Consider this a first pass, or food for thought. Here’s my top ten games of the group stage. Which ones do you think I left out, and who needs to move up or down? If you need to refresh your memory, you can take advantage of my h/t index of the tournament, with links to analysis, highlights, and full-game coverage (for those with access to ESPN3) for every game. I look forward to your comments.
10. Switzerland 2 – France 5 (20 June). France destroyed Switzerland, but didn’t crush their spirit, as two fantastic late goals demonstrated. With this much quality on display, even a neutral won’t mind the blow out.
9. Spain 0 – Chile 2 (18 June). Barcelona want-away Alexis Sánchez helped put an end to the era of tiki-taka, but it was Chile’s Herculean pressing that won the day. In such an historic loss, it’s easy to overlook the very fine football that Spain played in the middle of this game, keeping it a more interesting contest than some commentators suggested.
8. Columbia 2 – Ivory Coast 1 (19 June). Columbia rolled through the group stage on the back of James Rodríguez, but their game against Ivory Coast was probably the most entertaining of the bunch, in part because of Gervinho’s incredible late goal to keep things interesting.
7. Italy 0 – Costa Rica 1 (20 June). The Ticos became the first team to advance from Group D with this impressive win over an Italian side who had seemed likely to stroll into the Round of Sixteen. Their aggressive press took Andrea Pirlo out of the game, and Bryan Ruiz’s incredible goal in response to an uncalled penalty on Chiellini was enough to see them through.
6. United States 2 – Portugal 2 (22 June). A genuinely enthralling (if not always high quality) game, it was here that the United States started to win over neutrals with their energetic performance. And then an injured Cristiano Ronaldo managed a deadly assist to keep things interesting for the final round of games.
5. Greece 2 – Ivory Coast 1 (24 June). In the game that decided which team would advance from Group C behind Columbia, Greece belied their defensive reputation with an attacking performance that justly earned them a place in the Round of Sixteen, even if the penalty that got them there was a phantom call.
4. Nigeria 2 – Argentina 3 (25 June). With nothing at stake, the two advancing teams from Group F relaxed and put on a full-out show, with Ahmed Musa and Lionel Messi both earning braces in a good old-fashioned barnstormer. Messi’s individual brilliance shown throughout the group stage, but only in this last game was it matched by an exciting performance from the opposition.
3. Germany 2 – Ghana 2 (21 June). Surely this wasn’t the Ghana team that lost to the United States in their opening game? On Germany’s side, Thomas Müller opened the scoring with one of the assists of the tournament (to Mario Götze), and Miroslav Klose closed it with an equalizer to tie the Brazilian Ronaldo as the World Cup’s most prolific goal-scorer ever.
2. Brazil 0 – Mexico 0 (17 June). Just one of those boring nil-nil games, right? Guillermo Ochoa stamped his mark on what may well come to be remembered as a goaltenders’ World Cup. But credit, too, goes to Mexican coach Miguel Herrera, who transformed a team undeserving of qualification into a confident, exciting squad able to stay on the pitch with anyone.
1. Spain 1 – Netherlands 5 (13 June). The final score masks what was, in fact, a tight and intense game for the opening 60′. This was almost certainly the most anticipated game of the group stage, and it did not disappoint. In a game with two teams pressing high up the pitch, Ron Vlaar was a monster in the back, particularly against Diego Costa. Two long balls from Daley Blind proved the difference, and once Spain was behind, the Dutch attack found space to turn the game into a late rout. Which they did, with ruthless efficiency.