Five Points: Mexico gets reward, Algeria frustrates Belgium
Belief matters a great deal at the World Cup. It is the bedrock for the favorites and the foundation for outsiders looking to topple the established order. Every team possesses conviction in some form, but it waxes and wanes as events unfold.
Mexico highlighted its potential importance by holding Brazil to a draw. The thrilling stalemate constitutes the perfect launching point for the latest edition of Five Points.
Mexico rewarded for its endeavor with draw against Brazil
Miguel Herrera promised his side would come out and attack the tournament favorites. It did not constitute an idle boast from a coach emboldened by an impressive opening display against Cameroon on Friday. It reflected both the increased confidence in the camp and the pragmatic concerns of soaking up Brazilian pressure over the course of 90 minutes.
Mexico isn’t designed to submit the all-hands sort of rearguard action performed by their CONCACAF counterparts. El Tri needs to play higher up the field and possess the ball regularly to feel comfortable and stay organized. Their second-half display in the 0-0 draw showed the merits of their belief.
El Tri presented Brazil with some problems and relieved some of the pressure by sliding the wingbacks into good areas and stringing passes together in midfield. Rafa Márquez made the central trio into a quartet at the right times to help with numbers. They did not carve out gilt-edged chances when they held the ball, but they posed a threat from distance. Those efforts pushed out the play toward the middle third and stopped Brazil from sending wave after wave at the previously frail back three.
Guillermo Ochoa – in perhaps the performance of the tournament to date – produced several fine saves when required, but they did not occur because Mexico waited for Brazil to break them down. El Tri pursued the result and eventually seized the deserved reward for their ambition at full time.
Brazil constrained by its lack of center forward options
The home side will wonder how exactly it needed to settle for a draw even with Mexico’s impressive performance. Brazil created three wonderful chances during the match only to see Ochoa repel them at ever turn. They were not persistently dangerous, but they aren’t set up to captivate for 90 minutes with this particular team shape, either.
If there is something for Brazil to take from this display, then it is the dearth of alternatives up front. Fred submitted his second poor performance in succession. He did not bring others into the play (eight out of 16 passes completed, per Opta statistics) or hold the ball up well. He did not win the ball in the air (zero of two aerial battles won). He did not present any sort of threat. It came as little surprise to see Jo replace him as the second half progressed.
The problem with Jo: he isn’t the sort of center forward best suited to this team. He doesn’t check to the ball well or offer much of a target. He clogs up the channels for Neymar and Bernard (impressive as a second-half substitute) without supplying the end product required justify the impact on other players.
Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari will likely persist with Fred for a dearth of viable alternatives. There isn’t much sense in changing a settled team on the back of one disappointing draw caused by the brilliance of the opposing goalkeeper. But the events in Fortaleza raise questions about alternate routes to goal as the tournament progresses.
Algeria frustrates Belgium with excellent defensive performance
The talent gap between the two sides allowed Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic to reinforce the principles instilled in this group since he took charge in 2011. This group relies on its defensive structure to provide opportunities to break quickly on the counter. The inclusion of the active El Arbi Hillel Soudani up front at the expense of top scorer Islam Slimani highlighted the instructions to soak up pressure and use their youthful legs to close down space and stay compact.
The brief worked staggeringly well against a Belgian side lacking inspiration for much of the match. Algeria kept its 4-1-4-1 shape superbly with Saphir Taïder functioning well as a screener. The back four stayed connected for the most part. The midfield dropped intelligently and kept the shape tight to restrict the opportunities for Romelu Lukaku to roam through the channels. Throw in the effectiveness of the one notable counter – Faouzi Ghoulam delivered an curling ball to play Sofiane Feghouli behind Jan Vertonghen and prompted the penalty award in the process – and the tactics worked perfectly in the opening stanza.
Belgium eventually produced its response in the second half by pouncing when Algeria finally cracked as its energy dropped in the final 20 minutes. Kevin De Bruyne exposed the disjointed line with an excellent ball and watched Marouane Fellaini – an integral second-half addition with his aerial presence and his positioning in support of the striker – turn home a fantastic header. De Bruyne then won possession with a timely tackle and started a rampaging counter into the space vacated when Ghoulam pushed too high to join a rare Algerian attack at 1-1.
The eventual 2-1 defeat does not diminish the effectiveness of the Algerian defense on the day. Halilhodzic aligned his team perfectly. His players rose to meet the necessary standards. They just did not have to the energy to see out the job against a Belgian side that improved enough after the break to claim the points.
Reluctant approach leaves Russia stranded against Korea Republic
Russia approached its opening game with exactly the sort of caution expected from a Fabio Capello side. The oppressive conditions – there were FIFA-permitted water breaks, after all – and the energetic opposition inspired Capello to instruct his players to sit deeply in their 4-2-3-1 shape and wait for a chance to counter. They followed the directives carefully and played out a dreadful first half.
The plan changed when Igor Akinfeev spilled Keun-Ho Lee’s manageable effort from distance into his own net. Capello already opened his side up a bit with the earlier arrival of Alan Dzagoev and subsequently threw the surprisingly omitted Aleksandr Kerzhakov into the mix. Kerzhakov promptly bundled home the equalizer and urged Russia onward toward a winner.
The 1-1 draw stood as it should have despite those entreaties, but the lively Russian display in the final 20 minutes might prompt some introspection. Russia will want to keep things tight against Belgium on Sunday given its lack of pace in central defense and the importance of that match, but it can certainly stand to open things up a bit against Algeria in a game that now looms ever so large after this wasted opportunity in Cuiaba.
Spain must make its last stand against Chile
Vicente Del Bosque faces selection questions as he prepares his side for a vital clash against Chile (3:00p.m. ET). He knows the holders must likely win the game to progress after the thrashing from the Netherlands. He grasps the need for continuity, but he also understands the need to make at least a couple of changes to cope with an energetic Chilean side poised to press earnestly and leave gaps at the back for the Spanish to exploit. Expect Del Bosque to keep the faith with Iker Casillas in goal and tinker with his midfield setup – Koke and Javi Martinez are both in the frame – to elicit the necessary response against a Chile side wondering about the fitness of Arturo Vidal.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal must guard against a letdown against Australia (12:00p.m. ET). Australia must close down the ball intelligently in order to survive the threat presented by the Dutch, but those measures likely will not impact the outcome of the match. Croatia confronts a must-win scenario against Cameroon in the nightcap (6:00p.m.). Cameroon will present some issues for Croatia with its mobility and its pace in oppressive Manaus, but the Croats can navigate through the task if they rely on their superior midfield three to dominate possession and supply the returning Mario Mandzukic.