Colombia and The Netherlands have passed their biggest tests so far.

The second round has started with a bang and promises to be every bit as thrilling as the group stages. The passion on display in the game between Brazil and Chile was incredible to watch and the tension was palpable as a superb match sprinted towards a penalty shoot out. Usually when a crucial game heads towards the back end of extra time, the two teams become so afraid of losing that the match limps to a standstill with a penalty shootout becoming an inevitable outcome. Brazil and Chile seemed so desperate to avoid a shootout that they ended up trading blows right until the end. Mauricio Pinilla came closest to winning it for Chile as his shot in the last minute of extra time cannoned off the crossbar. The Chileans were left devastated after Julio Cesar’s heroics in the shootout but they have won many admirers for their endeavour in this tournament.

Colombia were a revelation in the group stages with their dazzling brand of football. James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez have brilliantly stepped up to the plate following the injury to Radamel Falcao. Rodriguez’s two goals against Uruguay have pushed him ahead of Muller, Messi and Neymar as the tournament’s top scorer. Muller and Messi of course have a game in hand but with two assists to his name, Rodriguez is well placed in the race for the golden boot. His first against the Uruguayans was a moment of breathtaking individual quality to rival Robin Van Persie and Tim Cahill’s efforts in the group stages. The second goal was the culmination of move that showed a team working together in beautiful harmony. Juan Cuadrado’s unselfish and athletic header to set up Rodriguez was one of the most sublime assists of the tournament so far. Cuadrado also leads the chart for most assists with four. This Colombian chorus is clearly singing in unison.

On paper, even a Suarez- light Uruguay was Colombia’s toughest assignment in these first four games. The fact that they won so convincingly is a reflection on their quality rather than the impact of the loss of Suarez.

At just 22 years of age- he turns 23 on the eve of the world cup final- James Rodriguez has already had quite a journey in the world of professional football. He spent three seasons at Porto before a £38.5 million transfer to big spending Monaco in 2013 to partner Falcao for both club and country. He has epitomised the style of this young Colombian team and will surely be attracting interest from the giants of European football come the conclusion of this world cup. For all their financial backing, Monaco are not a big player on the European stage and their two Colombian superstars will be courted at every turn. Falcao has already intimated that he would like to leave.

Not since Rivaldo and Ronaldo in 2002 has a player scored in each of the first four games of a tournament. That gives you an indication of what Rodriguez has achieved already. This is also the first time that Colombia have reached the quarter finals. They are up against hosts Brazil however, the highest compliment you can pay to Jose Pekerman’s team is that you would not be at all surprised if they were to triumph on Friday night.

Shortly after their demolition job of world champions Spain in the first round of group matches, I wrote in this blog that I had seen signs that even though they had won convincingly the Netherlands had no chance of winning this tournament. Their second round tie with Mexico looked to be the moment when the cracks in the squad would begin to show. The heat in Fortaleza at an early afternoon kick off local time prompted the first use of the ‘cooling break’ in this tournament wherein the referee can use a stoppage roughly half an hour into each period to allow the players to take on water. Although the cynic in me believed that this would just end up being another opportunity for advertisers to flourish, this actually appears to be a rare moment of sense from FIFA. It was clear that the players were struggling in the conditions and the water would have been an undoubted help.

In the heat, one would have expected that the Mexicans, naturally more acclimatised to such temperatures would have flourished. With Mexico 1-0 up, time running out and Guillermo Ochoa once again performing heroics it looked for all the world as though the Dutch would crack and that the old fissures in the squad would resurface. What transpired was that the Netherlands kept their cool and rallied superby. Louis Van Gaal praised the use of the drinks break after the match but credit should also go to his players who performed admirably and won the game through a late Wesley Sneijder equaliser and a controversial Klaus Jan Huntelaar penalty in stoppage time.

I am still convinced however, that the Dutch will not triumph in this world cup. For all of their attacking strength- they are the top scorers so far with 12 goals- they are far too reliant on Arjen Robben to provide quality and they look increasingly vulnerable at the back. A more clinical team than Mexico would have taken advantage of their winning position.

