World Cup 2014: Matchday Three (Group C, D)

Columbia 3 – 0 Greece

The Greeks came into this game with such an immense reputation for defensive football, an ethos they have consistently relied on since their surprise Euro 2004 win. But it only took a few minutes for the attack minded Columbians to blow it all to pieces. Even before the first goal, Columbia had come dangerously close to opening the scoring twice. When they did, it was from Armero in loads of space, whose effort was helped along its way by a hapless Manalos blocking the line of sight for his keeper.

The game settled into a more drab structure after that, with the Greeks forced to come out of their shell, but unwilling to do so to too much of a degree. The forward pair of Samaras and Gekas looked to be shy of ideas with any of the delivery they were getting, with Samaras notably guilty of several lackadaisical periods of play – typical of him. Kone came the closest for the Greeks, but Ospina was equal to the task of his effort just before half time. Columbia rarely went forward with serious gusto in the rest of the first half, but it was fair to say they had secured a measure of control.

The second goal, scored before Greece had really gotten any real chance to impose themselves on the second half, again showed up some of their sudden defensive weakness again, the ball squeezing between two defenders off Aguiler’s head for Gutierrez to tap home.

Greece looked seriously thoughtless at that stage, pumping the ball forward but only rarely threatening. Gekas’ close range header off the bar was as close as they really got, and it was no surprise to see him substituted. Greece looked a bit more lively when veteran Karagounis came on, but the man is 37, and could not be expected to carry the weight of an unlikely comeback on his shoulders alone.

With the gaps opening at the back due to the need for more reckless abandon, Columbia took the eventual chance to seal the game, having been in a comfortable position for most of the last half hour. Rodriguez’s low shot could possibly have been saved, but it didn’t really matter too much by that point.

Columbia were impressive without having to be too spectacular. They tore the Greek defence apart in a way multiple European sides have been unable to and did it without their talisman Falcao. A serious contender for the knockout stages. As for Greece, they could well already have their minds on the flight home, judging on this display.

Uruguay 1 – 3 Costa Rica

A serious shock. Costa Rica impressed at time in qualifying but few, including myself, would not have given them much of a chance to get anything from this group.

But their ability to put it up to Uruguay – considered by many to be potential winners of this tournament – was evident from the early stages. They defended with strength, put moves together from midfield with precision, and players like Joel Campbell looked dangerous from the moment they got on the ball. Uruguay had their big stars to match them, but there was a definite feeling that the South American outfit were being a little complacent.

It was rough and tumble stuff throughout the first half, with a notable amount of big tackles and shirt pulling whenever the opportunity came up. Diaz’ foul on Lugano was especially moronic though, the kind of thing that will always be pounced on be refs eager to show they won’t ignore over the top theatrics in the penalty area (even when they do, constantly). Cavani took it well, and Uruguay had a lead they really didn’t deserve.

Costa Rica could have rolled over at that point, but came back. The rest of the half was more than a little dull as Uruguay seemed more interested in surprisingly mundane long ball passes and both sides made little of half chances.

In the second though, Costa Rica exploded into life. Gamboa was relentlessly in keeping what seemed like a lost cause in play, and his resulting cross sucked in the Uruguay defence. Campbell, his worth rising every time he touched the ball, was allowed the space to fire home. Campbell has a seriously bright future on the basis of this.

Suddenly every Uruguay weakness seemed to be on full display, and it was from another high ball a few minutes later that they found themselves behind. Duarte waited for his moment, and the defenders supposed to be stopping him were nowhere, absent, flailing.

Uruguay made their chances to try and get back into the game, Cavani getting closest I suppose, but their lack of quality play throughout was evident, At midfield they were so absent, with huge gaping holes in that area of the pitch all game. Forlan, needing to step into the shoes of absent strikers, failed big time. Costa Rica were making the right passes, being inventive and proving potent upfront from multiple sources – all things we were really expecting from Uruguay.

The final goal was another fantastic effort from Campbell, his through ball allowing Urena to angle the ball into the net. Uruguay was sunk from that point on. All that was left was for Pereira’s petulant kick out and a red card that only weakens his team further, the final action of a frequently bad-minded approach to tackling from the blue shirts.

With Luiz Suarez absent despite signs he might have been brought on, Uruguay looked distinctly ordinary next to the more entertaining and flowing Costa Rican offence. They now have boat loads of confidence to take into subsequent games, and surely they can put it up to England and Italy in the same manner. As for Uruguay, its win or bust now, as the use or misuse of Suarez will determine much of their future fate.

England 1 – 2 Italy

From the moment Sterling’s rasping shot from such distance seemed to be in, but then wasn’t, there was something special about this one.

But sides had drastically different methods. Italy at first seemed effectively patient, stringing passes around the midfield and flanks with ease. But before long it became clear that this was all that Italy had: they could make 20 consecutive passes, but no chance would come of it, save for an aimless long ball that Balotelli, conserving his energy for those quick bursts of chasing, could not get on the end of. Glen Johnson, on the right of the England defence, was their best defender, while the midfield was severely limiting Italian options, even if most of the possession was being sacrificed.

