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The 10 things we've learned from the group stages

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Colombia's James Rodriguez has come into his own at this World Cup. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Colombia's James Rodriguez has come into his own at this World Cup. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Colombia's James Rodriguez has come into his own at this World Cup. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

After a hectic and thrilling fortnight of group stage activity, the World Cup takes a well deserved breather today. As a competition, it has exceeded expectations, leaving the unremarkable renewal of 2010 in the shade with a series of entertaining games, an abundance of goals and no amount of dramatic storylines.

The departure of world champions Spain was the biggest football story, although the furore surrounding Luis Suarez's bite earlier this week has transcended sport and become a global standalone story in its own right.

His latest moment of madness confirmed the sceptical view of his personality, while Spain's collapse marked the sad end of an era. Beyond that, however, what else have we learned from the group stages?

FRANCE COULD BE EUROPE'S SURPRISE PACKAGE

Forget the tepid display against Ecuador on Wednesday. That game was meaningless to Les Bleus and they made six changes to protect key players, with Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena's absence weakening the midfield and a reshuffle interrupting the defence.

The manner in which they tore Switzerland to shreds was impressive and they should be capable of taking care of Nigeria in the round of 16. Then, they're three games from glory.

Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud misfired against the Ecuadorians, but the former looks in sparky form and, in a tournament with a shortage of great defences, firepower will be central to the outcome.

Didier Deschamps has a range of options. With Spain and Italy toast, and Germany's deficiencies exposed by Ghana, France are slipping under the radar and are a better bet than Belgium in the 'dark horse' category, with Holland the other outstanding European candidate

ARGENTINA = MESSI

Okay, so this is hardly an original thought, but the first three games would suggest that, in some quarters, the importance of the Barcelona star was underestimated.

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Argentina have a number of other talented stars, yet they have failed to showcase their strength in a group where La Selección struggled with their tactical shape and didn't inspire any confidence defensively.

An injury to Sergio Aguero has prevented the Man City star from making a difference. Messi pulled them out of a hole at crucial stages of all three matches and they would drop from likely winners to outside bets if the gifted genius was to suffer any misfortune.

Once a jittery opening 45 with Bosnia was overcome – with the headstrong star reportedly making his views on the original targets clear to Alejandro Sabella – he has upped it a gear in the manner of a man ready to seize his defining moment.

ASIAN FOOTBALL HAS NOT PROGRESSED

When Japan and South Korea hosted the competition in 2002, the hope was it would signal a period of growth for game in the region.

They may be selling more jerseys and welcoming more high profile summer tourists, but they've failed to uncover homegrown talent at the same pace.

Both nations arrived here with reasonably high hopes and flopped. Japan took one point from a weak group. Iran and Australia also qualified through the Asian zone and went home without a win, though the latter emerged with some credit from pushing Holland close while the Iranians stifled Argentina for 90 minutes.

Credible damage limitation exercises are hardly a statement of intent with a view to the future, however.

FULL-BACKS ARE CRUCIAL

It's hard to be a successful team in the modern game without having good full-backs or wing-backs as favoured by both Chile and Costa Rica in their stirring charge through their groups.

The overlapping pair of Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena are key to Chile's prospects and Louis van Gaal introduced Dirk Kuyt as a stifling left-sided midfielder in an attempt to neutralise the former. Cristian Gamboa and Junior Diaz are pivotal for Costa Rica's approach in a 5-4-1 formation.

Some of the more impressive sides with four at the back have also benefited from the attacking instinct of the defensive wide men, with young Dutch pair Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat winning admirers.

ENGLAND ARE NOT VERY GOOD

This might also belong in the confirmed as opposed to the learned column.

This was a strange competition for England, with a moral victory against the Italians (a defeat) followed by a loss to the immoral hero of Uruguay and then a tepid draw with a Costa Rican side that had already qualified.

Roy Hodgson argued that luck went against his side, although the assertion that his team handled Suarez well apart from the small matter of two important goals was particularly unfortunate.

All games turned on a few moments, but there was a consistent inability to dictate play in midfield, with Steven Gerrard exposed in a system that was shunted around with a view to accommodating Wayne Rooney. Hodgson is working with talented individuals but is no closer to constructing a better team than he was two years ago.

DON'T WRITE OFF THE GREEKS

It's happened too often to be a coincidence, although their World Cup record is nowhere near as impressive as their Euro exploits.

When push came to shove, however, a Greek side that chugged through their opening two games found themselves in a make or break situation with Ivory Coast and they clambered across the line.

The Ivorians have a reputation for bottling it on the big stage, whereas Greece have become the reliable warhorses who perform when their lives are on the line.

Colombia exposed their inadequacies, but the quirks of Group D mean that Fernando Santos' dogged lot face Costa Rica in an unlikely round of 16 encounter.

JAMES RODRIGUEZ IS THE NEXT BIG THING

Every renewal throws up breakthrough stars and they range from bright new things to experienced pros performing above anything they've done before.

Mexico's out of contract goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa possibly comes out on top of that category, but the real long term excitement comes when a gifted operator suggests he will be around for years to come. In South America, they are well aware of Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez. The 22-year-old came into his own here, though, scoring in every appearance in addition to thriving as a creator.

VAN PERSIE WILL BE A VAN GAAL REVELATION

What must David Moyes have thought when he watched Robin van Persie athletically fly through the air to dispatch a killer header in Salvador? The toned striker sprinted to the bench to embrace Man United's manager in waiting Louis Van Gaal and it's clear they will form a potent combination together at club level next season.

AFRICAN FOOTBALL IS A CRAZY PLACE

None of the continental bodies in the world game are really in a position to cast judgment on another region. However, a couple of the African visitors have raised the game in terms of chaos levels arising from the influence of money.

Before the tournament, Cameroon players threatened not to get on the plane due to bonus concerns; their fans might now wish they'd stayed on the runway. Then Ghana's stars made their association fly in the wads of cash they were owed with government intervention required to stump up the cash that was delivered to the team hotel from a convoy of cars that landed in Brasilia Airport the night before it emerged that Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng had been sent home for disciplinary reasons.

It is alleged Muntari chased around a member of the backroom staff wielding a broken bottle. Talk about going out in style.

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL IS NOT DEAD

It would be negligent not to mention Brazil and the passion in the national anthem ahead of the launch against Croatia which reduced several squad members to tears.

Beforehand, the problems with Brazil as a host drove the agenda, but it has proved an attractive venue for travelling fans in Central and South America and they have brought a tremendous energy to the whole event.

Steadily, this renewal has gathered momentum, with big players like Messi and Neymar, to name just two, grabbing the opportunity.

There's something magical about an international tournament which truly captures the imagination. Much of the groaning about national duty is borne from a clumsy structure and a proliferation of meaningless friendlies during the club season. When it matters, the big moments can generate a lifetime of memories. Brazil is well on the way to ticking all the boxes.


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