Yesterday saw some outstanding World Cup action, with victories for Colombia, Uruguay, and a goalless but nevertheless intriguing draw between Japan and Greece. There were plenty of good players on show, and some stood up more than others. Which three were the key performers for their side?
A half-fit, match-deprived, recently-injured Luis Suarez was the best player on the pitch in Sao Paolo by a country mile. Approaching match-day, he was expected to start but without any match practice, surely he would cut a depleted figure? Far from it. What an absolutely phenomenal individual this Uruguayan is, running his heart out only a month to the day after knee surgery. Regardless of his physical capabilities, it was clear from very early on that his mind was as razor sharp as ever. He earned a corner in the opening minutes by playing a rapid one-two, and from the ensuing set piece, tested Joe Hart directly. Spotting the goalkeeper beginning to advance out of his goal, the little genius whipped the ball towards the near post and nearly struck an improbable goal.
Despite running at far from his peak fitness, he still broke down the channels and kept Cahill and Jagielka honest. Efforts were there for all to see, but his crucial contributions came in front of goal. When the ball found its way to Cavani in the left channel, Suarez made a fairly simple but exceptionally effective dart towards the back post. Such was his subtlety, Jagielka didn’t know whether to cut him off or drop deep and as a result did neither. It was a perfect cross into him, but the quality of the finish itself should not be underestimated as the lethal Uruguayan found the opposite corner of Joe Hart’s goal.
During England’s strong spell in the middle of the second half, Suarez inevitably took up a more withdrawn role in proceedings, but his mere presence was enough to instil fear into England’s defence. His second came as England were pushing for a winner but they had not over-committed at this point. A long goal kick up-field by Muslera caught England captain Gerrard under the ball and his header under pressure flicked back towards his own goal. While the Three Lions’ defenders were flat-footed and slow to react, Suarez had unbelievably anticipated such a mistake. He obviously possesses quite astounding talent, but this belief that the ball will come his way sets him apart from all others. Pouncing onto the bouncing ball and sprinting away as fast as he could, his legs looked as though they were set to give up on him. Outrageous desire and determination kept him upright however, and he was then able to summon sufficient reserves to thump an emphatic finish beyond Hart. Soon afterwards, his exertions did finally take their toll and he was withdrawn, but not before he had affected the game’s outcome without compare. As a proud Englishman, it sickened me to see what a half-fit superstar could do to our defence. I suppose we have to be thankful that he wasn’t fully fit, because who knows how many he could have scored.
Colombia’s star man now that Radamel Falcao is absent from the squad is one of the most exciting players to watch in world football. James Rodriguez impressed in their first match in the World Cup group stages against Greece and if anything, raised his performance level even further yesterday afternoon. He used his cultured left foot to great effect in picking out team mates with great precision, and combining this with rapid acceleration over the first 10 yards or so, he was the greatest threat to the Ivorian goal.
Monaco’s playmaker has an outstanding ability to be able to pick up pockets of space between opposition players, giving himself the room to be able to perform to his maximum. Dropping slightly deeper, Rodriguez repeatedly found Cuadrado and Gutierrez in dangerous areas of the pitch, giving them the greatest opportunity to exploit any defensive frailty. Despite his best efforts, the score-line remained goalless at half time and so Rodriguez re-emerged in an invigorated manner, taking the task of goal scoring onto his own shoulders. He may not be known for his aerial prowess, but he certainly showed it just prior to the midpoint of the second half when he powered a header past a helpless Boubacar Barry who could only palm it into the roof of the net. An emphatic finish, followed by some silky dance moves with the rest of the team; outstanding in every aspect.
His contribution to the second goal was more recognisable, snapping away at the opposition in possession and using his quick speed of thought to anticipate a mistake. As the ball fell to Gutierrez following Rodriguez’s challenge, the Monaco man continued his run to draw away Ivorian defenders. So fearful were they of his goal threat that they left fellow attacking midfielder Quintero almost unmarked. The ball was indeed slipped through to the Porto youngster, and Rodriguez had yet again had a massive impact on proceedings.
In what was in general, a much less tense affair than the other two games yesterday with quality more thinly spread out, Kostas Manolas stood out above the rest. The Greek centre half produced a towering display to guide his side to a clean sheet despite being down to ten men for the majority of the game. Japan have several players who are technically gifted on the ball and make intelligent runs. Manolas coped successfully with this form of attack in addition to aerial threats. It is a rare breed of defender that is equally equipped on all fronts, but that was certainly the case here. Steady as a rock on the ground, and an absolute giant in the air, the Japanese stars such as Keisuke Honda could simply not break through, and this was largely down to the expert marshalling of Kosta Manolas.