World Cup Day 13: Italy-Uruguay Game Log

Pre-game thoughts: Costa Rica’s match with England in Belo Horizonte will not be of utmost importance, but for an unlikely scenario: Los Ticos have shockingly already clinched the group–without having faced what has now become the group’s weak link in England–and will likely win it outright with a +3 goal differential and four goals scored in only two games. That leaves the Italians and Uruguayans to duel it out for a second-place finish and knockout stage berth (teams which have +0 GD/2 GS and -1 GD/3 GS, respectively, making it highly improbable that their victory even compounded with a Costa Rica loss would result in winning the group). The Azzurri enter the crucial game in Natal with an upper hand, as a draw would allow them passage into the round of 16 as well. But after a stellar first outing against England, the Italians were surprisingly trounced by upstart tournament darlings Costa Rica, a game in which several questions concerning Italy’s defense arose. With a truly powerful attack, one reinvigorated upon Luis Suarez’s return, Uruguay will prove a formidable opponent that has gained key momentum as of late. While the Uruguayans will seek to replicate their WC success–a process that extends with a victory against Italy–the Italians will want the same result (or a tie) to reclaim their sense of European soccer authority, and progress out of the group stages for the first time in eight years. With all the international talent from both sides involved, and the stakes being as high as ever for each country, Tuesday’s clash will surely be entertaining as it is competitive.

First half:

-Mario Balotelli has struggled to settle into his role in Italy’s altered offensive formation that has placed him up top with Ciro Immobile; frustration might have now sunk in for the mercurial striker, as Balotelli commits two dumb fouls within a minute that earn him a yellow card (his second in the tournament, meaning he misses the team’s second round game if they advance today)

-in the first 25 minutes of the contest, while the Azzurri controlled possession and mostly dictated the pace of the game, Uruguay developed more dangerous attacks composed of better runs and spacing in the offensive third of the pitch than their opponents; yet after this mark in the game time, the Italians have gradually begun to translate their ball control into more concerted and fluid offensive pushes

-a couple of quick and effective pass combinations lead to La Celeste penetrating the left-side goalmouth (from the perspective of the attakcers), signifying the best offensive chance for either side in this game–legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon works his magic again though, getting a hand on two Uruguayan shots while situating himself well outside the goal line

-for a Uruguayan side that cannot settle for anything less than a win to advance, it’s a worrying sign that Italy has so heavily and overbearingly dominated the ball in this opening half, leaving with Uruguay with an inadequate amount of chances on goal

-the play of midfield talisman Andrea Pirlo often determines his team’s fate: through 45 minutes of action, he has had 46 touches on the ball, compared to 72 in his first game (a win) and 36 in his second (a loss) at the same halfway point in the game

Second half:

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

-Italian manager Cesare Prandelli abandons his Balotelli-Immobile combo experiment, subbing out Super Mario–who will see his next WC action only if Italy advances to the quarterfinals now–for 29-year old Marco Parolo, also electing to not take the risk of allowing a carded player to remain in the match

-as Uruguay begins to pressure the opposing goal more and more to begin the final half, it receives a massive help: the referee hands Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio a red card for a dangerous tackle with his cleats up–though it doesn’t seem too egregious (perhaps meriting only a yellow), adding a controversial nature to such a significant, game-changing decision

-GK Buffon, who energetically and furiously sprinted to the other side of the pitch to contest his teammate’s expulsion, will factor in hugely in the remaining time of this game, spearheading his team’s primarly defensive effort playing with 10 men–so far, in the minutes following the red card, Buffon has risen to occasion and already saved a few Uruguayan shots

-despite Italy producing some attacking pushes, it’s feeling more and more like a hockey game in which one team has a power play (a 31-minute one for Uruguay) and the other must settle for clearances downfield (Italy); such a strategy will be effective–notably returning to the team’s traditional, defensive-first mindset–but if the Italians are to close out this game with a tie, they must attain control of the ball in the opposite half of the pitch in order to shave off at least some time

-it’s as if Luis Suarez needed to fulfill his notorious, questionable on-field character in order to truly jumpstart his team and propel it to victory: on the 79th minute, a tussle between Suarez and Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in front of the goal ends with Suarez moving his head into Chiellini’s left shoulder and apparently biting down, as he’s done in two other infamous incidents in the past; interestingly, Suarez also goes down after the clash (a result of taking a hit to the face that doesn’t seem too harmful), perhaps learning from his past biting episodes that if the bitten player falls, he should do the same in order to hide and offset the infraction–then, just within a few minutes of this moment and subsequent dispute, Uruguay earns a corner kick, on which centerback Diego Godin capitalizes with a header (that in fact bounces off his upper left back) to give his team a 1-0 lead (81′)