On their end, England seemed to be working everything down the right, where the combination of Welbeck and Sterling kept getting the better of a sluggish Italian defence. The lead should have come around the 24th minute when Welbeck got clear on the byline and crossed to Sturridge, but a brave interception by Barzagli, which could have easily wound up in his own net, saved the day.

Both teams seemed to want to go, by their own consent or not, for the spectacular long shot, and a good few wides from distance marked the first half. Then one of them flew in, a well worked Italian corner, a stepover from Pirlo, and a vicious strike from 30 or so yards through a maze of bodies from Marchisio.

Pirlo. What a player. So calm, so accurate, so incisive, so intelligent with his play. Time and again he picked out the right ball (check out that pass to Balotelli late on in the first) and even when he wasn’t touching the ball wonderful things were happening. But England had their own beating heart, and great combination play from a Sterling pass, Rooney’s cross (one of his only major involvements, save that unfortunate miss on the hour) and Sturridge’s strike produced that stunning half volley a few minutes later, which I think they deserved. Balotelli should have given Italy the lead at the half but for Jagielka, and the game was finely poised.

Balotelli swung it back in Italy’s favour with his header, as Baines seemed to lose all sense and dive helplessly at the ball instead of sticking to his man. England stuck to their game plan and caused continued problems to the Italy defence, but the pattern of the match was seemingly set:  slow, patient Italian build-up was trumping the brief bursts of English pace and directness. The domination of possession did switch to England, but what opportunities did they make of them? Too often, Italy would detain, win the ball back and work it out of danger with a calmness that approached legendary status.

Set-pieces were as close as England were getting and the Italians seemed comfortable enough, having husbanded their energy in the conditions to a better degree than the opposition. They also better used their subs, with the likes of Barkley, Wilshire and Lallana getting up to very little in the closing stages.

Italy saw it out. For them, Pirlo was God like, cruelly denied a spectacular free kick goal by the bar. 35 years old, and he played 97 minutes. For England, the poor displays of Rooney and England were crucial, and the departure of Sturridge was a death knell for what creativity they had. I remain to be convinced that England are capable of getting out of this group. Italy were immense, dealing with the twin dangers of English youth and the humidity with aplomb. They’re going places.

Cote d’Ivoire 2 – 1 Japan

Cote d’Ivoire made most of the running in the early stages here, with Gervinho teasing the Japanese defences on the wing and the “Blue Samurai” not able to keep possession for very long when they got it. But they settled after ten or so minutes, and then the quality shone through. Suddenly they kept the ball better, worked a corner, and Honda smartly turned into space and smashed the opener home, a mostly static defence unable to stop him. A few minutes later and it really should have been two, right back Uchida proving how easy it was to open Cote d’Ivoire up.

After this brief period of Japanese domination, the Cote d’Ivoire were able to get back into it, but with a certain toothlessness evident. Toure, Boka and Bony were firing blanks, even with the Japanese defence gifting them numerous set-piece opportunities along with the majority of the possession. The Japanese certainly seemed to be a bit more exciting going forward, but it was fair to say that neither keeper was being greatly tested in the first half. Too many big players, like Kagawa for Japan and the aforementioned attackers for Cote d’Ivoire, were not having great games.

By the end of the first half Cote d’Ivoire were buzzing a few inviting balls into the Japanese penalty area, but Kawashima was not forced to do anything too tiring. This trend continued into the early stages of the second, with Bony and Hasebe both wasting decent chances. A steady 4-4-2 when not holding the ball allowed Japan to come back into the game in terms of possession, but they looked as likely to make a really workable chance as their opponents after around an hour.

With time running out for Cote d’Ivoire, Drogba was sent on and almost immediately set up a possible equaliser, but Gervinho failed to pull the trigger. Japan suddenly seemed all over the place, perhaps trying to readjust to Drogba’s presence, and Aurier’s whipped in cross was steered in by the in-form Bony for a deserved equaliser. The Japanese defence still couldn’t get things right, and an almost mirror image cross gave Cote d’Ivoire the lead off the head of Gervinho. A truly shocking turnaround, a pathetic effort from the Japanese backline and, for the second, Kawashima.

They tried to come back into it, a 4-2-3-1 in attack morphing into what seemed like a 4-2-4 at moments. But with players like Kagawa and Honda (bar his early goal) really underperforming, it seemed unlikely Japan would ever fashion the opportunity needed. In fact, it was Cote d’Ivoire who went closer to scoring again, with two decent Drogba efforts. His team are expert time killers when in front, drawing every foul, milking every stoppage, suddenly coming down with injuries and giving their goalkeeper the most touches he would have in the match. Japan went out with a whimper.

Very disappointed with the way the Japanese played in the second, so many misplaced passes and directionless attacking after such a positive start. Cote d’Ivoire took a while to come into the game properly, but when they finally did they really punished the opposition. Japan/Greece now a must win game for both teams. Columbia/Cote d’Ivoire could well decide the group.

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