Check out any bookie before the World Cup and it was pretty obvious who the bookies were confident would win. Skybet for instance had the supposed dark horses but increasingly overhyped Belgium as fifth favourites at 18/1, slightly ahead of the European pack of France, England, Portugal, Holland and Italy, as well as Colombia in the mid twenties to one. All of them were someway off joint fourth favourites Spain and Germany, who were both 11/2 slightly behind Argentina at 9/2 and Brazil at 3/1. To most observers it was obvious one of the so called big four would win it with it most likely being a South American team rather than it being a European nation.
But after the first two rounds of games the certainty of a member of the big four winning it has almost entirely been ripped to shreds. Tournament favourites Brazil have been far form convincing, relying on referee blunders and goalkeeper howlers to overcome Croatia in the tournament opener and failed to get the better Mexico in their second game. They have clear issues up top and their midfield is also an arguable weak point.
Argentina have been similarly underwhelming. For all the pre-tournament hype about their attacking prowess they’ve had to rely on two moments of Lionel Messi magic to get wins against war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina and lowly ranked Iran. Despite a strong qualifying campaign there remain questions about whether they’re able to get the best out of all of their forwards together. Sergio Aguero was the most prolific goal scorer in the Premier League during the club season but has so far only registered a single shot on target in the opening two games.
Germany demolished Portugal in game one, but they were helped largely by the haplessness of Portugal, who had to play the whole of the second half with ten men due to Pepe’s madness, though the game was likely done by then anyway. Then of course there was the entertaining, but from a German perspective, disappointing draw with Ghana. Of the favourites Germany probably had the worst build up to the tournament, with fitness problems for Lahm, Schweinstiger and Neuer before talisman Marco Reus was ruled out of the tournament less than a week before it was due to begin. The flaws in the side – the lack of genuine strikers and Jogi Löw’s baffling refusal to play genuine fullbacks no matter way – are obvious and a clear barrier to the sides hopes of winning the tournament.
As for Spain? Well, what needs to be said that hasn’t already?
The failure of the big four to really shine to the levels of expectation has led to the rise of many other outsiders as genuine contenders, but even they haven’t fully convinced. The Netherlands made the first statement, hammering Spain 5-1 on the second day but they themselves looked remarkably vulnerable against Australia. The case is similar with Italy, a win against England raised expectations, before a loss to Costa Rica sent them crashing down again. Chile look an impressive unit, but even they struggled in the second half of their game against Australia, and if they fail to beat the Dutch in their final game, will face the prospect of Brazil in their first knockout game.
In the end, of all the sides in this world cup, it has arguably just been France and Colombia to really have been without fault. France have probably been the best side in this tournament, sweeping aside a Honduras side whose ten players admittedly seemed to be more interested with the amount of pain and bruises they could inflict on the French team, rather than any threat on Les Bleus goal, and then hitting five past a talented Switzerland side. Similarly it’s hard to not feel the Colombia bandwagon which is lighting up Brazil with their yellow kits and their fantastic football. The threat of implosion as a result of the loss of their talisman Radamel Falcao was never likely due to the immense depth they have in the forward position and in James Rodriquez they have an arguably just as talented main man.
Maybe it’s too early to be drawing such conclusions. It’s possible to peak too early and if one of the remaining big three were to get a run together in the knockouts they may be unstoppable. But at the moment there would be many a good outside bet due to the mixed performances from the favourites. Colombia and France have been the most impressive sides, but Chile and the Netherlands are another good outside bet. However, despite the early signs, it may still remain foolish to look past one of the big South American teams.