World Cup 2014: Matchday Nine (Group D, E)

Italy 0 – 1 Costa Rica

This team are the real deal. Not only did they beat a side with the quality of Italy, but they did it with style and panache.

Costa Rica made it an even contest from the off, bossing midfield with the likes of Tejede and relying on the strength and pace of Campbell to give them the added dimension upfront. Italy looked drained for large parts of the game, perhaps worn down by the titanic effort in Manaus against England, even midfield maestro Pirlo looking a little out of sorts.

Costa Rica had the lions share of the chances in the first half, the returning Buffon looking more than a little unsure for efforts from the head of Borges and the boot of Bolanos. Campbell seemed to be everywhere, and the defence that allowed Raheem Sterling so much room earlier in the week was similarly in trouble against him. Not even Balotelli’s effort in the later stages of the half could reverse the trend, and Costa Rica looked more than capable of at least getting a draw.

Then the combination of Bolanos and Diaz hooked up well on the left, Campbell drawing defenders away, with an inch perfect cross providing the opportunity for Ruiz to head home off the crossbar. The perfect time to score, just before half time, and a big shock was on.

It would have been standard fare for Costa Rica to set back and try to defend the lead in the second, but to their credit they did not simply put 11 men behind the ball. Yes, the inclusion of Cassano gave Italy some more options and Balotelli made himself available, but Costa Rica gave as good as they got in the second, Duarte coming close to making it 2-0 around the 50th minute.

Italy did their best to break Costa Rica down, but with Pirlo ebbing as the game went on, it became clear that only extraordinary circumstances would create it. Costa Rica looked constantly dangerous whenever they pressed forward, and Italy descended into a tepid one dimensional state with plenty of time still to play.

In the end, it was Italy holding out, Brenes nearly wrapping it up in style with a few minutes to play. An amazingly accomplished performance from the CONCACAF side, who look forward to their second ever appearance in the knock-out stages. Italy must regain their strength and endurance in time for a winner take all test against the momentum stealing Uruguayans. England, a shambles, are already looking to home.

Switzerland 2 – 5 France

I expected something, given the situation the two teams find themselves in, along the lines of their dull 2002 encounter at the same level.

What we got was anything but a dour stalemate. France, seeking to put away any doubts of their ability, exploded against their Alpine neighbours as soon as they could, and didn’t look back until deep into the second half. Their attacking options, even without Ribery, played to the fullest extent, with Benzema a constant menace, supported ably by a horde of goal seeking midfielders and attackers.

The loss of Van Bergen in the early minutes was a hammer blow for the Swiss, whose defence never regained their cohesion. Giroud’s powerful looping header opened the account, and before Switzerland even knew what was happening Behrami had conceded possession in a vital area and Matuidi was allowed the space and time in the penalty area to slot home at the near post.

Benaglio kept his team in it with his penalty save (the first of the tournament) after Djourou’s obvious foul on Benzema, but the way he froze for the rebound was astonishing. France just kept piling forward, the Swiss looking important whenever they got into the final third, and it wasn’t long before the penalty miss was rectified, Valbuena getting on the end of a fine Giroud created move five minutes before half time.

Hitzfeld made some changes at the break and Switzerland did play a bit more attacking football in the second, but to no tangible gain. France were willing to wait for their moment to press ahead, and one of the first of those chances resulted in the fourth goal, substitute Pogba’s good run and chipped ball setting him up for a fine finish with 23 minutes to play.

The Swiss were reeling again, and it only took six minutes this time for the next to be rolled in, Sissoko the man to get it this time, sidefooting home in acres of space as Swiss defence temporarily went AWOL.

So many goals up, the French themselves started relaxing, with Dzemaili’s free (the first scored of the tournament) more than a little lucky the way it scuttled past the wall and Xhaka’s fine volley delivered from a position of no marking. It was too little too late, and the French were well deserving of a comprehensive victory.

I’ve misjudged the French, who I feared would collapse without Ribery to offer the star power most teams need at some stage. They’ve actually excelled without him, and have become a decent bet to progress to a few stages beyond this. The Swiss have to recover fast, facing into a difficult contest with Honduras. Speaking of which…

Honduras 1 – 2 Ecuador

Both teams wanted the three points, which was clear from the outset. They both attacked with speed when they had the ball, they both went for goal whenever the shot became available. Neither goalkeeper, nor his defence looked entirely comfortable with the onrushing attacks they were facing, and the added element of Honduras’ rough tackling game added an extra sense of menace to the encounter.

Enner Valencia had the first glorious opportunity, shamefully firing high and wide on an unexpected breakaway 20 minutes in. Honduras took that as a sign to press on themselves and were soon dominating possession. But the goal didn’t come from tight passing play, instead coming from the same avaenue of Suarez’ second yesterday. Long ball from the defence, a defenseive error to let it slip by and Carlo Costly on hand to slam it home with power.

Ecuador woke up and were level within a few minutes, passing around the Honduran box seeking the inevitable opening. Paredes’ wayward shot was ignored by too much of the Honduras defence and Enner Valencia was able to slip in and nod it home before it went out.

Ecuador controlled the rest of the half, switching between dangerous set-pieces and rolling on the ground from the harsh Honduran challenges. But Honduras did get the final words before the break, with Bernardez’ thumping free only just turned away by Dominguez before Bengtson’s disallowed effort at the death, the right call despite the protestations.

It was a fun game, an attacking venture between two frequently inept sides, the right balance between being exhilarating and smelling of desperation. Montero and Antonio Valencia were failing to click on the wings for Ecuador and the Garcia and Claros lead Honduran midfield was losing the ball more than they were completing passes.

The game became an eclectic mix of long balls to no one, mistimed challenges and distant effort that were either fizzing wide or being badly palmed away by nervy keepers. Espinoza was caught offside for another disallowed goal. Figueroa, five yards from goal, headed into space instead of at the net. Caicedo, five yards from goal, headed across it instead of at it. One of the Honduran defenders went through the game with a passing accuracy off roughly 25%.

And then Ecuador was ahead. Another free given away at the edge of the area (a terrible Honduran trait), a nice delivery and Enner Valencia rose, despite being pulled at the waist, to head it home.

The game continued in its previous manner, helter skelter, with both teams fouling liberally in-between attempting to actually score. Figueroa wasn’t at the races at all, his ballooned free kick on 74 minutes his most in-depth involvement. The game became more and more open as Honduras chased an equaliser with Montero guilty of wasting a crucial bit of possession inside the Honduran with just shy of ten minutes remaining, before getting into an embarrassing bout of handbags with Costly.

Honduras were given control of the game for the final few minutes but failed to challenge the Ecuadorian keeper and the game petered out. A bizarrely poised group where any team could yet progress or fail to, though France, and I suppose Switzerland, remain the best placed.

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