-a chaotic flow to the game ensues, as while Italy must press forward to look for an equalizer, the team also sustains a few dangerous counterattacks, that fortunately amount to nothing; until the game’s end five minutes into stoppage time, the Italian bench bickers and clamors vehemently–likely stemming from the red card shown to Marchisio and lack of one to Suarez by the referee–with one of the team’s trainers getting sent off, and other bench players and coaches helping to collect and pass balls to on-field Italians to speed up play; finally, about half a minute past the allotted five for injury, as every member of the Uruguayan coaching staff surrounds the line judge and frenziedly motion to their wrists to signal that the final whistle is overdue, the tense and frantic match concludes, as Uruguay advances to the knockout stages, and Italy fails to do so for the second consecutive time in the World Cup

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

World Cup Day 11: Thoughts On Belgium’s Victory Over Russia

1) With all three of their goals coming in the final 20 minutes of games (70′ and 80′ against Algeria, 88′ most recently versus Russia), and all of which either tied or won a contest, Belgium has made a habit of springing to life late during the World Cup within the last week. Whether the additional pressure playing as the clear favorite when the game winds down proves stimulating–which seems unlikely, as the scarcity of WC experience on the roster would only indicate a poor reaction to facing a deficit/deadlock late–or culminations of game-long offensive attacks and possession advantage, the Red Devils have thrived like no other squad in last-gasp opportunities. Just as the rest of soccer world settles on writing off this rising European power, as talent-packed as its continental contemporaries, and decries the team for its overrated label, Belgium strikes–often following an extensive, dispiriting lull in the game–and emerges victorious, to where it’s now clinched a second round berth with six points in Group H. Such a naturally-developed tendency has worked to the their favor in perhaps the weakest group in the tournament, but the Belgians will have to start much more sharply once commencing play in the knockout rounds. There were signs of this kind of effort to begin forcefully in the early-going during the game against Russia, but those ended in vain, as Belgium couldn’t not sustain their attacks towards goal until they resurfaced late in the second half.

2) It was a given that Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard would make an impact in Brazil, but it wasn’t until Sunday that he truly made his mark–and in typical 2014 WC-Belgium fashion, doing so as the game reached the final whistle. As the Red Devils pushed animatedly for an elusive go-ahead score, Hazard was right in the middle of the action, his creativity shining amid solo runs and productively slick distribution to his teammates. As the game progressed, his touch and ability to weave through the opposing defense became more refined and noticeable. The midfielder set up several chances–ones that his fellow Belgians should have undoubtedly better capitalized on–before finally exhibiting his best run with two minutes left in regulation, with Hazard’s pass finding 19-year old substitute Divock Origi, who had enough room to comfortably power home the winner.

3) Finally, Belgian manager Marc Wilmots has continued to display a magic touch in managing and tinkering with his squad, another one of his substitution decisions paying major dividends late in the game: after he sent Origi onto the field on the 57th minute, the young striker scored 31 minutes later to give Belgium a thrilling 1-0 victory. Wilmots’s other two subs helped the cause as well, providing fresh legs and buffering the team’s offensive drives. And while the Red Devils shouldn’t rely on this golden touch (a lucky one for the most part, unless he’s in the midst of revealing his unheralded coaching genius) in future games as much as on their performance on the field–which alone should carry the team far–it’s quite reassuring to have a coach that can positively effect the course of the game like Wilmots, based on his knowledge and feel for a squad that has lately experienced some chemistry issues.

World Cup Day 8 England/Uruguay: England’s Woes A Matter Of Efficiency

With a discouraging 2-1 defeat to a Uruguay squad led by a familiar face in Luis Suarez, England now lies on the brink of World Cup survival. To advance out of Group D, the English would have to beat Costa Rica and then need Italy to topple both Costa Rica and Uruguay, with Costa Rica losing either of their next two games by at least two goals.

Yet despite having sustained losses (both on 1-2 counts) to Italy in their first game and most recently Uruguay in their second, the Three Lions possessed the upper hand in shot categories during these two games, and thus developed more goal-scoring opportunities than their foes. Much of this disparity could result from a combined 84 minutes that the team has trailed so far (42 in each of their WC matches)–the opposition adopts a more defensive mentality once obtaining a lead, so most of the Englishmen’s activity would take place in their offensive third of the pitch–but it still doesn’t explain how England faltered in the most important statistic in the game: goals.

