-very-good Iranian team.  Argentina will cruise into the knockout round to face the #2 team from Group E followed by a quarterfinal match potentially with the winner from the weakest group, Group H.  The Argentines are probably, as it stands now, the safest pick of anyone in the field to be playing in a World Cup semifinal match this summer.  Anyway, the second pick from this group is tough, but I think I am going to throw a bone to my African friends and go with Nigeria simply because of the hemisphere factor.

Group H
Belgium (11)
Russia (22)
Algeria (26)
South Korea (54)

The Belgians seem to have their best squad in a good while, as they were placed in the Pot A and, consequently, got themselves a pretty cushy draw here.  Imagine the difference between what Portugal or Italy are facing and what Belgium has here.  Wow!  Anyway, the Belgians are joined here by a couple of decent teams in Russia and Algeria and an also-ran in South Korea.  Belgium should win this group handily, but that second spot is going to be hard-fought.  I am going to take Algeria to advance just because they are playing really well as of late, while the Russians have faltered.

Round of 16
Brazil over Chile
A tough Round of 16 game for the hosts, but they should move on.

Colombia over Italy
Maybe I put too much emphasis into the home continent thing, but I really do think it means a LOT and should propel a dangerous Colombia team into the quarters.

Ecuador over Nigeria
My upset Group E winner, Ecuador, gets a cushy Round of 16 match against the weakest knockout qualifier here and moves on to the quarters.

Germany over Algeria
The World’s #2 should cruise past a game Algerian squad.

Spain over Croatia
The World’s #1 has a bit of a tougher opponent here, but should take care of business.

Uruguay over Cote D’Ivoire
The better squad very close to home should end a nice run for the Ivoirians.

Argentina over France
France should be thankful they got this far after the turmoil that national team has been through, but it ends here – in decisive fashion.

Portugal over Belgium
My only quarterfinalist that I didn’t pick to win their group is Portugal, as I think they take care of a pretty solid Belgian team, setting up a great quarter against Argentina.

Brazil over Colombia
This could get REALLY heated, even by soccer standards, but the homefield advantage should be enough for the Brazilians to get an emotional win here and head to the semis.

Germany over Ecuador
After a brutal group stage, my scenario has the knockout stage setting up pretty nicely for ‘Ze Germans, as they probably will head to the semis after two relatively painless matches.

Spain over Uruguay
In what might be the best match of the knockout stage yet, the Spaniards can expect to get everything they bargain for against Uruguay here.  But, I like the World’s #1 to pull through.

Argentina over Portugal
In yet another gem of a match, the Argentines should be able to escape and send the Portugese home with yet another titleless World Cup campaign.

Germany over Brazil
The home team’s dreams are defeated here, as the Germans have the requisite discipline, experience, and most importantly, the talent to knock off our hosts here and give themselves a shot at a World Cup title.

Argentina over Spain
While Brazil failed to make it an all-South American championship, the Argentines came through to get one of the continent’s squads into the title match.  This might have been the hardest pick of the whole thing, but I think the greatest run in international soccer history ends here, as the Spaniards fall short of holding back-to-back World Cup titles along with their Euro title.

Germany over Argentina
All tournament long, I have been giving deference to the South American teams because I truly believe in a home continent advantage.  But, I just don’t think it’s enough to knock of Germany, who I have beating Ecuador, Brazil, and now Argentina en route to a 4th World Cup championship, which is one behind Brazil (and tied with Italy) for the most ever.