Monthly Archives: June 2014

End of a golden era as Chile humble Spain

Casillas

 

The overriding feeling whilst watching this once great Spain side crumble in front of our eyes was one of sadness, as Chile defeated the current World Champions 2-0 at the Maracana to send them home at the earliest possible stage. After the 3-0 Confederations Cup defeat to Brazil, most assumed Del Bosque’s men would be back with a vengeance. Even after a shocking 5-1 defeat to Holland on Friday night, some thought they would return to give the doubters a slap on the wrist. Yet the comeback never came.

Iker Casillas, a great champion, looked like a man drained of all energy. His superhuman instincts had finally deserted him. Xavi, criticised in many quarters for the defeat to Holland, looked on solemnly from the bench. Both represented everything good about this golden generation. Ultra-talented on the pitch, class acts off it. They were seen as the glue that held the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions together. Both seem unlikely to ever return to the international stage again.

The scars will inevitably take time to heal, but this great side would be wise to look back on the joy they have brought to their country and the world, and the way they have revolutionised the international game. We may not see a team of this calibre again for a long while. Spain died a painful death last night, but they deserve to be remembered properly.

Amongst everything else, it is probably fair to say that many of these Spain players were simply burnt out, too fatigued to perform their tiki-taka game to the highest level. Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos and David Silva often play around 60 games a season for their clubs, and all have regularly featured in the latter stages of competitions for Spain. Diego Costa, straight into the side despite injury hampering him towards the end of the season, couldn’t replicate his stunning form with Atletico Madrid for La Roja.

This wasn’t necessarily the end of a certain type of football. Spain programme their players to play in a certain way, a proven way, and the success of their youth teams suggests that plenty more stars are to shine on the world stage in the years ahead.  Koke, who found himself on the bench from the start of both games, has the potential to fill Xavi’s boots. Thiago of Bayern Munich and Isco of Real Madrid are just two examples of young players not in this summer’s final squad, albeit Thiago due to injury. They both possess wonderful technical ability. The next four years will prove whether Spain can continue to play this way with success, not just this tournament. New players will be blooded into the fold, and perhaps in hindsight should have been a little earlier.

But despite Spain’s potential to react to such problems, the defeat to Chile felt significant. From the off Jorge Sampaoli’s men looked hungrier, snapping at the heels of their battle-weary opponents. They almost scored inside the opening minute but for the awareness of Alonso, who tracked back to make a vital tackle on Eduardo Vargas. Gonzalo Jara headed the resulting corner inches wide of the post. The warning shots had been fired.

Spain had a chance to take the lead fifteen minutes as Costa was played in a goal, but not for the last time in the evening he delayed his shot a tad too much. Andres Iniesta did manage to retrieve to the ball and cross low back into the box, but Claudio Bravo was quick to deny Alonso.

They were made to pay soon after, as Chile scored a goal that Spain would have been proud of at their very peak. After winning the ball back just inside Spain’s half, Chile were devastatingly clinical. Arturo Vidal found Alexis Sanchez inside, and he found the run of Charles Aranguiz. Spotting Vargas free on the far side of the box, Aranguiz neatly cut the ball back from the striker. Vargas did the rest weaving the ball past Casillas before poking home. Spain exiting the competition did not yet feel altogether real just yet, but it was becoming a distinct possibility.

Spain had a couple of chances to level before the break, Alonso blasted a volley over the bar after good hold up work from Costa, and Costa himself found the side netting after a Silva flick on. Pedro, who was not at his best, signified his frustration by smashing the ball against the advertising hoardings. Alonso gave away another silly foul on the edge of the area. Petulance was creeping in.

Not only did Alonso’s foul portray his frustration, it also put Chile almost out of sight. Sanchez curled in a dipping free-kick, and rather than push it away from danger, Casillas punched the ball right back into the thick of the action. Aranguiz took one touch and then somehow toe poked the ball into the roof of the net, wedging the ball from out of his feet.

Spain’s defence had forged a mean reputation over the years, but this was the seventh goal they had conceded in two games. But the problems didn’t lie at just one end. Iniesta, Spain’s player of the match, found Costa with a lovely through ball but the Chelsea-bound striker pondered over the ball again.

