2014 World Cup – Group A (FINAL)

So, four years (and two kids) ago, I was able to preview and review every single match of the 2010 World Cup (and it was all done in a mere THIRTY THOUSAND WORDS as the early games were even cut off…what, who reads 30,000 words of anything let alone soccer commentary from a guy that thinks these are all “games” played by “teams” on “fields?”).  It seems a much more daunting task this time around, but, hey why not give it a shot, right?  Anyway, here we go.  This post will be updated as Group A develops.

Group A Preview (Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico)
So, here we go with the 2014 World Cup – the greatest sporting event in the world (or, at least on par with the NCAA Tournament, which happens every year, so it is slightly less exciting to lead up to).  Group A – as the alphabet suggests – is our kickoff group and has our host nation, Brazil.  The #3 team in the world, playing at home, is the odds-on favorite to win the title, though I believe that Germany and Argentina might be better picks.  Either way, the Brazilians have a group that, on their home soil, they should absolutely win.  Croatia is probably the best bet (and my pick) as the other qualifier from this group, though Mexico, depite their qualification struggles, could challenge for that qualification spot.  While I will be rooting hard for all African teams, especially Cameroon, I really don’t see them challenging for a qualification spot, though they might decide it because I think they could draw with Mexico, which would give Croatia a big edge.  The way I see it playing out is Brazil going 3-0, Croatia beating Cameroon, while Mexico only draws with Cameroon.  That means that, on the final day of the group, Croatia would only need a draw with Mexico to move on, while the Mexicans would have to beat the Croats, which I don’t see happening, so I’ll take Brazil and Croatia to move on out of Group A.

The interesting thing to note here is that Group B has Spain, so if, for whatever reason, either Brazil or Spain somehow finish second in their respective groups, these two powerhouses will play in the Round of 16.  So, winning this group is very important for Brazil if they want to avoid facing Spain immediately in the knockout stage.

6/12, 4:00 – Brazil vs. Croatia
The host country – as tradition holds – opens the tournament with the stage to themselves, as they open with Croatia.  This first match for the home team is probably the one with the largest advantage.  The home team not only gets a huge jolt from the craziness of the home fans watching their team for the first time in World Cup play, but it also is the first match the visiting team will play under these specific conditions.  This is a great matchup for the home team to get with their largest advantage because this figures to be the toughest group test the Brazilians will face.  Croatia is a very solid team that – under neutral conditions – might be a sleeper pick to win this group.  They will be very lucky to come away with even 1 point, though, under these conditions.  Look for the Brazilians to make a statement early.

Brazil 3 – Croatia 1
While we are comparing this sporting event to the NCAA Tournament, we might as well use the ole phrase “survive and advance” because that is what our tournament hosts did in their opening match.  They were significantly outplayed for the first 25 minutes and trailed 1-0.  But, they picked up the equalizer from Neymar at 29 minutes, which seemed to calm their nerves and reminded them that it’s just another match – not a World Cup opener on their home soil.  They pretty much dominated the rest of the game, which makes the events that led to this victory a little easier to swallow.  They scored the game-winner (Neymar again) on a penalty kick resulting from an incredibly awful foul call in the penalty area.  Then, they played some atrocious defense in the final 5 minutes and got really lucky not to give up a late equalizer before scoring a late goal from Oscar that was just a result of the entire Croatian team attacking.  In the end, the better overall side and the better side on this day won the match, but it was not anything resembling the “beautiful game” that Team Brazil usually produces.  A performance like today is likely to send them packing once we hit the knockout phase.  Fortunately, they did just get a W in their most difficult group match.  As for Croatia, they looked good and had chances, but did come away with an L.  They will have to regroup and get ready for Cameroon on Wednesday.

6/13, noon – Cameroon vs. Mexico
This could be a very important game for Croatia, as well.  I think that the Cameroonians will probably not factor into the qualifying from this group, but they definitely could rise up and steal a draw from either Mexico or Croatia, in which case that would be a huge advantage for the other side.  It will be interesting to see just what kind of form Mexico is in after a really shaky qualifying campaign.  Even a loss here for the Mexicans is not completely out of the question and would be devastating.

Mexico 1 – Cameroon 0
Another match, another refereeing controversy (apparently, while watching soccer, and only while watching soccer, it’s pronounced con-TROV-ersy)…or two.  But, fortunately for the refereeing community and those of us who prefer watching sports not talking heads spout off about sports, the questionable referee calls (which cost Mexico TWO goals in the first half) didn’t matter in the final result, just the final score, as the Mexicans proved a far superior side.  Cameroon, while definitely the superior athletes on the pitch, were overmatched in class.

Day One Recap
The favorites of the group, Brazil, got a nice (potentially referee-aided) victory over maybe their toughest opponent, while Mexico avoided what would have been a tough draw to swallow.  In the end, nothing has really changed here, as Brazil is still the clear favorite to win the group, while the Croatia-Mexico match should decide the second qualifier.

6/17, 3:00 – Brazil vs. Mexico
The two unimpressive winners on Day One of this group will face off in the first match of the second round of Cup play.  Brazil had a controversial win over Croatia, while the Mexicans dominated an over-matched Cameroon, but only scored once.  The winner of this match will clinch the group, while a draw here probably favors Brazil, who is only staring at a date with Cameroon in the final round.  That being said, Mexico would probably be happy with a draw, which would mean that they only need a draw with Croatia to move on through.  The Croats are clearly rooting for the home side here, as a Mexican win would be a big blow to Croatia’s chances of moving through.