However, they have not allowed their collective temperament to let them down as has so often been the case in the past. Mexico and the searing heat should have been the moment where my earlier prediction came to pass. The Dutch deserve tremendous credit for enduring the most testing of conditions. How far they go in the tournament remains to be seen however, they and Colombia have provided us all with tremendous entertainment so far.

 

Portugal out, and one man in particular has played a major role.

The history of Portuguese football is one of the great mysteries of the international game. They have never made a great impression on the world stage and their best tournament finish was to be losing finalists in their own European Championships in 2004. This seems like an unbelievable statistic when you consider that they have consistently produced great players. How can a nation that has spawned Eusebio, Luis Figo, Pauleta, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes not have made more of an impact in major tournaments?

It is in fact, the great names that provide the main clue as to why Portugal have never been ultimately successful. For all the legendary names that have rolled off the production line, there has never been a great team.

The current crop of Portugal players could have been lifted out of any era in the history of the national team. They are a workmanlike squad interspersed with the odd flair player and one genuine superstar. You may have wondered why I left Cristiano Ronaldo out of the aforementioned list of Portugal’s great players. The fact is, he stands alone as the greatest player to come from the Iberian peninsula. No Portuguese player can match what Ronaldo has achieved in his career. At 29 he has 50 international goals making him his country’s record scorer, he has won the Champions League twice, been named world player of the year twice, invented a way of taking free kicks and between his spells for Manchester United and Real Madrid, has plundered nearly 400 goals. Lionel Messi’s advocates will point to the outstanding world cup that the little Argentine is enjoying but for me Ronaldo is, just, the better of the two.

On the eve of the tournament few would have had Portugal down as favourites. Ronaldo aside it would have been hard to name a quality player in their final 23. The odd flair players I referred to, Nani and Moutinho are inconsistent at the highest level. Yet with Ronaldo in their ranks it was impossible to ignore their claims as dark horses. There is no such thing in sport as a one man team but there was a feeling that Portugal could be carried into at least the last eight on the back of Ronaldo’s magic.

Unfortunately, Ronaldo picked up an injury to his knee during a training camp. Whilst the injury was not believed to be serious, images of Ronaldo leaving training with his knee strapped in ice on a regular basis would have made for unsettling viewing back home. The forward played in all three group games but it was clear that he was struggling for full fitness. He was visibly hindered in every game and subsequently he proved to be more hindrance than help to his team.

Ironically, he was undoubtedly the star performer for Portugal in this campaign. In the dismal defeat to Germany he looked like the only player in red capable of attacking the resolute German back line. Against the USA he provided a delicious cross to set up the last gasp equaliser for Silvestre Varela and he also netted the winner against Ghana.

However, these were isolated moments of quality and his lack of fitness meant that he was often behind the play. Unfortunately for him, his team mates seemed unable to comprehend that they needn’t rely solely on Ronaldo in order to win. Whilst Group G was difficult, Portugal should still have been able to qualify in second place. The fact that they didn’t was down to the shadow cast by Ronaldo. Every time Portugal surged forward, their players seemed paralysed with fear and seemed eager to offload to their talisman as soon as possible. No player dared to pass forward or to take on a defender. Every pass went either square or backwards to wherever Ronaldo’s struggling knee allowed him to be.

The Portugal players forgot that they were in fact international footballers capable of taking on other international teams and instead decided that their most viable tactic would be to find Ronaldo at every available opportunity. Such slavish deference to one player is not becoming of a world cup finalist. Only Uruguay and their dependence on Luis Suarez came close to Portugal’s hero worshipping mentality.

Had Ronaldo been fully fit and able to surge into the penalty box with and without the ball as is his wont, the tactic might have worked. Portugal might have beaten both USA and Ghana (Germany always looked to be too strong) and would now be preparing for a very evenly poised second round match with Belgium. As it turned out, Ronaldo was not able to influence games in the manner he has become accustomed to and Portugal have left the tournament with barely a whimper.

Though Ronaldo will be disappointed with his return of one goal and one assist, it is not his fault that Portugal have been knocked out. However, the yawning chasm in class between himself and his team has been at the centre of their problems.