Consider the following table, that includes the total shots, those on and off target, and those blocked, below:

Total shots On target Off target



18 5 11 2
Italy 13 4 8



12 6 5 1
Uruguay 8 2 5


Assuming an advantage in nearly every one of these measurements of a team’s efforts towards goal, and notably in the most significant and insightful ones (totals shots and shots on target), England did more damage with its attack than either of its two opponents.

But that’s when efficiency with these attempts and offensive drives factors in prominently–taking into account the outcome of these shots. In terms of shots intended towards goal, Italy converted two of their 13 (15.4%) while England did so on one out of their 18 (5.6%) in the first game, and Uruguay slotted home two of their eight (25%) with England at just one for 12 (8.3%) in the second game. Upon evaluating the percentages of shots on target that resulted in goals, these numbers become all the more striking and noteworthy, as well as further vital to understanding the Three Lions’ struggles: the Italians scored on two of four SOG (50%) and the English did so on one of five (20%), and in the second match, the Uruguayans scored on each of their two SOG (100%) whereas the English went one for six (16.7%).

The distinction between the offensive effectiveness of England and its competitors is unmistakable. Italy and Uruguay have maximized and took full advantage of their opportunities; though producing fewer than England in number, these two teams better capitalized on their chances, and outperformed England in the facets of clinical goal-scoring ability and finishing. So as much as the Three Lions contain youthful talent and dynamic attacking capabilities, they are evidently lacking in the most significant offensive aspect–an inadequacy that, as of now, will likely undo the team, and grudgingly send them home earlier than expected.

World Cup Day 8 Colombia/Ivory Coast: Blame Goes To The Coach

Lamouchi (right) has hurt more than helped his team with his roster decisions.

Lamouchi (right) has hurt more than helped his team with how he’s handled his lineup.

At least for the first three games, the World Cup is not a single-elimination tournament. Such a setup allows team managers to learn what they did right and wrong with respect to their starting lineups, and going from their first to second game and then second to third, can implement reasonable adjustments to improve their teams’ performance. Yet whether impelled to move on from and leave his country’s older stars tucked away in the past, or oblivious to the effect these players currently have on his team, Ivory Coast’s coach Sabri Lamouchi has obstinately refused to make changes the rest of the soccer world deemed clearly necessary, and likely cost Les Elephants the chance to play to their fullest capacity for the entire match against Colombia on Thursday.

It was just five days ago that we witnessed how upon entering an opening game against Japan on the 62nd minute as a substitute, Didier Drogba galvanized the Ivory Coast unlike any other player on any other team could. Within a mere four minutes after his insertion, the Ivorians overcame a 48-minute long 1-0 deficit by netting goals on the 64th and 66th minutes. The palpable impact of Drogba on the flow of the match comprised two shots, one on target, and three drawn fouls, but most importantly, the legendary goal-scorer spurred the key attacking efforts that ultimately produced a 2-1 advantage and victory.

So why does his coach Lamouchi continue to sit him until the second half, as he did in the team’s second game against Colombia, subbing Drogba in at the 60th minute, after which although the opposition outscored them 2-1, Ivory Coast had never played better prior to his entrance, and wasted a plethora of opportunities to equalize? It shouldn’t be a dilemma of whether or not to pay homage to the country’s superstar, or considering the effect of his age (36): Drogba, without even needing to score, catalyzes the Ivorian team with his composed and creative presence on the pitch–making it undeniably vital for him to participate from the game’s opening whistle. Reports indicate that Drogba himself has expressed unhappiness over his coach’s controversial decision, forcing Lamouchi to publicly clarify and attempt to quell any problems.

Furthermore, Lamouchi mismanaged his squad in relation to other players as well. In placing Drogba into the game, he replaced Wilfried Bony–one of the players that cooperated well with and perhaps felt Drogba’s influence most in the last match against Japan, in which he netted Ivory Coast’s first goal to equalize the score. Then the realization hit that until his 67th minute substitution, Salomon Kalou–another aging team stalwart but still a productive midfielder–had not played the entire game. Another incomprehensible move by Lamouchi, Kalou had proven himself a useful cog in his team’s offense that led the 2-1 comeback win, and contributed significantly to late-game attacks by Les Elephants in only 27 minutes of play against Colombia–one can only assume he’d create even more goal-scoring opportunities had he received more time on the field.

Thus, with all these mismanagements and inability to understand the Ivorian roster’s strengths to the point of failing to start the best combination of his players, Lamouchi has already foiled his team’s chances against Colombia, and likely squandered a great opportunity to win Group C (and have a potentially weaker Group D opponent in the second round if the team advances). There’s still a final group match to make amends, as well as more than plausible round of 16 ambitions to achieve, but Lamouchi nevertheless has proved and remains the biggest hindrance to the success of his team, one that’s the best Ivory Coast has ever sent to the World Cup.