Costa then tried to make amends by giving Busquets the easiest chance of the night at the back post, but the holding midfielder somehow placed his volley wide. Time was ticking away. Costa was jeered off as Torres replaced him, but there was no change in fortunes. Santi Cazorla curled the ball inches wide of the post, and Iniesta was denied by Bravo as Chile tired slightly. On a different night, Spain’s second half endeavour would have been rewarded with a couple of goals. But it was all a little too late. After the final whistle, Alonso admitted it had been hard for Spain to find their hunger. It isn’t something any footballer would gladly admit, but after a trophy-laden spell, Spain’s golden generation simply couldn’t muster up another worthy defence. There was to be no resuscitation. 

World Cup day 6: Ochoa frustrates Brazil

Brazil 0-0 Mexico:

 

Before the beginning of this summer’s World Cup, hosts Brazil were strong favourites to lift the trophy for an unprecedented sixth time. Yet so far, after two games, the Selecao look miles off a side capable of claiming football’s most famous prize.

Past Brazilian sides have been packed with flair and invention, but this team, Neymar aside, seems merely functional in their looming shadow. This was once again on show in Tuesday’s game against Mexico, as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men struggled to break down a Mexico side emboldened by the performance of their keeper, Guillermo Ochoa.

Ochoa made four wonderful saves during the 90 minutes, including a superb stop from a bullet Neymar header inside the first half, reminiscent of Gordon Banks’ famous stop against Pele. Ochoa then had to dive at the feet of David Luiz after Thiago Silva chested a Neymar free kick into the path of the former Chelsea defender.

The common denominator of Brazil’s best chances was that Neymar was involved in them all. It was his left footed volley that Ochoa to react quickly to in the second period, the goalkeeper instinctively sticking out a left arm to parry the ball away.

To round off a wonderful performance between the posts Ochoa somehow reacted quickly enough to deny Brazilian captain Thiago Silva a goal from another fizzing Neymar delivery. Mexico had been brave and streetwise in stopping Brazil during the game, but the outcome, a vital point, would certainly have not been the same without Ochoa. Out of contract with French side Ajaccio this season, expect plenty of clubs to show an interest in his services come the end of the tournament.

For Brazil, Ochoa’s magic shouldn’t obscure the fact that they once again produced a sluggish performance. The passion is there for all to see as the national anthem is sung, yet this conviction has failed to translate to the pitch thus far. They were lucky to come out of the opening clash with Croatia with three points, and this time round they were made to pay for the carelessness.

Scolari must act quickly, and he may have to start with central midfield pairing, with both Luis Gustavo and Paulinho looking pedestrian. Manchester City star Fernandinho and Hernanes of Inter Milan lay in waiting. Brazil are more than likely to qualify given the fact they play Cameroon in their last group game, but things must change if they are to go all the way.

 

Belgium 2-1 Algeria:

 

Belgium had substitute Marouane Fellaini to thanks as they came back from 1-0 down after the break to defeat Algeria 2-1.

The Belgian team, led by the animated Marc Wilmots, are seen as potential outsiders for the trophy in their first World Cup in since 2002, but for long periods they were nullified by a defensive Algeria.

Belgium were restricted to long shots in the opening half against a side happy to camp in their own half and absorb pressure, and they were made to pay for their inefficiency by the Fennec foxes midway through the first period.

Faouzi Ghoulam broke down the left and played a dangerous between Thibaut Courtois and the Belgian defence, and Jan Vertonghen needlessly hauled down Sofiane Feghouli at the back post. Feghouli got up from a heap on the floor and slotted the ball to Courtois’ right, a weak attempt but enough to gain the lead.

 Belgium were dominating possession for the majority of the game but didn’t get any joy until Marouane Fellaini gave them some thrust in the number 10 position, replacing Moussa Dembele. In the 70th minute Kevin De Bruyne sent in a pinpoint cross from the left, and Fellaini expertly timed his jump to flick the ball in off the bar.

The former Everton man has had a torrid beginning to life at Manchester United, falling to bottom of the pile in the number 10 waiting list behind Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. His stop-start season probably played on Wilmots’ mind before during the selection process, but expect Fellaini to start in the next match.

Another substitute Dries Mertens, who came on for the poor Nacer Chadli at the break, made it 2-1 after he smashed the ball into the roof of the net following an electric run from Eden Hazard. Belgium hadn’t been as impressive as many had expected, but a gritty win gives them a good platform to play a more expansive, daring game.

