Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The First Four

Congratulations to Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina and South Korea.

Group A

Javier Aguirre may live to regret his sentimental decision to start the venerable Cuauhtemoc Blanco, rather than the younger and far more mobile Javier Hernandez, against Uruguay. The tempo of Mexico's play was thereby dampened, and Uruguay looked the sharper of the two sides in an interesting first half; the goal which decided the game was a disarmingly simple one, but not perhaps unexpected given the Mexicans' slight vulnerability at the back. Needing only a point to top the group, Uruguay allowed their opponents the run of the country in the second half, but it was back to the Mexico of old: lots of sumptuous interplay, lots of creativity in midfield, zero end product. Apart from Andres Guardado's fine shot on the turn in the first half and that header from Francisco Rodriguez that nearly crept in just after the hour, Mexico were disappointingly impotent in front of goal.

And so the Mexicans face Argentina, while Uruguay meet the South Koreans. Mexico will surely cause Diego Maradona's team some problems, as they did at the same stage four years ago, but I don't expect an upset. Argentina have long been Mexico's bogey team, and this Argentina squad is stronger than most.

You had to pull a wry grin on seeing France's starting eleven against South Africa. It had absolutely nothing to do with the tactical or practical demands of the game, and everything to do with the very public chaos within the French squad. Only those still on speaking terms with Raymond Domenech in the frame. No surprise, then, that this team put on a miserably dispirited performance against the hosts, who hardly played out of their skins. The harsh dismissal of Yoann Gourcuff didn't help, of course, but the French had looked a beaten side well before that. Farewell, then, to Domenech, whom the FFF are surely wishing they had removed after the debacle of Euro 2008. His final gesture of the tournament, the petulant refusal to shake Carlos Alberto Parreira's hand, says a great deal about the man and why French football will welcome his departure.

As for the hosts, it was heartening to see them exit the tournament with a creditable win. In terms of individual talent, they are still a fair way behind the West Africans, but Siphiwe Tshabalala may have earned himself a crack at Europe on the back of his performances in the World Cup.

Group B

I'm not sure about Diego Maradona's decision to ring the changes against Greece. There has been a tendency for teams to lose their momentum by fielding an alternate side after securing qualification in their opening two matches of tournaments...Euro 2008 was particularly instructive in this regard.

In any event, Maradona will be able to draw some conclusions from the game. Juan Sebastian Veron was one-paced and unimaginative in midfield again, and we are unlikely to see the Estudiantes veteran for the rest of the event, in my view. Gonzalo Higuain probably is a better fit for the Albiceleste's fluid system than Diego Milito, who found it hard to get into the action against the Greeks. And a comparison between the efforts of Gabriel Heinze and Clemente Rodriguez would favour the latter considerably.

It's worth remembering that the Greeks would have gone through had they kept the game scoreless. They certainly made every effort to do so, parking the double-decker against Messi et al. and holding them at bay for some time, although it took three inspired saves from Alexandros Tzorvas to keep Argentina from finding the net in the first half. Ultimately, though, quality and willingness to attack won out, to the delight of most neutrals. It was surely worrying for Maradona, however, that even though Greece were essentially playing with ten men in defence and Giorgios Samaras upfield, the Celtic frontman almost broke through the defence a few times.

Nigeria v. South Korea turned into an absolutely cracking game, very much a cup-tie in disguise, as the commentator Gary Bloom noted. It looked as if the Koreans might get physically overrun in the final ten minutes, but they kept their heads impressively and limited the Nigerians to only a few chances at the close. The Africans, in fact, missed their real opportunities much earlier.

I'm not one given to superlatives (of either the positive or the negative kind), but Yakubu Aiyegbeni's astonishing open-goal blunder must go down as one of the most egregious misses in the history of the competition, right up there with Julio Cardenosa against Brazil in 1978. Obafemi Martins also missed a very good chance some minutes later, but it was hardly as glaring an error as Yakubu's.

Nigeria were a little unlucky at this tournament. Some changes in personnel might have helped; it was a shame that we saw so little of Victor Obinna, who cut such an impressive figure at the Beijing Olympics. When he did come on this morning, two right-footed wallops near the end of normal time came very close to giving Nigeria the points and a place in the last 16.

As for South Korea, they have flattered to deceive somewhat, but they deserve their place in the second phase. Unlike most of the teams, they played their opening game in a positive manner, and it was good to see that they continued coming forward against Nigeria even after going 2-1 up in the second half. Uruguay, however, must be considered favourites in what will be an intriguing second round tie.

Hi Mike,
Enjoyed your blog posts about the football particularly from the Aussie perspective. The tournament is heating up nicely after a dodgy start though I'm an England fan and we're used to it. Will keep checking in for further stuff on all things world cup.
Helen @
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