Saturday, June 26, 2010
Many years from now, Japanese fans may look upon yesterday's 3-1 win over Denmark as a real turning point for their national side. They have beaten European opposition before, of course, even in the World Cup. But this one was away from home, in a crunch game, against a team with a history of making it past the group stage at the tournament. And the manner in which they achieved their victory was even more impressive than the result.
Denmark came out with all guns blazing, but the Japanese calmly repelled the early onslaught, scored two sumptuous free-kick goals, and soaked up the pressure maturely from that point on. It was a world away from the panicky performances of Asian sides at the tournament in the past.
Tulio Tanaka and especially Yuji Nakazawa were superb in defence, showing once and for all that the top Asian sides can no longer be intimidated in the air. Keisuke Honda's was one of the best individual performances of the World Cup so far; the CSKA Moscow youngster showed poise, adroitness and football intelligence in spades. His dazzling little run to set up the final goal for Shinji Okazaki was a moment of real class, worthy of the best South American playmakers.
Denmark ended up relying too heavily on the heroes of 2002, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst's wry comment that the Danes were playing like the Dutch in South Africa while the Dutch were playing like the Germans is not far off the mark. The Dutch have played colourless, low-risk but highly effective football, while the Danes have shown plenty of willingness to attack, but little co-ordination. The fading of Jon Dahl Tomasson has been one of the tournament's more poignant sidelights; had he been at his best, Denmark would surely have made Japan work much harder for the three points. At least he managed to get on the scoresheet, albeit in utterly unconvincing fashion.
One of the recurring themes of the first round of this tournament, in fact, has been the failure of teams under the aegis of long-time coaches who have stuck loyally to the same personnel for some time. Raymond Domenech, Otto Rehhagel, Morten Olsen...and the list goes on.
The Dutch marched on, with another workmanlike performance against a disappointing Cameroon. The further Bert van Marwijk's team go in this tournament (and they have the capacity to go very far indeed), the more cliches about "total football" one is likely to read in the football press. Truth be told, the current crop (an appropriate word, that, given their hairstyles) of Dutch internationals has little in common with the long-haired revolutionaries of 1974 beyond nationality. This is a highly disciplined side in which the team ethic is paramount, and it says a lot about van Marwijk's approach that the exciting Eljero Elia has been used so sparingly, and that the one-paced Khalid Boulahrouz was preferred to the more adventurous Gregory van der Wiel against Cameroon.
Pim Verbeek could perhaps learn something about the mechanics of his favoured 4-2-3-1 from Holland's performances; although the double midfield screen of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong was there, van Bommel acted as a link-man, occasionally getting forward to join Wesley Sneijder and his colleagues in the three-quarter line. On the subject of Sneijder, he has had a very, very good tournament so far, continuing his excellent form from the latter stages of the Champions League. Holland's winning goal, featuring a menacing cameo from a slowly-returning-to-fitness Arjen Robben, should serve as a warning of more to come for their future opponents.
For Cameroon, it was a disappointing tournament, and Australian fans must be concerned about the possible appointment of Paul le Guen to the Socceroos' job, given his failure to settle on an effective system for Africa's most experienced World Cup nation. There was some consolation towards the close in the form of the lively, lanky young Vincent Aboubakar, definitely a player for the future.
The "Group of Death" ultimately played itself out in highly conventional fashion, with the two favourites settling for a draw in a game which was essentially a mutual tactical exercise. Portugal made no attempt to target Brazil's suspect left flank until the late arrival of Simao, while Brazil were able to give Nilmar a try in the three-quarter role in the enforced absence of Kaka. It would have been comforting for Dunga to note that Maicon and Dani Alves could indeed work in tandem on the right, with the latter tucking inside while Maicon raided down the touchline. A stalemate always looked the most likely outcome, however, one which suited both sides admirably.
