32 teams started. 16 remain. Those 16 do not include Spain, England, Portugal or Italy much to many peoples surprise, whereas Costa Rica, Algeria and Greece are into the knockout stages. But what have I learnt from the group games which saw plenty of drama, goals and shocks to get this fascinating World Cup off a spell bounding start.
1. No one came to Brazil to make up the numbers
One thing this World Cup has provided plenty of is shocks. The first one we saw was when Costa Rica beat Uruguay 3-1 on the third day of tournament. The Central Americans went on to beat Italy and draw with England to win Group D, something no one believed possible before the tournament.
They will play Greece in the Round of 16, a team who also have surpassed expectations. After losing their first game 3-0 to Colombia, Fernando Santos’ team did not give up hope, drawing 0-0 with Japan and then beating Ivory Coast in game three thanks to a last minute Georgios Samaras penalty meaning they finished second in Group C.
Before the tournament, Algeria had gone 482 minutes without a goal in the World Cup, but took a shock lead against Belgium in their first group game after 24 minutes. Despite going on to lose to Marc Wilmots’ side, the Africans were also surprise qualifiers for the Round of 16 following a 4-2 win over South Korea and a 1-1 draw with Russia.
Even teams who finished with few points in the group stages still looked as though they had determination right until the end. Iran’s stubborn defence almost got a draw against Argentina before a piece of Lionel Messi magic undid them in the last minute, whilst Australia led at one point against eventual Group B winners Holland.
2. Spain’s domination is over
An obvious presumption yes, but not something that I expected to be writing after the Group Stages. I predicted that Vincente Del Bosque’s side would get to the semi-finals of the tournament, as did many others, whilst some predicted that the Spanish would become the first nation to win two consecutive World Cups since Brazil did so in 1962.
A 5-1 defeat to Netherlands in their first game did little to suggest that this would be the case, with the defence looking all over the place as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie helped themselves to two each, whilst Stephan de Vrij also got on the scoresheet.
So what? Surely this was just a blip? It did lower their chances of winning Group B, but qualifying from it should still be a certainty for the Spanish, right?
Wrong. Their next game against Chile came around and nothing changed as they lost 2-0 and knocked out after just two games. Everything was going wrong and even a 3-0 win over Australia couldn’t do much to increase Spanish spirits.
Although the passing game was still their, it certainly did not look like the Spain we’ve seen win two consecutive European Championships and the last World Cup.
3. Neymar can cope with pressure
The poster boy for the tournament, Neymar has had the weight of a whole country’s hopes on his shoulders since the tournament started and will continue to do so as it progresses.
So far he’s handled it brilliantly for someone so young. Four goals means he is currently the joint top scorer and it is clear that he has come to perform in this tournament and send Brazil as far as possible.
His form for Phil Scolari’s side than that of his form at Barcelona, but many feared that the 22 year old would crumble under the pressure at the World Cup.
He has in fact excelled and his performances bettered by few. Without their number 10, Brazil look toothless, with Fred unlikely to score a 30 yard screamer or do a rabona on an opponent any time soon.
4. Big names are not always missed
Although this is not the case for some, there are two prime examples in the form of France and Colombia, two of the most exciting teams of the tournament so far.
The former lost winger Franck Ribery six days before the tournament with the Bayern Munich man having injured his back in training. It was seen as a crucial loss for Didier Deschamp’s side, with many fearing that a repeat of 2010 could be on the cards where they failed to get out of the group.
They have however been one of the most entertaining teams of the tournament, with Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena particularly catching the eye as the French easily progressed from Group E with seven points – a 5-2 win over Switzerland the highlight.
Colombia meanwhile, also progressed from their group with little trouble claiming three wins from three, all without talismanic striker Radamael Falcao who was not included in their squad after damaging an anterior cruciate ligament in January while playing for Monaco. Boss Jose Pekerman described his decision to cut Falcao as “the saddest day I’ve had since becoming Colombia coach”.
But he has enjoyed some of the best days as Colombia coach since, with Falcao’s Monaco teammate James Rodriguez being key to three eye-catching performances from the South Americans.
The absence of both Kevin Strootman and Ilkay Gundogan for Holland and Germany respective have also not seemed a problem, however it could be said that injuries to Theo Walcott and Ricardo Montolivo for England and Italy in Group D have have affected both teams’ chances.
5. Is there hope for England in the future?
There was hope before the tournament that the lack of expectation on England’s shoulders could let them play with no pressure and qualify from Group D, but sadly this was not the case, as we were dumped out after just two games and finished the tournament with a solitary point to show for our efforts.
But these efforts were attacking, something we have rarely seen from Three Lions sides in the past. This came from the influence of young players such as Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley coming into the side, one of a few things that I give Roy Hodsgon credit for.
In my mind, the 66 year old needs to go, but as it appears he will continue on, the focus has to be on get a young, vibrant side together to actually make the world sit up and take notice at Euro 2016 and the next World Cup.
We saw glimpses of our young talent in Brazil with the aforementioned Sterling and Barkley looking impressive. Furthermore, the likes of Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling did not look out of place when given their chance in the dead rubber against Costa Rica.
Look out for a seperate post on what went wrong for England in Brazil and what needs to happen in the next two years coming up in the next week or so.