Benzema could have won the Golden Boot by now
Karim Benzema was smiling after France smashed Switzerland 5-2 in Group E but the Frenchman might end up rueing his night after all. He could have had a hat-trick: a saved penalty in the first half, the only missed so far this tournament, and a moment of Clive Thomas-esque farce in the last minute, as his shot from outside the area flew into the net but the referee had blown his whistle before it crossed the line.
Add to those missed opportunities the own goal that Benzema created in game one against Honduras, when his shot struck the post and went in off the goalkeeper’s back, and Benzema could be on six goals already. Instead, he has three. It has been noted in France that Benzema is now 26, the same age as Zinedine Zidane in 1998, and that he is flourishing out of the shadow of club team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo. As one anonymous Real Madrid player told El Pais before the Champions League final: “He is not our best striker, but he is the most important.”
There are good ways to lose – and then there’s Cameroon
The biggest surprise was that the first team eliminated from the World Cup was Spain, the reigning champions. Less of a surprise was the dignified manner in which they reacted to it, with captain Iker Casillas and senior player Xabi Alonso fronting up after their loss to Chile and apologising to the Spanish public. The media, on the whole, took it well and preferred to focus on the success of the team’s last six years. Change will come and by Euro 2016, Spain will once again be a contender.
In the same group, Australia will also go home early but with even more reasons for positivity, as young group of players gave Chile and then Netherlands an almighty scare: seven of the side that led the Dutch 2-1 graduated from the Under-20 set-up between 2009 and 2011. Credit then, to coach Ange Postecoglou, who promised attacking football and deserved more for his bravery. He will keep his job and Australia will be a team to watch at next year’s Asian Cup.
Less feted will be the Cameroon players, who for the second tournament running, left a coach scratching his head at their lack of self-control. in 2010, Paul Le Guen failed to control a dressing-room mutiny; this time Alex Song assaulted an opponent with his elbow while Benoit Assou-Ekotto head-butted his team-mate. It was too much for Volker Finke. Good luck to whoever his successor might be.
Is that world-class enough for you, Roy?
Among the reasons given for England’s second straight defeat in the group stage was that Roy Hodgson refused to call Luis Suarez “world-class” in the pre-match press conference. “You can’t use that world until you’ve done it in a World Cup,” Hodgson said, essentially removing Cristiano Ronaldo and, arguably, Lionel Messi from that debate too. After scoring the two goals that broke England, Suarez was quoted as saying Hodgson’s comment annoyed him.
The Sunday Times confirmed that Suarez was “wound up… big time” by the England coach. Two things here: one, would Suarez really have been aware of what Hodgson said and, more pertinently, cared a jot? Why would that motivate a player who clearly loves his country and worked so hard to get fit from the keyhole surgery he had on his knee just 29 days earlier? And two, where does Suarez now rank among the world’s best? Better than Robben, Aguero and Ibrahimovic, but not quite on the Messi and Ronaldo level? He is making up the ground on those two pretty fast – in fact, if he carries on like this he might join them next week.
Even international transfers can flop
This World Cup is the most multicultural ever, with the fluidity of nationalities present in squads like Switzerland, which has 15 players in it who could represent up to 13 different nations. The storyline in which the Boateng brothers faced each other in the Germany-Ghana game, for the second tournament running, took a back seat to the trials of Diego Costa, who ‘declared’ for Spain and to some people, forced them to adopt a different style when he was playing.
“He likes to exploit the spaces, to attack from deep positions and to get on the end of final passes, but Spain’s football focuses more on the collective,” said Diego Simeone, his coach at Atletico Madrid last season. “Playing that collective game, Spain haven’t performed at their best, nor were they able to take advantage of Costa and the characteristics he brings.” The irony is that Brazil, the country Costa turned down, could do with him as their focal point.
One player who also turned down other countries and is at the World Cup is Adnan Januzaj, who picked Belgium over Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and England (who he could not represent for another few years). The Manchester United winger has not had any playing time but I doubt he would mind too much. Belgium are at least guaranteed a place in the next round while England are going home tomorrow.
Is a shock on the cards?
When was the last genuine shock winner at the World Cup? Probably 1950, when Uruguay stunned Brazil in ‘the Maracanazo’, a victory which devastated the country at the time – and, some say, was the inspiration for the success in three of the next five tournaments. This year it could be a different story: before a ball had been kicked there were four clear favourites. All four had a difficult second round of matches. Spain are now out; Argentina looked unconvincing; as did Brazil; while Germany showed some weaknesses in their thrilling draw with Ghana. Two games is still too early to pick a winner, but this could be the most open tournament for decades, and if a team like Colombia or Chile were to go all the way, then it would be as dramatic – and, perhaps, welcome – as those scenes back in 1950.
Team of the second round
Ochoa (Mexico); Cuadrado (Colombia), Montazeri (Iran) Kompany (Belgium), Torosidis (Greece); Borges (Costa Rica), Aranguiz (Chile) Perisic (Croatia); Cahill (Australia), Suarez (Uruguay), Benzema (France)
Ben Lyttleton is the author of ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty’ (Bantam Press), out now.
- Sports & Recreation
- Luis Suarez
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Roy Hodgson