End of the World Cup group stage
We have seen the Germans mark off Group A with 100% wins against an Ecuador side reduced by five the number of first team players. Costa Rica finish off with 100% defeats as Poland eventually register a win. England threw away a potential win to gain the minimum to leave Group B as leaders to Sweden's 2nd, Trinidad & Tobago lose the slim chance of qualification by losing to Paraguay. Holland and Argentina play a respectable yet dull no-score draw that disrespects neither side as they both qualify from Group C, the Ivory Coast gaining that much needed boost of a first World Cup win in their first World Cup, against Serbia & Montenegro. Mexico were under threat from Angola's lead against Iran, but eventually made it playing with 10 men against Portugal, as another African side bows out of the competition, not without admiration. Yesterday concluded Groups E and F. In Group E, as Italy topped the group, even they were not certain of qualification and it was Italy I stated would struggle into the quarter-finals, as their side looked unsettled from the outset. Nonetheless they emerged with a victory over 10-man Czech Republic, as Ghana became the only African side so far to qualify into the 2nd round with a win over the USA, somewhat controversially. In Group F, Brazil conceded on their way to their biggest win in the group, while the Croatians and Australians fought out an intense thrilling encounter, one the Australians only needed to draw to go through. Today sees the conclusion of the qualifiers from Groups G and H.
Portugal sealed their qualification with a 2-1 win against Mexico. Maniche Ribeiro (Daniel Bedingfield doppelganger) struck in the opener on 6mins after linking with Simao Sabrosa. Mexico captain Rafael Marquez handled in the box, for some silly reason, to grant a penalty that was scored by Sabrosa. Five minutes later Jose Fonseca flicked a Pavel Pardo corner into a loop, bouncing down into the net for 2-1. A scramble in the Portuguese box found Luis Miguel judged to have handled the ball when challenging Luis Perez and the penalty was given. Two-goal Omar Bravo was not so bravo, his spot-kick sailing high into the crowd for what should have been a great advantage to cement qualification. Perez was challenged in the box again and went down, judged to have simulated and was booked, his second and therefore his dismissal. Many deemed it harsh, I thought it was correct. Portugal face Holland in Nuremberg on Sunday, Argentina meet Mexico in a Latin American contest tomorrow.
I am not sure but yesterday's football could be marked as the best yet so far. I switched between both final Group E games. The Czech Republic managed to gain Milan Baros' services as their goal threat but he was a lone one. The Italians lost Alessandro Nesta with injury and replaced him with Marco Materazzi. Ten minutes later the Czech displayed almost exactly the same defensive set-up as England, facing a corner. I counted SEVEN Czech players in the box at the time, five of which were on the edge of the six-yard box in a line, three Italians waiting to attack further out. As Francesco Totti delivered, Materazzi simply jogged up and leapt up to head in, unmarked, unchallenged. Then to compound their fortunes, the Czech had Jan Polak stupidly tackle Totti from behind to earned his second yellow ten minutes within his first. Marcello Lippi looked tight-lipped as Italy made more work of their one-man advantage, the Czech having Baros isolated up front but Pavel Nedved spearheading a vigorous attack. Alberto Gilardino came off for Filippo Inzaghi, which I found bizarre as Italy could afford two main strikers with a man extra on the pitch. Andreas Pirlo broke into the box and managed to chip to the unmarked Inzaghi by the penalty spot but somehow he missed with just Petr Cech to beat. But 3mins from time the Czech were playing with three at the back and once the ball was intercepted in midfield, Inzaghi was played through into a one-on-one with Cech, rounding the Chelsea keeper for 2-0.
In the Ghana v USA game, Claudio Reyna was dispossessed by Haminu Dramani near the goal and Dramani finished well round Kasey Keller in goal. The USA fought back as DaMarcus Beasley equally dispossessed Derek Boateng's pass to run on and curl over for Clinton Dempsey to fire first time for the equaliser. Dempsey looks impressive to me and one I would consider for Liverpool on the right side. The winning goal came through a controversial decision. A high ball was being watched by USA defender Oguchi Onyewu and Ghana's Razak Pimpong, Onyewu judged to have stooped over Pimpong. Pimpong hadn't actually challenged why I felt it was harsh but it was given, Stephen Appiah stepping up to convert the spot kick.