World Cup Day 7 Spain/Chile: How The Reigning Champ Was Eliminated

Spain’s abandoned identity 

Following two or three close goal-scoring chances by Chile to begin the match, Spain has quickly reacted to these developments with impatience and rashness. The team has pressured upfield as if already facing a deficit, abandoning its methodical and composed identity in the process, and thus resulting in decreased efficiency in pass connections between players. Once the Spaniards entered the offensive third of the pitch in the early-going, they have taken much more risky passes–ones directed vertically towards goal, rather than horizontally or diagonally as Spain typically uses throughout all areas of the field, the method around which the team constructs its attack. This trend lasts for the rest of the contest, as the team has displayed a restless and unorganized mentality, and perhaps most striking, an increase in costly, inaccurate passes.

A weakness exposed (again)

On the first powerful attack for Chile, that also included a corner kick, the Spanish defense has continued where it left from its last game: defenders, as well as midfielders dropping back, have left several players unmarked within the goalie box. This defensive incompetency–the Spaniards choosing not to fulfill key responsibilities on this side of the pitch–has resurfaced throughout Chile’s subsequent offensive pushes too, as balls into the goalmouth often go unhindered by defenders.

Vargas (11) electrified the pro-Chilean Maracana crowd. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Vargas (11) electrified the pro-Chilean Maracana crowd with his goal. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Finally, on the 20th minute, Spain got burned on a counterattack again (similar to what occurred in its prior game against the Dutch), initiating from an errant pass and turnover by the team in its side of the pitch near the midfield line. The Spanish defenders remained flat-footed and simply could not keep up with the racing Chilean attackers as they paced vigorously towards goal. Once play slightly slows down in front of the net, Chile’s passes became more horizontal, but nevertheless Spain’s back line couldn’t mark its opponents, as Eduardo Vargas found enough open space to tap in the score and give Chile a 1-0 lead. The lack of awareness and execution by the Spanish defense reappeared and got exploited once more 23 minutes later: a deflection by Iker Casillas from a free kick bounced right to the feet of Chilean midfielder Charles Aranguiz, who without a defender in front, behind, or beside him, easily finessed a shot into the net (43′), left of the outstretched hands of the Spaniard goalkeeper.

Forward-line problems

Placed atop his team’s lineup, Diego Costa has retained the same cluelessness in the first half while operating in Spain’s offense from his previous outing against the Netherlands. Having lost possession several times already, Costa has not shown the ability to competently participate in the pass-oriented Spanish offense. The striker prolonged his horrid and uninspired performance–defined by a poor touch and lack of control on the ball, which regularly stalled the Spanish attack near goal–into the second half, in which he squandered his best opportunity he saw all game on the 49th minute (a perfect through ball by Andres Iniesta that goes for naught, as Costa staggered and failed to release a clean shot).

After a game without a viable forward presence and productive work at this position–discounting Costa who has proved a poison to his team’s chemistry–and the same scenario repeating itself for another half in Maracana, it’s absolutely inexplicable for manager Vicente del Bosque to not have inserted veteran striker David Villa at some point during Spain’s litany of struggles. With five goals in the 2010 World Cup (tied for the most), three goals in the 2013 Confederations Cup, 13 goals for Atletico Madrid during the 2013/14 La Liga campaign, and 58 goals since the first time he represented his nation in 2005, Villa is without question the most reliable and prolific forward off the bench–and most certainly not Fernando Torres, who has already made two appearances as a substitute in as many games in Brazil. Any concerns about his ability at his age (32) are baseless, as Villa frequently demonstrated over the past few years how well he fits up top in the Spanish offense, adeptly fulfilling the role of a clinical goal-scorer. Furthermore, his exclusion in Spain’s two most important 2014 World Cup matches only adds to the general, disrespectful under-appreciation for and underrated value of David Villa during Spain’s prosperous 2008-2012 era.

