Celebrating Costa Rica
Costa Rica have made a point of humiliating so-called giants so far in this tournament. Uruguay went down in he first match, well-beaten despite taking a first-half lead via the penalty spot, and on Thursday it was Italy's turn. 90 minutes later, and the Ticos had another win and another major scalp. They've embarrassed everyone they've played so far and they haven't even had the joy of facing England yet.
But the problem with upsets is that the focus tends to be on the team upset rather than that doing the upsetting. Media coverage around David and Goliath, one imagines, would have gone something like "Goliath downed by rock, manager in hot water over lack of attention to concussion danger", paying little attention to the party which came off far better than expected. Upsets are supposed to be rare, and they're supposed to be one-offs. And that sometimes leads to us missing the point: the real news here is that Costa Rica are the first team out of Group D to qualify for the knockout rounds, and in prime position to finish in first place.
For the consensus 'worst' team in the group, that's some pretty impressive going, especially since they have, broadly speaking, controlled both matches rather than resort to the classic minnow approach. No hiding in a shell and poaching goals on the counterattack and set pieces for the Ticos; they're top of Group D and have looked fantastic in the ascent. So rather than talking about the teams they've beaten, let's celebrate this side.
Costa Rica deserve celebrating. From top to bottom they've been excellent, whether that's Joel Campbell flummoxing defenders or Keylor Navas showing off what made him one of Europe's top shot-stoppers last year. Their wingbacks have down an extraordinary job patrolling the flanks, the midfield's been solid, and despite facing two of the most highly-regarded strikers in the game, the unfancied back line has more than held its own.
And now they're in the knockout rounds. Yes, Group C's top two teams will both be hoping to wind up pitted against the Ticos, and that's probably fair -- no matter how well they've performed to date, you'd still take the Ivory Coast's or Colombia's squad over Costa Rica's -- but Italy and Uruguay were more than happy to be drawn in a group with them back in December, and look at where we are now.
Sooner or later this ride will come to an end, but no matter where we go from here, Costa Rica have been one of this tournament's most pleasant surprises.
France are mortal ...
France absolutely routed Switzerland in Friday's second game, providing plenty of goals and joy for anyone not cheering on the Swiss (or having to write about each and every goal). By the 73rd minute, Les bleus were up 5-0, with the Swiss defense looking alarmingly like the eponymous cheese.
Then Blerim Džemaili, on to replace Valon Behrami, who rather looked like he'd never played a game of football in his life before this one, stepped up to take a free kick. Džemaili's spent practically his entire career practicing for such a moment, relishing any opportunity he has to send in a shot from distance.
This time, the midfielder kept his shot rather low, his daisy-cutter aimed perfectly at the chests of the players in the wall. But rather than attempt to block the shot, Karim Benzema simply pivoted, allowing it the ball to float through the wall and into the back of the net.
France had a five-goal advantage with nine minutes left to play, so of course they're going to take their foot off the gas a bit -- it's smart football. Such a strategy could easily excuse Granit Xhaka's goal in the 87th minute. But Benzema's turn? There's no excuse. Another moment of stupidity in the knockout rounds and against a better team, and France could find themselves dumped out of the tournament.
... but they're still really good
Pre-tournament, it was looking increasingly as though France were set to make a deep run. They had a straightforward enough group -- Switzerland, though serious competition, are hardly a team Les Bleus would have been afraid of -- their squad was well balanced with plenty of ability and they were firing on all cylinders in friendlies even despite the loss of Franck Ribéry to injury.
Two games in and they're looking even better than that. 3-0 against Honduras, a match France dominated even before Wilson Palacios was dismissed in the first half, was a good result and a solid performance; 5-2 against Switzerland was an excellent result and an otherworldly performance. But for the referee's inattentiveness to play at the end of the match, France could have scored six, but for some dubious finishing and quality goalkeeping we're looking at eight or nine goals. France didn't just demolish the Swiss, they played what is so far the best football of the tournament in so doing.
They scored goals by every means you might imagine. Set pieces. Fast breaks. Measured buildup play. It was all there, in one coherent and yet curiously explosive package. That the scoreline was marred by two late Swiss goals is unfortunate and does at least slightly take away from the performance*, but there's still no doubt that the most impressive team thus far in the tournament has been France.
*But it also says a lot about the team that the one observable weakness through two matches is 'turns off with a five-goal lead and ten minutes to go'; few teams will consider exploiting that flaw to be a viable plan.
How far can this team go in the knockouts? If this keeps up, that question will soon evolve into something far grander: is there anything -- anyone -- who can stop this France side? And the answer, as always, will turn out to be France themselves, by headbutt, idleness or outright rebellion. Or so the rest of the tournament will be hoping, at any rate.