Brazil 0 – Mexico 0
To all those Ugly Americans who think that soccer isn’t exciting because no one ever scores, I give you this one.  The best match I have seen all tournament was a nil-nil draw.  This was up-and-down with attacking and free-flowing play for 90 straight minutes.  The Brazilians dominated for the first 30 minutes, but the Mexicans then looked like the better side for a solid 20-25 minutes.  The end of the game was played more in Mexico’s end, but they held up.  And, their goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, was INCREDIBLE.  I have no idea if he is any good or not, but that was literally the best match I have ever seen a keeper play.  He was EVERYWHERE.  It was simply a fantastic match, and I gained a ton of newfound respect for the Mexicans and now cannot wait for their win-and-you’re-in match with Croatia.  While Brazil probably should have won this match, I am sure they are content with their point in advance of a match with a hapless Cameroonian squad.   They should take care of business against the Africans and win this group.

6/18, 6:00 – Cameroon vs. Croatia
The Croats feel robbed in their opening match with Brazil, but they need to get it together because they still hold their fate in their hands, and they should have plenty to get past the Indomitable Lions, who were thoroughly dominated by Mexico in their first match.  Anything but 3 points here for Croatia would be crushing.  And, while a draw would probably mean that Cameroon played well, the Lions are staring at Brazil in the final round, so they really need 3 here or their tournament is pretty much over.

Croatia 4 – Cameroon 0
In easily the most embarrassing performance of this year’s Cup, the Cameroonians got absolutely hammered – mostly by their own doing, picking up an insanely idiotic red card near the end of the first half.  They were already down 1-0, and they did not look like they were going to really threaten the Croats, but to flat-out punch a dude in the back is one of the dumbest things I have seen a professional athlete do.  It was embarrassing to all of us who root for Cameroon.  It is time to just bow out of this tournament now because the match with Brazil might get ugly.  As I have been saying all week now, Croatia’s match with Mexico should be the decider on who moves on to the knockout round.  And, with the way these two sides have been playing, I am even more excited for this match.  It might be the highlight of the final round of matches.

Day Two Recap
The best match of the tournament so far gave us a 0-0 draw between Brazil and Mexico.  It also set up a possibility for Brazil to be eliminated.  Well, not really.  Cameroon has been – BY FAR – the worst side in this tournament and Brazil still has them left, only needing a draw to get through.  A win for Brazil over Cameroon will give them the Group A title and a date with the second-place side from Group B in the Round of 16.  As for Croatia, they did win 4-0 and looked great, but that was more of a terrible performance by the Cameroonians.  I still believe them to be the better side than Mexico, but they will have to beat the Mexicans to qualify, since they lost to Brazil and Mexico got a draw.

6/23, 4:00 – Brazil vs. Cameroon
6/23, 4:00 – Croatia vs. Mexico

In a (fantastic) change that is only in its third World Cup, the final matches of group play are played simultaneously, so as to try and keep all matches as relevant as possible.  Both of Monday’s groups (Group A & B) would not really matter either way, as the sides playing for positioning all play each other.  Brazil should easily get past Cameroon, which would clinch the group win for them.  And, then the second spot will be decided on the pitch in the other match.  Mexico, sitting on 4 points, only needs a draw against Croatia, who is sitting on 3.  Both sides are coming off VERY impressive performances and should be ready to go.  The Croatian attack looks fierce, while the Mexican goalkeeper put in probably the best performance I have ever seen.  Though, as Doogan notes, he is not exactly in high regard internationally, so it may have just been the game of his life.  This Croatia-Mexico match might be my most anticipate matches of the third round.  I like the Croats to get the win, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mexico sneak through.  The winner of the second spot is looking at a date with the Chile-Netherlands winner of Group B.

Brazil 4 – Cameroon 1
Mexico 3 – Croatia 1

Well, the Mexico-Croatia match lived up to the hype in intrigue and excitement, even if the play was a bit sloppy at times.  The intensity was at a real peak level for the entirety of the match, and there was an up-and-down, wide open style that led to some really exciting stuff.  The Mexican defense continued to be inpenetrable, though, even by the potent Croatian attack.  The Mexican offense, however, looked a bit stymied, having only scored one goal in the first 250+ minutes of WC play this year.  But, finally Rafa Marquez (who was incredible all match) put in a ridiculous header to put the Mexicanos up 1-0 and the flood gates opened.  Mexico scored twice more actually opening up the possibility of winning the group before allowing their first goal of the tournament late, sending them to a second-place finish.  Brazil did what they needed to do in handling a bad Cameroonian side, 4-1, clinching the Group A title.

Group A Final Recap
1. Brazil – The host nation took care of business in somewhat unimpressive fashion.  But, no matter how they got here, they got here as A1.  And, while they didn’t look that good, they did beat a solid Croatia side, 3-1, and pounded a not solid Cameroon side 4-1, with a well-played 0-0 draw with Mexico in between.  The pre-tournament favorites are alive and well into the Round of 16 for a date with an inter-continental rival, Chile, whom they have dominated for generations.

2. Mexico – Gotta think that this has already been a success for a side that barely even qualified.  Then again, their first two goals of this tournament against Cameroon were contraversially disallowed.  If both of those had been properly allowed, Mexico may have won the group and gotten to avoid the side that has probably been the most impressive thus far, the Netherlands, in the Round of 16.  That being said, I am not ruling out a Mexican upset there.

3. Croatia – Heartbreak for the Croats, who may end up being one of the more impressive sides not to qualify out of group play.  They nearly got an impossible draw against the host nation in the tournament opener (and probably should have), then pounded Cameroon, before a hard-fought loss to Mexico.  This can’t be a happy ending for fans of Team Croatia.

4. Cameroon – The single-worst team in the tournament, start to finish, will almost certainly end up by the Indomitable Lions, who didn’t just look domitable, but rather pathetic, at times.  Giving up 4 goals each in their final two matches and just flat-out giving up is not a good sign for the future of one of the continent’s better programs, historically.

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