 

Other results:

 

South Korea 1-1 Russia

World Cup day 5: Mueller does what Mueller does best

thomas muller germany

 

Thomas Mueller can often play ninety minutes and completely escape your attention. In fact, at times you are often left wondering what he brings to Bayern Munich and Germany, two sides brimming with talent and creativity. When people look back at Germany’s opening group game against Portugal in years to come, they may remember his altercation with Pepe that got the hot-headed Real Madrid defender a red card. They may not remember his three goals in the game quite as clearly.

It almost feels as if the red card incident was a more notable moment than Mueller’s simple hat trick that sealed an emphatic 4-0 victory for his side. The Bavarian has that canny knack of being at the right place at the right time, providing a clinical edge to sides who crave it.

Mueller has received recognition before; he was the golden boot winner at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Yet it is hard to fully appreciate his role in the German team until you watch the highlights reel at the end, or by checking out his impressive stats on the internet. By then you will have realised that not only is he important, he is the key.

Germany v Portugal was shaping up to be one of the games of the tournament when the draw was made, but much like Spain v Holland it turned out a little one sided. Many will point towards the red card of Pepe in the first half, but in truth Germany would have won the game at a canter anyway. They led 2-0 at the time.

In keeping with the rest of the tournament so far, this game got off to a flying start. Portugal looked menacing on the break, and Hugo Almeida wasted a good opportunity to properly test Manuel Neuer after Ronaldo set him free down the right.

At the other end Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio will have been glad his disastrous attempt at a clearance landed at the feet of Sami Khedira, who couldn’t quite find the bottom corner of an unguarded goal from 30 yards out. At the other end Phillip Lahm was caught in possession by Nani who found Ronaldo again, but this time the Ballon D’Or winner was greedy and Neuer saved.

Germany themselves were now severely testing Portugal’s back four, and the breakthrough came when Mario Gotze was hauled down by Joao Pereira inside the area. The main question for the referee wasn’t the penalty, but whether Pereira should see red. In the end, the presence of other defenders near Gotze saved him. Mueller dispatched the penalty with ease, and Germany had a lead they would never surrender.

Nani, who constantly fluctuates between frustrating and threatening, had an excellent chance to level for Portugal, but his shot from the edge of the area flew just above the upright. It would be Portugal’s last main chance to get back in the game, as Germany doubled their lead ten minutes later.

The build-up was excellent. Toni Kroos played an excellent through ball from the halfway line to Mesut Ozil down the right hand side. Ozil cut the ball back To Khedira, but the Real Madrid man’s effort was blocked for a corner. Kroos galloped over to take the set piece and whipped in an excellent ball straight on to the head of Mats Hummels, who rose above everyone to put his side 2-0 ahead.

Portugal were flustered, and Pepe once again failed to keep his emotion in check. As he attempted to shield the ball away from Mueller, he pushed his hand gently into the strikers face. Mueller’s reaction was theatrical, but Pepe’s decision to go over to him and stick his head into the 24-year-old’s face, whilst he was on the floor, was nonsensical. A red card was the only option. It was the 13th of his career. It won’t be the last.

It had become a case of how many, and it became three on the stroke of half-time. Kroos’ cross into the area was rather aimless and Bruno Alves looked to have an easy clearance, but Mueller intercepted and slotted the ball past Rui Patricio, who could well have done better.

The second was a non-event as Germany seemed happy enough to play keep ball. They did find a fourth goal though, as substitute Andre Schurrle’s shot was weakly parried by Patricio out into the six yard box. Who else but Mueller was there to tap in for a third goal. It was him all over.

 

Ghana 1-2 USA: Ghana dominate for 89 minutes, USA win

 

If the USA are to qualify for the knockout stages they will have tougher tests to come in their remaining group games, but for now they can revel in a slightly fortunate win that looked impossible once Ghana had drawn level with eight minutes left.

A Clint Dempsey goal 30 seconds in, the fifth fastest in the history of the World Cup, and a header from John Brooks with five minutes left gave USA maximum points, after Andre Ayew had equalised for Ghana late on.

It was an astonishing start from Jurgen Klinsmann’s men, who began like a house on fire. Jermaine Jones found Dempsey from the left, and the talismanic forward did the rest, taking the ball past a static Daniel Opare and placing the ball in the bottom left corner.

For the rest of the match Ghana completely dominated in both the possession and chances departments, but lacked a cool head in front of goal, as Asamoah Gyan proved unusually wasteful. The young Christian Atsu of Chelsea and Jordan Ayew interchanged well and caused problems, but couldn’t find their way past a stubborn defence.

