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Jun 16, 2014

A feast of football

Our panel of experts compare the number of goals scored so far in Brazil to the number of goals scored in South Africa up until this point.

Ultimately, the quality of knockout matches in this World Cup will determine how fondly the tournament is remembered. If we reach the quarterfinals, and the games are all boring 0-0 draws decided on penalties, in a decade's time no one will remember Costa Rica's impressive 3-1 victory over Uruguay, or Ivory Coast's comeback against Japan.

However, it's impossible not to marvel at the quality of matches so far -- after five days, the group stage has already produced more memorable contests than we saw in the entire South Africa tournament four years ago.

Eleven matches in, there hasn't been a genuinely poor game. There has been an all-time classic, in the Netherlands' 5-1 destruction of holders Spain, and some unpredictable matches featuring dramatic turnarounds. The closest thing to a dud was Colombia's 3-0 win over Greece, which lacked intrigue because it was so one-sided, but anyone who thinks it was a genuinely poor match has simply been spoilt over the past week.

Indeed, after a few days in 2010, presenters optimistically introduced matches hoping we'd finally witness a side who would "get the World Cup going." France's display last night would have fitted the mould, yet in this fantastic competition, their 3-0 win over Honduras has been one of the least interesting games.

- Brewin: Five who could be dropped
- Marcotti: Sabella's tactical error
- Atkins: Campbell shines for Costa Rica

Put simply, almost every side has attempted to play good football. Not everyone has attempted to dominate the match in the opposition half, but it's only relatively recently that "possession football" has become, somewhat erroneously, synonymous with "good football" anyway. Regardless of whether sides have concentrated on retention or penetration, there's been a commitment to attack.

Only three of the 22 sides in action so far have bucked the trend: Cameroon were too passive, their wingers pinned back by the opposition wing-backs, and unable to launch attacks. Uruguay were dreadful, thumping long balls towards Edinson Cavani with little guile, while Honduras were nothing more than overly physical, aggressive scrappers.

Everyone else has attempted to play. Even Australia, considered no-hopers in a difficult Group B, after an early Chile wave of pressure, continually encouraged their full-backs high up the pitch, and supported lone striker Tim Cahill with midfield runners. Nineteen of the 22 sides have attempted, to some degree, to put on a show. The inevitable result has been an incredibly enjoyable festival of football -- what the World Cup should be all about.

Perhaps even more enjoyably, however, has been the variety evident throughout the competition. Attacking football is great, but if 32 sides played 4-2-4 and charged forward all game, we'd have a series of basketball-esque matches offering none of the intrigue or variation that makes football the world's most popular sport.

Instead, we've had different systems, styles and attacks, which have resulted in an impressive range of games. Four years ago, when everyone defended very deep and attempted to play slow possession football, the World Cup was disappointingly stale.

Brazil and Croatia set the standard for an intriguing open round of games.

For example, there's been a possession battle, on the opening day of the tournament, when Croatia attempted to command the ball with three talented midfield playmakers, and Brazil took a while to assert their dominance and get the ball regularly into the final third, before running out 3-1 winners.

There's been a game featuring two high defensive lines, which saw play squeezed into the midfield zone, in the Netherlands' incredible 5-1 thrashing of Spain. There were no fewer than 16 through balls played in behind defences during that game, compared to an average of 2.8 across the other 10 matches of the tournament.

There has been a game based around counterattacking: Switzerland's dramatic 2-1 victory over Ecuador, which was sealed in stoppage time. It was a slow burner but when the game opened out and midfield space became obvious, it was end-to-end, typified by how Valon Behrami prevented a goal at one end, then immediately strode forward to launch a Swiss attack for the winner.

There has been a crossing game, when Italy pushed their right-back Matteo Darmian forward versus England to combine with Antonio Candreva and put crosses into the box, but left space for Wayne Rooney to break into. Rooney set up England's equaliser for Daniel Sturridge with a fine cross, but Italy grabbed the winner through Mario Balotelli from a similar route.

Finally, there's been a set piece game: Uruguay's shock 3-1 defeat at the hands of Costa Rica saw the majority of chances coming from dead ball situations, with the five centre-backs on the pitch all apparently more comfortable attacking set pieces than defending them.

That is five entirely different types of football matches within the space of 11 games. Therefore, while it's certainly possible to describe the World Cup so far as attacking, adventurous, open and enjoyable, at this early stage you can't define it any more precisely.

There's still a long way to go before we can pronounce this a truly great World Cup, and the second round of group games might be a harder slog. We'll have to see whether these matches -- which include Ecuador versus Honduras, South Korea versus Algeria and Japan versus Greece -- can live up to the standard we've come to expect.

But if something starts well and ends well, you can forgive a slump somewhere in between. World Cups are always memorable in the latter stages because of the tension and anticipation; it's more a question of how quickly they get going. So far, it's been fantastic.