In Group F, Brazil rested some players but the overall feel to the side still had Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Dida with Robson de Souza (Robinho), Cicero Joao de Cezare (Cicinho) and Juninho Pernambucano brought in for Adriano, Cafu and Ze Roberto. Japan took a stunning lead with Alessandro Santos (Alex) collected on the right in space amongst uncharacteristic Brazil defending to feed the advancing Keiji Tamada, who was clear to fire a left foot drive into the roof of the net past Dida at near post. Had it been a Brazil goal, goodness had it been an England goal, it would be repeated between now and next year. The goal stunned Brazil into life, when we finally saw a brighter glimpse of their renowned play. Ronaldinho picked up the ball outside the box and with eyes on him, he picked out Cicinho on the right with a chip, the right-back heading across to Ronaldo to head in for the equaliser. Second half, the floodgates were opened. Juninho smacked a trademark shot from some 30-35 yards that should have been dealt with but Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi marred a great first half display by misjudging the shot and seeing it fly off his gloves into the net. Hertha Berlin's Da Silva Gilberto ran down the left and drilled a sweet low drive that had accuracy and power for 3-1, and Ronaldo then controlled a pass from Robinho to carve out an opening for a curling 2nd goal for him to not only win the match 4-1, but equal Gerd Muller's World Cup goals record of 14.
I said we have not yet seen Ronaldo at his best, forget about overweight, underweight, wobbling free, if he is in the mood to play, Ronaldo moves. Croatia's Robert Kovac called marking him "easy", that was because Ronaldo was not in the mood. Perhaps Japan's marking allowed him more freedom but Ronaldo is football. Two goals away from equalling the greatest scoring record in World Cup history, he would not be deterred from scoring.
With Croatia v Australia, things not only turned to the thrills and spills, it also turned to a Graeme Poll spectacle. A draw would suffice for Australia while Croatia needed the win. For some reason Mark Schwarzer was dropped for Zeljko Kalac and the replacement showed some glimpses of why such a change was bewildering. His first touch was to pick the ball up from the net. Mark Viduka brought down Nico Kovac near the edge of the box and Darijo Srna curled in a superb freekick cleanly with no chance for Kalac. Australia came back to attack and should have won a penalty with Josip Simunic clearly holding onto Viduka, straight out of WWE but it was not given. Australia did win a penalty in the end through the needless handball by Stjepan Tomas, the spot-kick converted by Newcastle's Craig Moore. After the break, Croatia went on to lead again. On 56mins, Kovac went left and right before shooting from 20-25 yards, but instead of getting down and comfortably gathering it as a competent World Cup keeper should, Kalac misjudged his hands and the ball cannoned off into the net. If Australia were to lose, a chunk of the blame would be directed at the keeper and Guus Hiddink for picking him. But Australia, led well by the inquisitive Harry Kewell, kept coming. Some twenty minutes later sub Marco Bresciano, influential winger on for Mile Sterjovski, counted again as he chipped over a left foot cross that eluded two challenges and bounced for Kewell round the back. The Liverpool winger controlled with his left and volleyed with his right from close range past keeper Stipe Pletikosa. Australia were some ten minutes from qualification.
Which was time enough for a change in the ordinary, to be expected from Mr Poll. He booked Dario Simic for the second time on 85mins for bringing down Kewell, he was off, nothing wrong with that decision. Brett Emerson, booked on 81mins, received another six minutes later when he stupidly stuck out his arm to prevent a Srna ball reaching Ivan Klasnic down the line, so he was off, nothing wrong with that decision either. But then within the end of normal time, Simunic brought down Kewell and was booked, his second in the game. Instead of Poll sending him off, Simunic engaged Poll in an exchange of words that distracted the official from realising the second caution. Simunic kept quiet, everyone kept quiet, I think no one realised it at all due to the drama. Then to mark the match with an amusing ending, Kovac and Tim Cahill tackled for the ball in the Croatian left corner. It looked very much a Croatian throw, initially given, but then Poll gave it to Australia, with two balls on the pitch adding to the confusion. From the throw-in, a Croatian challenge in the box looked a stalwart penalty and the whistle blew just as Cahill scored. Poll looked to have granted the spot-kick and was greeted with more dissenting words from Simunic, at which the Hertfordshire referee showed he had had enough and brandished a third yellow card at the defender, then the red. Then he immediately blew for the end of the match!! I lost my ginger nuts in my tea!
It was an enthralling game, Croatia leading, Australia battling back, Viduka is such a giant fighter upfront, Kewell is coming on much more, Bresciano is influential on the wing, Lucas Neill practically everywhere like a sweeper at the back. I said Australia could show great potential in the World Cup and last night went on to show some of that potential. I think Hiddink can do it again, lead an assumed unfashionable side far into the competition, but I suspect they need someone like John Aloisi on from the start with Viduka, Kewell on the wing with Bresciano. That maybe too many eggs in the basket but now the risks may have to be taken with the 2nd round. Most certainly Hiddink should keep with Schwarzer. Brazil face Ghana on Tuesday as the Australians are rewarded with meeting an Italian side on Monday, some of whom are currently unsure of their football futures.