Ok, a slightly different approach for the final round of group fixtures. In Spain in 1982, West Germany and Austria played out a tepid 1-0 win for the former that allowed both teams to progress to the next stage at the expense of Algeria, who had played their final fixture the day before. This has widely been deplored as one of the most shameful episodes in the tournament’s history, but I’m not sure what West Germany and Austria were expected to do about it; even a 2-0 win to the Germans would have put themselves and Austria into the next round, and it could be argued they were simply preserving their energy for the next group stage. For the World Cup in 1986, FIFA decreed that the final two games in every group should kick off simultaneously to avoid such shenanigans, although in reality it still happens. A team can go into their final fixture knowing a draw or a narrow defeat will suit them, and they simply don’t rock the boat.
In any case, as FIFA still selfishly insist on playing 50% of the games while I’m at work, and with the simultaneous kickoffs, I managed to see only four live games this week. In many ways, this would turn out to be a blessing.
Matches 33 & 34, Group A
Monday’s three o’clock kick offs saw the impressive Uruguay take on Mexico, while the unimpressive France sorely needed to beat hosts South Africa to retain any shred of self-dignity. Coach Raymond Domenech, a man not universally loved, had already had a tiff with Florent Malouda before the opening game, then at half-time France’s best striker Nicolas Anelka shared a few choice words with his coach, and was sent home. This caused a simmering discontent to boil over, with several senior players players claiming they wouldn’t play against South Africa unless Anelka was reinstated. Somewhat surprisingly, they were able to field a strong line-up against Bafana Bafana.
However, there was no spirit, and the South Africans, still clinging to a faint chance of qualification, raced into a two goal lead thanks to Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela. Les Bleus did manage to pull one back thanks to Florent Malouda, but they were unable, or simply unwilling to try and score any more.
Meanwhile, in Rustenburg, Mexico and Uruguay knew that a draw, a win for Mexico or a narrow win for Uruguay would see both sides through, and so were content to not exert themselves too much (see the first paragraph). However, perhaps Uruguay were mindful that the losers of this game would likely face Argentina in the round of 16, and Luis Suarez gave them the narrow win that suited both teams.
And when the final whistles sounded, France, who were beaten finalists four years ago, were eliminated during the group stages this time around. And to be honest, they never looked like troubling Uruguay or Mexico. Some people might say this is a rare example of karma in football, as France’s decisive goal in the play-off against Ireland resulted from Thierry Henry handling the ball before squaring for William Gallas to score, although it should be pointed out that many Georgians would have been supporting France for similar motivation.
Mexico 0, Uruguay 0 (Suarez)
France 1 (Malouda), South Africa 2 (Khumalo, Mphela)
Uruguay and Mexico progress.
Matches 35 & 36, Group B
Argentina, under the capricious stewardship of Diego Maradona were already guaranteed progression, but they’re not a team that knows how to play in any other way than all-out. They were matched up against a Greek team that had looked at the calibre of players it produces, and how they compete against the big boys, and decided that defence was the best form of attack. Greece, to paraphrase the film Mystery Men, defend well. They defend very well. But it doesn’t make them a footballing super-power. They managed to keep Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Diego Milito at bay until the 77th minute, thanks mainly to the diligent, dogged man marking job on Messi by the terrific Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
Allow me to digress for a moment; too often the terms ‘anti-football’ or ‘negative football’ are used pejoratively to describe teams that defend and attempt to score either through counter-attacks or set pieces when playing higher quality opposition. Defending is as much part of the game as attacking is, and it’s just as hard to do. If anything, it requires more concentration and discipline, and when done well, as Greece did for most of this match, it is fascinating, and sometimes exciting to watch.
Somewhat ironically, given their reputation for free-flowing football, and with Greece’s habit of scoring from set-pieces, Agrentina’s opening goal came from a corner. Ángel di María’s ball into the penalty area was met by Martín Demichelis, whose header was inadvertently blocked by his own striker, Milito. Unfortunately for Greece, the ball dropped at Demichelis’ feet, and he blasted high into the net from close range.
