Soccer

Wheeler: Wrapping up the Group Stage

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Gareth Wheeler
6/26/2014 9:14:23 PM
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Forty eight matches are now in the books. Sixteen teams have moved on. Sixteen teams have gone home. There have been 136 goals, countless talking points, and numerous standout performances. It's time to make sense of the last 15 days. Here is your best and worst from the Group Stage.
 
Team of the Group Stage
 
GK: Keylor Navas (CRC) – Only let in one goal, a penalty in his opening 45 minutes of the action. Navas made one of the saves of the tournament in the 44th minute in the same half against Uruguay. A shot by Diego Forlan took a dramatic deflection and had eyes for the top corner. Navas ranged back and made an incredible save on his off-shoulder, showing standout body control and concentration making the unorthodox stop. If Navas doesn't make that save, Costa Rica doesn't come back to win that match, and probably doesn't advance from the group. It was a special stop from a special goalkeeper.
 
RB: Serge Aurier (CIV) – Pacey. Strong. Purposeful. And positionally sound. The 22-year old did it all in the group stage. He set up both goals fantastically well in the 2-1 comeback win in the opener against Japan.  It's disappointing his team couldn't provide enough going forward against Greece to advance to the next round. Aurier is an emerging top talent and showed why he is so coveted.
 
CB: Giancarlo Gonzalez (CRC) – The Columbus Crew centre-back was a rock throughout the Group Stage. He had no better performance than in the second match against Italy, making what ended up being a four-man Italian attack look like a bunch of amateurs. Timely tackles and the general of Costa Rica's backline, he kept the group organized and keeping a high line. 
 
CB: Rafael Marquez (MEX) – The fourth World Cup captaining El Tri and perhaps putting in his finest performance. Marquez has led a young backline with composure and strength against a group featuring marquee attacking talent. The job he did on Croatia's Mario Mandzukic was a master-class, as was his match-winning goal, the third straight World Cup he has scored. The performance has been one of the most unexpected in the tournament, slowing down over recent years. The 35 year old has been class in Brazil.
 
LB: Daley Blind (NED) – The versatility is most impressive with the left back. His presence going forward has been as purposeful as his defending in the adaptable wingback position. His ball from mid-field on Robin van Persie's opening goal of the tournament was a thing of beauty. And he thrived in a more defensive role against Chile with Bruno Martin Indi out with Dirk Kuyt in front of him. Few have looked better at the World Cup.
 
M: Hector Herrera (MEX) - The Mexican keeps getting better as the games go by. He has provided a reliable midfield link to the attacking players and has threatened multiple times on goal. The work-rate is second to none and quality is there to equal. His game against Croatia was worthy of Man of the Match. The future is bright for the 24 year old.
 
M: James Rodriguez (COL) – A midfield engine and the heart and soul of Colombia. Radamel Falcao's absence was deemed disastrous, but not with the number 10 manning the field. He's taken the tournament by storm, contributing three goals and two assists, capping his fine group stage performance off by chipping the keeper after coming on as a second half substitute against Japan. From dropping deep, to providing hustle plays, to decisiveness in the final third, he's been everywhere. Remember this name.
 
M: Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (COL) – Rodriguez's teammate on the right wing has even more flare. The footwork and pace has been unmatched down the flank. A goal and three assists to his tally is a testament to his quality.
 
F: Thomas Muller (GER) – Mr. Golden Boot himself. Without a true number nine, Muller is the next best thing for Germany. Four goals in the tournament, including an opening match hat trick puts him in position for back-to-back World Cup scoring titles. Only 24, Muller is threatening to shatter records in the not-so distant future, having scored nine World Cup goals already. The flexibility in the German system allows him to freelance to a degree. Muller has found the spaces and has finished with authority.
 
F: Arjen Robben (NED) – The best player coming out of the best group, Robben has to make this list. His speed and craftiness on the run is a game-changer. Three goals and an assist so far, and many other opportunities coming close, Robben maintained his top form through all group stage matches with production in all. He wore the captain's armband in Robin van Persie's absence against Chile, and showed remarkable composure in a difficult game. He is the best counter-attacking player in what has been the counter-attacking World Cup.
 
