Goalmouth Scramble 2014
Analysis and comment on the 2014 FIFA World Cup

World Cup first round wrap: Three questions

Arjen Robben, Lionel Messi and James Rodriguez have all been standout performers in Brazil. Photo / AP
Arjen Robben, Lionel Messi and James Rodriguez have all been standout performers in Brazil. Photo / AP

With half of the World Cup teams heading home, we look back on the group stage of the 2014 World Cup and which teams and players stood out.

Kris Shannon

Which was the best game in group play?
United States 2 Portugal 2

This World Cup has featured its fair share of sensational goals, a healthy douse of late drama and a host of star turns from top performers. But not many matches have been graced by all three elements.

The United States' clash with Portugal, deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, had everything a fan could want from a group game:
-A favoured side, ranked fourth in the world, being given the run-around by an unfancied nation where football means something else entirely.
-A sensational equalising strike from Jermaine Jones, bent inside the far post from the edge of the box, helping to overturn an early deficit.
-And, of course, the 95th minute goal that saved Portugal's tournament, crafted by a stunning cross from Cristiano Ronaldo that, given the context, has to be considered one of the great assists in World Cup history.

It was also a ratings winner Stateside where almost 25 million - better than both the NBA Finals and baseball's World Series - watched the heartbreak for the USMNT (a rather clunky nickname that I'm pretty sure means United States Mutant Ninja Turtles).

Who is the top performer so far? James Rodriguez (Colombia)
When Radamel Falcao was ruled out of the tournament through injury, that was meant to put paid to Colombia's hopes. Though they came through a gruelling South American qualifying group in second spot, that result was largely based in their superstar's nine goals.

But a new star has been born in Brazil: a forward with James (pronounced 'Ham-es') on his back. Rodriguez had already been the subject of a big-money move to Monaco but, based on his performances so far, another expensive tranfer could await.

The forward spear-headed wins over Greece and Ivory Coast before coming off the bench to lay on two goals and score a special third against Japan (anytime you can make a defender literally fall over himself, you're probably doing something right).

Rodriguez possesses pace, an eye for a pass and what appears a full range of finishing options. Along with Messi, the Colombian is the only man to score in each of his side's three games.

Prediction from here?
Messi and Neymar seem primed to carry their countries deep in the tournament but both Argentina and Brazil appear seriously deficient in other areas.

The hosts could very easily be knocked out by a suffocating Chile in the round-of-16, while Argentina's weak half of the draw may suddenly appear significantly stronger if the world's best player has an off night in front of goal.

Colombia and Costa Rica's fairytales should end well before midnight, Uruguay is a different proposition without Chewy Luis, and France's impressive displays were borne out of the easiest group.

Whom does that leave? The Netherlands, rampant in attack and, in Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, boasting two of the tournament's deadliest players. And the Germans, easily the most complete team and a team that thrives when the stakes are high.

A European nation could very well end the South American stranglehold on World Cups hosted on the continent. Either that, or Messi goes full Maradona '86.

Steven Holloway

Which was the best game in group play?
Netherlands 3 Australia 2

I wasn't too thrilled about the prospect of getting up at 4am to watch the Socceroos get thumped by the Netherlands, but I did it just in case. I think the kids call it FOMO, fear of missing out. I didn't want to miss out on something special - and this game definitely qualified as special.

The truth is, the battling Aussie underdogs should have won. The lowest ranked side in the competition were the far superior team in the first half, scored the best goal of the World Cup through Tim Cahill, came from behind to lead 2-1, should have led 3-2 and ended up losing 3-2. It was a brutally fun roller coaster of emotions, and I didn't even really care who won.

Who is the top performer so far? Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Everything about Dutch winger Arjen Robben suggests he should be slow. He's 30 years old but looks 40, constantly looks in pain, has had a career littered with injuries and was Chelsea's top player ten years ago. But he is still devastatingly fast. So fast in fact, that he moves quicker with the ball at his feet than opposing defenders can run at a full sprint. He single handedly tore apart Australia, Chile and Spain and has been the most exciting player to watch in the group stages. When he picks the ball up on halfway, you know what he's going to do: dribble, cut onto left foot, shoot. Unfortunately for defenders, there's a difference between knowing this and stopping him.

Prediction from here?
If Brazil can get past Chile on Sunday morning they will win the tournament. World Cup champions often tenderly grind their way through the group stage before picking up momentum and making a run to the final and Brazil are following that script perfectly. But the Chile challenge is an incredibly tough one and has the potential to be a real banana skin. If they can get past Chile they will beat Colombia in the quarters, Germany in the semis and Argentina in the final.

Cameron McMillan

Which was the best game in group play?
Netherlands 5 Spain 1

It was the game that stood out on the group play calendar when the draw was first made last December - a repeat of the 2010 final on just the second day of the tournament. But not even the staunchest Dutch fan would have expected a 5-1 thrashing of the defending champions and back-to-back European title holders. Spain took the lead after Brazilian born Diego Costa went down in the box in a harsh call - much talked about before the tournament it was the only positive thing he did for Spain. They had control of the match and should have gone 2-0 up through David Silva in the 41st minute when he missed a one-on-one with the Dutch keeper.

It proved to be very costly. Two minutes later Robin van Persie scored an absolute screamer with his head - from there it was all Netherlands as they ripped the defending champions to shreds in the second half.

It set the tone for an amazing opening week of the tournament where the opening 12 games didn't feature a draw.

Who is the top performer so far? Lionel Messi (Argentina)
As Most Valuable Player at the midway point of the tournament it's hard to agrue with the importance of Messi to Argentina. He scored the winning goal in their opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the winning goal in the 91st minute against Iran and twice put his side ahead in their 3-2 win over Nigeria. He was named as man of the match in all three victories as Argentina finished top of Group F with nine points. Take away his four goals and they finish on two points in the group.

Prediction from here?
I want to be really boring and say that all of the group stage winners will make the quarter-finals with the exception of the USA who I think will beat Belgium - earning a certain defeat to Argentina. Brazil vs Argentina is odds-on favourite for the final but I'm backing the Germans to find a way to nullify Neymar, stunning the hosts in a semifinal clash with Brazil.

- NZ Herald

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