Argentina’s second goal might turn out to be one of the more memorable of this edition, at least to me. Having been followed all around the pitch by Papastathopoulos, and not given time of space to affect the game, Lionel Messi could have simply stopped trying. But, like all the true greats, his inarguable talent is married to a huge heart and engine. He’s also patient. It might have taken him 80 minutes to finally start dictating play, but when he did, the Greek defence had no answer. Picking the ball up on the right hand side of the pitch, he evaded several challenged before stinging Alexandros Tzorvas’ palms with a fierce shot. The goalkeeper couldn’t hold on to the ball, and it fell to substitute Martin Palermo, whose first-time finish into the far corner was simply perfect.
Palermo’s is an interesting story in itself. He apparently holds the Guiness World Record for missing three penalties in a single international game, for Argentina against Colombia in the 1999 Copa América. His international career seemed to end at that time, and he went on to suffer serious injuries, and play in Spain for a while. By age 31 he was back in Argentina to rejoin Boca Junior, where he seems to be happiest and has been playing well.
In 2009, Diego Maradona called him up for a World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay, his first international game in ten years. He then went on to score two goals against Ghana in a friendly, and most significantly an injury time winner in a game against Peru Argentina simply had to win to qualify for the finals. Maradona kept faith with his 36 year old front man, and called him up for his final squad selection, and the look of rhapsody on his face after his excellent finish was a joy to behold. There should be more moments like that at the World Cup.
In the other game, Nigeria and South Korea could both have qualified for the round of 16. Kalu Uche gave Nigeria the lead, but South Korea hit back with two goals. Yakubu Aiyegbeni should have equalised in the 67th minute, but contrived to miss an open goal from six yards. He did however have the fortitude to score a penalty a few minutes later, but a draw wasn’t enough for Nigeria.
Nigeria 2 (Uche, Aiyegbeni), South Korea 2 (Lee Jung-Soo, Park Chu-Young)
Greece 0, Argentina 2 (Demichelis, Palermo)
Argentina and South Korea progress.
Matches 37 & 38, Group C
For all the talk of the English Premier League being the ‘strongest’ in the world, England’s superstar players have never really impressed on the International stage. Having failed to qualify for Euro 2008, there seemed a real chance that England could exit this tournament at the group stages. By dint of goal differences, points and head-to-head records, England needed to beat Slovenia. And they did; by all accounts, the performance was much improved on those delivered against the US and Algeria, but perhaps still not of the calibre expected. Still, with Jermain Defoe’s goal taking them to five points, England were sitting on top of the group, and facing whoever came second in group D…
On 90 minutes, as things were, England and Slovenia were going through to the last 16. The US had to find a goal against Algeria to stay in the competition. I’ve already mentioned the Americans seem to have a bottomless reservoir of resolve and determination, and that they just keep plugging away, and so it was no surprise that in the 91st minute, when Clint Dempsey’s shot was spilled by the Algerian ‘keeper, the intelligent Landon Donovan was on hand to tuck the ball into the net. It was too late for the Algerians to respond, and the United States topped the group.
Slovenia 0, England 1 (Defoe)
United States 1 (Donovan), Algeria 0
United States and England progress.
Matches 39 & 40, Group D
The footballing rivalry between Germany and England is a curious one. Depending on which part of Germany you ask the question, who the Germans consider to be their arch-nemesis on the football pitch seems to vary between the Dutch, the Austrians, the Italians, the Argentineans, and sometimes the English. The English however, would probably cite the Germans first, followed by maybe the Argentineans, and then perhaps the Scots. With the way the groups were drawn, there was always a chance that these two sides would meet in the last 16.
Marina Hyde wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about the mutual rivalry between the two nations (or indeed the lack of); however, the prospect of playing the Germans in the next round seemed to spur any number of old hacks into an excess of salivation as they relished the thought of airing out their collection of clichéd clap trap they could spout about ‘the war’ and ‘German efficiency’ and so on. Unfortunately, the commentator for tonight’s game is Clive Tyldesley.
I’m not sure when I became aware of just how awful a commentator Tyldesley actually is, but he’s been around a while, and inexplicably, still gets work. Many Scots aver that one of the reasons they like to see the England team lose is because it subdues the hyperbolic English football media, at least for a while, and Tyldesley is the very embodiment of this complaint. Jingoistic, xenophobic, pretentious, obnoxious, small-minded, ignorant, lazy and inept are all accusation that could be justifiably levelled at ITV’s chief commentator, but still he bumbles on, shoe-horning Manchester United and England into very game he watches, regardless of context or which teams are actually playing. Tyldesley has already confessed to being biased towards England, which is perhaps understandable, but it’s his obvious bias against Germany that is the problem.