Stat attack: the anorak’s guide to the group stages

136: there have been 136 goals so far. At a total of 2.83 per game this has been one of the most entertaining world cups in recent memory. 136 is a group stage record in a 32 team tournament. To put this into context, there were only 145 goals scored in the entire tournament in South Africa four years ago. Brazil 2014 is on course to beat the record of 171 goals in a 32 team tournament set in France 98.

32: all 32 teams have scored at least once in the group stages for the first time since France 98.

10: the Netherlands are the tournament’s top scorers with 10 goals so far. Lowest scorers Cameroon and Iran have netted just once each.

1: Costa Rica, Belgium and Mexico have had the meanest defences yielding just one goal apiece.

4: Thomas Muller, Lionel Messi and Neymar are the top scoring players with four goals each. Muller leads the race for the golden boot due to having an assist to his name.

7: the highest scoring match saw seven goals as France beat Switzerland 5-2 in Salvador. The same venue also saw the two biggest victory margins, Netherlands 5-1 Spain and Germany 4-0 Portugal.

2: there have been two hat tricks so far, Thomas Muller for Germany against Portugal and Xherdan Shaqiri for Switzerland against Honduras.

4: there have also been four own goals.

15: Miroslav Klose’s goal against Ghana was his record equalling 15th finals goal. He has scored these goals over the last four tournaments. In the same period of time, England have scored 17.

Best goal: there have been some outstanding contenders but Tim Cahill’s volley against the Dutch was reminiscent of Van Basten and will take some beating.

Best save: Guillermo Ochoa’s one handed reach to deny Neymar at full stretch has been compared with Gordon Banks’ similar stop against Pele in 1970.

Biggest flop: despite not being fully fit, Cristiano Ronaldo’s status as the best player in the world means that he will be desperately disappointed with one goal and a first round exit.

Biggest shock: With the three richest domestic leagues in the world, you’d have been given fantastic odds on England, Spain and Italy all exiting in the group stage.

Best sight: the atmosphere at every game has been tremendous and the zeal with which Brazil and Chile in particular have sung their national anthems has been a joy to behold. However, seeing Fifa restore some much needed credibility and finally coming down hard on a player deserving of punishment has made a welcome change. From a vindictive point of view, the four month ban for Luis Suarez was a tonic.

Best player: With the expectation of 200 million fans weighing heavy on his young shoulders, Neymar has been sensational. He has dazzled when Brazil have, at times, been ordinary.

The second round line up is as follows: Brazil vs Chile

Uruguay vs Colombia

Netherlands vs Mexico

Costa Rica vs Greece

France vs Nigeria

Argentina vs Switzerland

Germany vs Algeria

Belgium vs USA

A Colombia victory to cement their achievements?

With all the furore over Luis Suarez and the attention that inevitably circulates around Lionel Messi and Neymar, it is all to easy to overlook the achievements of the South and Central American sides in this tournament. Of the ten nations from the two American federations that qualified for these finals, eight have made it through to the last sixteen. Only Honduras and Ecuador have fallen at the first hurdle. Whilst we would all have expected Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to qualify, the feats of Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Colombia and Chile have provided us with some of the highlights of this already spectacular world cup.

When the draw was made it appeared that lady luck had deserted the USA. Drawn in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, they were seen as the whipping boys in the one genuine group of death. However, they took advantage of being drawn to play Ghana (on paper their easiest game) in their first match and stunned the African side with an aggressive brand of football that yielded an early three points that proved so vital in a tight group. Their performance against Portugal merited a victory and it was fitting in the end that they qualified at the expense of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team. The USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann has achieved a minor miracle in whipping up public support for ‘soccer.’ The game against Portugal was the most viewed televised match in the country’s history with an estimated audience of 24.7 million. The squad is united under Klinsmann’s passionate approach to management and a second round tie with Belgium is not an insurmountable task.

