The World Cup has gotten off to an excellent start, with an abundance of exciting matches and storylines. It is always interesting to see where each team is at after one match once all of the hype is over and they actually have to perform on the pitch. While the tendency is to overreact to initial impressions (e.g., Holland and Germany will be in the final! Spain is finished!), there are some nuggets of truth to be found in this first set of games. Four major ones stand out to me:
1. Brazil is not as good as everyone was expecting. I predicted in my previous World Cup post that Brazil will not win the tournament, and in their match against Croatia they showed why. Neymar is their only player who can carry a team, and their defense is suspect. The match would have ended in a draw if it had not been for the referee’s horrible penalty call. Brazil will probably win their group because of this win, but they will likely play Spain in the second round, and it will get more difficult from there. I do not see Brazil having the quality necessary to get through four of these tough matches to win the trophy.
2. Portugal are always crap at the World Cup. It is true that Portugal are better than they showed yesterday in their 4-0 loss to Germany. However, they have a history of disappointing World Cups that was clearly weighing on them. They did not seem ready to play, and now they have zero momentum going into what is basically a must-win match for them against the U.S. on Sunday.
3. CONCACAF’s strong start is not a fluke. Mexico, Costa Rica, and the U.S. all had solid victories (the U.S.’s was probably the least convincing because they played rope-a-dope, though still well-deserved; more on that below), and have put themselves in good position to make the second round. While Honduras looked terrible against France, it was their toughest match, and I expect the Catrachos to get better. CONCACAF has slowly and steadily been getting stronger, with more players playing in Europe and many playing in the ever-improving MLS, and this improvement is beginning to show on the global stage. The CONCACAF teams also seem to be less affected by the difficult weather conditions in Brazil than other countries because they are used to the difficult conditions in their own region. This is one reason why I think Portugal will be in trouble against the U.S. in Manaus.
4. Conversely, the African teams have been disappointing (note that Algeria hasn’t played yet, but I expect them to be the fourth place team in Group H). Aside from Ivory Coast’s comeback win against Japan (which was made possible by poor finishing by Japanese in the first half, as it should have been at least 2-0 going into halftime), the CAF teams have looked flat and it does not look like any of them have a chance of advancing. Cameroon was on the back foot the entire match against Mexico and now have to face Croatia and Brazil, Nigeria looked listless in their draw against Iran (even though Iran’s strategy was to park the bus, they actually had the best scoring chances of the match and were a bit unlucky not to win) and now face a must-win match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ghana now need at least a point in their next match against red-hot Germany to have any hope of advancing after their crushing loss against the U.S. These disappointing results come after a subpar 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when only one of the six African teams made it out of the first round. Although the African squads have lots of big-name stars, they have not looked cohesive as teams, which is in major contrast to their CONCACAF counterparts.
Speaking of good team performances, the U.S.’s 2-1 victory over Ghana last night, practically a must-win game for both sides, epitomized the spirit of collective effort necessary to be successful in a tournament like this. The U.S.’s best player, Michael Bradley, had a poor game, the team’s most dangerous player, Jozy Altidore, went off injured midway through the first half and Matt Besler went off injured at halftime, and the captain Clint Dempsey played most of the match with a broken nose, but the team rose above these difficulties to get the necessary three points. The exciting thing is that the U.S. did not play nearly as well as they are capable of playing and they still won the game. Now they have a golden opportunity to get a result against a hurting Portugal side.
If the U.S. beat Portugal they will clinch a berth in the second round unless Ghana manages to beat Germany. If the U.S. draw Portugal they will probably go through to the second round because of Portugal’s bad goal difference assuming that Germany beats Ghana. If these two results occur, the U.S. would be at +1 and Portugal would be at -4, so Portugal would need to beat Ghana by four and hope that the U.S. lost to Germany (i.e., as long as the U.S. did not lose by more than a goal to Germany, they would probably advance). However, if Ghana gets some kind of result against Germany, then everything will remain up in the air. Ghana and Germany play on Saturday, so the U.S. will have a clear picture of the ramifications of their match on Sunday.