Tuesday, July 1, 2014

World Cup - Gloves off in the Knockout Phase

In the World’s largest tournament has sorted through the rubble, rescued the survivors, and has moves into the knockout stage. Needless to say the final 16 countries left standing weren’t what anyone would have expected, and for the second time in one year no brackets are left in tact. It’s because of this that the 2014 may go down as the best ever. In addition to records being set for comebacks, goals, and late game scoring, the upsets have this tournament starting to resemble another American tournament that takes place in March that we’re quite fond of. So to try and predict where the tournament could go from here we have to look at where it came from. As we mentioned in some previous post, one of the things that always stands out for me is the mental game, which sides have it together enough upstairs to handle the stage and who is a time bomb waiting to destruct? We’ve seen examples mental lapses by individuals that have directly cost their country an opportunity to escape the group stage let alone hoisting the trophy, and I’ll pose the same question again, how can you train for 4 years only to get to he pitch and leave your brain at home? Given Portugal’s performance in the final two matches of the group stage will forever raise the question, but for not Pepe’s ‘headbutt’ on Thomas Muller which left “A Seleccao” one man short for the lion’s share of the match resulting in a 4 goal defeat, the goal differential tie-breaker which was the decider in sending the USA through rather than Portugal will live in infamy for years to come on what could have been. Ironically, as egregious as it was, it wasn’t the worst mistake of the first round. That dubious honor goes to Luis Suraez whom brought out his inner Mike Tyson against Giorgio Chiellini by biting his shoulder, and leaving his mark not only on his shoulder but on Uruguay’s world cup as well. FIFA handed him a 9 game/4 month suspension and baring the possibility of a Winter long tsunami, should signify the end of his world cup as well as his countries’ chances. The fact that he is a tree-time offender not only justifies the sentence but leads you to believe as catastrophic as this is for his team, he may have more problems personally. On a team level, that prize goes to the Ivory Coast for basically going to sleep during the entire extra-time period against Greece and allowing them to continually attack without retort, and eventually earing a penalty kick goal when a tie would have sent them through. This collapse is particularly sad as it was the final WC match for Didier Drogba whom deserved to go out much better than that. This was an example where although the manger can’t get out there and play for them, but one with the personality of challenging his players either through enthusiasm or confrontation would have fit really well as now rather than working for four minutes they’ll have forty years to remember what could have been. That said, let’s get to the countries that are still playing and the matchups in the knockout phase. Group A – Probably the only group where there weren’t any surprises. We knew the host nation would go on as the winner of the group. After Brazil, you had to think Mexico would put it together despite literally getting into the tournament because of the good graces of their rivals from the North. They are playing like a team of cancer survivors with a new lease on life which makes them very dangerous. It was either they or Croatia that would advance and it was clear in their head-to-head who the better side was. So from that group we get Brazil vs. Chile – What else can you say? When you look in the dictionary under “home court advantage” there will be a picture of the 2014 World Cup. I don’t know how they actually manage to get to the games as the infrastructure is a mess and God forbid it rains but the fans are there and they are loud. Chile has one shot in this match and that’s to get out first with a goal, and park a bus the size of an unused subway train in front of goal. Oh yea, and stop the poster boy for this year’s world cup from scoring. I know, a lot of correlation and analogy but you get the point that this may be a forgone conclusion with a betting line of +550. But before you lay all of that juice don’t forget the type of Tournament we’ve had so far and the countries we expected to be playing this week that will on be in Brazil if they’re on vacation. True, Spain may have been living on reputation but it was the 2-0 loss to Chile that opened the eyes of the world to that fact. Also true they didn’t look good against Holland but hindsight might prove that no one did and if that is the litmus test of the prowess of this side then don’t be surprised if they pull of their second upset of a world power in one cup. Nigeria/France – France the Group E winner with a 2-1 record but the draw came against Ecuador a side with a similar make up to Nigera in regards to speed throughout the lineup which is rare as that is usually a distinction that Le Bleu holds. The tournament got off to exciting start with the last second win by Switzerland over Ecuador, as it turns out a win that pushed Schweizer Nati through. The knockout match between Nigeria and France should be one of the most exciting we see in this round and will certainly send a shot across the bow to Germany who is heavily favored in it’s match against Algeria, as either one these sides presents a plethora of matchup problems for the Germans. We’ve said from the start that Germany would be better served if they finished as the runner up in the group but that remains to be seen, we’ll either be prophets or punks. Germany/Algeria – Germany comes into the knockout round with the honor of being the winner of the ‘Group of Death’ with the strength of that win coming off their opening blowout win over Portugal, aided by the stupidity of the Pepe red card, leading to the 4-0 win and taking all pressure off of losing the tie-breaker. However much like France, the Germans came into the knockout phase with 7 points, and their tie coming at the hands of an African nation, Ghana, a side laced with speed at every position and it took a late 2nd half goal to produce the result for Die Mannschaft a position they don’t want to find themselves in this match or the next. They should get through this one but we think they pay the piper in the next. Belgium/USA – Belgium came into the tournament ranked 11th in the world according to FIFA but pretty much everyone views them as a much bigger treat than that. Winners of Group H with 9 points, going 3-0, reinforced those perceptions. A collection of stars from some of the best club teams in the top European leagues, The Red Devils have the pedigree of a side that could be still playing in two weeks. The USA meanwhile as already exceeded expectations of even their coach by escaping the group of death despite losing their top striker, could mean there’s more surprises in the cards for The Stars and Stripes. The conflict in this match will be the better team vs. the team with the better players. No doubt on paper the Belgians have more talent, but they haven’t really played a cohesive game yet in the tournament despite their 3 wins, and the quality of their group had the lowest rating 67.5 of all eight (Group G was 36.75). The US has shown better team play than any side they’ve sent to the cup in recent memory and they hope that will prove to be the difference in this match however they are notorious for horrendous starts and egregious mistakes defensively that lead to matches that didn’t yield results despite outplaying their opponent. If that happens on Tuesday, they will be headed home as the margin for error is zero at this level and the question facing this squad is are they ready for a match of that intensity? Argentina/Switzerland – Argentina the Group F winner will try to keep the streak going as all group winners have won their knockout matches to this point and they’re heave favorites to keep that going. Another of the 9-point group winners that didn’t lose a match in the group stage, La Albiceleste is living up to its ranking of #5 in the world. However keep in mind that Switzerland also came in as a ranked country in Group E and because of the upsets in the tournament so far, this will be the only matchup between top ten sides in the first round of the knockout stage so this may not be the forgone conclusion that the pundits think it be. Of all of the stars in the tournament Messi has lived up to the hype and among the marquis stars he is shining the brightest (and still playing) and if he continues his ways Argentina will be the next group winner to move on. The Swiss are still trying to justify their ranking as many have doubted it and not without good reason as they were pressed substantially in the group stage starting with the gift tie from Ecuador. This will be their shot at justification, and if they can get by Messi and his men the sky’s the limit.

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