Congratulations are in order to Portugal defender Pepe, who has surely already wrapped up one award from this World Cup: the prize for the stupidest player to “grace” the tournament in Brazil.
Pepe left millions around the world doing their best impressions of the official tournament logo as they slapped their foreheads on Monday, after he brazenly (if lightly) head-butted Thomas Mueller in clear view of the referee, ironically after taking offence at the Germany forward’s perceived overreacting.
The ensuing red card was fully deserved, as will be the subsequent criticism he receives in the Portuguese press.
Mueller may be another player heading for an award at the end of this tournament, should Monday’s game be anything to go by. Mueller had already scored from the penalty spot before Pepe’s moment of indescribable idiocy, and then he added two further strikes as Portugal were eventually consigned to a traumatic 4-0 defeat.
That hat-trick—the first of this World Cup, and the 49th in history—means Mueller is already ahead in the race for the Golden Boot, the top scorer prize he also claimed four years ago. The 24-year-old already has eight goals in World Cup tournaments to his name, halfway to Ronaldo’s all-time record of 14.
Miroslav Klose, one behind Ronaldo but now 36 years of age, may suddenly wonder whether he is the German forward destined to overtake the Brazilian’s historic record after all.
This was the third all-European contest of the tournament, all of which on paper figured to be close, hard-fought affairs. Yet, only one actually turned out that way; Italy edging England in a game of fine margins and generally high standards in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.
The first game was remarkably lopsided, as Netherlands upset the form book and ran riot against title-holders Spain in a 5-1 win. Monday’s game followed that blueprint (it was, after all, in the same stadium), with Germany going ahead early thanks to Mueller's penalty before proceeding to shift through the gears even before their opponents went down to 10 men.
"It's glorious to score three goals in a game like that," Mueller said afterward, per AFP (h/t Yahoo). "When you are 1-0 up, you get a tail-wind and when we made it 2-0, that was a huge advantage.
“With the numerical advantage, the game was as good as won."
Portugal tried, with a lack of commitment that suitably reflected their performance, to make a scapegoat of the referee. "I think it's better if I don't say anything about the referee," as Portugal’s coach, Paulo Bento, told reporters.
But Bento's prior comment was more accurate: "We lost the game in the first half.”
The fear going into this World Cup was that European sides would struggle in the heat, that the conditions played into the hands of the South Americans and gave the likes of Brazil and Argentina every reason to believe they would bring the trophy back to their continent for the first time since 2002.
So far, however, that has only been half true. For every European side that has struggled as Portugal did, another has seemingly flourished in the land of joga bonito. France produced some impressive football in their opening demolition of Honduras, while even Bosnia and Herzegovina more than held their own for long spells against Lionel Messi and friends in the Maracana.
Even Portugal actually started the game reasonably well, initially exposing a few weaknesses in a Germany line-up that is more makeshift than coach Joachim Loew could ever have feared would be the case.
But Joao Pereira clumsily brought down Mario Goetze in the box before Bruno Alves got stranded under Mats Hummels at a corner—two mistakes that quickly left Paulo Bento’s men with no viable route back into the match.
Pepe’s folly only ensured that would be the case, as Mueller scored again before half-time. After that, Loew’s side opted to take their foot off the accelerator and conserve energy in the midday heat, perhaps the only thing that prevented the scoreline from being even more emphatic.
In truth, the game actually gave him little opportunity to see how good Germany really are. They looked average for the first 13 minutes, but from that point onward everything was gifted to them without any of them really needing to exert themselves.
Portugal, taking their lead from their departed defender, helpfully descended beyond mediocrity toward incompetence—they were undisciplined, disorganised and conspicuously lacking in sufficient talent to ably support Cristiano Ronaldo, who may or may not be fully fit (on the evidence of this match, he is not).
All of which was good news for the United States, who played later that evening. Portugal’s defeat meant the victor of their meeting with Ghana would have an excellent chance of progressing from Group G—not only would they have three points in the bank, but they now had no reason to fear the Portuguese threat.
This dynamic, coupled with the Americans’ unconcealed desire to gain revenge on the Black Stars after two previous World Cup defeats, served to inspire another enthralling contest, with Jurgen Klinsmann’s side going ahead early, conceding late and then plucking a winning goal off the unlikely head of substitute defender John Brooks.
"We have a great spirit," said the coach afterward, per Stephen Wade of The Associated Press (h/t ABC News). "The US team always has a great spirit and fights until the last second...It was a grind, but it's wonderful at the end of the day."
Brooks' goal presumably ends Ghana's hopes of reaching the knockout stages, but otherwise it makes Group G fascinatingly poised. Germany should win the group after their opening triumph, yet Klinsmann might well watch the first 10 minutes of the Portugal match and believe there are weaknesses he can exploit when he meets his home nation in the final group game.
It is the meeting with Portugal next Sunday, however, that will now be most decisive in deciding whether his team moves on to the last 16.
Can Portugal, now without Pepe, gather themselves after such a humbling loss? Bento will surely see reasons to be positive when he watches the United States' game, as the Black Stars dominated large parts of the contest, yet he will wonder if his team are mentally or physically able to take advantage of the weaknesses he spots after such a harrowing start.
The United States lack the talent to match Portugal player for player, yet that was also arguably the case against Ghana—and that did not stop them getting the result. Under Klinsmann, the Americans seem to have a determination and resolve, and that can only make them dangerous opponents to whomever they face.
It promises to be a fascinating game, with everything at stake.
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