F: Lionel Messi (ARG) – Nigeria head coach Stephen Keshi remarked Messi is from another planet after the Argentine's two-goal performance against his team in a 3-2 win. Messi was that good. In his two previous games, Messi was unspectacular, but scored the game-winner in both. There is no player that can take advantage of weakness more than Messi. He narrowly edges Neymar on the list because of the flair for the dramatic. Messi has put an otherwise subpar Argentina on his shoulders. This may very well be his World Cup.
 
Group Stage Second Team
 
GK: Guillermo Ochoa (MEX) – Save on the tournament on Neymar
RB: Daryl Janmaat (NED) – The bookend to Blind has been likewise impressive
CB: Gary Medel (CHI) – Chilean bulldog playing much bigger than his stature
CB: Mats Hummels (GER) – Professional, intelligent performances from key to the German defence
LB: Junior Diaz (CRC) – Athelticism and ability to get forward have been a nightmare for slower competition
M: Charles Aranguiz (CHI) – Goal against Spain the cherry on top of thorough group stage performances
M: Nigel De Jong (NED) – Defensive cog has remained composed, allowing attacking players get out in front
M: Toni Kroos (GER) – Passing machine, dictating tempo from the middle of the park
F: Neymar (BRA) – Four goals makes puts him in joint tournament lead with flair to spare
F: Robin Van Persie (NED) – Best goal so far, but suspension keeps him out of first team
F: Karim Benzema (FRA) – No player looks more hungry for goals
 
Top Five Moments
 
5) Timmy Terrific (AUS vs. NED) – Tim Cahill's finish on the volley with his opposite foot rivals for goal of the tournament. Seconds after the Netherlands took a 1-0 lead, the Australian talisman hit a ball as pure as they come, with the ball hitting underneath the crossbar and in. The moment was breathtaking, with the Aussie's full of belief. It was a goal scorer's goal and there won't be a much better truer strike in the tournament.
 
4) Ochoa to the Rescue (MEX vs. BRA) – Neymar's header had eyes for goal if it were not for the out-stretched Mexican goalkeeper. Goal-line technology made the save look even better, showing Ochoa taking the ball off the line. It was incredible bravery getting to the ball with the post looming, with reaction time that dazzles. No save will be better in Brazil. Ochoa was the hero on the day in a 0-0 draw.
 
3) 'Persieing' (NED vs. ESP) – The World Cup's hottest fad came from a goal of the highest quality. Down 1-0 to Spain in the 44th minute of the mouth-watering Group B opener, Robin van Persie at full pace took a long ball through the air from midfield and without hesitation struck with a diving header for the ages. The ball found the top corner past Iker Casillas with van Persie going face-first into the ground. RVP admitted after he saw Casillas off his line and picked out the spot. The difficulty level is off the charts and van Persie delivered. We're all better off for the photos that have followed with even RVP's own grandfather face first into the ground, 'Persieing'.
 
2) Messi Magic (ARG vs. IRN) – It was supposed to be a walk in the park for Argentina. Instead, Iran put up an 11-man defensive wall that seemed unbreakable. Iran even grew in confidence, pushing forward for a potential winner. The match was settled in the 91st minute through the dramatics coming off the left-foot of Argentina's number 10. Iranian defenders gave Messi his lethal left side for the first time in the match. Messi seized the opportunity, burying it low left side and delivering the dagger into the hearts of all of Tehran. A moment as such is made for the best. The legend of Messi grows. 
 