Chile’s performance in group B was viewed as a surprise by some. However, given the events of the last year it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Their performance last November in beating England 2-0 at Wembley in distinctly un-South American conditions was highly impressive and marked them down as potential dark horses. They were equally adept in disposing of world champions Spain in their second group match in one of the most committed team displays of the tournament so far. Their squad is young and the players are able to pound every blade of grass relentlessly. Spain and Australia simply could not cope with the energy of the Chilean players. However, a defeat to an under strength Dutch side in the final group game shows that genuinely quality sides can get themselves one step ahead. Brazil in the second round may be too much for Chile.

With a population of just under 4 million, Costa Rica were by far the smallest and lowest ranked nation in Group B. However, they belied their lowly status by catching Uruguay cold in the first match. They followed that up in the second match by completely outhinking the Italians in one of the great tactical displays of the group stages. This was no plucky, lucky underdog story Instead the Ticos were superior to Italy in every area of the pitch. A nil-nil draw with England secured top spot in the group and provided us with one of the great world cup stories of recent times. Can you remember the last time that the fourth seeded team won their group? A last sixteen tie with Greece provides Costa Rica with a great chance of making the quarter finals.

Mexico have been a joy to watch from the word go. in the first match against Cameroon they were denied two first half goals in controversial circumstances yet they maintained their discipline and eventually earned a 1-0 victory. Against Brazil, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa produced one of the finest displays by a stopper in a world cup finals match. One particular save from a Neymar header drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’ block to deny Pele in 1970 and is undoubtedly the save of the tournament so far. Mexico were far too good for Croatia in the winner takes all final group match and the joy of manager Miguel Herrera as his team scored three second half goals was one of the most priceless images of the tournament. Mexico have been solid in all three of their games, Ivan Perisic’s late consolation goal for Croatia was the only goal Ochoa conceded in the group stages. They have the joint best defensive record in the tournament with Costa Rica thought they will be severely tested by the firepower of the Netherlands in the second round.

Finally, Colombia have been the most impressive of the American outfits so far. Shorn of their best player Radamel Falcao on the eve of the tournament, they have still managed to blow aside all three of their Group C opponents. James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez have struck up an impressive partnership up front that has seen the pair score five of their team’s nine goals between them. Rodriguez’s goal against Japan in Colombia’s final match was one of the goals of the tournament so far however, the 4-1 victory will be remembered for the wonderful moment when 43 year old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was brought on as a substitute and subsequently broke Roger Milla’s record as the oldest player to appear in a world cup match. It was a gesture that epitomised the spirit of the Colombian team at this moment in time. They play Uruguay in the second round. The Uruguayans will be without Luis Suarez who has rightly been hit with a four month worldwide ban for his bite on Giorgio Chiellini. The reaction of the Uruguayan camp in the aftermath of Suarez’s latest indiscretion has been unsavoury at best. The circus surrounding Suarez has unfairly distracted from the achievements of all the South American sides, including Brazil and Argentina. To a man they have shown a commitment to entertaining and virtuoso football (Uruguay excepted) and they have each embodied the spirit of this sensational competition.

It would therefore, be a fitting and poetic moment if Colombia were to dispatch Uruguay in the second round not just for the American teams but for the tournament itself.

In the name of decency, can someone please sanction Gaston Ramirez?

In the Walt Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, the character Gaston is everything a cartoon villain should be; boorish, arrogant, conceited, cowardly and above all else, a small minded bully. It is therefore an unsettling coincidence that Gaston’s Uruguayan namesake Ramirez should display those exact same qualities whilst in action for his country during a crucial world cup match.

The major controversy from Tuesday night’s clash between Italy and Uruguay was not the suspected bite by Luiz Suarez on Giorgio Chiellini but rather the reaction of Ramirez towards Chiellini afterwards. The Italian defender was rightly incensed by Suarez’s conduct and made an attempt to show the referee the teeth marks adorning his shoulder. That Ramirez took umbrage with Chiellini speaks volumes about his character. He even went as far as to attempt to force Chiellini’s shirt back over his shoulder. There is only one word for this kind of behaviour, contempt; contempt for the victim of a crime and an astounding level of arrogance to believe that the victim should remain silent.

