One of the curiosities of watching the England national team is the fact that, for all the doom and gloom that frequently surrounds the squad, once they are actually at the World Cup finals, they are normally very good at squeezing through its group stages, historically speaking. They haven’t failed to get over that first hurdle since 1958, and that year it required a play-off defeat at the hands of ther USSR to eliminate them. There are two ways to interpret such information. One is to believe that such historical information demonstrates a trend which should give England supporters cause to be optimistic at every tournament. The other is to suggest that such a run has to come to an end at some point. This morning, it feels as if we are rather closer to the former of these interpretations than the latter, but none of this means that Roy Hodgson and his team can’t take considerable heart from a match against Italy that they were, perhaps, a shade unfortunate to not take something from.
The day had started with Columbia brushing Greece aside with a comfortable three-nil win. Pablo Armero’s early goal took a a deflection which seemed to befuddle the Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, but this ended up being something of a stroll in the sunshine for Columbia, with concerns over their attacking options in the wake of an injury to Radamel Falcao that has left that player out of the squad for this tournament priving to be over stated. Theofilo Gutierrez doubled their lead after thirteen minutes of the second half and, whilst the closing stages of the match might have been somewhat different had Theofanis Gekas aimed a close range header that twanged out off the crossbar a little lower, a third goal in stoppage time from James Rodriguez sealed a win for a team that has never progressed past the second round of the World Cup before but looks plenty capable of doing so this time around.
Uruguay, meanwhile, will now have to throw everything at England in their next match if they are going to get through the group stages of the tournament, following a chastening defeat at the hands of Costa Rica in their opening match. It had looked as if they should be on their way to a win themselves when Edinson Cavani calmly placed a penalty kick into the corner of the goal with a little under twenty-five minutes played in Fortaleza, but a second half turnaround saw Joel Campbell and Oscar Duarte score two goals in four minutes before Marcos Urena sealed the win with a third goal, scored with six minutes of the match left to play. In stoppage time at the end of the match, Uruguayan frustration – at their own ineptitude, presumably – boiled over when Maxi Pereira swung a petulant kick at Campbell and was presented with the red card that much of Uruguay’s demeanour over the previous twenty minutes or so had suggested would arrive in the fullness of time.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, have thrown a cat amongst the pigeons in Group D, however, not only as a result of their win but also as a result of the accomplished and measured way in which they achieved it. They could yet fail to qualify from the group, of course, but they’ve given themselves an opportunity to do so for the first time since 1990 that few would have predicted before a ball was kicked yesterday. Uruguay, on the other hand, looked tired, cynical and unimaginative. They have to improve against England now, and the anticipated return of Luis Suarez might help in this respect, but Suarez will not be at full fitness for their last two group matches, and regardless of this they demonstrated enough shortcomings elsewhere on the pitch to suggest that England are capable of throwing themselves back into contention in this group when they meet next week.
Raheem Sterling was the star of England’s show loast night, with a second minute shot against Italy last night crashing into the side-netting of the goal rather than a couple of inches to the left and into the goal instead. The hype might have proved even more suffocating than the oppressive humidity of Manhaus for the player had this gone in, but a sparking performance last night was just one of several positives that Roy Hodgson could take from England’s performance against Italy. They played with verve and confidence, matching Italy blow for blow long after Mario Balotelli had stooped from close range to head them into the lead after five minutes of the second half. Italy had taken the lead with ten minutes of the first half left to play thanks to a low diagonal shot from Claudio Marchisio that crept through a crowded defence. That lead, however, did not last for very long. Ninety seconds later, Wayne Rooney, who otherwise had another underwhelming evening in an England shirt, played a perfect cross over from the left hand side for Daniel Sturridge to sweep home an equaliser from close range.
As the evening wore on, however, England started to run out of steam in the relentless heat and Italy wound the match down with relative comfort. Italy will now surely qualify comfortably from this group, but England now have to regroup and rethink for their match against Uruguay. A win in this match would certainly put them back into contention for qualification from the group stage of the competition, but for now perhaps England supporters should merely seek their consolation from the fact that this is comfortably the most likeable and enjoyable to watch England team since that which almost found a way to the semi-finals of the European Championships in Portugal ten years ago. International football doesn’t have to be a war of attrition, and optimism in the face of defeat is not something that England have had much of in recent years. If the psychology of sport does amount to very much, this could all prove to be valuable on Thursday night.
For the insomniacs amongst us, Côte d’Ivoire against Japan was something of a no-brainer, but what those did stay up until the small hours of the morning did witness was a demonstration in how important the psychology of the game might be. With sixty-two minutes played in Recife last night, Japan led by a goal to nil – a glorious strike into the top corner from Keisuke Honda after sixteen minutes – and Côte d’Ivoire looked suspiciously as if they might be starting to run out of ideas. Cometh the hour, however, cometh the man. Didier Drogba entered the field of play to a thunderous ovation, and within three minutes they were in front, thanks to a flying header from Wilfried Bony and a stooping header from Gervinho. With Columbia yet to come, Japan already face a huge uphill battle to make it through the group stages of the competition. Côte d’Ivoire, meanwhile, are fully entitled to now feel as if a place in the second round is well within their reach.
Classic World Cup Match Of The Day
Argentina make their debut at this summer’s tournament later today when they play Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Maracana, but this is a team with a history of failing to deliver in their opening match. In 1982, they lined up for the opening match of the tournament to play Belgium in Barcelona. Surely this would be a straightforward win for the defending champions, who had, subsequent to that win, been augmented by the astonishing talent of Diego Maradona, shouldn’t it? Well, not this time, no.
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