It’s quite a task selecting the best 10 performances from 32 teams playing three games each, but in the hard world of being employed to rank world footballers, I stand ready.
It’s especially hard not to just latch onto incredible moments and insert a player on the list. Robin van Persie’s headed goal against Spain still amazes me, but was he the driving force behind the Netherlands’ surprising group stage? Certain teams got by on defending, so does that mean one defender can rise above the rest?
Oh, shoot. Let’s just do this thing. The Top Ten players from the 2014 group stage were:
10. Gervinho, Ivory Coast – No, Les Elephants were not able to charge out of their group stage funk, but that was no fault of the electric Gervinho, who challenged back lines and midfields alike.
9. Arjen Robben, Netherlands – He’s a menace, and his motor never stops going (even during his full-energy dives). Robben drove the Dutch into the knockout rounds.
8. Enner Valencia, Ecuador – The bright spot in a disappointing tournament for La Tri, the ‘other’ Valencia has been linked with a number of Premier League sides including Newcastle United.
7. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico – You watched the Brazil/Mexico match, right? Can you believe El Tri had coaches who didn’t suit this guy up?
6. James Rodriguez, Colombia – Absurdly-gifted and just as productive, James is one of the main reasons Colombia could emerge from the loaded CONMEBOL quadrant and into the semifinals.
5. Karim Benzema, France – If this guy played in England, he would be one of the most popular players for American audiences. He’s big, talented and hard-charging.
4. David Luiz, Brazil – So PSG is going to team Luiz up with Thiago Silva? Champions League, beware.
3. Neymar, Brazil – If there’s been more stress placed on a younger player by a host nation, we’ve yet to find him. Coming into his own during this tournament.
2. Thomas Muller, Germany – All he does is score goals, and that bullet against the United States was bordering on impossibly well-placed.
1. Lionel Messi, Argentina – Any more questions about the Atomic Ant on the international stage? He was Argentina in the group stage.
Honorable mention: Wayne Rooney, England; Yeltsin Tejeda and Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica; Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, United States; Daley Blind, Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay, Netherlands; Blaise Matuidi, France; Xherdan Shaqiri and Diego Benaglio, Switzerland; Andre Ayew, Ghana; Juan Cuadrado, Colombia; Merhdad Pooladi, Iran; Serey Die, Ivory Coast; David Ospina and Jackson Martinez, Colombia; Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, Belgium; Ivan Perisic, Croatia; Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sanchez, Chile; Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria; Oribe Peralta, Mexico; Diego Godin and Luis Suarez, Uruguay; Islam Slimani, Algeria; Keisuke Honda, Japan; Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels, Germany.
Two more group finales are in store on Thursday, as the U.S. face Germany in their crucial Group G finale. The USA know that a win or draw would guarantee their spot in the last 16, but a defeat vs. Germany and a big win for either Portugal or Ghana in the other game could scupper the Americans’ chances. As for Group H, Belgium is already through, but will Algeria, Russia or Korea join them?
Cheater’s Guide Portugal and Ghana are both hoping they rack up a big win and that the USA loses heavily to Germany. If that happens the victor here will go through to the knockout stages. A draw is useless to either side. Expect a humdinger in Brasilia.
What they’re saying Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo on his teammates: “Maybe we’re an average team … We have a very limited team and we are not at the best level. This does not enable you to beat top teams. There are no miracles. We knew we would have a tough group, with perhaps teams better than us … I’m not a hypocrite, I never thought we could win the tournament.”
History The two nations have never met.
Premier League Players Portugal: Nani (Manchester United)
Cheater’s guide Both teams need just a point to seal qualification through to the last 16 of the World Cup. Simple… right?
What they’re saying USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann on his team playing for the draw: “‘I don’t think that we are made for draws, really, except if it happens like tonight (vs. Portugal) – two late goals, last seconds. I think both teams go into this game and they want to win the group.”
These two have met twice before at the World Cup. Germany won 2-0 in 1998, when Klinsmann scored the second, and infamously 1-0 in the 2002 quarterfinals.
Premier League players
United States:Brad Guzan (Aston Villa); Tim Howard (Everton); Geoff Cameron (Stoke City); Jozy Altidore (Sunderland Germany: Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski (All Arsenal), Andre Schurrle (Chelsea),
Belgium is already through to the knockout stages but has the chance to guarantee top spot with a point against Korea. As for Korea, they must win and hope Russia and Algeria play to a draw.
What they’re saying
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots on people criticizing his sides defensive play so far: “Pretty, pretty, pretty makes no one happy. We are tactically very disciplined and we have needed to be patient. It’s not about being beautiful – but about being effective.”
This will be the fourth time these sides have met, with Belgium winning two and drawing one of the last three. They met in the 1990 and 1998 World Cup finals, a 1-0 win for Belgium and 1-1 draw respectively.
