People have been exaggerating Brazil's flair for a long time. Brazil has always owed its success as much to dogged defense as to samba soccer. Except for Ronaldo's inexplicable funk, I don't see much wrong with how Brazil has ground out their advancement. I do think it sets up some very exciting confrontations down the line against other teams that have proven just as deep, but younger and more dynamic. I personally expect the champion to be one of:
I thought long and hard about excluding Germany from that list. Their home field advantage will be very important, but I think they're just way too vulnerable in the middle of defense.
I should note, however, that Holland and Argentina both had their midfield thoroughly outplayed by a lesser rated Ivorean side, and I think they're very vulnerable. A team with a strong midfield and a disciplined back line could really expose the two present darlings of the tournament.
Tunisia deserved their misfortune against Spain. When will teams learn that retreating into the bunker after scoring an early goal almost never works? Didn't help that their goalkeeper had real trouble figuring out where on the pitch he was.
Togo on the other hand, deserved much better from their energetic play, and if they'd been awarded the penalty they deserved it would have been a different story completely.
The sight of the giant Korean flag being waved back and forth in unison during their national anthem was quite impressive. I think Koreans are still proving, away from home, that they are going to give Brazilians a run for best fans in the world. Les bleues don't seem to have an answer for any team that brings them a fight. Henry poached one and squandered two, but if it's all to be on his back, then the French might as well plan Zizou's retirement party for this coming weekend. Where was Wiltord, or any of the talented midfield to lend firepower against the pugnacious Koreans? Wiltord, Mr. trois-fois-champion-parmi-les-cinq-fois-champions (Arsenal+Lyon+Lyon) was a bit of a let-down alongside his old running mate Henry. And Vieira was looking as befuddled as he did coming back to Highbury to face his old club in the Champion's League.
Japan/Croatia was more competitive than I'd expected. The Japanese players seemed to have serious problems with their touch, which surprises me for such a disciplined team. Nagasawa has the miss of the tournament so far, although a minute later Klasnić scuffed a shot in a situation he would have taken full advantage of wearing a Werder Bremen strip. Every time Kranjčar woke from a narcoleptic fit, he'd own the midfield for a spell, and then promptly go back to sleep again. Maybe ten minutes from playing the penalty-saving hero, Kawaguchi almost offered the World Cup its very own Enckelman moment. Peter Enckelman was an Aston Villa goalkeeper, who was always known for the occasional gaffe, but surpassed himself when a teammate threw a ball in to him, and he let it roll under his foot into the net. Worse yet, the game was the Birmingham derby, one of the most bitter rivalries in England. Birmingham City fans were in such a raucous state at their arch-rival's misfortune that one of them jumped onto the field to taunt the hapless Enckelman up close. Not the EPL's finest hour. I found footage of the gaffe on YouTube. In Kawaguchi's case the ball jumped over his foot, assisted by a divot, but luckily rolled wide of the net.
It was good to see the U.S. show some spirit against Italy. Concerning one bit of controversy, both of Pope's yellow cards were deserved. The first one was a professional foul against Gilardino just before the first Italian goal. Pope was the last defender, and it's a lucky thing the referee saw that the Italian route-one pass did not present a clear goal-scoring opportunity, so he didn't get a red. It was fun to hear the U.S. crowd contingent yelling clear as day "Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!" As a Copia commenter mentioned, ESPN has been doing a better job of mixing the Atmosphere into the audio.
On Gilardino's goal, Pope pulled up waving for a taxi while Gilardino waltzed to goal. It seems a defender at this level does not know better than to follow his mark into the six unless he hears a whistle? Preposterous! Pope has been nothing but a liability in this tournament. Onyewu hasn't played well, either, but he's just a pup. The very experienced Pope has no excuse.
The red card for de Rossi' was richly deserved. He did not need to swing his arm as he did in order to gain leverage for the jump. It was a violent act. Mastroeni's red, however, seemed to be a case of the referee trying to even things up. He did lunge with two sets of studs into Pirlo's ankle, and I would normally expect the harsh punishment, but such dangerous two-footed tackles have been flying all over in this tournament without such sanction (the referees choose instead to bandy cards for mild shoulder charges). The inconsistency is maddening. On Eddie Pope's second yellow card, however, the announcers seemed more eager to castigate the referee than to admit that Pope invited the card. A defender already carrying a yellow card, should know better than to slide into the back his opponent. Could the referee have called him aside for a warning? Sure. It would have been a reasonable thing for him to do. There is no doubt, however, that unlike in the Mastroeni case, it was perfectly consistent for the ref to give Pope his marching orders. Just ask Avery John.
