Soccer

Jack: A day of disbelief as heavyweights Italy are floored

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Kristian Jack
6/20/2014 11:24:58 PM
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It was a day of disbelief at the World Cup. A day where thousands sat in stunned silence. A day when a minnow deservedly beat a European powerhouse; when a former European powerhouse awoke from years of discontent and immaturity to put it all together on the biggest stage of all.

Italy 0-1 Costa Rica

D4. It stood right there on the board. It was the World Cup draw and every country was represented. D4, where hopes and dreams would have to go through not one, not two but three extremely hot Northern locations in group play. Manuas, Recife and then Natal. Three matches, including two at 1pm local time.

Once the draw was made D4 got even worse, becoming the position where two non-European seeded teams came together. Two former winners.

England's entourage at the draw may have made headlines for the famous cut-throat gesture when handed their three opponents but this was far from what Italy wanted.

Yet, still they remained in their base, at the seaside resort of Mangaratiba, over a thousand miles away from all three locations.

The Italians put aside any worries about slow starts with a master class against England in their opener and arrived in Recife hoping to book their place in the next round against the group's apparent whipping boys, Costa Rica.

For 30 minutes it was going to plan. Daniele De Rossi sat deep, allowed the full backs to motor on and Andrea Pirlo pulled the strings for the others to dance to. Mario Balotelli should have scored at least once and Claudio Marchisio, a misplaced backpass aside, was outstanding.

Then the heavyweights hit the deck. Hard. Giorgio Chiellini misplaced a back pass, allowed Joel Campbell to blow by him before fouling in the box. Penalty. Except the referee missed it. Of course he did, look where he was?

Apparently the counter-attacking World Cup isn't as easy to ref as people would hope.

Italy got away with a standing count but a minute later they were floored again, this time for real. Their narrow 4-3-3 can be very successful with the ball but the wide members of their attack do tuck in and when Junior Diaz motored down the left wing the hapless Ignazio Abate had no help. Diaz whipped in a wonderful cross and Bryan Ruiz completed a miserable two minutes for the ball-watching Chiellini by heading in at the back post.

Italy were down and apparently out; a wounded heavyweight with no energy or quality to help them back up.

The biggest surprise was not them losing a competitive first half 1-0, it was their pathetic display in the second. Once again, just like Spain, we saw a European powerhouse labor through a game in South America devoid of ideas in the unfamiliar scenario of being behind.

Cesare Prandelli, one of the game's great flexible coaches, played three cards with his subs and they were all wrong. Instead of looking like a complete side, knowing what each other's roles can be, against England, Italy were clueless against a magnificently organized Costa Rican back five. The image of Antonio Cassano rather than Ciro Immobile, for example, trying to get them back in the game was as sad as seeing the likes of Iker Casillas, Xavi and Steven Gerrard underperform at this World Cup.

The game is changing in front of our very eyes and if Italy don't get back to what makes them special they'll soon be flying home just like Spain and England. Despite mistakes on Friday, their back seven - Buffon, back four, De Rossi and Pirlo - is good enough to win a World Cup. Who plays with them, and how they play, will ensure just when this team's tournament will end.

France 5-2 Switzerland

If you read any previews heading into this World Cup you probably had them tell you how difficult Switzerland are to break down and how mentally fragile France are. Welcome to the 2014 World Cup where stereotypes and form guides are being broken down as quickly as the Maracana security. 

Switzerland had a nightmare from start to finish. Everything went wrong for them, from a key early injury to massive errors by usually reliable players it was simply a game they just need to forget immediately. Win their last match against Honduras and they should qualify. If you can't beat them then they don't deserve to advance.

France was magnificent. It was the best performance they have produced post- Zinedine Zidane and it wasn't even close. When France got to the final in 2006 they never produced back-to-back halves as good as this one. They scored five, missed a penalty and scored another fine goal less than a second after the final whistle blew. It was only fitting this game ended with the ball in the back of the net. In three matches in Salvador this World Cup has now produced SEVENTEEN goals. Or, the same amount of goals Norwich City scored at home all of last season.

Suddenly, France looks like a legitimate, serious contender for this World Cup. Hated by their own people back in October after losing the opening leg against Ukraine, Les Bleus have gone from a bunch of arrogant, unlikeable underachievers to a formidable power with tremendous depth, full of players with Champions League experience who fear no one. Even their key nemesis in recent years, Spain, can't get in their way now.

Guaranteed winners of a comfortable group, the tournament opens up for them now and Germany in the quarterfinals looks like a real possibility. Just don't call them dark horses. They were always too talented for that. The moment the draw was made, these so-called dark horses left the stable as a shiny white horse more than capable of easily jumping the first fence at the World Cup. Now that star striker Karim Benzema is finally playing as good as he does for Real Madrid this once lazy, uninterested horse is trotting hard towards the last week of this tournament.

Ecuador 2-1 Honduras

This was another great game at the World Cup. Honduras took the lead through Carlo Costly and it was then that we saw what Ecuador could do. Enner Valencia, their new goal scoring hero, grabbed a brace with a combination of good finishing and poor defending. Honduras will be furious with how they conceded, particularly the winning goal, which was another header from another good cross at this World Cup.

Man of the Day

Nominees

Bryan Ruiz - No matter what this proud country do at this World Cup from here on in, they have their moment and their hero.

Giancarlo Gonzalez - The Columbus Crew defender was absolutely marvelous against the Italians, leading a very high line and spending much of the game with Mario Balotelli in his pocket.

Jorge Luis Pinto - The Costa Rica boss has got his tactics spot on in back-to-back games.

Olivier Giroud - It proved to be a masterstroke inserting the Arsenal man into the lineup by Didier Deschamps. A superb header opened the floodgates but his buildup and attacking run - allowing Mathieu Valbuena to be onside - for the third goal was just as good.

Enner Valencia - Every World Cup has a player from a smaller nation who some target in their pool heading in. The Ecuadorian hitman is no Lucas Barrios from 2010 that's for sure.

The Winner…

Jose Luis Pinto - Games are won and lost by players but Pinto, a veteran coach of 19 teams in 30 years, has outcoached Oscar Tabarez and Cesare Prandelli inside a week. A phenomenal achievement.

What comes next?

Argentina vs Iran (12pm/9am), Germany vs Ghana (3pm/Noon), Bosnia-Herzegovina vs Nigeria (6pm/3pm).

Burning question for tomorrow

Will Iran be the perfect opponent for Lionel Messi to score some more goals at a World Cup and quiet those who only think he plays well when he scores?

Key stat of Day 9

Honduran goal scorer Carlo Costly was not even born the last time his country scored at the World Cup (1982).

Ignazio Abate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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