Cheater’s guide Both teams have one point so far from the World Cup, however if they win here and Korea lose to Belgium, the victor will make it to the last 16.
What they’re saying
Algeria’s manager Vahid Halilhodzic after they beat Korea: “The fans never gave up on me, and it’s made me feel warm inside. But the press – the press lost confidence in Vahid. This is a gift for everyone except for you. I know you’re sad tonight but this is how it is. There are things that have provoked such animosity in Vahid. So many lies. You have attacked my own family. My pride, my honour, no one has the right to touch those things but I have not won a battle for myself. The Algerian people have never given up on me and have expended a lot of energy, and this is a small reward.”
They have only met once before, a 2-2 friendly draw in 1964.
Did you make it through Belgium vs. Russia without falling asleep? It was a tough one, a tactical battle that even the biggest tactics nerds would’ve found difficult to describe as “interesting”. In the end, though, Belgium squeaked out a 1-0 win, putting them through to the Round of 16.
Just like in yesterday’s opening match, the first half of Belgium vs. Russia was rather quiet. Fabio Capello had, as expected, instructed his team to sit back and defend, only venturing forward on rare counterattacks. Caution won out and the staunch Russia defense was able to keep Belgium’s potent attack rather quiet, although Dries Mertens proved to be quite a handful down the right.
With over 30 minutes left to play, Marc Wilmots made the decision to once again replace Romelu Lukaku. The forward had been disappointing once more, seeing barely any of the ball and failing to put himself into decent positions to receive it. 19-year-old Divock Origi took his place, and almost immediately pushed forward into the area.
The best that could be said for the second half is that Russia came out of their shell a bit more, getting forward with more regularity. However, they were still unable to do much with the ball once they were there. In fact, with both teams employing more caution than attacking intent, it came as little surprise that neutral fans could be spotted sleeping in the stands.
The crowd managed to rouse itself in the 81st minute, when a break left substitute Andrey Eshchenko unmarked. He dragged his shot wide, however, and the murmurs of interest quickly turned to boos around the Maracanã. The crowd was enlivened once more when Kevin Mirallas hit the post.
Belgium were finally waking up, and that proved fatal to Russia. The goal finally came through a fast counter attack. Eden Hazard sprinted to the byline before cutting back, slipping the ball to Origi. The young striker slotted home from close range, giving Belgium their second consecutive win.
Belgium: Courtois, Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Kompany, Vermaelen (Vertonghen 31); Witsel, Fellaini; Mertens (Mirallas 75), De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 57)
Where are the surprises? Despite the first shot going to Russia, this match has gone exactly as planned – planned by Fabio Capello, anyway. Belgium have managed to get into dangerous positions, but they’re blocked by the Russian defense, who are doggedly determined to let few balls trouble Igor Akinfeev. While Russia have been able to get forward on the counter, a lack of creativity means Belgium have generally been able to anticipate and keep their attacks in check.
Will Romelu Lukaku manage to make an impact on this match? For the second game in a row, the young striker has done little to threaten the opponents’ goal. He’s had but one shot, which was duly blocked, while the majority of Belgium’s threat is coming from Dries Mertens on the right. Will Wilmots give him longer to snap his cold streak, or will we be seeing Divock Origi early in the second half once more?
Belgium faltered against Algeria, but Marc Wilmots’ substitutes made the difference, inspiring a comeback 2-1 victory in their first match. Russia, too, had their difficulties. Igor Akinfeev’s horrible blunder allowed South Korea to take the lead, but Russia were able to find an equalizer, leaving them with just a point. Will either side get off to a better start this time around? Find out at 12 noon ET.
How will Belgium look when they play their subs from the start?
Against Algeria, Wilmots surprised almost everyone when electing to start Tottenham duo Mousa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli, with Chadli’s inclusion in the middle particularly surprising. Now the coach has shifted back to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens included from the whistle. This lineup is certainly capable of putting a few goals past Russia – but they’ll need to be wary of not tiring themselves out.
Will Russia take the initiative?
Russia failed to surprise in their first game (well, apart from the Akinfeev error; he’s usually fairly reliable). Fabio Capello’s men set out to stifle South Korea, a task they very nearly accomplished. But with Belgium the top team in Group H, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything different from Russia, who could draw today and still make it out of the group with a win over Algeria.
Expectation That Belgium will be able to overcome a dogged Russian defense. The Red Devils have numerous attacking options available, and goals could come from anywhere – their pacy midfielders, their strong central defenders (fullbacks are overrated, didn’t you know?) or the towering heights of Romelu Lukaku or Marouane Fellaini. If one combination doesn’t work, Wilmots will be able to try a different key.
One blogger’s prediction I’ve failed to provide the correct answer each time I’ve been asked to make one. I predict at least one side will come away with at least one point.
(That side would probably be Belgium, but this World Cup is determined to surprise)