When DeMarcus Beasley came on, what was Arena thinking by taking off Dempsey, who had been one of the bright spots for the U.S.?
I don't think Chris Coleman would have been as patient as Arena with McBride, who was rather wasteful in front of goal.
The ESPN analysts seem to be desperately clinging to hopes for the U.S. I don't see it. I don't see them prevailing against Ghana unless Arena drastically changes his tactics. Ghana is too quick and strong. I think Italy and Ghana are winning this group. It will be fun to watch both remaining games in the group, though. Will the Italians suffer more from soreness due to their physical battle with the U.S., or will the Czechs collapse, shell-shocked from being outplayed by the World Cup noobs? Both teams have the experience to overcome their setbacks, and it will be something to see who does.
I was desperately disappointed in Ghana despite their defeat of the Czech Republic. I may be the only person on Earth saying that, but then again, I was probably the only non-Ghanaian on Earth who expected them to beat the Czechs. Ghana should have won that game by at least 4-0, and they might come to regret the squandered opportunities in such a tight group, when the goal difference tie breaker is brought to play. It was a case of very poor discipline not to go for the kill on an obviously beaten Czech side. They seemed to think it was amusing that Pimpong made the idiotic decision to pass to an obviously off-side Muntari rather than place the ball to either side of the magnificent Peter Cech.
Asamoah Gyan's goal on one minute was no real surprise to me as soon as I could tell that the Ghanaians were going to run right at the Czechs rather than huddle back in their shelter as the U.S. did. I've been calling the Czech back line sluggish all the while, and they proved it throughout the game. The second goal should be watched by all African teams as an example of how to patiently pick apart a defense that's back on its heels. Muntari's finishing blast was almost a footnote. Sure the Czechs were man down at that point, but they showed none of their class in chasing the Ghanaians down during that sequence.
But what was with Pantsil holding up the Israeli flag in the post-game celebration? I knew a few of the Ghanaian players play in Israel, but I got the full scoop from Haaretz's coverage. Defender Mohamed is set to move from the Persian Gulf to Maccabi Netanya. I suspect there will be some extra goodwill now to bring off more such moves. It is nice for African players to have in Israel another good stage for their professional growth. Turkey is the usual locus, and either choice beats obscurity in the Gulf. Pantsil's celebration was certainly a neat moment. No West African quality warms my heart more than exuberant unpredictability, and no quality of football warms my heart more than the global connections it forges.
Argentina versus Serbia/Montenegro to me said as much about the latter team as it did about the former. The Eastern Europeans were the most disgracefully static and uncommitted team I've ever seen in a World Cup. The Argentinians might as well have been dribbling around practice cones. They had clearly fallen apart psychologically even before the first kick of the ball. I predict it will be a long recovery before we see either Serbia or Montenegro in any future World Cup finals.
It turns out that the two groups of death were more like groups of three deaths and one wet noodle (Serbia/Montenegro and the U.S., respectively.)
It's a shame Côte d'Ivoire ended up in the group they did. They played magnificently in the losing effort, and the tournament is a bit diminished for their departure. As I said after the first set of games, The Black Stars are looking like the surprise torch-bearer for Africa. Angola's man-down stand against Mexico did some credit to the team that upended Nigeria for the Germany trip, but man does it make me wish even more that I could have seen Nigeria in their place.
Paraguay put up the barricades and meekly waited for the siege. It took 90 minutes, but good for Sweden for sending them packing in the 90th, courtesy Ljungberg's head.
England followed up a 1-0 snoozer with a 2-0 snoozer. They're into the round of 16, but I can't see them venturing far beyond that.
How about that Ecuador? It's not just that Tenorio and Delgado seem to have that Andy Cole/Dwight Yorke connection. Their midfield also plays marvelous, quick touch football. And they bring great energy to the game. I do so hope they make it a good ways. They're the most fun team to watch in the tournament so far.
Arsenal players are just killing it in this tournament. Rosický, Ljungberg, van Persie, Senderos, Fabregas, Touré and Eboué. And it looks as if we might just see Theo Walcott. The confidence and experience should do wonders for The Arsenal. Here's to the Barclay's cup (and more) at Ashburton Grove in 2007.