From early in the game, he can’t help making crass remarks about ‘having another Frankfurter’, and implying that Germany’s early exit from the 1938 World Cup was because the team were somehow involved in the genesis of the Second World War. We have to listen to him squealing when on the fourth or fifth replay of Philipp Lahm’s goal-line clearance, he notices that it might have hit the German defender on the upper arm. “Penalty,” he shouts. “And a red card!” He rambles on about what a shame for the game it would have been had Lahm been sent off, implying that he certainly should have. Nonsense; the ball hit Lahm on the chest, but there’s no telling Clive that, despite no Ghana players claiming a penalty, or any other news outlet reporting the ‘blatant’ handball.
Germany however got on with the game. Despite not playing particularly well, they did enough to win the game and the group, and the only goal of the game came on the hour mark when Mesut Özil sent a glorious controlled half-volley into the top corner of the Ghana goal. Defeat wasn’t a disaster for the Africans however, as they could only be eliminated by Serbia beating Australia…
However, by the 73rd minute, the Antipodeans were 2 goals to the good. Tim Cahill had given them the lead on his return from suspension, and Brett Holman had added a second with a long range groundy-rolly goal (™ Sean Lock). Serbia pulled one back late on through Marko Pantelić, but they couldn’t find the two more they needed.
Ghana 0, Germany 1 (Özil)
Australia 2 (Cahill, Holman), Serbia 1 (Pantelić)
Germany and Ghana progress.
Matches 41 & 42, Group F
Italy, the defending champions, were in very real danger of exiting the tournament when they kicked off against Slovakia at 4pm local time. Of course, that couldn’t happen; the Azzurri would have more than enough to see off the Slovaks and make it to the next round. And that’s why I’m bottom of my office’s prediction game. Slovakia won 3-2, with Italy seeming to only play in fits and starts, and even then after they’d already gone 2-0 down. Italy’s problems seem to be due to an ageing squad, and a lack of young Italians coming through at the big clubs in Serie A. They’ll have to prepare for qualification for Euro 2012 now.
With Italy throwing away their tournament life so recklessly, the All-Whites of New Zealand had a slim chance of progression. Playing in their black away kit, more synonymous with the country’s intimidating rugby team, they had to beat group winners Paraguay, and this unfortunately proved too big a task.
Slovakia 3 (Vittek 2, Kopúnek), Italy 2 (Di Natale, Quagliarella)
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0
Paraguay and Slovakia progress.
Matches 43 & 44, Group E
As the Dutch had already qualified, and the Cameroonians were already out, this was almost a dead rubber, with the only thing to play for being first place in the group. I watched this game rather than the more vital Denmark versus Japan game, as there’s just something about the way the Dutch play that I love to watch. Unfortunately, it won’t be a game that lives long in the mind; the Netherlands were happy to probe patiently and not exert themselves too much. They did make the breakthrough in the 36th minute when Robin van Persie fashioned an exchange of passes with Rafael Van der Vaart and stabbed his shot through Cameroon ‘keeper Hamidou’s legs.
Cameroon equalised in the second half when Van der Vaart was penalised for blocking a shot with his arm in the penalty area. Samuel Eto’o confidently converted, but the Dutch scored the winner in the 83rd minute when Arjen Robben’s shot rebounded off the Cameroon post and fell kindly at the feet of fellow substitute Klass-Jan Huntelaar, who expertly swept home.
In the other game, the mathematics were simple; whoever won would seal second place. Japan took the lead when Keisuke Honda’s long range free kick arced into the net, and thirteen minutes later Yasuhito Endō added a free kick that was just as good. Denmark were awarded a soft penalty, which Jon Dahl Tomasson took. His weak effort was saved, but he managed to scuff the rebound into the net, injuring himself in the process. Denmark had made all three of their allocated substitutions by this point, so he had to limp on. This was to be no comeback for the Danes however; Shinji Okazaki put the seal on Japan’s win and progression after being set up by the guile and skill of Honda.
Denmark 1 (Tomasson pen), Japan 3 (Honda, Endō, Okazaki)
Cameroon 1 (Eto’o pen), Netherlands 2 (van Persie, Huntelaar)
Netherlands and Japan progress.
