World Cup 2014: Matchday Four (Group E, F)

Switzerland 2 – 1 Ecuador

It was a dull start to the contest, with neither team offering much threat or cohesion in the opening 20 or so minutes. Save for Shaqiri’s curling effort, both teams seemed stuck to long balls going out of bounds and scrappy midfield play.

The game badly needed some kind of spark and Ecuador’s Montera did his best to provide, skinning Lichtsteiner on the right to win a free. The Swiss fell asleep for the resulting set-piece, allowing Enner Valencia to rise unopposed and head home, with Benaglio motionless on the line when he really should have come for it.

But neither team seemed to take this as a sign to press on. The Swiss began to dominate possession, but their predictableness was a killer. Ecuador rarely looked too pressed, and were happy to limit their opponents to long ball tactics. For their part, Ecuador were capable of bursting forward down the wings when they won the ball, but invariably the crosses that resulted could not find an Ecuadorian head.

The Swiss were just so disappointing in the first half, totally unable to fashion a really good chance, with so many misdirected passes. It was a shame, because Ecuador keeper Dominguezlooked iffy the few times he was tested from distance. And Ecuador just didn’t feel like chasing another goal too much.

Ottmar Hitzfeld needed to do something to change the way the Swiss were playing and turned to Admir Mehmedi to do it. Two minutes into the second half and the decision paid dividends, a strangely similar goal to the opener, with Mehmedi heading home from short range while the defence and goalkeeper mostly just stood and watched.

The game did liven up a bit from that point. Ecuador, through Montero on the left and Enner Valencia on the right, pushed to retake the lead, and the Swiss woke up to the possibilities of the counter-attack, Mehmedi really offering something new for them upfront. But the shots and crosses were still wayward from both sides: they had found some impetus, but no great touch on the ball.

The Swiss played the better as the game went into its final stages, with Mehmedi’s stepover before Drmic’s disallowed goal (probably incorrect, but a very difficult call for officials) one of the better moments in the whole game, though Benaglio nearly gifted Ecuador a second with his own stupidity a few moments later.

Then things got a bit more frantic in the final moments. Antonio Valencia got so much space on the counter to drive into the Swiss box and place an unselfish square ball to Arroyo. But the sub hesitated and got robbed by Behrami, a brilliant tackle. Then it was the Swiss’ turn to counter, to work it down the left, to power in a speedy cross and for another sub, Seferovic, to dart in and power it home.

The Swiss were rewarded for their greater amount of forward initiative in the second, but it’s fair to say that the two teams were fairly equal in their mediocrity.

France 3 – 0 Honduras

A great atmosphere in Porto Alegre, and two sides who, from the outset, seemed willing to play a bit of attacking football to make up for the relative stinker that preceded them.

The difference in general quality was immediately evident. The French got at them, passed with confidence and drew free kicks in advanced positions from an undisciplined Honduran defence in the first 15 minutes. Evra and Debuchy pushed forward on the wings to support any attack and the overall French offence threatened to swamp their opposition.

Again and again the French came storming on. Twice they hit the bar, and Greismann’s spectacular cross field through ball should have been put away by Benzema. Honduras were rattled and should have been a man down after Palacios’ double stamp on a prone Pogba, who got a yellow as well for some reason. When they did venture forward, we were treated to sky high crosses from Najar that threatened nothing.

Pogma was orchestrating much of the play and Benzema was getting into space, but no goals resulted, or even shots on target. Then came the major talking point of the first half: Palacios’ spectacularly moronic “challenge” on Pogba, a second yellow and a coolly dispatched penalty from Benzema. Honduras has little composure when it came to tackles in the opening 45, and France were well worth their lead.

And a few minutes into the second they made it two. Benzema made the goal, but it went down as an OG once the goalline tech made its debut proper. A fantastic moment for international football, to see technology used to make the game fairer. At last. It works. No more injustices on that score.

With that goal the game was essentially beyond the reach of Honduras. They actually eased off and let Honduras have more of the ball, content to let the Central American side waste their energy running around midfield, launching long balls into the French penalty area, and then running back to defend themselves. France were comfortable enough that Pogba and Cabaye could be brought off with over half an hour to play.

France would break and still take their time going down the field. Honduras were still fouling in dangerous areas indiscriminately, and from another free from the right of the goal came the third, a smartly worked set-piece put away with power by a prowling Benzema.

The game fizzled out after that, with France making a few half hearted efforts to get a fourth, but everyone knew the two teams were just seeing out. Honduras game into this contest seemingly more interested in kicking their opponents than kicking the ball, and an accomplished professional performance from France saw them ease to the three points.

Argentina 2 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

We had barely had time to see how the teams were going to play when Argentina were in front, an unfortunate Kolasinacat fault for a set-piece own goal within three minutes.

But “BIH” didn’t get this far by rolling over under such adversity, and very quickly had Argentina under pressure, with Hajrovica toepoke away from equalising after ten minutes. They have a nice attacking ethos this side, and it was very clear within a short time that they were not overawed by the occasion.

It was a thumping, up and down World Cup tie, hugely enjoyable even if there weren’t any meaningful chances being made. With a half hour gone it was clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina were the team on top, keeping a great amount of pressure on Argentina whenever they were on the ball and squeezing the really big names out of the game, even with Messi frequently dropping back to help out in midfield. Pjanic was Pirlo-like in his methods of controlling the centre of the pitch, and despite the early setback his team never seemed short of composure.

Macherano’s shot from distance around the 32nd minute was his teams next proper effort on goal, evidence of their apparent impotence. Dzeko worked an opening a few minutes later, but blasted it over, evidence of his teams own toothlessness despite their control, with Lulic’s header as close as they came in the first half, a fine save from Romero.

Rodriguez came off for Higuain, a sure sign of attacking intent from the leading team. But the reversion to Argentina’s usual 4-3-3 didn’t have the required effect, and the pattern of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s dominance quickly re-established itself, albeit with the continued inability to make a really good chance. Argentina’s night up to that point (goal aside) was nicely summed up by Aguero’s disastrous scuffed effort around 55 minutes in.

Yet all that pressure and time on the ball for the chasing team meant nothing when the quality in the final third was so lacking. And on the hour, Argentina suddenly seemed to click a bit more, pass better, work the ball from centre to flank and back with more precision. And that sudden burst of the kind of creativity Argentina are capable of paid dividends very quickly, with the excellent hook up of Higuain and Messi ending in that spectacular little solo run and finish.

The game appeared to be heading towards a comfortable finish for Argentina from that point, with Bosnia and Herzegovina still unable to make any kind of breakthrough and Argentina playing with much more calmness and flair than they previously had. But Argentina couldn’t finish it off despite some decent passages of play and then Bosnia and Herzegovina had one back. A lovely through ball and a slight error from Romero allowed Ibisevic to slip one into the net, setting up a nervy ending.

But it was not to be, Argentina seeing it out without too much worry, Bosnia and Herzegovina being strangely unwilling to throw bodies forward despite the situation. It was not an impressive opening showing from one of the tournament favourites, but they’ll probably improve. Bosnia and Herzegovina can look forward to easier ties.

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