The first games are in the books (in the case of Uruguay and South Africa, the first two). To be blunt, the first round has been largely disappointing, as many teams have been tentative in feeling each other out with a lack of flair, or “Joga Bonita” (play beautifully). Now that many teams will be desperate for points, one can only hope the goals start to fly in. Let’s get to the rankings.
The performance of the first round without a doubt belongs to Der Deutschland. They absolutely dismantled a solid Australian team – believe me, the Socceroos aren’t as bad as they looked. Noted for their organization on the pitch, this German team is loaded with rising young stars (Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira, Holger Badstuber) and superb veterans that have gone deep in the past two World Cups as well as Euro 2008 (Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski). Coach Joachim Low, who was Jurgen Klinsmann’s right-side man in 2006, now has team primed to finish the job they could not in 2006 with the best tactical discipline I saw of any team in its first game.
I was largely impressed with how Diego Maradona’s boys played in their opening match against a dangerous Nigerian team. In qualification Argentina looked in complete disarray as the legendary former player turned coach used 78 players and they had to win the last two games to qualify for the World Cup by the skin of their teeth. However, the inspiration of the arrival at the World Cup seemed to awaken the sleeping South American giants. Lionel Messi looked terrific despite not scoring, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain made good runs, and despite needing a sensational headed goal from defender Gabriel Heinze to earn all three points, Argentina had the cutting edge with great movement and delivery of passes that will be finished as this team gets more and more used to its surroundings.
I and many like me were searching for the Samba boys’ first match to rescue a rather boring set of first round games, but it took until the second half when defender Maicon finally unlocked the North Korean defense with a beautifully, narrow-angled shot. Brazil added a second thanks to a gorgeous ball from Robinho (one of my favorites to win the Golden Boot) to Elano. However, Brazil fell asleep late in the game allowing Ji Yun-Nam to pull one goal back. I am of the opinion Brazilian coach Dunga made several mistakes in selecting his team – namely leaving off Ronaldinho and Pato, two AC Milan stars. His reasoning was that he wanted to create a structured team, but if they continue to make late-game lapses like that against the best team in the world they will make an early exit.
The Dutch were good not great against a team that is very familiar with their style of play – neighbors Denmark. Tactically it seemed as if coach Bert van Marwijk was trying to find the set of players and formation that would work without injured winger Arjen Robben as he tried to force Rafael van der Vaart into the left midfielding role alongside Wesley Sneijder. It did not come off well, but the orange and black got a lucky break to open the second half when Simon Poulsen’s attempted header in his six-yard box hit off the back of Daniel Agger’s and went in before the substitute Elia came on to make a nice contribution on an assist to Dirk Kuyt. All in all a performance the Netherlands can build off going forward with three points in hand.
Where was Cesc Fabregas? Why was Fernando Torres fit enough to play 30 minutes and not the whole 90 when he was cleared to play the day before? The Spaniards were punished for trying to get too cute by Switzerland, who got their goal and were content to play with numbers back the rest of the way. Don’t get your panties too much in a bunch though Spanish fans, your team was still far the better side, and maybe this will provide a big wake-up call. Then again that’s two straight monumental upsets down in South Africa dating back to last year’s loss to the U.S. in the semifinals, and no team that has lost their first match has gone on to win the World Cup. My pick of the Red Fury is looking worse and worse.
6. SOUTH KOREA
One surprise for me was the control South Korea displayed against a really poor Greece side. The 2002 hosts opened the scoring in the seventh minute before captain courageous Park Ji-Sung capitalized on a horrible defensive mistake intercepting a badly play ball before weaving in out of two more defenders for a splendid strike. If the team from the Far East continues to play like this they could challenge Argentina for the group and will easily advance to the knockout stage.
The biggest upset I can remember in my lifetime in the first game of group stage play. Never can I recall such a highly touted World Cup favorite going down in the first game. The fortunate goal by Gelson Fernandes was as delicious as sweet Swiss chocolate, and from there on Switzerland were content to sit back with numbers foiling attempt after attempt. On a couple of occasions on the counter, the Swiss nearly found a second, including Eren Derdiyok’s brilliant movement through two Spanish defenders before striking the post. Switzerland still has one more tough game versus Chile, so nothing is guaranteed about moving on to the knockout phase.
Ladies and gentleman, your only winning African team, and it was a huge win. Many people would like to call Group D the real “group of death,” as they believe it has the most quality from top to bottom. Ghana took three critical points when Asamoah Gyan – remember the rising star’s name– struck a penalty cleanly for the game-winner in the 84th minute. I wrote off the Black Stars because I did not believe they had enough quality without Michael Essien, but it would appear Ghana should be able to work three more points off Australia and sneak into the knockout round for a second straight tournament.