World Cup Day 6: Brazil vs. Mexico Notes/Thoughts


Oscar (11) of Brazil and Oribe Peralta (19) of Mexico struggle for the ball, as both of their teams used physicality during the game. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Oscar (11) of Brazil and Oribe Peralta (19) of Mexico struggle for the ball, as both of their teams used physicality during the game. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

1st half:

*First 15 minutes…

-the Mexicans have matched the Brazilians’ aggressiveness in the early-going, and for the first few minutes, possessed the ball more in their offensive third of the pitch than in any other zone; the game has generally become more and more chippy

-flank attacks by Brazil–made up of connections between pressing fullbacks and midfielding wings–have gradually increased in dangerous nature, splitting into the Mexican goalmouth

*Minutes 15-30…

-several offside calls have now stalled Brazilian attacks, speaking to the strong and unified play in the back line of El Tri

-both teams have really begun to produce more goal-scoring opportunities, the bigger surprise coming with Mexico’s efficiency of invading Brazil’s goalie box–the Mexicans have not hesitated to fire shots at the goal and test Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar (close to but not on target)

*Last 15 minutes…

-the game has continued to rapidly shift from one offensive third of the pitch, to the other, though Brazil has still maintained the better side of possession (always by at least 10 percentage points) and shots/shots on target

-Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa has done a fantastic job against a potent Brazilian attack in the first half, warding off several shots and effectively interrupting opposing players’ chances

El Tri has instituted a very impactful gameplan–that includes an unyielding aggression and an opportunistic mindset–that has greatly contributed to a stunning halftime deadlock with powerhouse Brazil; essentially, Mexico–though still more defensive–has played as strong a game as possible, a notion that concerns every aspect of their team (from forwards to their goalkeeper), and especially when considering the opponent

2nd half:

*First 15 minutes…

-Mexico has surged to control the game in the early stages of the second half, especially in their offensive third in the pitch: the team has generated crisp and constructive ball movement, and has launched shots–unhindered by Brazilian defenders–near the top of the goalie box that have come dangerously close to entering the frame of the goal

-facing a squad that has forcefully adopted an offensive mentality, Brazil has consequently retreated in full strength back to defend, a situation they would hardly believe to find themselves in at the prior to the game

*Minutes 15-30…

-following a free kick that sails wide left on the 63rd minute, the Selecao seems to have retaken some control of this game in terms of possession, but nevertheless Mexico has still been able to push forward

-Brazil has threatened more and more as of late, piercing through the Mexican defense but failing to attain an adequate touch once a goal-scoring chance opens; Neymar nearly slots in a goal, but Mexican GK Ochoa comes to the rescue again

-the Brazilians have collectively become more composed, organized, and creative, to the point where it feels a goal is approaching

*Last 15 minutes…

-79th minute: Mexico receives a fantastic opportunity on a free kick at the top of box–resulting from a ferocious slide tackle by Thiago Silva on Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, that earns the former a yellow card–but squanders it with a lackluster strike that bounces off Brazil’s wall of players

-86th minute: a free kick cross from left side by Neymar finds a completely unmarked Thiago Silva, leaping just a few feet from the goal, who heads a shot straight at Ochoa, who quickly reacts and deflects it away

-as has been the case throughout the match, offensive pressure by both teams on goal has remained continuous, switching back and forth between threats by Brazil and Mexico

Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa (in blue) had the game of his life between the posts. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa (in blue) had the game of his life between the posts. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

End-game thoughts: In a match that stunned the soccer world, and after which criticism and uncertainty surrounding the Brazilian national team will surely intensify, Mexico could not have played a better game. The defense made little if any mistakes at all (the one exception: leaving Silva unchecked on an 86th minute cross), and did not surrender any ground or easy chances for their explosive counterparts. Although control of the match seemed destined to tilt Brazil’s way, the Mexican midfielders and forwards in large part made sure that was not the case by maintaining productive ball movement on Brazil’s side of the pitch, and generating several excellent goal-scoring chances and shots–particularly on a 25-minute onslaught to open the second half–and thus contributed to a fairly even possession percentage (53-47 Brazil). But above any other player on the field in Fortaleza, Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was the unequivocal man of the match. With pivotal saves (six in total) on both near point-blank shots and precise placements on goal by Brazilian attackers, the Mexican goalkeeper played the biggest role in restraining the dynamic Brazilian offense and preserving a remarkable draw against the host nation.

After yet another underwhelming and questionable performance by his team, Luiz Felipe Scolari must alter his lineup in some way, whether in formation or more likely in the combination of players, and not retain the same one from this match, an approach he used following Brazil’s game against Croatia. It’s perplexing to see that he has not yet realized the relative inefficiency of his current setup, and even more so that he seemingly fails to understand how the group stages of the World Cup serve as the ideal circumstance to experiment and tinker with the way he sends out his team.

