Who Is Setting The Pace At The World Cup?
The 2014 World Cup has up to this point, been one of the best World Cups ever. There has been a ridiculous amount of goals – 154 and counting (the record is 171 in 1998) – penalty drama, last-minute goals, as well as almost everything else you could wish for. Another unique thing about this World Cup is that there is no stand-out favourite. None of the pre-tournament favourites have been consistently impressive and they all look beatable.
Brazil were many people’s favourites pre-tournament, and whilst they are through to the quarter-finals they haven’t been convincing. Their midfield in particular has been underwhelming and I don’t think Scolari knows his best pairing there. Fernandinho has been used recently but he hasn’t made the place his own and it will be interesting to see who Scolari chooses with Luiz Gustavo banned for their quarter-final. Even worse than the midfield has been the defence. The fullbacks have, as many expected, struggled and David Luiz does not look like the right man to partner Thiago Silva, who has also looked flimsy at times. The defence of Brazil can be beaten, meanin Brazil have to rely on their attack and hope to outscore opponents. So far the performances of Neymar have been enough, but he was quiet against Chile and if that is a sign of things to come then it’s hard to see Brazil winning. Scolari blamed it on a knock from Arturo Vidal challenge in the first-half, and for Brazil’s sake Neymar needs to recover quickly as the other attacking players are not at his level.
Argentina were the other main favourites, and their story so far has many parallels with Brazil. The midfield of these teams just aren’t being the link between the defence and the attack, leading to disjointed performances. Fernando Gago simply doesn’t have the dynamism in his play to be able to move the ball forwards quickly, which means the attacking players have less space when they receive the ball. The defence have been suspect too, conceding goals to Bosnia and Nigeria and looking very open against Iran. One player has stood out for Argentina, and that is of course Lionel Messi. He has been so important and without him Argentina would be unrecognisable. For Brazil and Argentina, the problem is that relying on one player is a dangerous position to be in. A poor game from that player could be all that it takes to see the side leave the tournament.
Colombia are the other South American side left in the tournament and now you have to say they have a real chance of winning the World Cup. They have been absolutely brilliant up to this point, and unlike Brazil and Argentina they play as more of a team. Whilst James Rodriguez has of course been unbelievable and his 5 goals have been pivotal to Colombia, other players such as Juan Cuadrado have been terrific too. The team spirit of Colombia, perhaps best shown by their goal celebrations, can’t be overstated in importance and is their greatest strength. Colombia have arguably been the best team so far, and now have their biggest test against Brazil. If they can come through that then they would have to be the favourites, but it’s a fairly big if.
Moving on from the South American teams, Germany, France, and Netherlands can’t be ignored. Germany probably have the best overall starting eleven on paper out of any team. They have world-class players from goalkeeper to the attackers, but names on paper don’t always translate to performances on the pitch. The defence has been playing an incredibly high-line, and this could prove fatal when playing a team with the quality and speed that the French possess on the counter. What Germany are lacking is that explosiveness in the final third that they lost when Marco Reus was ruled out of the tournament. They look a bit predictable and ponderous when attacking, and need to rectify that if they are to progress much further. That said, their team is filled with world class talent and if Joachim Loew can iron out a few issues they will be incredibly difficult to beat.
The French have been something of a surprise package at this World Cup. There were few expectations on them, and their team doesn’t have too many outstanding players. What they do have though, is lots of young, energetic players who simply enjoy playing football. With Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi in their midfield, they can overpower any opposition and those two have that dynamism and ability that give the French midfield something extra that the other teams are lacking. They didn’t have the best game against Nigeria, and you have to question moving Benzema to the wing to accommodate Giroud, but the French play unburdened by pressure which can only help them.
The final team remaining that I think have a real chance of winning is Netherlands. The Dutch blew everyone away with their demolition job on Spain, and their group-stage form was exceptional. Against Mexico in their first knockout game they didn’t perform as well as they had done previously, but they got the job done. They are fairly similar to Brazil in Argentina in that they only really have one consistent attacking threat; Arjen Robben has been superb at this tournament , he can beat a man at will and on his day is utterly unplayable. The Dutch arguably have a better defence than Brazil and Argentina, and Louis van Gaal has shown that he is tactically intelligent with the way he stifled Chile’s attacking style in the groups. You feel that they will need Robin van Persie to find improve a little to get past the tougher teams that they will play later on, but with Costa Rica to come they have a great chance of reaching the semi-finals, at least.
Who then, are the favourites?
It’s incredibly tough to say, more so than at any World Cup in my memory. Colombia look brilliant but they haven’t played a top side yet, whilst Brazil and Argentina have played well at times but not on a regular basis. The European sides all look pretty good, but there’s a reason that no European side has ever won a World Cup in South America. For me, something about Brazil’s penalty shoot-out against Chile makes them my personal favourites. The mental strength needed was huge, and they passed a test that should give them immense confidence and allow them to push on. What is for sure is that this is the most exciting World Cup in a long, long time.