The only real chance of the first period for the Ghanaians fell on the stroke of half-time as Atsu finally escaped the attentions of DaMarcus Beasley and found Jordan Ayew on the edge of the box, but his shot was tame after the ball bobbled.

In the second half the black stars found the US defence more forgiving, and Gyan had two headers in the space of three minutes, the first over the bar and the second forcing a good save from Tim Howard. Substitute Kevin Prince-Boateng was providing more attacking intent and he found Gyan once again, who was this time denied by the valiant Geoff Cameron.

The USA were hanging on superbly, with Kyle Beckerman in centre midfield playing especially well, but all their good work looked to have come undone late on. It was an exquisite equaliser from Ghana. Kwadwo Asamoah passed the ball inside to Gyan who finally used the ball well, back-heeling the ball to Andre Ayew, who hammered the ball home with the outside of his boot.

But the USA weren’t done yet. Right back Fabian Johnson, who had been slightly at fault for the Ghana equaliser, somehow managed to force a corner for his side. It was John Brooks who rose highest from the resulting set piece to nod home, sending the USA crowd into ecstasy.

Brooks had only replaced the injured Matt Besler as a substitute at half-time, and had looked nervy throughout the second half. But his emotional reaction told you everything you need to know about scoring a winning goal in the Wolrd Cup, and the USA now have a fighting chance of progression.

Other results:

Iran 0-0 Nigeria

World Cup day 4: Messi comes to the party but Argentina struggle

 

 

A win is a win of course, but much-fancied Argentina were distinctly underwhelming as they overcame Bosnia-Hercegovina 2-1 in the first game played at the Maracana in this World Cup. A piece of individual brilliance by Lionel Messi, inspired by a tactical change at half time, was enough to secure a 2-1 victory after Sead Kolasinac had diverted the ball into his own net early on, but it wasn’t always pretty.

The Argentina supporters were in fervent mood throughout in their great rivals’ backyard, but Alejandro Sabella’s decision to play a peculiar 5-3-2, omitting Gonzalo Higuain, caused his side real problems early on. Messi was dropping too deep to receive the ball with Argentina lacking a midfield ball player, allowing the Bosnia-Hercegovina midfielders plenty of time to swarm around the Barcelona man and intercept quickly.

If Argentina were below par and lacked shape, Bosnia were excellent on their World cup debut just 19 years since their first Fifa recognised friendly match. Roma star Miralem Pjanic was influential in both defence in attack, playing with a creativity that made his side a real threat, especially in the first period. Bosnia, a country torn apart by warfare, have had a meteoric rise in a footballing sense, and will be hugely encouraged by the way they took the game to their more illustrious opponents.  

That is not to say that the opening goal wasn’t entirely avoidable. Messi’s whipped free-kick was testing but Marcos Rojo failed to make proper contact with the ball. However, a slight flick on was enough to fool Sead Kolasinac at the back post, the ball hitting his leg and flying into the bottom corner before he had even realised what was going on.

Spectators across the globe and perhaps have even Argentina themselves will have envisaged an easy night in store for Messi and co, but Bosnia controlled the majority of the next 40 minutes. Izet Hajrovic almost latched on to an exquisite ball over the Argentine back four from Zvjezdan Misimovic, but Sergio Romero was brave to dive at the forwards feet and guide the ball to safety.

Romero was at it again to deny Senad Lulic from a corner, as Bosnia continued to make their presence felt in perhaps the flattest half of the tournament so far. Argentina were lacking a link between midfield and attack, and Sabella was brave enough to swallow his pride at half time, sacrificing Hugo Campagnaro and Maxi Rodriguez for Fernando Gago and Higuain, switching to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation.

Gago provided a good base to work from, and Argentina had more purpose to their game, with Messi and Di Maria both set free to bomb at the defence and Higuain providing the Bosnian centre halves with an extra man to think about alongside Sergio Aguero.

Yet as it so often is at Barcelona, and recently with Argentina, it was the intervention of Messi that proved telling. The four-time Ballon D’Or winner has seemed slightly out of sorts for his club side this year, maybe in an attempt to preserve some energy for such a defining moment in an astonishing career to date.

As long as Messi doesn’t drag his country to World Cup glory there will be murmurings about whether he can be regarded the greatest ever, and at the age of 26 this his best opportunity. In the first half the little flea was guilty of trying a bit too hard, often intercepted by a strong midfield rearguard.

