World Cup 2014: Matchday Six (Group H, A)

Belgium 2 – 1 Algeria

Unfortunately, much of the early fizz of the World Cup appears to have vanished following a series of disappointing encounters.

Belgium had a lot to live up to, with so much expectation attached to their usually dismissed side. A golden generation? Time would tell. Algeria had little to live up to, one of the worst rated sides in the competition. The Africans came to defend and hunt for a goal on the counter, and it was they who made the breakthrough after a pedestrian first 25 minutes.  A definite penalty, and it was well taken by Feghouli.

From there it was more of the same in terms of some of the previous contests: one team had the lead and wanted to do nothing but keep it, the other team tried to break them down. It made for dull football, a true disappointment, as the attacking options Belgium had to offer were strangled of any decent opportunities by a swarm defence. Algeria were marshalled well by Bougherra at the back and limited the European outfit to wasted crosses or hopeless long shots.

It was not until well into the second half that Belgium actually began to make a game of it. Whether it was the Algerians tiring or a few key substitutions making the difference, the Belgians began to carve open better opportunities, with Origi failing to convert a nailed on breakaway chance thanks to a fine leg save from Mbolhi.

Then Fellaini was sent on, one of the last people you would expect Belgium to turn to given the nature of his club season. Placed into what was essentially a centre forward role, his height and freshness immediately caused problems, and he steered a fantastic header into the net only a few minutes after his arrival.

From that moment, only one team looked capable of winning the game. The Belgians were suddenly flush with confidence even as the Algerian resistance began to crumble. They were freed from the fear of an opening defeat, with Fellaini, Origi, Hazard and Mertens streaming forward with vigour. Algeria could only attempt the most simple kind of forward movement, and it was from a Belgian breakaway following one of those that the winner came, Mertens allowed far too much room on the right, fed excellently by Hazard, before a composed finish.

From there, the game was over, Algeria barely able to force a corner to threaten the Belgian goal. It was a scare for one of the big dark horse candidates and for most of the first 70 or so minutes they really were second rate. Algeria showed that they can cause some problems to an attack minded side, but certainly did not show that they have the legs to trouble sides for a full game.

Brazil 0 – 0 Mexico

We expected Brazil to have settled since the tournament opener, but instead it was more of the same. With some players out of position (like Oscar, on the wrong wing) and with the likes of Fred having fairly anonymous performances, Brazil looked, right from the start, nothing like a team that are apparently the red hot favourites to be lifting the trophy on the 13th of July.

And it wasn’t because Mexico were playing like champions themselves. They played alright in the first, the really major contribution being a certain pressure applied to the Brazilian midfield players, squeezing them out of the game for large parts and neutering much of the hosts forward momentum. Brazil kept playing everything through Neymar, expecting his genius to make up for their other shortcomings, and he did try his best, his run and shot after the half hour mark one of Brazil’s best moments. He also forced Ochao into making one of the saves of the tournament later, Brazil’s only really close chance of the contest in the first 45. Both teams were guilty of some wasteful attacking play and decent shots that could not even be forced on target.

The lunging tackles and rough style of play wasn’t helping things either. The Turkish ref was willing to hold off on the cards but not on the whistle, as both sides seemed more interested in intimidating the other than actually playing football at times. The scrappy nature of the contest did much to reduce the quality.

The second half saw Mexico come out determined to press their luck a bit more. Having played well enough to kill of Brazil’s chances for flair and “samba” football, they now tried to take the lead, turning Brazilian defenders, working room in the front of the box and pulling the trigger whenever the opportunity arose. The accuracy, from Guardado, Vasquez and Dos Santos was not what it had been in the latter stages of the group opener against Cameroon, and Mexico squandered most of the opportunities that came their way.

It didn’t really seem to matter though, because Brazil could create nothing. The midfield wasn’t clicking, the forward partnership wasn’t working. An hour gone, and the closest they seemed to be getting to a goal was a Neymar free kick. The swapping of the ineffective Fred for Ju finally seemed to spark some life into the Brazil attack, Neymar and Luiz both having good chances in quick succession. Marcelo was having more of an impact on the game coming up the left, and had Ju in for half-chance with around 15 minutes left, badly scuffed wide. It was left to two final chances, one for each side: Silva’ bullet header from short range, smartly saved by Ochoa, and Jimenez’ low hit volley, also saved well by Cesar.

Brazil had improved as the game went on, but never found the back of the net, while Mexico will be happy for the draw. In fact, both teams might have felt somewhat wary of pressing forward to the full, knowing the potential disaster of risking all and losing. Both teams go into the last round of games on four points, but Brazil have the easier task. Mexico and Croatia has the potential of being a real classic.

Russia 1 – 1 South Korea

As with so many games so far in the World Cup, it was the underdog that made the better start. They were attacking strongly down the middle and finding gaps, Son Heung-min finding immense space to steam through and have a wayward shot before the tenth minute. The Russians and their 4-3-3 were taking time to settle, and giving away plenty of the ball in the process.

The game rapidly lost any kind of attacking impetus, as the Russian struggled to break down the Korean midfield line and wound up passing it backwards and across more often than not. The Koreans lost much of their own forward movement, Hong at the back guilty of several worthless long balls in the first half an hour.

The game settled into a dire pattern. Distant frees and stratosphere-level efforts (like a spectacular effort from Son around 37 minutes) were the order of the day, as both teams gave every impression of not wanting to risk losing the three points when one would do. The first half ended with the Koreans dominant in possession, the Russians failing to offer any pressure other than in their own third, where the Koreans were woeful.

The teams came out for the second with a slightly more positive outlook, both of them having decent chances in the opening few minutes. The Koreans looked a bit more ambitious, drawing fouls in and around the Russian area and forcing Akinfeev into making several saves.

Recognising that things were going a bit pear shaped, Capello sent on Dzagoev to add a bit to Russia’s attack, but he failed to make any kind of immediate impact. And then the ball wound up in the net. Naturally it was a goalkeeping error, with Akinfeev failing to deal with a routine long shot effort from Lee Keun-ho.

And that was just what the game needed. Russia could no longer play as they had, and pushed men forward. That left gaps at the back, and for a few moments it seemed as if Korea might take advantage. But within six minutes, it was the Korean defence making the error, giving Dzagoev too much space, allowing him to get a shot off, and then being comically unable to clear their lines, Kerzhakov with a relatively easy tap in.

The defensive shells had fallen apart, and both teams suddenly wanted to win the game. But while it became a bit more entertaining because of the urgency employed by both sides, no more serious chances were created.

A very difficult group to call, due to the terrible performances by all four today.

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