Actually, it’s day 16, but there’s no football. No football! What is happening? It’s OK, it starts again tomorrow. Just a day’s break after the conclusion of the group stages. So a good time to reflect.
Except the whole thing has been hijacked by the Luis Suarez affair. His third biting incident. The Uruguayans are claiming it’s some kind of English and Italian conspiracy. Only problem is, the cameras show quite clearly, he bit Chiellini. You are not allowed to bite people in football matches! I do feel a bit sorry for Suarez, because he clearly has a problem. He is a fantastic footballer, as we saw in the Premier League this season. He won the footballer of the year awards both from his fellow professionals and the journos – even though he was suspended for six games at the beginning of the season… for biting.
I suspect his future now lies in Spain rather than England. He clearly has a paranoia about the English media, which came out after the two goals he scored for Uruguay against England. They effectively knocked us out of the World Cup. A revenge, whose pleasure he couldn’t hide.
So he has been banned for 9 competitive international games and 4 months of football. That means that if he stays at Liverpool, he misses the first nine games of the season. A big blow. Chiellini has come out today to say he thinks the ban is excessive, but he had no hesitation in displaying the alleged bite marks after the game. The ban feels about right to me, given the previous.
But moving away from Suarez, what about the other world superstars? How have they done in this World Cup? Well, Messi and Neymar have been pretty good, scoring vital goals for their teams – Argentina and Brazil – which have helped the teams top their groups despite some pretty average performances. It means that the final could be Brazil v Argentina, if they both progress. That would be immense. They haven’t been the best teams yet, but I suspect that both will get their acts together and progress at least to the semi finals.
That leaves Ronaldo. Clearly unfit, but still the big hope for Portugal. In the games I saw, he looked forlorn, but still produced moments of magic that gave his team a chance, notably the superb cross that produced a Portugal equaliser against the USA in the fifth minute of added-on time. A shame he couldn’t dazzle. But he was a star in a pretty mediocre team that only scraped into the finals through the play offs. It told in the end.
From the European perspective, this World Cup has been a bit of a disaster. Spain, Portugal, Italy and, er…England, all eliminated before the knock-out phase. So, it’s being played in South America – and South (and Central) American teams are doing well. No surprise really. Colombia, led by the excellent James Rodriguez, look very exciting. They have Uruguay in the last 16. It could be close, but Uruguay, sans Suarez, may struggle. Chile have looked impressive, but they have Brazil in the 16. They’ve had a few good results against Brazil in recent years, so we can’t rule out the most seismic of shocks. Costa Rica topped England’s group (which I predicted completely the wrong way round) and now have Greece, who only got through via an outrageous penalty decision against Ivory Coast. The Central Americans can win that one. Mexico face Holland. I’m bound to fancy the Dutch for that one.
What of the remaining European challenge? Well, there are four serious candidates: Belgium, France, Holland and Germany.
Belgium got nine points in a relatively weak group. They showed resilience by winning games late on, after subs had come on. But it feels to me that they are on the edge. They may beat the USA, but I can’t see them going much further.
France were really impressive when they beat Switzerland 5-2. Cabaye controlled midfield, Valbuena was incisive on the right and Benzema and Giroud looked strong up front. They look to be united under Didier Deschamps’ management, which is a big plus, given recent French history. How good are they? Hard to tell, as they were in such a weak group. If they can beat Nigeria, which I guess they will, they could be set up for a clash with Germany in the quarters. That will bring back memories!
Holland have probably been the best team in the group stages, given that their group was THE group of death. Their thrashing of Spain has been the definitive result of this World Cup so far. They have been vibrant – with Robben on fire – and solid when they have needed to be. So far, they don’t seem to have fallen out with each other. History, though, tells us that that could happen at any time! They should beat Mexico, and that will take them through to a quarter final against Costa Rica or Greece. Luck of the draw. No excuses not to reach the semis, where Argentina – or Belgium – may await.
And so to Germany. My team now. I wrote about them earlier. They have strengths in all departments. Thomas Muller is sneaking into those spaces and scoring as freely as Messi and Neymar (and Benzema and Rodriguez). They ought to beat Algeria easily, although the Algerians did play really well against South Korea. That quarter final against France will be awesome. And if they get through that it will probably be Brazil in the semis.
There have been so many surprises in this World Cup that you can’t just make the obvious assumptions. My thoughts above do assume the traditionally top nations – those left – will assert themselves as the tournament progresses. But it is not a given. Colombia could upset everyone. Nigeria could finally fulfil their immense potential. Greece could bore their way to another success, following that European triumph in 2004 (please, no!).
But right now, although I’m with the Germans, I think we may be heading for a Brazil-Argentina final. And how extraordinary would that be?