Yet he has become an expert at the seizing the moment, detecting a slight weakness in any defensive line. His moment came in the 65th minute, picking the ball up just inside Bosnia’s half and driving powerfully down the right. The rest was trademark Messi. Feeding Aguero on the edge of the box he received the ball back instantaneously, before running across the face of goal and curling the ball in off the post. He had left two Bosnian players on a heap on the floor, leaving them so utterly bamboozled that they ended up tackling each other.

The 50,000 Argentine fans that swamped the Maracana had got what they came for, a moment of inspiration from their major hope. Vedad Ibisevic did pull one back for Bosnia late on to give them their first ever World Cup goal, but Argentina had enough to hold on. The message for Sabella’s men is must do better, but a win is still a win. Argentina are up and running.

 

France 3-0 Honduras

 

Despite the absence of Franck Ribery due to injury, and Samir Nasri after an argument played out in the public eye with Didier Deschamps, France looked excellent going forward in a comfortable 3-0 win over Honduras.

A vibrant front three of Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann was too much for the Hondurans too handle, despite a physical approach that bordered on ugly at times, with Wilson Palacios deservedly seeing red.

The first major chance of the game fell to Blaise Matuidi after a free-kick was cleared straight to the PSG midfielder, but his shot was acrobatically saved by Noel Valladeres. The lively Griezmann then headed onto the bar from a Patrice Evra cross, as France exerted complete control.

The game erupted into violence towards the end of the first half. Palacios’ challenge was robust on Paul Pogba, and as the former Manchester United star fell to the ground Palacios stamped down twice on his legs. Pogba reacted by tripping Palacios, leading to amateur dramatics from the original offender.

Both were booked when both could have seen red, with Palacios particularly lucky. Yet Palacios received his marching orders just minutes later, giving away a stupid penalty by shoving Pogba in the back in the box. Benzema slotted the ball home, making it 7 in 7 for his country.

It was Benzema who put the game to bed early in the second half with his second of the match, with the help of Valladeres. His close-range shot smashed against the woodwork, but a deflection off the keeper made sure the ball just crept over the line, with goal line technology intervening. An own goal was given.

Benzema then wrapped up proceedings with a thunderous shot into the roof of the net, making sure the score line was reflective of France’s overall dominance. Deschamps’ cohesive and athletic unit look a strong proposition.

 

Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador

 

A last minute winner from gave Switzerland a dramtic 2-1 victory over Ecuador, despite a tepid performance.

Ecuador took a shock league just 22 minutes in, as slack defending from the Swiss allowed the in-form Enner Valencia to head in from close range from a Walter Ayovi free-kick.

But Switzerland’s veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s half-time changes made the difference and substitute Admir Mehmedi headed home just three minutes after the break.

Switzerland’s winner was a brilliant break, with Valon Berhami making a last ditch tackle in his own box before driving beyond the half-way line.

 Ricardo Rodriguez provided a lovely cross from the left-hand side, and substitute Haris Seferovic nipped in ahead of the defender to crash the ball into the roof of the net.

Switzerland, ranked 6th in the world, were far from their best but it is a positive start for Hitzfeld’s men. 

World Cup day 2: Holland stun Spain with devastating second half blitz

There are some games that live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons. The World Cup final four years ago is seen as a prime example in some quarters, as Holland put their famous total football to one side in an attempt to dismantle Spain’s passing football in brutal style, with Nigel De Jong’s Kung fu kick on Xabi Alonso the defining image.

Some games live in the memory for all the right reasons. Holland’s shocking 5-1 victory against current champions Spain will live long in the memory for its beauty. Two goals from Robin Van Persie and two from Arjen Robben gave Holland sweet revenge four years since Johannesburg. It was brilliant counter-attacking from Louis Van Gaal’s men, driving at the heart of a weary Spanish defence.

Spain did lose their first match in 2010 against Switzerland before going on to win the tournament, but the manner of this defeat will leave their pride and confidence in tatters. In truth, Vicente Del Bosque’s men looked a spent force against their vibrant opponents. If they win their remaining two games against lesser opposition they will likely still progress, but a last 16 tie against Brazil looms.

The first half of the game was actually a fairly even affair, with both defences looking susceptible to the ball in behind. Wesley Sneijder had the first real chance of the game, as Robben sent the Galatasaray man through on goal, but Sneijder’s shot was tame and Iker Casillas saved comfortably.

