Five Points: Mexico and Netherlands impress, Spain stumbles
The first full day of the World Cup somehow managed to eclipse the drama and the grandeur. Some countries rose to the occasion. Others stumbled in stunning fashion. And a few others just waited on deck for their chance to impress.
After a day filled with goals and referee controversies (again), here are five points to take forward from a memorable Friday:
1. Dutch treat shows Netherlands might survive group stage after all
Louis van Gaal’s side entered this tournament with modest expectations. There were questions about the personnel and the shape. There were concerns about whether this young group in its present state could cope with Chile and Spain in Group B.
Consider those fears well and truly misplaced after a stunning second-half display in the 5-1 victory over the reigning World Cup holders. The incisiveness and the mobility through the middle third simply tore the ramshackle Spanish apart after the break. Daley Blind’s sterling display on the left – and particularly his diagonals behind the high and static Spanish line – provided genuine width. And the three-man rearguard held up to scrutiny.
One performance does not make a World Cup, but the Dutch – at least for the moment – appear ready for the challenges ahead.
2. Del Bosque faces test of loyalty after stunning setback
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque correctly wondered what might have unfolded if David Silva had indeed scored the second goal during the first half. His side likely would have proceeded onward from that point to win the game, but it instead imploded during the second half. The calamitous downfall raised questions about how the champions must respond ahead of the decisive second match against Chile in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday.
Del Bosque must contemplate potential changes and wonder how radically he wishes to alter his side ahead of that fixture. Diego Costa offered relatively little to the cause up front (aside from the suspect penalty he drew for the opener, of course), but his directness supplies a necessary route to goal against the suspect Chilean defense. The midfield may warrant some alterations with Koke and Javi Martinez both genuine possibilities to come into the side. There are relatively few defensive options to alter the calculus there, but Iker Casillas’ woeful performance might place him under threat, too.
At this point, Del Bosque must decide whether to stick or twist. He can rely on his familiar faces or he can turn to younger options to inject some energy into the side. He cannot afford to make the wrong decision, given the stakes at hand.
3. Chile nearly pays a heavy price for easing off the throttle
The nightcap should have ended shortly after Jorge Valdivia curled home a sumptuous second goal inside the opening quarter of an hour. Chile dominated in the opening stages against an Australia side with little in the way of an imminent response. The question at that stage revolved around how many goals the Chileans might score on the day, not the actual result itself.
Chile squandered the advantage shortly thereafter by simply dropping its tempo. Instead of continuing their rampaging start, the Chileans reduced their cadence and ushered the Australians into the game. Once the Aussies found their footing, they – as most teams do given some time – found a way to trouble the Chilean defense.
Australia obscured its weakness against high pressure and relied on its usual strength – crosses and diagonals into the penalty area – to peg the Chileans back. Tim Cahill nodded home 10 minutes before the interval to reduce the deficit and set the stage for a relatively even second half. Jean Beausejour’s goal in second-half stoppage time secured a 3-1 victory in the end, but it turned into a more arduous task than expected.
The problem for Chile: the initial let off restricted what they could do when the circumstances required a response. The World Cup does not allow for an on-off switch. Chile cannot afford to expose its defense by sliding into the off position for any length of time and then struggling to hit top gear again. It is a lesson best learned against a game, but ultimately limited, Australian side before the date against Spain on Wednesday.
4. Mexico reaps the benefits from its revamped mentality
El Tri could have flown off the rails after the assistant referee ruled out two Giovani dos Santos goals during the first half. In the past, they might have even done so. They instead stuck to the task at hand and used their superiority in possession against a strangely out-of-sorts Cameroon to procure the goal and the victory their play deserved.
Mexico captain Rafa Márquez – not exactly the ideal role model for this particular message, admittedly – highlighted the need for his side to maintain their composure. If El Tri can continue to ally this sort of performance – brimming with endeavor, energy and quality – with the right mindset, then they could find a way to navigate through the difficult challenges ahead against Brazil on Tuesday.
5. England – Italy highlights busy Saturday in Group C and D
The two European heavyweights will take the field in Manaus with their knockout stage fate potentially hanging in the balance if Uruguay (with Luis Suarez expected to open the game on the bench) dispatches Costa Rica as expected. England boss Roy Hodgson promised an expansive setup to confront the Italians, but the consequences of a defeat and the grueling conditions may prompt both teams to approach the match more conservatively. Keep an eye out for the contrasts in Group D: Colombia will bring its fluid approach to bear against a defiant Greece, while Côte d’Ivoire will attempt to use its pace and power to disrupt Japan’s tidy work in possession.