The first two rounds of group-stage play at the World Cup produced the best set of early-round matches I can recall seeing at the event. It was as if all of the 32 teams (well, almost all of them) woke up one morning and decided to play clean, open soccer. And it was if the referees, in response, decided to cease halting play for borderline infractions and handing out cards for common fouls.
The results were flowing play, an output of goals unmatched in decades, and plenty of matches decided by late goals (often from substitutes).
In the third round, though, teams knew the result they needed in order to advance to the knock-out stage. Thus, caution and cynicism were bound to rear their heads. Here is how four crucial matches played out under these circumstances:
Uruguay 1, Italy 0
Let’s start with the most notorious of these matches. These are the two national teams most known for cynical, and at times, dirty play. Yet, going into the third match, neither had manifested these traits. The England-Italy match was a model of fair play, with only one card issued — and that to an England player. Similarly, England-Uruguay saw only one card issued per team (though Diego Godin probably should have seen red).
But with World Cup survival now at stake, this match was ugly from the start. Italy, needing only a draw, reverted to a three center back formation (featuring Juventus’ back three), and fouled repeatedly in order to break up the play. Uruguay initially showed some restraint, but grew increasingly frustrated by its failure to make headway.
The match seemed to turn when Italy’s Claudio Marchisio was sent off at around the hour mark for a high challenge. Yet, Italy continued to deal with everything Uruguay threw at them.
With around ten minutes to go, Luis Suarez took matters into his own mouth. With Uruguay looking to play the ball into the penalty area, Suarez, who was being marked in the area, stuck his head into the shoulder of the Italian defender Chiellini and (by all appearances) bit him. Suarez then flung himself to the ground, as if Chiellini had charged into him with his shoulder.
Clearly, Suarez was hoping to distract Chiellini from his defensive duty and/or to draw an unearned penalty kick. He did neither, but did escape discipline because the referee missed the bite, which occurred away from the ball.
A minute later, Uruguay scored the winning goal on a header from a corner kick. Had Italy “switched off” to some extent due to the disruption that followed Suarez’s bite? Who knows?
Suarez is unlikely to escape discipline for much longer. This is the third time he has bitten an opponent. He should have been banned from playing last season for his second bite (instead, he received a ten match ban). This time he should be barred from ever playing internationally and, if possible, banned for two years from playing at all.
Holland 2, Chile 0
Both teams had played extremely attractive, open football in their first two matches. But now, Holland needed only a draw to win its group, and the Dutch employed a three center back formation in order to match up with, and hopefully negate, Chile’s similar formation.
Holland succeeded. For some reason, Chile decided use its right center back, Silva, as the point man to set up its attacks. This tactic seemed bound to fail, and it did. Holland, meanwhile, was content to counterattack, and did so with little conviction.
It was among the dullest first halves of the tournament.
The match turned when Chile, desperate for goal in order to top the group, took off Silva and reverted to two center backs. As predicted here, Medel and Jara (who play different positions for second-rate clubs in English football) couldn’t cope with the Dutch forwards, especially Robben. Goals by a pair of Dutch substitutes won the match.
Mexico 3, Croatia 1
Mexico needed only a draw to advance. For Croatia, it was win-or-go-home.
To its credit, Mexico played something close to its normal attacking game. Though the Mexicans didn’t score in the first half, they put Croatia under plenty of pressure in an open and entertaining, albeit scoreless, first half.
As with the Holland-Chile match, this contest turned in the second half when Croatia began replacing defenders with more attacking players. Mexico promptly produced three goals. Croatia, looking tired, had no answer, though it did manage a late consolation goal.
Greece 2, Ivory Coast 1
Though not always well-played, this turned out to be perhaps the most exciting match of the World Cup to date. Ivory Coast, needing only a draw to advance, played conservatively, as manifested (for example) by the exclusion from the starting lineup of the dangerous Wilfried Bony.
Big mistake. Though Greece is strong defensively, it’s unlikely that the team could have coped for 90 minutes with the kind of attacking play the Ivorians showed against Japan and Colombia. Moreover, Greece, which, characteristically hadn’t scored in the first two matches, would not likely have had enough possession to score if Ivory Coast had played more attack-minded soccer.
As it was, Greece scored just before half time. Now the Ivorians would have to attack all-out.
And they did, to excellent effect, finally equalizing in the 74th minute through Bony, now on as a substitute. (Former Arsenal attacker Gervinho created the goal. He had an excellent World Cup, just as he had an excellent season for Roma).
The Greeks fought back with some of the most attractive play I’ve ever seen from them (who knew they had it in them?). Yet, at the end of 90 minutes, it was still 1-1 and Greece was a few minutes of added time from elimination.
Then, with only about a minute left, Giovanni Sio, on as a substitute, committed a foul in the penalty area. The excellent Georgios Samaras kept his nerve from the spot, and Greece, not Ivory Coast, advanced.
The final ten minutes of a match are the time for a team with the edge to become conservative. Yet, Ivory Coast manager (former manager as of this morning) Sabri Lamouchi brought Sio — a forward — into the match in the 83rd minute. And Sio looked very much like a forward when he committed his game-turning foul while trying to defend in the penalty area.
Attack or defend? That’s often the question. The answer depends in part on the score and the time, but it also depends on the nature of the opponent.
These four matches illustrate the interplay of the various factors, and how difficult it can be to get it right.