Diego Costa, booed throughout for his decision to represent Spain instead of the host nation, was a constant threat early on with Xavi and co looking to set him free at every opportunity. This tactic worked soon enough, as Xavi found him inside the area. Instead of driving to the byline Costa cut the ball back, drawing Stefan De Vrij into a rash tackle.

Costa arguably went down looking for the tackle but the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, Xabi Alonso dispatching the ball into the bottom corner with typical aplomb. The World Champions had gone one ahead, and surely a lesson in how to keep the ball and tire your opponents beckoned…

Often in football it is easy to get caught up with euphoria and forget about the small things that change the face of the game. Had David Silva buried a golden opportunity in front of goal after an Andres Iniesta reverse pass, then Spain may well have been home and dry.

Instead Silva chipped wide, and Robin Van Persie produced a moment of genius just moments later. Danny Blind, impressive all night, sent over a long diagonal ball over the Spanish defence from the half way line, with Gerard Pique playing Van Persie on side.

The Manchester United forward, who has become famous for smashing volleys in after watching the ball fly over his head, this time instinctively opted for the diving header. It was the perfect option, as Casillas could do nothing but watch the ball dip over his head. The complexion of the game had changed completely.

Yet that didn’t make Holland’s second half blitz any less miraculous. Spain were once again undone by a long diagonal ball from Danny Blind pass over the defence which found Robben. He plucked the ball out the air with his first touch, cut inside Pique onto his left with his second touch, and then slotted past Casillas.

Spain seemed ponderous and slow on the ball, and Costa was lucky to get away without punishment after a head-butt as tempers flared. Holland could have made it three with another lightning quick break, but Van Persie’s thunderous volley crashed the bar.

But they didn’t have long to wait for a third. Sneijder’s deep free-kick found De Vrij at the back post, who somehow managed to bundle the ball home. There was a genuine case for a foul against Casillas, who was clearly impeded in the build-up.

Yet it was nothing more than the Dutch deserved, and they made it four as Casillas inexplicably miss-controlled a simple pass back, allowing Van Persie to nip in and tap home. Robben got the last of a rout, simply destroying Sergio Ramos in a head to head race after a Sneijder pass, before cutting back inside Casillas before smashing in.

It had been a brutal thirty minutes, similar to Real Madrid’s dismantling of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final earlier this year. Have teams found a way to combat Spain’s relentless passing football, or was it simply a case of Del Bosque’s chargers running out of steam at the biggest of stages?

Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: Spain are about to face the biggest acid test of their style so far.

 

Chile 3-1 Australia: Chile edge Socceroos in thriller

 

Two early first half goals from Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdivia secured three vital points for Chile in their first game of a tough group stage, despite a resilient fight back from Australia.

Tim Cahill replied with his head before the interval and the Socceroos dominated much of the second half, before a late Jean Beausejour goal ended their hopes of a point. Australia will not have expected to qualify for the knockout stages given the nature of their group, but their performance was encouraging as they look ahead to the 2015 Asia Cup.

For Chile, expectations are slightly loftier. With talents such as Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, the Chileans are seen as dark horses by some with a realistic chance of knocking either Spain or Holland out of the group stages. Recent friendly results such as a 2-0 victory at Wembley and a close-run defeat to German have simply heightened expectations.

And Jorge Sampaoli’s men got off to the best possible start as Australia failed to clear their lines from a cross, the ball landing at Sanchez’s feet for a simple finish. The second goal came after a lovely move. Sanchez spun his marker and drove at the defence, Eduardo Vargas drew the defenders away leaving Valdivia free, who curled into the top corner.

From then on the Chileans were perhaps guilty of complacency, and their Achilles heel was exposed, as Cahill leapt above makeshift centre half Gary Medel to bring Australia back into contention. Cahill almost equalised moments later, but he was thwarted by the legs of Claudio Bravo.

Australia drew plenty of confidence from their late first half showing, and they attacked with real purpose after the break. Cahill was a nuisance and the young Mathew Leckie proved a powerful runner on the right hand side.

Cahill had a goal ruled out for offside and headed just over, while Mark Bresciano had a half volley saved by Bravo. Chile inevitably had chances of their own and Vargas was denied by an Alex Wilkinson clearance of the line, but they were far too open.