1) Varela at the Death (POR vs. USA) – The United States were seconds away from advancing to the Round of 16. They had come from behind to take a 2-1 lead over Portugal in the difficult conditions in Manaus. Never seen before numbers of Americans watched in primetime, as their new soccer heroes were about to deliver to the nation. That was until Cristiano Ronaldo, who was frustrated all night, intervened. Eder won the ball in the midfield before the ball was played wide with Ronaldo. With time running down, Demarcus Beasley assumed Ronaldo was going to take the ball to goal. Beasley stepped back to give space and Ronaldo obliged, taking advantage of the space delivering a cross for the ages to the on-running Varela. The Portuguese substitute finished and the American dream was shattered. Shock and Awe. It was the last meaningful touch of the ball and the most dramatic finish imaginable. The final was 2-2. The USA would have to wait another day.
 
Worst Five Moments
 
5) Fred 'Flop' (BRA vs. CRO) – The Brazilian striker duped the match official into calling a penalty on Croatia in the tournament opener. It was a clear flop by Fred, and a horrible way to open the tournament.
 
4) Akinfeev Howler (RUS vs. KOR) – Every tournament has one of two. Igor Akinfeev obliged with worst goal conceded. An innocent shot by Lee Keun-Ho went right through the hands of the Russian number one. It was a sign of what was to come for Russia. It was a nightmare start to a nightmare competition for Fabio Capello's side.
 
3) Cameroon Chaos (CMR vs. CRO) – It was a game Cameroon lost their heads. A mindless sending off of Alex Song put the team at a deficit. After being played off the pitch by their opponents, matters got worse in the dying minutes as Benoit Assou- Ekotto confronted Benjamin Moukandjo, head-butting his teammate. It was an ugly incident showing the level of dysfunction in the team. It was an embarrassment of extraordinary proportions to happen on the global stage. Assou-Ekotto did not play in Cameroon's final match.
 
2) Dzeko Disallowed Goal (BIH vs. NGA) – Edin Dzeko had a goal in the 21st minute ruled offside. He wasn't. It was the most blatant case of a goal disallowed that should have stood in the group stage. Mexico was denied two in similar fashion against Cameroon that were less egregious. The disallowed goal proved costly as Bosnia and Herzegovina lost the match and were knocked out of the tournament. The case is the clearest shout that technology should be used to adjudicate offside-goal decisions.
 
1) Suarez Bite (URU vs. ITA) – It will be the most vivid image coming out of this World Cup for all the wrong reasons. The shoulder bite of Giorgio Chiellini by serial biter Luis Suarez is a stain on the game and takes away from what has been one of the best sporting tournaments we have ever seen. The defence of Suarez by his Uruguayan teammates and federation are equally disturbing. There is no room in the game for an individual like Suarez. The decision was swift by FIFA to punish and they should be applauded for the heavy punishment (four month suspension from the game and nine match international ban). It's a travesty the bite was not caught when the chomp went down. Or else Italy may be still alive leaving Uruguay with plenty to chew on.
 
Power Rankings – Most Impressive Teams (FYI – my two World Cup finalist picks, Germany and Argentina, are not in the top five)
 
5) Mexico
4) Brazil
3) France
2) Colombia
1) Netherlands
 
Best and Worst
 
Best Match: Netherlands vs. Spain
Worst Match: Iran vs. Nigeria
Best Referee: Mark Geiger (assistant referee Canadian Joe Fletcher)
Worst Referee: Yuichi Nishimura
Best fan support: tie – Colombia/Argentina
Best Player: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Worst Player: Wilson Palacios (Honduras)
Biggest Disappointment: Spain
Biggest Surprise: Costa Rica
Tournament Dark Horse left-standing: Mexico
Best Route to the Final: Argentina
Most Controversial Decision: Claudio Marchisio sending off/Samaras penalty
Best Group: G
Worst Group: F
Best Head Coach: Miguel Herrera (Mexico) and Marc Wilmots (Belgium)
Worst Head Coach: Fabio Capello (Russia)
Best Goal: RVP (NED) vs. ESP
Worst Miss: Gekas (GRE) vs. COL
Best Team Eliminated: Ivory Coast
Worst Team Remaining: Greece

@WheelerTSN
gareth.wheeler@bellmedia.ca

Robin van Persie (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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