World Cup Day 6: Belgium vs. Algeria Analysis

Difficulties for the darkhorse 

Aspirations of succeeding on the World Cup stage–capitalizing on an uncomplicated route to the quarterfinals–and cementing its status as a rising European superpower go hand in hand for Belgium during this tournament. Yet for all their purported attacking prowess, and European club renown and experience, the Red Devils came out of the gates as lethargic and lifeless as one could imagine. Perhaps even more unsettling, the first half of play featured an utterly glaring lack of chemistry between the Belgian players. Simple ball movement governed the team’s pace of play–eventually totaling an eye-popping 616 passes by game’s end, 537 of which were short passes–as well as a fixation on maintaining possession, as the team’s 67.1% (per in this category currently ranks them third best in the WC. Yet this philosophy produced no results, as futile offensive efforts snapped prior to the ball even grazing Algeria’s goalie box. Pushes originated in the back line, and often reached the midfield third of the pitch, but Belgium could not find, much less create, openings in a stout Algerian defense, precluding even a basic touch on the ball by forward Romelu Lukaku. Moreover, it appeared that the players had little understanding of each other’s styles of touch and tendencies–it was as if they were exchanging passes with players with which they were unacquainted. Belgium’s first shot on goal–by Axel Witsel–only came on the 21st minute. The midfielder, and one of the few Belgian players to express assertiveness with the ball at his feet during the first 45 minutes, also fired away again on the 34th minute, thus contributing for Belgium’s two best shots on target.

Algeria’s deserved lead 

Unlike their counterparts, the Fennec Foxes emerged from the tunnel with authority to commence the first half of action. Expected to do nothing more than serve as a thorn in their Group H competitors’ sides, the Algerians played with a free spirit and a reckless abandon, certainly catching a sluggish Belgian squad by surprise. Regardless of Belgium’s domination of possession, Algeria prevented its opponent from even penetrating the goalie box for the better part of the opening half, with the Belgians first doing so at around the 32nd minute. As a result, it revealed a lot of positives about Algeria’s defensive resoluteness, which in general embodied the entire team’s grit and energy. Thus, when the Algerians earned a penalty and converted it, the team more than deserved to grab this one-goal advantage on the 25th minute; the score was a rightful product of Algeria starting the game with a different and higher level of vigor and liveliness than the inert Belgians.

Breakthrough for the Belgians 

Fellaini (8) and Mertens (14) scored both of Belgium's goals as substitutes. (Reuters)

Fellaini (8) and Mertens (14) scored both of Belgium’s goals as substitutes. (Reuters)

Hardly playing differently from their previous 70 listless minutes, Belgium finally–and surprisingly, resulting from an offensive push where players inexplicably stood motionless for the most part–stuck on the 70th minute from a Kevin De Bruyne lob into the goalmouth that landed in the path of a leaping Marouane Fellaini, who had just entered the game as a sub five minutes earlier. Height advantage certainly aided the 6’4” Fellaini in the situation, but it was more of a fortunate bounce than anything, as the midfielder headed the ball with the back of his head and steered it towards an unreachable spot on the goal frame.

10 minutes after breaking through with an equalizer, the Red Devils staged a fantastic counterattack, initiating from a tackle in the midfield. With stellar spacing–better than when the Belgians methodically paced upfield, and for that matter, did so in vain on attack–Dries Mertens opened up with a clear look on net within the goalie box, and powered through the go-ahead score. Yet another sub that has scored, who entered the game during halftime, Mertens’s performance–in conjunction with that of fellow substitute Fellaini–will force manager Marc Wilmots to rethink the original lineup mixture he sent out on the field; both Mertens and Fellaini invigorated the Belgian offense, and in all honesty, should have started from the opening whistle.

Belgium can now move on from this disconcerting and unstable opening WC display, as after anxiously escaping a match against Algeria with a once-unlikely victory, any lineup mistakes Wilmots made are surely reparable going into the team’s final two group stage matches–especially with this talent-laden roster capable of a much better quality of all-around play and offensive firepower.

World Cup Day 5: United States vs. Ghana 2nd Half Notes

*First 15 minutes…

-Ghana has continued to maintain the greater offensive pressure of the two teams; nevertheless, the Black Stars have yet to develop a unified attack once inside the offensive zone of the field

-Bradley has still failed to establish his attacking creativity in the game, in addition to his subpar touch on the ball thus far

-starting at around the 54-minute mark, the Ghanaians develop two dangerous chances, the first a strike that nearly enters the top-left corner of the goal, and the second a header from another cross that sails above the goal; shortly after, another cross finds a Ghana player up top in the goalmouth who heads a ball wide of the goal–at this point, the team is itching for a goal (it just feels that a goal is approaching), and the U.S. will be very lucky to hold this score for the rest of the match

*Minutes 15-30…

-Jermaine Jones at last fires a shot on goal for the United States–the first one in a long period of time–coming at the 63rd minute

-the strain of playing defense for the majority of the game, and doing so in the humidity of Natal, has progressively worn out the entire USA squad–even the forwards, who have languished up top

