Avoiding defeat in their opening game often the first priority for teams
Hosts Brazil will hope to start with a swagger but Croatia may have a very different game plan
Brazil’s Neymar practising his free-kick technique at the Arena de Sao Paulo ahead of the hosts’ World Cup opener against Croatia. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images
But don’t be entirely surprised if things don’t go completely to plan in São Paulo this evening. Previous tournaments have shown the opening round of games can be treacherous territory for even the best of teams and the opening match is more than capable of producing an upset.
In the circumstances, it’s not entirely surprising that caution gets the better of quite a few managers who opt early in the competition to have their players dig in for a draw.
Over the four tournaments that the competition has followed its present format of three points for a win and the top two in each group progressing to the second round, just four of the 64 teams who made it to those knockout stages did so after losing their opener.
Italy, of course, came within a few spot kicks of winning the title in the USA after losing to Ireland in the Giants Stadium.
Oddly enough, another of the semi-finalists that year, Bulgaria, also had to bounce back after losing their opening game – 3-0 to Nigeria in their case.
But the Italians made it through as one of the best third -placed sides and that escape route was closed off by the expansion of the tournament to 32 teams four years later.
Since then only Turkey (2002), Ghana and Ukraine (both 2006) and Spain, who went on to win the title after losing to the Swiss first time out in 2010, have survived their opener.
Winning is obviously the preferred outcome and in 2006 only five sides that failed to take three points from their first outing were still around when things started to get interesting. Avoiding defeat, though, generally leaves a fair bit of scope to progress with six out of 16 teams in 1998 and 2002 and seven in 2010 taking just one point from their first game before securing a top-two finish in their group.
In 40 per cent of cases over the four tournaments, the sides advance in pairs so to speak, with two teams progressing having faced each other in the original, drawn game. This can probably be explained in a number of cases by sides seeing each other as serious rivals for a top-two spot and opting, in effect, to take their chances against the group’s other two sides.
Pretty starklyEvents in South Africa demonstrated pretty starkly just how important it is to have something on the board after the first round of games however.
Eight of 10 teams (80 per cent) who won their opening fixtures there progressed, significantly better than the seven of 12 (58 per cent) that went through after drawing. The corresponding figure for those who lost, though, was just one out of 10, ie a mere 10 per cent survival rate.
Recovering from a defeat depends on several factors but clearly being in a group that is completed by two weak sides, as Ukraine were in 2006, is a distinct advantage.
Spain beat them 4-0 in their opening game then swept to top spot with nine points. Somewhat endearingly, Oleg Blokhin and his men then set about salvaging the situation with some gusto, first beating Saudi Arabia by four goals and then edging past Tunisia thanks to Andriy Shevchenko’s 70th minute penalty. Sadly they rather ruined things then by going to Cologne and playing out one of the drabbest games in the history of the entire tournament against Switzerland.
Little roomThe Ukrainians, of course, weren’t actually up to all that much. Last time around, however, Spain proved that even for a great team, an early defeat leaves desperately little room for future manoeuvre.
The eventual champions actually ended up winning their group after losing first time out to the Swiss but they would have gone out if Chile had grabbed an equaliser against them and the Swiss had got a winner against Honduras, neither of which seemed at all out of the question over the last half an hour of those two games.
Spain and Chile are again in the same group this time around and the fact that the Dutch are also in there makes qualification a tricky-looking business. Spain play the Netherlands first and it is one of a number of opening round games in which the coaches involved might well see the avoidance of defeat as the primary objective.
Germany versus Portugal and England versus Italy are amongst the most obvious others where strong teams, with an eye on the latter stages of the tournament, might be forgiven for not wanting to blow their chances by getting caught out and then being obliged to chase qualification.
By contrast, the other games in those groups might be expected to be more open with the teams involved needing to beat the most beatable of the group’s other sides before facing the big guns.
This helps explain why Croatia played with such urgency against Ireland in Poland two years ago; they essentially knew that anything less than a win was likely to mean elimination. Much of the time though, coaches may not be aiming quite so high over the coming days.