After their last minute winner over Russia in what was a dire affair, Belgium joined a host of faltering European sides. Germany struggled to a draw against Ghana; Portugal’s World Cup hopes hang by a thread, Italy face a playoff with Uruguay after losing to Costa Rica, and current holder’s Spain crashed out after just two games. The Spanish did earn some measure of respect back tonight. Del Bosque made seven changes from the defeat to Chile, and the opening 30 minutes betrayed a lack of familiarity and a lack of confidence, uncharacteristically misplacing passes. Their quality was always going to show through however, regardless of how admirably Australia have performed in Brazil, and David Villa tapped home in the 36th minute. The influential Iniesta threaded a ball through to right back Juanfran, who squared the ball for Villa to impudently back heel home.
After the break Spain settled into their tiki-taka rhythm and Iniesta once again split the Socceroos’ defence, this time for Torres to convert with his first shot on target of the competition. The goal came with half an hour remaining on the clock, shortly after David Villa had left the pitch disconsolate, after calling an end to a remarkable international career in which he has won every possible trophy. It is such a shame though that a true Spanish great must bring down the curtain not with one last triumphant encore, but with an early exit. Late on, Spain did add gloss to the score line, this time Fabregas turning provider for fellow substitute, and Manchester United winger Juan Mata.
The result at least lifts Spain off bottom place, behind Chile and Holland, and now the Dutch, along with France now represent Europe’s best hopes of finally winning a World Cup on South American soil. Louis van Gaal’s men entered the competition relatively free of expectation, an injury to key man Kevin Strootman having forced a late change in formation. Nevertheless, Holland dismantled favourites Spain in their opening fixture, a feat matched by today’s opponents Chile. In what then was effectively a playoff for first place, key men Arturo Vidal and Robin van Persie were sorely missed, with not a single shot registered on target. Reported Manchester United targets Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben were the main threat for either side, their running and passing unsettling the opposition backlines.
With Sanchez constantly troubling a nervy Dutch defence, it took him going close and forcing a save from Cillessen to finally spark the Netherlands into action with little over half an hour remaining. Robben was again crucial in everything good Holland did, combining well with Depay once he had replaced Jermaine Lens, and he forced a strong save from Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo with a powerful shot from distance. The resultant corner finally brought the first goal of the game, Norwich midfielder Leroy Fer heading home with authority after the ball had come out to right back Daryl Janmaat to cross in. Keen to avoid rivals, and likely second round opponents Brazil, Chile pushed forward in search of snatching a win, but that deadly duo of Depay and Robben again combined for a late goal, the latter crossing for the former to score.
Chile’s fate was confirmed just a couple of hours later with Brazil’s victory over Cameroon. It is an ominous fixture for the Chileans, who’s record against Brazil is actually a running joke amongst the Selecao camp; if ever Brazil are struggling for form, the country’s journalist will always call for a friendly against Chile. Mexico pushed Phil Scolari’s men hard for 1st place in the night’s two Group A fixtures. Having not yet hit their swaggering best at the World Cup so far, Brazil nevertheless massively stepped up their performance to record a 4-1 win over Cameroon. The Selecao controlled possession from the off, and Barcelona winger Neymar quickly made it count, side footing home Luis Gustavo’s cross. Doubts do still remain about this Brazil side, who do not seem as naturally gifted as previous generations, and this was highlighted again when Cameroon quickly retaliated, Joel Matip equalising from close range.
What there can be no doubts about though is Neymar’s status as amongst the best in the world at the moment. The poster boy of Brazilian football put his team back ahead within five minutes of Cameroon going level, hitting it hard and low from the edge of the area. It was Neymar’s 4th goal of the World Cup so far, and 35th in total in just 52 appearances for Brazil. That goal put Neymar in pole position in the race for the Golden Boot, and takes the young Barcelona forward past both Rivaldo and Ronaldhino in terms of goals scored at just 22 years old. Next up it was Fred’s turn to get in on the goal scoring, the Fluminese forward rewarding Scolari’s faith in him, and finally breaking his World Cup duck.
It was at this stage of the game that things got interesting. After taking a slight knock, and with the win assured and Mexico only drawing with Croatia at that point. It was not for lack of trying though, and despite an early scare in which Paul Aguilar contributed a desperate last-ditch header to stop Bayern forward Mandzukic nod home, Mexico could have been several goals to the good by half time. Herrera hit the crossbar from 25 yards, and Peralta really should have done better when through on goal. Despite edging possession, Croatia were simply not effective enough going forward and when Mexico finally took the lead through Rafael Marquez’ commanding header, it is no more than they deserved. With that, the floodgates opened, and shortly after Guardardo volleyed home from the left after Peralta’s pass across the box. Another well worked corner saw Marquez again get his head on the ball, this time nodding on for Javier Hernandez to convert. That goal was the 8th this World Cup scored by a Manchester United player, with only Bayern players having contributed more. That stat combined with Louis van Gaal’s impressive work with Holland thus far bodes very well for the Manchester giants.
At 3-0, Mexico were only a goal away from overtaking Brazil in 1st place, but the Selecao were not to be outdone, and after Oscar won position high up the pitch, Fernandinho exchanged passes on his way into the box to score a marvellous 4th and reassert Brazil’s advantage. Any hope of snatching 1st place in Group A went once Ivan Perisic pulled one back for Croatia. This was not to be the spark to a comeback though, and what few hopes the Croatians may have had left were quashed once Rebic was sent off for a nasty challenge on Mexico left back Carlos Pena.
Mexico now then face the daunting task of facing off against red hot Holland, but will take confidence from what has been a fantastic group campaign by the Central Americans. Scolari meanwhile will be pleased to see his lads finding fine form as they gear up to facing Chile. On paper it will be a very close match-up, but crucial to any Chilean success will be their ability to overcome the inferiority complex that has plagued past matchups, or else see the Selecao add to their dominant record. Coach Sampaoli will be praying on the fitness of Juventus dynamo Arturo Vidal, whose presence was surely missed against the Netherlands.