Maybe England were unlucky to tie the United States Robert Green’s Buckner-like howler in net. Then again maybe they were lucky to walk out with a draw as Jozy Altidore’s shot that was deflected by Green off the post could have just as easily gone in for the game-winner. Certainly England was the better overall team, and barring an epic disaster should still win the group and advance into a great draw for the knockouts.
10. UNITED STATES
Yes, the U.S. was this good, better than Italy and better than the Ivory Coast. The reason why was Tim Howard, and I can’t sing his praises enough. With Buffon out he might be the most in-form keeper in the tournament, even ahead of Spain’s Iker Casillas, who had some issues late in the La Liga season. I like the MNT’s ability to score goals going forward in this tournament, and they should take care of business against Slovenia and Algeria.
One of the few teams to consistently attack throughout the course of their first game, the Chileans were rewarded by their courageous forays forward in the 34th minute when Mauricio Isla’s inviting cross deflected off a defender then Jean Beausejour and in. However, Chile will have to be even better than a 1-0 win over lowly Honduras after the Swiss got a shock win over Spain in the same group, and one would figure the Spanish would be out for blood in their final two games.
12. IVORY COAST
Ugh, one of the biggest disappointments for me so far, and hopefully they won’t have a repeat showing of the African Nations Cup that saw them bounced far earlier than anticipated by lowly Algeria in the quarterfinals. The nil-nil or scoreless draw with Portugal was quite frustrating as the Elephants enjoyed the majority of possession, but the final ball around the box always seemed to miss its target. Didier Drogba came on in the second half, played 30 minutes, and had one goal-scoring opportunity that he seemed a little hesitant to take full on because of the arm, but just the fact he played hopefully will be a good sign for future matches. Cote d’Ivoire play Brazil next, and another point would probably be enough to put them through.
Diego Forlan is the man. His two strikes versus South Africa today have put the Uruguayans on the verge of being the first team to qualify for the knockout round after a tie against France in the first match. The game with Mexico could very likely be for the Group A title.
Daniel De Rossi saved a point for the Italians in the second half goal when Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar made one of the many goalie mental mistakes of this tournament by coming out and whiffing on an attempted punch on a corner. The Azzuri controlled possession without question, but lacked any creative imagination without their playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who is out with a calf problem. The news also got worse for the Italians as world class keeper Gianluigi Buffon had to be subbed off with what turned out to be a herniated disc in his back (first reported as a hamstring) now threatening his tournament.
The second biggest upset thus far, the Rising Sun sniped a goal from Keisuke Honda after a beautiful cross to the back post by Daisuke Matsui. I did not watch the match, but from what I’ve read and saw on highlights, neither team looked largely impressive. However, the win and crucial three points puts Japan in early pole position for second place behind the Netherlands in Group E.
As I have said, there have been many keeping flaps thus far in the tournament, and in my opinion Algeria’s Fawzi Chaouchi made the biggest as his caused his country to lose its opening game. A simple long range effort from Robert Koren seemed to take off a bit once it struck ground and Chaouchi was not able to get his body in front of it, which turned out to be the only goal of the match. But Algeria is one of the weakest teams in the field of 32, so although Slovenia took care of business, their lethargic performance does not sway much favor in a rankings table.
Part of the group of parity, Group A, I thought the Mexicans (as much as it pains me to say) were the best team amongst all four in their group despite defender Rafa Marquez having to rescue a point for the team in the 79th minute vs. South Africa. Mexico had the better of play in the first half, and the second half was fairly even in terms of chances despite the Mexicans dominance in possession (65% to 35%). Giovani Dos Santos looked sharp and created many good opportunities for his team, and I still expect Mexico to win this group.
Without Nani, Portugal was a one-player team, which is why I listed them as Ronaldo. I fully expect Portugal to be knocked out of the “group of Death” after watching their first game. They played uninspired and seemed surprisingly content with a 0-0. My pick as the best player in the world, Ronaldo nearly stole a goal in the first half as his brilliant cut-back onto his favored right foot result in a strike off post from 35 yards out. Still, Ivory Coast had the run of play, and Portugal was fortunate the African side just never found the killer ball.