The Ivorians never looked like they had any belief that they could rein in the Portuguese on goal difference after the 7-0 thumping of North Korea, and it's hard to blame them. Still, after they went two up early on, they might have pressed on in the hope of another psychological choke from the North Koreans. But they continued playing at a measured pace, and the Koreans in fact created a couple of chances of their own in the second period. The Africans received some fresh impetus when Aruna Dindane and Salomon Kalou came on, but one more was all they could manage. The Ivorians have truly been unlucky to have had their golden generation placed in the two toughest groups of the last two World Cups, and Brazil 2014 will probably be one step too far for the likes of Drogba, the Toure brothers, Dindane and a few others.
Since I passed this group by in the second round, a look back first of all.
Chile v. Switzerland was a very strange game. First there was the sendoff of Valon Behrami, a highly debatable decision probably influenced by some more play-acting, which is becoming sadly widespread at this tournament. Chile had already committed themselves to attack, and it looked likely that an avalanche of goals would follow. But the Swiss held out as they had against Spain, and for all Chile's excellent approach play, the dynamism of Alexis Sanchez, the thoughtful promptings of Matias Fernandez, they ultimately created little in the final third.
In the second half, the tide almost appeared to be turning in Switzerland's favour when the Chileans suddenly scored. Esteban Paredes may well have been offside in the lead-up, and after their stern defensive efforts it seemed a little harsh on the Swiss. Then came a bizarre final ten minutes, in which Switzerland pushed up to the half-way line and Paredes missed two easy chances on the break; Chile might regret these misses if qualification comes down to goal difference, as it may well do. Neither miss, however, was as glaring as the sitter squandered by Eren Derdiyok at the other end in the final minute of normal time.
Spain were a little laboured in the opening period of their game against a defensive Honduras, but once their trump card David Villa had put them two up early in the second half, they loosened up and began to play some beautiful football. Villa was unquestionably the star of the evening despite his missed penalty, cutting in from the left to great effect and consistently taking up the most effective positions. Jesus Navas was not an unqualified success on the right, often telegraphing his crosses and allowing them to be intercepted, and of course Fernando Torres' general play was considerably below par for such a gifted player.
Even in the final game against Chile he didn't impress. This encounter started vibrantly, with both sides striving to gain the upper hand by dint of sheer attacking intent. In a reversal of their game against Switzerland, this time it was the Chileans who just appeared to be getting on top when Spain scored; perhaps the only goal they will score on the break in this tournament, as they are unlikely to come across any other side as openly attack-minded as Chile. Villa's finish was again superb; the odds on his finishing top marksman in South Africa must be shortening.
The second goal was very well-crafted, and with the sendoff of Marco Estrada the result was never going to be in doubt. Estrada could be considered a little unlucky, since his contact with Torres was minimal (nonexistent?), but in fairness he should probably have received a second yellow already for a cynical foul a few minutes earlier. It was the second time in the tournament that the Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez has produced a red card for the right team at the wrong time. Chile did well to pull a goal back by throwing the kitchen sink at Spain just after the break, but the momentum was never going to last.
Brazil will pose a formidable hurdle for Marcelo Bielsa's talented side in the second round, especially since they will be without two excellent defenders in Waldo Ponce and Gary Medel, as well as Estrada. Still, at least Matias Fernandez will be back, and Alexis Sanchez - the player of the finals so far, in my opinion - should experience some joy against the defensively uncertain Michel Bastos on Brazil's left flank.
The right two teams definitely went through from Group H, so much was abundantly clear from the hit-and-miss encounter between Switzerland and Honduras. The Swiss simply didn't have enough quality up front to make much impression on a negative but fairly solid team, and the Hondurans were extraordinarily casual on the break, particularly in the second half when they failed to make the most of a number of 2 v. 1 situations. A disappointing tournament, then, for Honduras; David Suazo is still an able frontman, as Australia learned at the 2000 Olympics, and there were other commendable performers for Honduras, including Emilio Izaguirre and Walter Martinez. Had they been in a more lightweight group, they may have caused a surprise or two.