Group B: Grading the teams
As far as group stages go, Group B – like most others so far in Brazil – had it all.
Twenty-one goals, plenty of excitement and the emergence of a real contender in Holland, some of Group B’s matches – notable Netherlands’ demo job on Spain and then its high-octane clash with Australia – will go down as some of the tournament’s most memorable.
For Netherlands and Chile, the campaign continues, while Australia and surprisingly, Spain head home to lick their wounds and contemplate what might have been.
The Netherlands have emerged as a proper contender.
Earmarked as one of the World Cup’s “Groups of Death”, it has been more of a cakewalk for the ominous Oranje who can now look forward to a date in the quarter finals with Mexico.
Despite fielding a slightly weaker team, the Dutch still managed a 2-0 win over a Chile side which only days earlier put reigning champions Spain out of the tournament with a 2-0 win of its own.
Given Holland’s habit of breaking down in the knockout rounds of any major tournament, it would be a brave person to tip them to take out the whole thing, but when they seem capable of winning so comfortably – they could go and surprise everyone.
Talk of pre-tournament spats within the team, particularly where Arjen Robben is concerned, seem an age ago and while it’s not the total football of old, it’s certainly effective.
The Dutch have married strong rearguard action with a potent forward line – which thus far has outscored everyone else – that continued to shine in the absence of Robin van Persie.
The Manchester United front man will return for the quarter final against Mexico, and with him and Robben playing, anything is possible.
Brazil has Neymar, Argentina has Lionel Messi and Uruguay has Luis Suarez, but no one has a combination of in-form, big-name forwards like Holland do in Robben and Van Persie.
However, Mexico is the only team to have conceded just one goal after three games and proved their defensive qualities in a 0-0 draw against a Neymar-inspired Brazil.
Whether or not Guillermo Ochoa has another brilliant performance in his locker remains to be seen, but given Mexico conceded six shots on goal, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Robben, Van Persie and even Memphis Depay passing up that many opportunities.
Of greater concern for Netherlands’ opponents, the Dutch stepped up their defensive game after a less than impressive showing against Australia, conceding just one shot on target against Chile.
The Chileans face a much tougher task when they take on the home nation in the quarter finals.
Brazil continue to grow in confidence, and while Chile are in the knockout rounds on the back of a superb performance which secured a 2-0 win over the Spaniards, Jorge Sampaoli’s team has been unimpressive.
A 3-1 win over Australia might have looked a solid result on paper, but the Sampaoli’s team had its back against the wall for large periods of that game and relied on sloppy defending for its goals.
No such opportunities were really offered by Holland yesterday.
That said, Chile has looked assured in possession, and while it hasn’t always turned good time on the ball into a host of opportunities, any team with Alexis Sanchez will always have an avenue to goal.
Brazil has looked shaky at times at the back, and should Sanchez get a good run at Marcelo, a player he’s tormented on occasion in club colours, Chile could yet pull off a big surprise.
It would be a lie to say that Spain’s 2014 World Cup has been anything but a complete and utter fiasco.
Every great team is eventually found out, and while there is still so much quality in this Spanish squad, this tournament if nothing else has shown how thin the line is between greatness and failure.
For so long it seemed Spain had the perfect, seemingly infallible formula for success.
Potentially, it still does, but if it is going to execute it with the same brutal consistency it once did, it simply needs to refresh the personnel it uses.
A 3-0 win against an Australia side that could not keep the required intensity up for 90 minutes and lacked the quality in front of goal it needed when it did create opportunities does not change that.
Fortunately for Spain, there is no shortage of quality coming through the ranks.
Tiki-taka might not be as dead as I and many others boldly proclaimed in the aftermath of the 5-1 mauling against Holland, but it needs a facelift.
The Socceroos predictably return home from Brazil with no points from their troubles, but they do leave with plenty of respect.
A 3-0 drubbing against Spain aside, the Aussies never failed to entertain and at times flourished in an environment where they could play without the pressure of expectation.
A number of players have left with big boosts to their reputation, none more so than Matthew Leckie, Jason Davidson and Mile Jedinak, while the likes of Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano left their mark on the international stage in considerable style.
Bigger challenges lie ahead for this side, however
That might seem an odd thing to say given they’ve just played against three of the best countries in the world, but next time they’re on the international stage, more will be expected of them.
Players like Davidson, Leckie, Tommy Oar, Matthew Spiranovic, Alex Wilkinson and Ben Halloran need to do whatever they can to get to a level of club football where they are playing the calibre of player they faced over the last two weeks as often as possible.
Being short on such experience proved costly, and while the Socceroos were spirited, they still conceded three goals a game and rarely looked like scoring through anyone other than Tim Cahill.
Matthew Galea is a 22-year-old sports journalist currently working in regional Victoria, Australia and is a part-time armchair manager. To date, he has spent most of his career agreeing with Sir Alex Ferguson, although the better part of last season was spent trying to tell David Moyes how to do his job.