Make no mistake about it, Suarez has committed a crime here. If you and I were to approach someone in the street tomorrow and sink our gnashers into their shoulder we would be hauled in for questioning by police and referred for psychiatric examination. However, Suarez does not live in the real world. He lives in the cosseted world of the wealthy individual where indiscretion can be made to disappear like a magician’s handkerchief.

This is the third such incident where Suarez has bitten an opponent. In 2010 whilst playing for Ajax he received a seven game ban for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal. His transfer to Liverpool occurred during this suspension so were he to return to the Eredivisie later in his career he would start with a ban. In April last year the FA handed down a ten match suspension for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. As this latest nibbling incident occurred during a match organised by FIFA it is in the hands of the world governing body to sanction Suarez. In a statement released last night, FIFA declared that the maximum ban permissible under their regulations is 24 international matches. If Suarez is found guilty (and I use the word if in the name of democracy) then FIFA should not hesitate to issue a 24 match ban and thus effectively end the Uruguayan’s international career. His behaviour is clearly not unprecedented and the punishment should reflect this.

And yet despite all the recrimination (there was also an eight game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra) Suarez continues to transgress and, infuriatingly, play the victim. You could be forgiven for asking how one player can have such a lengthy charge sheet without appearing to show any remorse?

The answer lies in the conduct of Ramirez. His outrageous behaviour in protecting his teammate was typical of the indulgence Suarez has received throughout his career. Strong willed managers will, naturally seek to protect their prize assets when the chips are down. One only has to think of the way Alex Ferguson refused to sack Eric Cantona in 1995 following his assault of a Crystal Palace fan as an example of a manager creating a siege mentality to strengthen his club in a desperate situation. However, the indulgences bestowed on Suarez go beyond the realms of siege mentality. Whereas Cantona was punished judicially, and Ferguson made no attempt to resist this process, the reaction of then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish during Suarez’s racism ban was little more than posturing. The Liverpool players and Dalglish himself wore t-shirts protesting Suarez’s innocence after an independent panel had found him guilty. As a show of defiance, it was lacking in dignity and class.

Ramirez however, has gone above and beyond the previous ways in which Suarez’s teammates have attempted to shield him from blame. In reacting angrily towards Chiellini, Ramirez showed that he is little more than a coward, a coward who felt the need to bully an opponent into concealing the truth. If and when Suarez is suspended, similar punishment should also be handed down to Ramirez though it is unlikely that this will happen as retrospective action against indecency is unprecedented in football. Ramirez the coward will, unfortunately, be able to wriggle his way out from under the microscope.

An unassuming legend who encapsulates the spirit of the world cup

Angelos Charisteas? When you hear that name your initial reaction is that you’ve heard of him but you’re not sure why. There is nothing much about his current surroundings that would make his name immediately stand out in the world of football. As a matter of fact he is currently a free agent having been released at the end of the 2012-13 season by Saudi club Al Nassr with a record of one goal in nine games. Inauspicious circumstances indeed.

And yet you’ve still heard of him and there is a perfectly good reason why. Ten years ago next month, he scored the winning goal for Greece in the final of the 2004 European Championships in Benfica’s Estadio da Luz. It was his third goal of the tournament and capped a remarkable victory for the Greeks against all the odds.

A quick sortie of Charisteas’ club career does not exactly make for stellar reading. As well as brief and moderately successful spells for Werder Bremen, Ajax and Feyenoord there are lengthy spells spent in the lower divisions of the Greek and German leagues. Had his career been in England we might have kindly referred to him as a journeyman.

Despite all this, his name will be forever synonymous with the spirit of Euro 2004. The have a go hero in a team of have a go heroes who wrote his name into tournament football legend.

You may be wondering why I am dissecting Charisteas’ career when he is not involved in this world cup. The simple reason is that on Saturday night this wonderful tournament produced a moment of history from a player who, like Charisteas does not necessarily demand the plaudits his achievements in tournament football deserve. With his first touch of this campaign, Germany’s Miroslav Klose scored his fifteenth World Cup finals goal in his fourth tournament and in doing so equalled the record of the Brazilian legend Ronaldo. The goal was also Klose’s 70th in 133 internationals for his country, a German record that puts him two ahead of the great Gerd Muller. However, here’s the million dollar question. Which club does Klose play for?