Yet they sealed all three points into extra time, as Beausejour drilled hard into the bottom corner with Australia piling men forward. Chile now sit behind Holland in the group by Holland, and their next game with Spain will go a long way to deciding who qualifies for the next round. For Australia, you feel the dream is already over.

 

Mexico 1-0 Cameroon

In the other game of the day Mexico deservedly secured a 1-0 victory over Cameroon, a goal from the in-form Oribe Peralta enough to separate the two sides.

It would have been a travesty had Mexico not won, as two goals for Giovani Dos Santos were wrongly ruled out for offside.

Cameroon looked weak and lacking in invention, and you feel second spot in Group A will be between Mexico and Croatia behind Brazil. 

World Cup day 1: Brazil get lucky on a tense opening night in Sao Paulo

 

If there are such things as footballing gods, they were certainly on Brazil’s side during their 3-1 victory on the opening night of the World Cup in Sao Paulo. Yuichi Nishimura’s decision to award the host nation a penalty in the 70th minute was a questionable one at best and an abject one at worst. The bearing it had on the game as a whole was not in doubt.

Up until that stage Croatia, hugely unfancied prior to kick-off, had proved more than a match for the five-time world champions, pressuring them into uncharacteristic mistakes and not allowing them an ounce of space to impose their free-flowing football. Niko Kovac’s daring line-up clearly unsettled Brazil, who seemed unable to control their emotions in the opening stages.

Luiz Felipe Scolari went into the game and the tournament as a whole supremely confident, announcing on Wednesday night that this was ‘our World Cup’ again, 12 years after winning their last crown. Yet Scolari’s mantra of positivity didn’t seem to filter down to his players, despite a rousing rendition of the national anthem at kick-off.

It was Croatia, fielding six primarily attack-minded players, who did all the early running. Kovac’s men were intent on pressuring Brazil high up the pitch, with Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic particularly persistent. The opening goal stemmed from a failed Brazilian attack with Ivan Rakitic driving away to the halfway line and slipping in Olic down the left hand side.

Olic’s delivery across the face of goal was testing, and a little deflection via Nikica Jelavic’s boot was enough to confuse Marcelo, who subsequently turned the ball into his own net. The Real Madrid full back, eyes wide open, looked as shell-shocked as the rest of the stadium. The Croatian fans in the ground, unsurprisingly outnumbered, were jubilant.

It was enough to put the Brazilians off their stride for another 15 minutes, before the boy prince decided to intervene at a crucial stage in the game. Yet the goal for Neymar was as much down to the good work of Oscar, who was the stand out performer on the pitch. After a midfield battle the ball broke loose in Croatia’s half, leaving Oscar to thread a ball through to Neymar with space to run.

Neymar’s shot was slightly skewed, but it was enough to beat the outstretched hand of Stipe Pletikosa, rolling off the post and into the bottom corner. The pressure, which was beginning to reach unbearable levels, had been alleviated somewhat. Just as satisfactory as the win for Scolari will have been the way Neymar seemed prepared to grab the game by the scruff of the neck throughout the 90 minutes, showing his ability to cope with the sky high demands of the public.

However Croatia were able to withstand the heat until half-time, and appeared relatively comfortable until the key point of the game. Once again Oscar was at the centre of the action, and he fed a low ball from the right into Fred inside the area. The lone striker, with nowhere to turn to, decided to make use of minimal contact from Southampton centre-half Dejan Lovren, throwing himself to the floor. It was play-acting at its finest, and enough for the official to point to the spot.

Neymar’s penalty was rather feeble and Pletikosa got two hands to the ball, but he couldn’t quite guide the ball away from the top corner. It was a disappointing night for the Croatian stopper. Croatia were rightly incensed, and they were equally unhappy when they had a goal ruled out not soon after, the referee giving a foul against Olic as he jumped for a deep cross with Julio Cesar. Brazil had been let off the hook again.

Fittingly it was Oscar who capped the scoring off, sealing the victory for Brazil. It was a smart finish, a toe poke into the bottom corner from the edge of the box, just as the defenders began to converge on him. Yet Pletikosa should have made the save again, and he will take a large part of the blame for his side’s defeat, although Nishimura will undoubtedly receive more criticism.

No matter how it came, a win was crucial to Brazil. Winning this World Cup is the only option, and therefore they must make sure they advance as group winners in the hope of avoiding Spain in the last 16. For Croatia, their performance will raise hopes that they can make it to the next round, despite a cruel defeat. Cameroon and Mexico will be a far worse standard of opposition.