KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- No group in the history of the World Cup finals had ever featured three former winners of the greatest prize in football. Given their status and tradition the latest surprise in a most promising of World Cups was that two of them opening their campaigns with a defeat.
away a one-goal lead to succumb 3-1 to a spirited Costa Rica – one of four teams so far to score first and lose – while England were let down by a fragile defence in a 2-1 defeat by the four-times former champions Italy.
But while the so-called Group of Death attracted the ‘serious’ attention the games were just two among a further four which continued to provide these finals with a magnetic intensity to restore a great deal in both the game in general and the World Cup in particuar.
It’s more than 60 years since any World Cup’s opening eight games produced as many as 28 goals at a rate of precisely 3.5 per match.
Colombia had opened up a thrilling day with a 3-0 victory over Greece which proved that the absence of injured Radamel Falcao – cheering on from the stands – was not the definite loss the pessimists had suggested.
Finally, late into the Brazilian night, Ivory Coast recovered in superb fashion to overcome Japan – potentially the most ambitious of the Asian teams – by 2-1.
The Elephants were 1-0 down when talisman Didier Drogba was introduced shortly after half-time. Within minutes Drogba’s mere presence had inspired a recovery to bring goals for Wilfred Bony and Gervinho.
Ivory Coast’s performance was the best by an African team at the World Cup for a very long time.
Back in the heart of the Amazon, in Manaus, respective managers Cesare Prandelli of Italy and Roy Hodgson of England were digesting the meaning of the Azzurri’s 2-1 win, served up by two goals from Mario Balotelli.
England were on term for a while after a fine goal from Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge. But that was one of the few occasions on which they threatened Salvatore Sirigu, deputising in the Italian goal for injured Gigi Buffon.
Sirigu was called on to make fine saves from Jordan Henderson in the first half and Leighton Baines in the second but these were efforts from distance, not close range. That pointed up the compact nature of the Italian performance all around the pitch.
Prandelli knows that victory over Costa Rica in Recife will almost certainly guarantee a place in the second round. Hodgson, by contrast, knows that defeat by Uruguay in Sao Paulo could spell the end.
England were praised by Prandelli as “one of the strongest teams here at the World Cup” but that greater generosity than England deserved. Centre-backs Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were fragile, leftback Baines was turned inside out by fullback Matteo Darmian and winger Antonio Candreva while seniors Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney struggled to exert any influence on the game.
This time, happily, there were no refereeing controveries to offer excuses to losing managers or detract from the entertainment. There was the first red card of the finals, for Uruguay’s Maxi Pereira, but even he accepted readily there was no point in protesting.
Pereira will thus miss the decisive next outing, against England. Doubtless Luis Suarez will be back though, after missing theCosta Rica tie after his knee injury.
Suarez against Gerrard – Liverpool team-mates – for World Cup death or glory? You couldn’t make it up.