Matches 45 & 46, Group G
Both of these games were something of dead rubbers; Brazil had already qualified, and North Korea were already out. Portugal were almost guaranteed second place due to their 7-0 thrashing of North Korea; The Ivory Coast would have to defeat the Koreans heavily, and hope Brazil could do them a favour and beat the Portuguese, scoring a few without reply in the process. While the Ivory Coast did as best they could, winning 3-0, Portugal and Brazil played out a 0-0 draw, meaning the Africans joined three of their four continental counterparts in exiting the tournament at the group stage. Only Ghana have made it through to the round of 16.
Portugal 0, Brazil 0
North Korea 0, Ivory Coast 3 (Y. Touré, Romaric, Kalou)
Brazil and Portugal progress.
Matches 47 & 48, Group H
I’ve mentioned before that Spain are a team I enjoy watching, so I was delighted that their final game against Chile was one I’d be able to watch live. Chile had been playing well thus far, so the match promised much. Then I found out it was being broadcast on ITV. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘as long as Tyldesley isn’t the commentator…’
People probably think I’m over-reacting; why don’t I just turn the sound down, or listen to radio commentary instead? Well, aside from the fact the radio commentary is normally provided by Alan Green, who is just as obnoxious and ignorant as Tyldesley, why should I have to lose out on hearing the atmosphere of the crowd? More to the point, why do I have to put up with a complete incompetent braying over football matches? It surely can’t be that hard to find someone lucid, informative, knowledgeable and entertaining, although given the paucity of both BBC and ITV’s line ups, I’m beginning to think it is.
“But this is subjective; you just don’t like the commentator”. No, I don’t. And it used to be subjective, but it’s not anymore. Before the game, Tyldesley pointedly and poignantly observed none of the Spanish team were singing their national anthem, as proof of how nervous or determined they were for this game. It had nothing to do with the Spanish national anthem not having words?
Unlike the Germans, Tyldesley seems quite fond of the Spanish; he expressed concern at Torres’ lack of fitness and bemusement that Cesc Farbregas can’t cement a regular starting place in the Spanish national team (perhaps it’s because when Fabregas came on, he gave the ball away more in his 35 minutes than Xavi, Iniesta and Xavi Alonso had combined for the entire match).
On the pitch, Spain were two goals up by half-time, and two wonderful goals they were too. The first came when Chile’s goalkeeper Claudio Brava came rushing out of his goal to clear from Torres. Unfortunately for him, the ball went straight to David Villa, whose first time chip with his weaker left foot sailed straight into the unguarded net. The second was technically better if anything, if not so spectacular. Andres Iniesta broke from midfield and fed Villa wide on the left. His cut back to the edge of the area was simply, and with the minimum of fuss, stroked home by the great Iniesta.
Chile, who had started the game showing some attacking verve, began to lose their discipline a little, and several players were booked. Waldo Ponce was lucky to avoid a second yellow card in the first half, and after seemingly having avoided his own second yellow, Marco Estrada was booked for the second time and set off after an incident involving Fernando Torres in the build up to Spain’s second goal. Estrada appeared to clip Torres’ heel, accidentally, and the Spain striker tripped and fell. Perhaps not a booking, but perhaps he should have been booked again a couple of minutes previously.
Chile’s Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielso is a fascinating character; instead of reorganising into a more defensive formation after being reduced to ten men, he simply retooled his attacking options, and the bold move seemed to pay dividends when substitute Rodrigo Millar’s deflected shot looped over Iker Casillas and into the net.
Meanwhile, Switzerland were drawing 0-0 with Honduras in the other game. In a game the Swiss really had to win, and score a couple of goals in, they seemed curiously cautious. Perhaps word of the score had been passed to the Spain and Chile players, because for the last fifteen minutes of the game, any urgency or directness in either team’s play evaporated.
Unfortunately, this passage of pedestrian play just allowed Tyldesley time to waffle. He pondered how Spain won Euro 2008, despite England having apparently the better players, and towards the end he embarked on a surreally unfunny imagining of what David Silva would tell his wife what he did at work today (while the substitute waited for a break in play that never came to come on). He’ll be commentating on the Germany versus England game. I won’t be watching it.
Chile 1 (Millar), Spain 2 (Villa, Iniesta)
Switzerland 0, Honduras 0
Spain and Chile progress.