-67th minute: Team USA grabs control of the ball, passes around among its defenders and then to Tim Howard in the back, who inexplicably lofts it ahead out of bounds near the midfield-line; the Americans must build off any instance of possession they have, and not stick to such an exhausting defensive mindset that includes clear-outs rather than constructive passes to teammates

-instead, a few minutes later, it seems that the American players have embraced this defense-first strategy; midfielders have retreated back to buffer the defensive line, adding to the persistent and effective challenges by the back four

-moving up and down the field on the right side, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya has acted as somewhat of an unsung hero in this all-important match, valiantly fighting through obvious pain to remain on the field, until subbed out at the 77th minute

*Last 15 minutes…

-Ghana finally strikes on the 83rd minute, developing a nice run from the left side–where Dempsey netted a goal 82 long minutes ago–with nifty ball movement that leaves holes in the American defense for Andre Ayew to knock in the equalizer

-86th minute: when all hopes looked lost, the U.S. earns a corner amid a weak offensive push–the Graham Zusi corner finds substitute John Brooks at the top-center of the goalie box, who takes a quick step towards the ball and stunningly heads it into the back of the net, shocking himself as much as the USMNT faithful in the Natal stadium


Brooks (center-left) (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Brooks (left center) rescued his team four minutes after it yielded an equalizing goal to Ghana. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

End-game thoughts: In retrospect, Dempsey’s first-minute strike may have set the U.S. back, despite attaining a crucial early lead, as it prompted the Americans to play more complacently, and adopt a wholly-defensive mindset. Preservation of the lead was of top priority thereafter, suppressing any chances of employing creativity or experimenting on the offensive side. Luck played a significant factor as well, or at least the mediocrity of touch by Ghanaians on offense (which they had plenty of time on), as USA’s opponents completely lacked precision in crosses into the box and on shots; the Black Stars edged the U.S. in shot total (21-8), but in terms of those on target, the Americans had more (4-3), making such an effort by Ghana atrocious upon considering their 62-38% possession advantage. The USMNT should feel pretty fortunate to escape with a 2-1 mammoth victory on the heroics of defender John Brooks, as substandard performances by some players, as well as the questionable state of the Americans’ collective fitness, will introduce several concerns leading up to June 22nd’s match against Portugal. Michael Bradley, the midfield maestro supposed to lead this American squad, must take a bigger role in the U.S. attack with more touches, and better impose himself on and settle into future games. Also, Team USA will have to anxiously monitor the health of Jozy Altidore, who left the match with a strained hamstring, in addition to keeping an eye on left centerback Matt Besler, who was subbed out at halftime due to a hamstring injury as well.

World Cup Day 5: United States vs. Ghana 1st Half Notes

Dempsey (8) capped a lively opening-game spurt for the U.S.  with a goal. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Dempsey (8) capped an opening-game spurt for the U.S. with a goal. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

*First 15 minutes…

-Team USA offense pushes quickly upfield first, and finding the Ghanaian defense flat-footed, Clint Dempsey maneuvers his way from the left side straight towards the net and perfectly slots away a 1st-minute goal; the goal marks as about a perfect a start–and not a sluggish one like in past games–that the USMNT can have

-it simply cannot be stressed enough the significance of such a fantastically explosive start, and even though 89 more minutes remain, it appears that this starting XI [presents the best combination of players

-the Black Stars gradually begin to push back towards their offensive third of the pitch, but the American back line has resisted well so far with effective clear-outs, well-timed tackles, and proper positioning

-Ghana has possessed the ball much more after facing a deficit, and as a result of the quick ball distribution among their players, has already penetrated the U.S. goalie box a few times

*Minutes 15-30…

-the Ghanaians have really increased pressure offensively, seeking to create chances through crosses into the box

-19th minute: USA’s midfielders have fed balls to the flanks excellently so far in this game (an area of the field covered during a run that ended with the first goal), and a ground pass from the right wings find Jozy Altidore, who stutters a little too long to release a strong shot

-21st minute: off a tackle and then smart clearance moving upfield by Michael Bradley, Altidore sprints ahead to control the ball through the air, but apparently pulls his hamstring in the process and gets carried off the field in a stretcher–Aron Johannsson replace him in the right striker role, and American soccer fans hold their collective breath

-a worrying sign for Team USA, Ghana has now really grabbed control of this game and its tempo; a good amount of the action has occurred at the top edge of USA’s goalie box

*Last 15 minutes…

-Dempsey sustains a shot to the nose from a Ghanaian player’s leg (somewhat of a high kick, but interestingly not called a foul) and his subsequent bleeding delays the game; U.S. forwards have not exactly stayed healthy during this game

