The blinder and the blunder
For all of its obvious merits -- the frenetic scoring, the ferocious, almost deranged attacking football, the headers and the headbutt -- there has been something rather obviously missing from Brazil 2014. Where have the goalkeepers been? Goalkeeping performances have always been key to major tournaments, but despite Iker Casillas' high-profile errors against the Netherlands we haven't really had a keeper take control of a match (for good or ill) until Tuesday, at which point we got a good cop bad cop routine in Mexico's Memo Ochoa and Russia's Igor Akinfeev.
Ochoa's performance against the hosts was remarkable, and it came in a vitally important match. Needing a point to steal a march on Croatia, Mexico could easily have been blown away if not for the brilliant work of the out-of-contract goalkeeper. His sprawling save from Neymar's first-half header was one of the highlights of the competition to date -- few would have had the speed to get across to that ball, let alone claw it back from over the line and turn it past the post while in midair -- but when he's on, Ochoa's always had the gift of making the highly improbably look excessively easy. And although Brazil spent the rest of the match shooting straight at him (with some force, admittedly), Mexico's number one always managed to make sure the rebounds landed somewhere safe whenever he was forced into a parry.
And after Ochoa's show, we barely had to wait at all to find a performance smack-dab on the other end of the spectrum. Igor Akinfeev is, in theory, an entirely solid goalkeeper. He'd represented Russia on 69 occasions, has significant Champions League experience and in the 68th minute he greeted Lee Keun-Ho's speculative long-range effort with the sort of reaction you'd get if you lobbed something at a sporty looking bystander, yelled "CATCH", waited a few seconds, and followed up with "this bucket of scorpions!"* The 28-year-old positioned himself perfectly, got his hands behind the ball, and then did his damnedest to get it away from him as quickly as possible, which, unfortunately for Russia, meant throwing it into his own net.
*If you try this, which you definitely shouldn't, please upload to Youtube and tweet me the link. Also don't use actual scorpions.
Fabio Capello's side managed to overcome the blunder to secure a point, but Akinfeev's error, much like Rob Green's against the United States in 2010, will live long in the memory. Aren't goalkeepers great?
Free kick foam: The real star of Brazil 2014
It's been a thoroughly engaging World Cup so far, but the real breakout star hasn't been Daley Blind, Johnny Futbol or Nestor Pitana's comb-over. No, it's been a small can of water and butane gas, held by each official in a little holster like your Dad's mobile phone, brought out to keep defenders' toes this close but no closer to a set piece.
Shaving foam jokes, perpetually-amused commentators, the occasional outraged footballer-with-gunk-on-his-shiny-new-Nikes. The foam does it all ... except, slightly weirdly, what it's supposed to. Everybody's played once now, and there has been a real glut of goals, and yet not a one has come from a direct free-kick. Which makes no sense at all. After all, if spray is being used, then presumably walls have been encroaching in the past but now cannot. Which, in turn, should mean the advantage is back with the free-kick takers. Yet nothing. Neymar, Miralem Pjanic, Cristiano Ronaldo; this lot are supposed to be good at this stuff. Even the sainted Andrea Pirlo could only hit the bar against England.
Maybe the luxury of space is throwing the takers' radars off. All those years practicing with 7, 8 yard walls, wasted. Or maybe it's something to do with the ball: we've only had two goals from outside the box, after all, and one of those was Igor Akinfeev's brainfade. Is it, unlike the blowaway Jabulani of four years ago, simply not round enough?
Or perhaps, counter-intuitively, the effects of the spray cut both ways. The other thing the foam does, of course, is prevent the attacking side moving the ball while the wall's being set-up. Deny a specialist those few lateral inches, that extra slice of light to one side or the other, and that could make all the difference.
Marc Wilmots comes to his senses
For some reason - perhaps Alejandro Sabella shared a bit of whatever he'd been smoking - Marc Wilmots elected to shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 for Belgium's opening match against Algeria. His inclusion of Tottenham's Nacer Chadli in the middle simply emphasized just how strong his contraband was.
Wilmots' setup was easily neutralized by Algeria, and when Belgium went into the second half down a goal, no one was very surprised. The Red Devils had been billed as an exciting, sexy team to watch, full of plenty of attacking threats. This side looked as though they were moving through jello.
Fortunately (for fans of fun football, anyway), Wilmots apparently checked the Twitters before putting his side back out for the second half. Chadli came off, replaced by Dries Mertens. Anyone who watched Napoli in the second half of the season wasn't surprised by the immediate change in Belgium's play. Mertens was able to create space for himself out wide, causing cracks in the formerly unimpeachable Algeria defense.
Then Wilmots threw on Marouane Fellaini, playing him up top with young Divock Origi, who'd replaced a thoroughly disappointing Romelu Lukaku. Five minutes later, Belgium had equalized through Fellaini's header. But the real brilliance came in the go-ahead goal, a fast counter-attack that ended with Mertens receiving the ball out wide and slotting past Raïs M'Bohli at the near post.
There's no denying that Mertens' pace and ability to harass defenders (including his own teammate, Faouzi Ghoulam) spiced up Belgium's game. So please, Wilmots, put down whatever Sabella's been slipping you ... Belgium need Dries from the start.