The Dark Horses of The World Cup

The World Cup has been nothing short of a footballing delight so far.

Incredible goals, astonishing results, questionable officiating, England in dire straits and the emergence of some rather exciting ‘dark horses’.

It’s had it all, and it’s only going to get better.

Before the tournament, Chile, Colombia and Belgium were labelled as teams who could surprise a few and actually contend for the illustrious trophy.

Chile

Out of the three, Chile have made the biggest impression so far with the exuberant Jorge Sampaoli, an apprentice of the legendary Chilean coach Marcelo Bielsa, implementing an expansive, intense pressing game on Las Rojas.

Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez are the two stand out players with genuine world class, the Juventus midfielder drives the team from midfield while the Barcelona forward spearheads the attack.

Chile Uraguay

Rights; Jimmy Baikovicius

But it would be naïve to think that Vidal and Sanchez are the only players who can trouble opposition backlines, with Jorge Valdivia, Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Isla capable of creating chances and scoring goals.

In their first match Sampaoli’s men were 2-0 up within 15 minutes against a limited but determined Australia, but complacency gradually sneaked into the Chilean players.

Although they won 3-1, the Socceroos may have felt unlucky not to get something from the game.

The performance against World and European champions Spain contained no complacency, it made the world realise that Chile are a force to be reckoned with.

It’s fair to say the Spaniards were in trouble going into the game, but trouble turned to turmoil as goals from Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz gave Chile the victory and qualification into the knockout stages.

They attacked clinically, pressurised Spain relentlessly and defended resolutely, with Sampaoli kicking every ball from the touchline.

Their final group game was against Louis Van Gaal’s Holland who have looked sumptuous going forward, and with the philosophies of both sides combining with the prospect of having to face the hosts Brazil in the last 16, the game was set up superbly.

Although the 2-0 scoreline may look like a routine win for the Oranje, the game told a different story as the Chileans pushed Robben and his men to the wire, but individual brilliance from the Bayern superstar and impact substitutions swung the pendulum in favour of the Netherlands.

The 54-year-old Argentine seems to have found the perfect system for his players to thrive in and while they can be susceptible to crosses into the box and face the prospect of playing Brazil in the last 16, a team Las Rojas have only beaten once in the last 20 years, there is every chance Chile can shock the footballing world again.

Colombia

Colombia seem to have entered a golden generation of international talent, and even without their main man Radamel Falcao they have been impressing and charming the neutrals in Brazil.

With Falcao unavailable, Colombian hopes and dreams have been firmly placed on the shoulders of James Rodriguez, the £40million Monaco winger.

Rodriguez has dealt with the pressure in the best possible manner, producing supreme performances on the pitch and being one of the stand-out players of the tournament so far.

Rodriguez isn’t the only player teams should be wary of when facing La Tricolor, with Fredy Guarin, Juan Cuadrado and Teofilo Gutierrez just a selection of the attacking talent Jose Pekerman has at his disposal.

For all their fluid and vibrant offensive play, it would be disrespectful to disregard the resolute defending that helped them qualify in the first place.

Led by the veteran captain Mario Yepes, Colombia conceded 13 goals in the qualifying stages for the World Cup, fewer than any other South American side.

In Yepes and Cristian Zapata they have a solid centre-back pairing, with Carlos Sanchez, nicknamed La Roca (The Rock) providing sturdy protection in midfield, something England severely lacked as they whimpered out of the group stages.

They started their World Cup campaign with a comprehensive 3-0 win against Greece, but were made to work against the Ivory Coast, with goals from the talismanic Rodriguez and Juan Quintero securing a hard-fought but deserved 2-1 win.

The intelligence of some of their attacking play was a joy to watch, and the adventurous nature of their full-backs Pablo Armero and Juan Zuniga was typified when Armero opened the scoring against Greece in the 4th minute, when he found himself in a position where you’d expect Teofilo Gutierrez or Victor Ibarbo to be lurking.

A variety of high-calibre attacking players combined with a stubborn defence bodes well for Pekerman’s side, and their ability to cope with the Brazilian climate will give them the edge over the big name European sides as they progress into the latter stages of the tournament.

Their last group game is against Japan with 1st place in the group all but secured and while tougher opposition lie ahead in the knockout stages, with Cuadrado, Rodriguez and co. in attack, they have no reason to fear anybody.

Belgium

Belgium are also embarking on a generation of serious footballing talent, but they aren’t the finished article just yet.

There is a great balance to the squad with some world-class players within the Belgian ranks, with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois giving their nation cause for optimism.

For a side that have qualified for their first major tournament in 12 years, there is a surprising amount of pressure on Belgium to compete in Brazil, with a lot of Belgians relying on Chelsea’s Hazard to be the man to lead the Red Devils to potential glory.

This tournament looks like it’s a bit too early for this youthful squad to create any major footballing shockwaves, but the experience they gain from Brazil will only benefit them as they approach their peak years for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.

In the first half against Algeria they dominated possession but didn’t look dangerous, and they were almost on the verge of embarrassment as a Sofiane Feghouli penalty gave the Africans a first-half lead.

But credit has to go to the Red Devils boss Marc Wilmots, who showed impressive tactical nous by changing the playing style of his side during the game and utilising his substitutes expertly.

Wilmots brought on the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini, implemented a more direct style to their play and reaped the rewards, as Fellaini equalised against Algeria and rejuvenated his teammates.

The substitutions Wilmots made in Belgium’s first group game also highlighted the strength in depth in the squad, Divock Origi gave the opposition backline something to worry about with his pace and movement, while Dries Mertens came on to net the decisive second.

They got the right result against Algeria and also ground out a lacklustre 1-0 win against Fabio Capello’s Russia with substitutes again influencing the game, the 19-year-old Lille forward Origi netting a late winner.

A core attribute of good sides is winning games when playing badly, but with qualification secured and 1st place in their group essentially sewn up, Belgium’s performances will have to improve considerably if they are to make a real impact in Brazil.

 

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