Tuesday, June 22, 2010
If New Zealand snatching a draw with Slovakia was a surprise, their fully deserved point against the defending champions was nothing short of a sensation. And once again, they could consider themselves the moral victors, since Italy's penalty was painfully soft; it was foolish of Tommy Smith to grab hold of Daniele de Rossi's shirt, but the Roma midfielder's reaction was ridiculously overstated.
Throughout the game, in fact, the Italians reverted to their traditional histrionics, and were given plenty of encouragement in that respect by the abysmal Guatemalan referee. It was particularly distasteful to see Giorgio Chiellini pretending to have been mortally wounded by a trivial foul in the first half, only to slyly elbow Winston Reid in the face in the second.
And Fabio Cannavaro...how the mighty have fallen. Not only was he largely responsible for the New Zealand goal, Shane Smeltz reacting with his characteristic sharpness to the veteran's error, but he allowed Chris Wood to spin past him with astonishing ease late in the second half, to create a very good chance for the Kiwis to snatch the points. In any event, it was a fantastic achievement by Ricki Herbert's side, who are now still in with a slim chance of progressing.
As for the Italians, they simply don't have enough quality in the front third to be a serious threat in this tournament, I feel. Mauro Camoranesi, who should have been on from the beginning, offered a bit of drive in the second half, but by then the Kiwis' confidence was already at its peak. The likes of Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito are not going to win you another World Cup.
In the group's other game, Slovakia were duly punished for adopting such a negative approach. Paraguay took the initiative from the start and never lost it, scoring two good goals and always appearing in control. This has been a marvellous tournament for South American teams so far, and Paraguay have been among the best of them, a very balanced team with enough quality up front to make up for the tragic absence of Salvador Cabanas.
So much for 1966. The contours of the Portugal v. North Korea game were actually quite interesting to follow; for the first half-hour, the Portuguese appeared almost as nervous and unambitious as in their opener, and Cristiano Ronaldo was not particularly incisive. It was lucky for Carlos Queiroz that Raul Meireles was: the Porto midfielder's inventive movement and well-timed runs from deep provided the spark that Portugal needed, and the gradual relaxing of the tension in Queiroz's side became more pronounced after the second goal went in.
Meanwhile, the Korean heads went down, and by the fourth goal it had become a comprehensive rout, with the Korean backline pushing high in a futile attempt to go on the offensive. The final three goals were down to elementary defensive errors which the Koreans would surely never have committed in the qualifying campaign.
This is not to detract from Portugal, however, who played some stunning football at times and made up for the mediocrity of their opening game. They will be full of confidence in their final encounter with a Brazil team now missing its key player.
And there lies another tale of abominable play-acting. Kader Keita deserves a fine and a lengthy suspension after those despicable theatrics that got Kaka dismissed; it was a lamentable comment on the refereeing that after a game in which the Ivorians had indulged in some increasingly violent play, it was a Brazilian who saw red.
Perhaps its was a case of what goes around comes around, given Rivaldo's infamous piece of chicanery at the 2002 tournament. Kaka, delicta maiorum immeritus lues.
Otherwise, Brazil played some lovely football against the Ivory Coast, their midfield stepping up a gear from the psychologically difficult game against the North Koreans. Sven-Goran Eriksson's decision to leave out Gervinho, easily the Ivorians' best player against Portugal, was quite inexplicable; as a result, the Africans started with three forwards but no real creator, and their play was consequently predictable, and countered without too much trouble by Brazil's experienced defence. Once Gervinho arrived, he made a significant difference, even managing to give the Ivorians their goal with an amazing box-to-box run.
The Portugal v. Brazil game is set up beautifully. Ronaldo is yet to hit anything like his top form, but his joyful back-of-the-head juggling in the lead-up to Portugal's sixth goal against the Koreans indicated that he, and his team, are beginning to enjoy themselves...always a good sign. Michel Bastos is a potential weak link on the left side of the Brazil defence, and I feel that Carlos Queiroz would be well-advised to favour that flank in attack.