Friday, June 20, 2014
RIO DE JANEIRO — After just one match each, Robin van Persie and Lionel Messi have already equaled their goal tallies from their previous two World Cups combined.
Two of football’s biggest stars are finally shining where it matters most.
While it has taken Van Persie and Messi three tournaments to find their feet, other strikers seem to thrive on the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the World Cup from day one.
Thomas Mueller, joint tournament top scorer with five in South Africa four years ago, grabbed a hat trick Monday as Germany hammered Portugal 4-0.
And with the weight of the football-loving host nation resting on his slender shoulders, 22-year-old Neymar slotted two goals on his World Cup debut as Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 in the tournament opener. Neymar failed to score against Mexico Tuesday thanks to amazing goalkeeping Guillermo Ochoa.
But the pressure that some players thrive on seems to weigh others down. Cristiano Ronaldo — constantly paired against Messi in the debate over the world’s best player — continued his miserable World Cup form. His only goal in South Africa was in Portugal’s 7-0 rout of North Korea, and he and his team were shut out in their first game in Brazil.
For Messi, getting his name on the score sheet was an improvement from four years ago, when he left South Africa without a goal. The Argentine wizard’s only previous World Cup goal came in Germany in 2006.
If Van Persie’s relative failure in his first two World Cups — he managed just one goal in the Dutch charge to the 2010 final and only one in Germany four years earlier — was weighing on his mind, it didn’t show in Salvador on Friday, where he grabbed two goals in his team’s 5-1 demolition of world champion Spain.
“He’s so mature that I don’t really think he’s thinking about that a lot,” Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong said of Van Persie’s previous World Cup flops. “I don’t think he looks at the statistics, especially from the last couple of tournaments.”
It wasn’t just that Van Persie and Messi broke droughts, the quality of their strikes lit up the tournament.
Messi picked up the ball in the 65th minute against Bosnia at the Maracana on Sunday, exchanged a 1-2 with Gonzalo Higuain, weaved his way past defenders and curled a left-footed shot in off the base of the post.
Van Persie ran onto a 40-yard pass from Daley Blind, glanced up, saw Iker Casillas off his line and dived full length to send a looping header over the Spain goalie.
“Considering the circumstances, it must be the goal of my career,” the Manchester United striker said.
The release of tension was palpable for both players.
Van Persie sprinted along the touch line to exchange a high five with coach Louis van Gaal; Messi tugged on his shirt, ran to the edge of the pitch and pumped his fist.
“I wanted to release all the energy from other times when things didn’t go right (with the national team),” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to score with the national team.”
And Neymar isn’t the only player excelling in his first World Cup.
Karim Benzema, who wasn’t picked for France four years ago, nearly had a hat trick in his first World Cup match, scoring two and having a hand in an own goal as Les Bleus beat Honduras 3-0.
Italy’s mercurial forward Mario Balotelli marked his first World Cup game by scoring the winner for Italy against England.
“He’s a player with a huge amount of talent and it seems like he’s setting himself up to have a great World Cup,” Italian football federation president Giancarlo Abete said.
Meanwhile, Portugal’s Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney of England can’t seem to find their form, just as they struggled four years ago.
Rooney worked hard, starting out of position on the left wing, but could not make the difference for his team as England played attractive football but ultimately lost 2-1 to Italy.
“Obviously we lost the game but I was involved in the game, could have scored, created the goal and felt I had an influence,” Rooney said.
And FIFA world player of the year Ronaldo was a shadow of the man who dominates for Real Madrid.
Ronaldo had been struggling to shake off a left knee injury going into the match, but declared himself 100 percent fit. He left the stadium without speaking to reporters, leaving his coach at a loss to explain it.
“Cristiano played the whole match,” Paulo Bento said. “We are told that he is well physically.”