It’s difficult to imagine from the outside what the pressure on a host nation can be like at a World Cup finals. Host nations that might otherwise have not won the tournament have done previsely that before, and the pressure on Brazil is surely only pushed up a couple of levels because of the nation’s heritage in this competition. Last night, the pressure started to tell a little as Brazil played out a lifeless goalless draw against Mexico in a match during which the hosts never fully came to life and might even have lost it in its closing stages against a spirited Mexico team whose performance fully deserved the result that they took from the match.
Yet this goalless draw wasn’t quite the miracle that some have assumed it to be. Mexico have the best record of any on earth against Brazil in recent years, with seven wins and four defeats and Mexico even emerged from the match with a hero, in the form of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who is now unlikely to be without a club for too long after having been released by the French Ajaccio at the end of last sesoan after having finished at the bottom of Ligue 1 last season. Ochoa saved brilliantly from Neymar, Thiago Silva and Paulinho in a performance that will be difficult to top by any other goalkeeper in this tournament, but to suggest that this was nothing more than a backs against the wall defensive performance by Mexico would to be unfair upon them. They gave as good as they got and came close to snatching a win in the closing stages of the match.
Another team to significantly labour under the burden of expectation yesterday was Belgium, though the Red Devils are under a slightly different flavour of pressure to that which Brazil face at the moment. Yesterday afternoon they eventually managed to eke out a narrow win against Algeria, but it was a less than spectacular performance from a team of which great things have been expected this summer. They contrived to find a way to fall behind, thanks to a clumsy first half challenge from Jan Vertongen, and made extremely hard work of getting back into the match, with a first half performance as lethargic as any that we had seen over the previous six days.
They managed it eventually, of course. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is not a phrase that Marouane Fellaini will have heard too much of over the course of the last ten months or so, having broadly failed to live up to the lofty expectations of Manchester United supporters following his transfer from Old Trafford from Everton last summer, but his deft header was enough to give Belgium a hook to attach their revival to, and a fierce shot from Dries Mertens with ten minutes to play was enough to just about get them off to a winning start. Algeria, who had defended stoutly to that point, have a case for feeling a little aggrieved at leaving the pitch at the end of the match empty handed.
If Guillermo Ochoa had been a goalkeeping hero for Mexico during their match against Brazil, then the opposite is probably true of the Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, whose mistake against South Korea in last night’s late match almost cost his team extremely dearly. Coach Fabio Capello has been here before, of course. Four years ago, it was England goalkeeper Rob Green whose mistake cost Capello two points from their match against the United States of America. This time, Akinfeev was the villain of the piece, fumbling what should have been a routine save from Lee Keun-ho to give South Korea the lead in Cuiaba last night but, while Aleksander Kerzakhov spared the more extreme end of his goalkeeper’s blushes by levelling things up for Russia shortly after this, there remained a sense that this was, literally, two points dropped for a nation that has for some assumed the title of “perennial underachievers” since Spain starting winning relentlessly.
Russia faced probably the most hostile crowd that any nation not playing Brazil has come against so far, and this seemed to translate into nerves on the pitch to such an extent that Akinfeev’s error was no great surprise when it did come to pass. Yet this was a stilted performance by the whole of the Russian team, reminiscent of England’s shudder inducing performances in South Africa four years ago. It’s believed that Fabio Capello is earning $12m a year for his involvement with the Russian team. The Russian Football Association might well be forgiven for asking what exactly they’re getting for their money off the back of last night’s anaemic performance. And Russia will face both the burdens and the benefits of being the hosts of the World Cup in four years time.
World Cup Classic Match Of The Day
Much is made in the history books of the Netherlands team of 1974, but the achivements managed by that of four years later might even dwarf those of Cruyff and company. There was some conjecture at the time over whether the Dutch team of 1974 had been little more than a flash in the pan. The team had, after all, been knocked out of the 1976 European Championships by eventual winners Czechoslovakia and travelling to Argentina would, by anybody’s reckoning, be considerably more difficult than making the short hop to West Germany had been four years earlier. Yet the Netherlands got to the final again, a match against Argentina that they almost won when Rob Rensenbrink’s scuffed shot hit the post in the dying stages of the match with the scores tied at a goal apiece. This morning’s dip into the archives sees them playing Austria in a Second Round group stage match.
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