My pick to win Group F even ahead of Italy, the Paraguayans should have pulled off the shock upset striking first on a clean header by Antolin Alcaraz only to be spoiled by one of the many goalkeeping gaffs that have been a big trend of the first round. Italy controlled possession but were not dangerous in this game, but I still expect Paraguay to come out of this ridiculously weak group as Slovakia and New Zealand only managed draws as well in the other game.
If Germany is the symbol of organization and tactical efficiency than France is the antithesis of it behind the worst coach of a major power – Raymond Domenech. The marauding coach completely blew two picks for his 23-man roster by refusing to select Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, two creative geniuses. To make matters worse, Domenech did not even start the captain and French all-time leading scorer Thierry Henry in the first match, instead bringing him off the bench. The legendary Zidendine Zidane summed it up best in saying there is no teamwork amongst this group of players.
21. SOUTH AFRICA
Bafana Bafana, as the result of their loss to Uruguay today 3-0, are now also on the verge of being the first team eliminated. A host nation has never failed to advance to second round, but the odds don’t look good for South Africa with only a game to play versus France. Even if this team fails to move on, they should be given a round of applause for being the first African nation ever to host a World Cup and do so without many issues. They should also be remembered for Siphiwe Tshabalala’s tremendous opening goal, which to me is still the best of the tournament thus far (sorry, Forlan).
22. NORTH KOREA
One of the most mysterious teams entering the tournament due to the fact most of the players play at home in the uber secretive North Korea, the supreme leader Kim Jung Il should have been happy with his country’s effort against the winningest team in World Cup history – Brazil. A stifling effort in the first half and a smart finish by Ji Yun-Nam in the 89th minute put the Brazilians on their heels. Ivory Coast and Portugal now must not overlook this team if either wants to finish second behind Brazil.
We’ll keep it simple, a disappointing effort from a team people thought of as dark-horses to go deep with their tremendous defense. Lukovic was sent off in the 74th minute for a second yellow card. Kuzmanovic gave up the penalty on a criminal handball. Overall it was a very poor effort from the Serbs, who now find themselves very much behind the eight-ball with Germany still to play.
The Nigerians gave up an early goal to Argentina’s Gabriel Heinze off a corner then hung on for dear life. Messi and company peppered Vincent Enyeama’s net with 20 shots, seven of which were on goal. Several of the Nigerian subs provided dangerous opportunities that weren’t there in the first half, including Obafemi Martins, who should have started – but overall Nigeria really missed Chelsea man John Obi-Mikel, who is out of the World Cup due to a knee injury.
Let’s put it this way: Denmark enjoyed 34 percent of play and allowed the Dutch 88.6 passing accuracy – second highest of the tournament behind my No. 1 side Germany. They defended most of the game and looked harmless on the counter even though they did score one goal on the match – on themselves, as Simon Poulsen’s header hit off the back of Daniel Agger and in.
The Indomitable Lions looked more like the cute cuddly kittens. Cameroon have only won one match in 2010, a 3-2 win over Zambia in the African Nations Cup. My favorite African jersey – Cameroon – need Samuel Eto’o to come up with something special if they will make anything of this tournament.
Playing against a team of players that are really semi-professional, Slovakia gave up a goal to New Zealand in extra time – the first ever for the Kiwis. I honestly thought New Zealand would not earn any points and potentially not even score, but the Slovaks gifted them both. Now they must face the best two teams in the group. How do you say “good bye” in Slovakia’s language?
28. NEW ZEALAND
See above. Congrats on scoring your first goal boys, now you get to face the top two teams of the group – Italy then Paraguay. Enjoy your stay in South Africa.
The passing accuracy of Germany told the whole story – 91.7 percent – and much of that occurred in the Australian defensive third as four goals found the back of net for the Germans on four assists. To add insult to injury for the Socceroos, their best attacking option Tim Cahill was red carded in the 56th minute for a challenge on Scwheinsteigher – a rash decision that really should have been no more than a yellow.
A terrible effort from Greece, who looked sloppy, disorganized, and uninspired. At the very least the Greeks needed a point from the match with Argentina waiting in the wings, now it will a Herculean effort to make amends and move on.
One of the last teams to qualify in the tournament as a goal from U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein against Costa Rica in a draw coupled with Honduras’ win over El Salvador allowed them to qualify on the last match-day. While it’s nice for them to be here, don’t expect much.
Yes, Algeria made it to the African Nations Cup final back in January, but this team looks poised not to score any goals in the World Cup. Another squad that needed a better result in their first match they were let down when keeper Faouzi Chaouchi gave up a horrific. He failed to smother Slovenia’s Koren’s shot and that was it.