-right fullback DaMarcus Beasley has disappointed mightily in his area of the field; he has neither showed an adequate touch with the ball at his feet, nor has he pressured the attackers he’s marked well, allowing them space to have good lucks at the goal–furthermore, all the crosses by Ghana have come from the right flank where Beasley plays, signifying that he’s not patrolled his area well enough; later in first half stoppage time, Beasley moves ahead to attack, but leaves his man unchecked once Ghana counters (fortunately, no serious opportunity results)

-at the 42nd minute, the USMNT fields a nice counterattack, that creates a buzz among its supporters in the crowd, but concludes with a weak Johannsson shot that trickles into the hands of the Ghanaian goalkeeper

-over the entire course of the first half–notably apart from the first, extraordinary minute of action–the United States has barely produced any chemistry or cohesive ball movement in their offensive third, in large part due to insufficient time of possession in this side of the pitch; Ghana’s 60-40 possession percentage advantage feels larger on the field than in the boxscore, suggesting the need for midfielders–like the team’s fulcrum in Bradley–to better control the ball

World Cup Day 4: Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina Analysis

Messi's marvelous goal electrified the Maracana crowd. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Messi’s marvelous goal electrified the Maracana crowd. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

First half

1) Despite a devastating early, third-minute blunder–and a horrible start in the country’s first WC appearance–the Bosnian defense did an excellent job in containing Lionel Messi during the first half, suffocating the Argentine star on each time he touched the ball. As a result, Messi acquired a more passive on-field character, hardly challenging defenders or attempting to overcome and fight through Bosnia’s laser-focus on him. Furthermore, as the first 45 progressed along, play in the defensive third of the field noticeably strengthened for the Dragons, possibly indicating that this aspect of the team is stronger than once believed–especially considering their offensive counterparts.

2) The scoreboard becomes even more deceptive upon examining basic halftime statistics: Bosnia-Herzegovina had the advantage in both shots wide and on target, while Argentina had more fouls, all of which would seemingly point to Bosnia as the team winning the game. The Argentines had the edge in possession percentage–entirely due to the style they employed–but the Dragons still better imposed themselves offensively during the first half of play, and displayed higher levels of determination and liveliness.

3) Perhaps the quick goal engendered a complacent attitude in La Albiceleste, as the Argentines operated stagnantly throughout the pitch and lost offensive creativity following Bosnia’s own goal. Rather than look to further cultivate a talented but so far unrefined attack (and doing so for future games that will feature tougher opponents), the players seemed intent on simply draining the clock with the sole objective of preserving their lead. Regardless, their opponents fostered potent attacks and goal-scoring chances, at least in some part due to the plenty of open space that Argentina left in their half of the midfield.

Second half 

4) Not only have they stayed resolute on defense and minimized the impact of any one of Messi’s actions on the pitch, but the Bosnians have continued their superb ball transfer and movement going from the defense to the midfielding group in the early stages of the second half.

5) It took a lengthy 65 minutes, but Lionel Messi finally broke through in this game. Starting with a run near the bottom of the midfield circle, La Pulga paced towards goal, received the ball back after a one-touch connection with second half sub Gonzalo Higuain, and perfectly slotted in a goal while running across the face of the net, leaving Bosnian defenders tumbled over each other behind him. After the sublime goal, the whole Argentine attack sprung back to life–their creative and explosive offensive identity resurfacing–and more effective spacing between the players emerged up front. Still primarily distributing the ball, Messi became more comfortable following his goal, one that was cathartic for a previously-anxious Argentine faithful that packed the Maracana.

The goal by Ibisevic (9) was more a rightful product of game-long efficiency, than consolation. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The goal by Ibisevic (9) was more a rightful product of game-long efficiency, than consolation. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

6) A much-deserved goal for Bosnia-Herzegovina arrived on the 84th minute, when substitute forward Vedad Ibisevic sprinted ahead and received a through ball that he bounced off the goalie to score, cutting his team’s deficit in half. Although the Dragons pushed a few more times towards goal and released some shots in the remaining time, they failed to equalize, allowing Argentina to escape in a victory that has raised more questions than answers–signaling potential lineup changes for the remaining two group games, and particularly the strong chance of plugging Higuain back in as a starter. As for the other side, the Bosnians have nothing to hang their heads about. The defense stymied Argentina’s forceful counterattacks–overall, likely no other team until the quarterfinals will have done a better job of restraining the Argentine attack–and with its offense showing power and resourcefulness, Bosnia-Herzegovina should unquestionably achieve second place in Group F in the coming weeks.