Brazil edge through on penalties
Day 16 kicked off with the World Cup’s first knockout match – an intriguing round-of-16 clash between South American sides Chile and Brazil.
Host nation Brazil had the weight of an entire population on their shoulder. Despite coming up against a formidable opponent in Chile, anything besides a comfortable win would be seen as a disaster.
The stadium exploded into life when David Luiz provided the final touch on a flick-on from a corner to give the Brazilians an early one-goal lead and spark an electrifying atmosphere in the Belo Horizonte.
But the ecstasy soon turned to nerves, when nonchalant play from a Brazilian throw-in deep in their own half gave the ball away to Chilean striker Vargas, who quickly passed the ball into compatriot Alexis Sanchez; the superstar slotted the ball past Julio Cesar to draw the score level.
An enthralling half came to a close all square – Brazil had drawn first blood, but the feisty Chileans responded quickly.
The second half continued with the same dynamism, Brazil and Chile swapping turns to test the opposing defense.
Brazilian powerhouse Hulk looked as if he broke the deadlock in the 55th minute, when he controlled the ball with his chest and rolled it into the back of the net; but referee Howard Webb quickly disallowed the goal, claiming Hulk had used his arm to control the ball and giving the striker a yellow card.
The home crowd grew increasingly tense, as Chile became more and more threatening, pinning Brazil back and disrupting them from playing their natural game.
Both teams had opportunities, although Chile was on top, but a scoreless half meant that the game, tied at 1-1, would go to a dramatic extra time. Tired legs took to the pitch for an extra 30 minutes, and inspiration was needed from somewhere.
A combative but goalless first half of extra time set the stage for a historic final 15 minutes – somebody had the chance to become a hero.
With seconds left of play, Chile’s Mauricio Pinilla was millimeters from doing just that – the substitute striker received a pass, but his thunderous effort smashed off the crossbar. It was the final chance, and the action would be decided by a penalty shootout.
After a tense shootout, a successful fifth penalty from Neymar meant that Chile had to score to take it to a sixth shooter – but Chile’s Gonzalo Jara had the unenviable fate of hitting the post.
Brazil’s Julio Cesar was integral, saving Chile’s first two penalties.
The dramatic victory set Brazil up for a quarter-final matchup between Uruguay or Colombia (which would be determined by the day’s later game).
Brazil are now three games from claiming the ultimate glory – hoisting the World Cup trophy in their own backyard.
Chile caused them all sorts of trouble, but the Brazilians will improve with each passing game. Good luck to any team that stands in the way between them and destiny.
James steals the show as Colombia dismiss Uruguay
In the day’s second and final match, two more South American sides battled for a spot in the quarter-finals.
Colombia, one of, if not the, most impressive sides in this tournament met a Uruguay side without their star striker.
Despite the quality of both teams, all of the pre-match talk was of the banned Luis Suarez – the enigmatic Uruguayan was banned for nine international matches and 4 months of football after an alleged bite on Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.
But despite all the talk of Uruguay’s front line, it was their defense and midfield that were under the most pressure early in the match. Colombia’s speed (of both movement and thought) was extremely hard to contain for the Uruguayans.
With the game finally starting to settle, Colombia’s player of the tournament so far, James Rodriguez, decided in the 28th minute that he was having none of that.
Rodriguez sublimely controlled a lofted pass from teammate Abel Aguilar and left-foot volleyed in the goal of the tournament, which crashed in off the underside of the bar.
The half time whistle brought the game to a halt at 1-0 in Colombia’s favour, but the game wasn’t done just yet.
More specifically, James Rodriguez wasn’t done just yet.
Just five minutes after the match resumed, Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado headed down a cross directly into the path of Rodriguez. The playmaker swept home the ball for a tournament-leading fifth goal, giving his country a 2-0 lead and control of the match.
Uruguay fought hard to get back into the match, but without you-know-who, they lacked both creativity and cutting edge.
Colombia ran out 2-0 winners, and despite an already impressive showing this tournament, this was the match that James Rodriguez announced himself on the world’s biggest stage.
Rodriguez, who now has five goals and a handful of assists, is the driving force behind an incredible Colombia side. The young attacking midfielder was always expected to be his team’s creative inspiration, but nobody expected him to ease Falcao’s absence with such a phenomenal goal return.
If Rodriguez and Colombia (with four wins from four, playing beautiful football) can keep performing like this, then quarter-final opponents Brazil will have much to be worried about.