World Cup 2014: Matchday Seven (Group B, A)

Australia 2 – 3 Netherlands

I expected a Dutch walkover, but the Aussies put in a heroic performance in trying to keep their slim World Cup hopes alive.

They needed to attack right from the off and did so, putting pressure on the Dutch in their half and immediately trying to continue the link-up between Leckie and the other forward players, Cahill and Bresicano, that resulted in the goal against Chile in the first game.

But despite that pressure, a key facet of the game led to the first goal, from one of the Dutch’s first real opportunities. Robben won the ball in the middle and was able to steam straight through the Australian half, into their box and put the ball into the net without much difficulty. Thus was a tale of Australian defensive weakness began.

Of course no one was thinking that a minute later. Leckie with a great cross and Cahill with an amazing first time volley. Certainly one of the goals of the tournament so far and it stunned the Dutch to a great degree. The Australians kept up the pressure and the Dutch came to realise that they would be enjoying no kind of walkover.  Van Gaal was getting all kinds of impatient on the sidelines and it was clear that a certain complacency had marked the Dutch preparations.

They initially seemed to have solved that problem in the second, Sneijder coming close with a curling 20 yard effort. Then the controversial penalty, very harsh decision made against Janmaat, who could not possibly have done more to avoid the ball. Jedinak took it well and a shock was on the cards.

Until the second part of the Australian defensive tragedy took place. The Dutch poured forward with vigour, the Australians were hapless in their attempts to clear their lines and soon enough Van Persie, of all people, was given yards of space to smash home from close range.

Temperatures began to boil over, tackles started flying in and it all started to look a little desperate. World Cups can turn on such periods of play, and Leckie’s abominable headed effort from such a wonderful position was a dagger to Australian hopes. The Dutch reformed and advanced up the field with speed and precision before Depay’s distant effort squirmed past the flailing Ryan in the Aussie goal, the last part of their defensive woes.

The Netherlands had the experience and the know-how to close the game out, and Australia could not find any more real chances. Bad tempered at times, the match showed up some of the Netherlands’ own weaknesses, mostly at the back where the reliance an Dutch league players might yet prove problematic. But they played poorly and still won, a true sign of champions. Australia acquitted themselves well, but their lack of defensive talent and composure in front of goal cost them.

Spain 0 – 2 Chile

A watershed moment in international football? Perhaps. The Dutch game could have been written off as a fluke, but no more. The Spain that has terrified world football for the past six years is gone.

It was clear from the outset. The 4-3-3 was failing to work around the harassed and ineffective Costa, who has had a tournament to forget, looking nothing like a 35 million pound player. With the possible exception of Silva, none of the usual suppliers were doing good work, with Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta all failing to really make their mark on the contest.

On the other side it was a different story. Aranguiz, Vargas and above all Sanchez were performing to the best of their ability, and regularly tormenting a Spanish defence whose players seem to have been left exhausted by the club season – Ramos in particular looking nothing like the man who rescued Real Madrid’s Champions League dreams.  That defence was torn apart for the first goal, with none of the back four, or a bafflingly retained Casillas, doing very well to stop Vargas from poking his close range effort home.

Spain chased an equaliser, needing to win the game to have any realistic hopes of advancing. That made for an entertaining contest, as their usually tiki-taka style was swallowed up by an enterprising and efficient Chilean backline who converted to attack smartly – muck like the Spain of old if I’m being honest. A second looked far more likely to come from them and so it did. Another litany of defenseive foul-ups, with Casillas punching the ball away too low, the defence failing to mark Aranguiz inside the box, and Casillas being badly position for the rebound.

Spain limped to half time, now needing a minor miracle to get out of the group. The second half saw Costa and Busquets have a few fine opportunities, but when they failed to get put into the net the pattern of the game was clear. Chile were confident in possession, outpassing and outpacing their opposition time and again. Spain looked dismal when they tried to pass around the Chilean defence as they did of old, and then Bravo in goal started keeping out distant effort after distant effort, a fine display capping an already brilliant defensive effort from his team.

Del Bosque looked lost on the sidelines, turning to Fernando Torres of all people to try and rescue the situation. His few touches were as useless as they were clumsy, and the game was all but finished with ten minutes to go, Spain reduced to simply passing the ball around midfield as if they still somehow hoped their unique style would forge open the gaps that have existed for the past three tournaments.

It did not. Chile coasted to victory, an era ending result. Both the Dutch and Chile go through, their remaining business in the first stage being to see who avoids Brazil. Australia and, shock of shocks, the World Cup holders Spain, are out. The World Cup continues to offer up delightful contests and surprising results. And that is all for the good of football.

Cameroon 0 – 4 Croatia

A fascinating contest on paper. Both teams would stay in contention with a draw, but a win would be far preferable, especially for the African side yet to play the hosts.

The game began in an open fashion, both teams settling fast and passing well. Cameroon were making in-roads up the right, with Song instantly having a bigger impact than he did in the first game. The Croatians, more centre focused than the opposition, were also coming into the game nicely.

They struck first. The Cameroonian defence couldn’t deal with the Perisic’s movement and crosses, and it was from one of his balls that Olic was able to smash home, easily getting ahead of M’Bia. Cameroon were understandably a little rattled by that, and Croatian could easily have been two ahead a moment later, when Perisic’s close range effort somehow failed to end up in the back of the net.

Cameroon survived and settled again, stringing the ball around far better and threatening the Croatian right again and again. However no firm chances came of it, and the game had soon devolved into a fairly tame back and forth, with Croatia perhaps looking just a bit better than their opponents, on the ball or off it. M’Bia charged to the by-line but couldn’t find subsequent space to cross. Perisic again found space from a corner but headed well wide. Simple chances, but none of them could be converted.

Then Alex Song, such an important player in the Cameroon team, had his moment of utter idiocy, getting himself needlessly sent off in such stupid circumstances. The moment seemed to stun both teams – Cameroon actually played better than Croatia in the aftermath leading up to half time – but it could not be denied how much of a blow it was to the African side. A goal down and a man down, needing at least a draw to survive to the next game. What did they have for the second?

Nothing in the early minutes, and Croatia killed the game off quickly. And it was Perisic again, so involved in nearly everything good Croatia were making, steaming down the left, scorching past the right back and slamming the ball home with precision, Itandje weak at all times. Mandzukic could have made it even worse a few minutes later, but conspired to put his breakaway chance wide.

Croatia could then take it easy, pass it around with ease, allow Cameroon to exhaust themselves and seek whatever opportunities came. Olic, Srna and Modric all had chances before Mandzukic powered in his header on the hour.

Cameroon managed to pull themselves together just a little bit after that, with Aboubaker and M’Bia launching distant shots, more in hope than anything. The space Croatia could find in the Cameroon thirds was astonishing though, with the Africans wilting in the humidity. Eduardo’s low shot came from an area where no Cameroon player was next to him, and the same could be said for Mandzukic’ resultant tap-in.

It was a cakewalk from there, the score only staying as it was due to Croatia’s lackadaisical approach. Croatia are capable of beating Mexico and advancing. Cameroon are capable of nothing.

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