The answer is Lazio but you are unlikely to have known that unless you had followed Klose’s career in detail. Like Charisteas, his feats in international football are legendary but his club career is no more than fair to middling. Both men played for Werder Bremen and the German outfit are the only club for which Klose has passed the milestone of fifty league goals.

Despite his modest club career, Klose is a bona fide world cup legend. He is in many ways, the perfect encapsulation of what the world cup should be about; a festival of football where everyone can make a name for themselves. Think Roger Milla in 1990 or Geoff Hurst in 1966. It is not always the blue chip player who makes a tournament his own. Hurst of course was a late replacement to the England squad for the injured Jimmy Greaves.

That is not to say that Klose (or indeed Milla and Hurst) is merely an honest tryer. Far from it he is in fact a clinical poacher with a goalscoring instinct to rival the very best. The fact that his club career is not littered with honours is one of the modern game’s great mysteries.

Ronaldo’s fifteen goals arrived in the form of four in France ’98, three in Germany ’06 and a massive eight in the successful 2002 campaign which included two in the final against Klose’s Germany. Klose’s goals are spread more evenly. Five in 2002 (all headers), five more on home soil in 2006, four in South Africa and the one to equalise against Ghana on Saturday night. Ronaldo’s goal’s came in nineteen matches compared to Klose’s twenty although Klose has a slightly better minutes per goal ratio with 101 to the Brazilian’s 108. Ronaldo’s goals were undoubtedly more significant but there is little to separate them in terms of bare statistical analysis.

Klose is not a player who naturally bathes in the limelight. He is refreshingly removed from the egotistical nature of the modern footballer. Twice in his career he has been the recipient of fair play awards firstly for refusing the referee’s award of a penalty in a German league match that he believed was awarded incorrectly, and secondly for admitting immediately to using his hand to score a goal in a Serie A encounter. Whilst the attention going into this tournament has been on whether the global superstars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney can finally make an impact on a world cup, Klose has consistently outperformed them all on the very biggest stage. He is the spirit of the world cup and embodies everything that tournament football should represent; joy for our great game. At 36 years of age, Klose still greets world cup goals with the same front flip celebration that ushered in his first world cup goals in Japan twelve years ago. Whisper it quietly, he’s a legend.

Preview ahead of the final group games.

One thing has become clear in this World Cup: Anything is possible. Throw the common wisdom out the window.

The reigning champs are already out.

Three teams from CONCACAF, the confederation of North and Central American teams, could make it to the knockout round for the first time ever.

In Group C, the supposed group of champions, three teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10  — former World Cup champions Italy, England and Uruguay — were supposed to fight it out for two spots in the knockout stages. Instead, unheralded Costa Rica are through and currently top the group, England are out, and Uruguay and Italy face off for the right to move on.

The four tournament favorites have all looked beatable. Brazil drew with Mexico, Germany drew with Ghana, Argentina needed a stoppage time goal to beat Iran, and Spain is out of the tourney. Mexico, Ghana and Iran are ranked No. 20, 37, and 43, respectively, by FIFA.

Yes, all but one of the early teams to clinch advancement are highly ranked teams. But so much remains open that it feels like a different sort of tournament. Goal-scoring is up. Games are wild. This kind of thing doesn’t often happen.

Qualification scenarios

Every team has one game left to play in the group stage, so every team knows what must happen for them to move on. Here’s a breakdown:

Eliminated: England, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Australia, Spain, Cameroon.

Advanced to second round: Netherlands, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Belgium.

Several groups feature matches between two teams fighting for the same spot in the second round, notably Mexico-Croatia on Monday and Italy-Uruguay on Tuesday.

There is even the unlikely but possible scenario that one second-round spot could bedecided by a coin flip between Nigeria and Iran.

For full tiebreaker rules — and they definitely matter, certainly for Team USA — click here.