Day 5: Kiwis Steal A Point and Group of Death Opens Play

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The Ivory Coast-Portugal match was set up to be the best game of the day, complete with star players and intriguing storylines in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo’s tournament debut and Didier Drogba’s return from injury. Second billing was set to go to Brazil, who enter very tournament as near-favorites to win it all, as they faced off against North Korea in a classic David & Goliath match up. However, it was the early match between New Zealand and Slovakia that provided the most drama, as the Kiwis of New Zealand came from behind to tie Slovakia on a stoppage time header by Winston Reid.

Robert Vittek had given the Slovakians the lead shortly after halftime on his own header, and they continued to have the majority of the chances throughout the second half. They failed to capitalize, however, and left the door open for Reid to rise up in the final minute of stoppage time and nod home Shane Smeltz’ cross.

New Zealand will be delighted to have snatched a point at the end, especially considering it gave them their first point ever in a World Cup. Slovakia, meanwhile, must be crushed, knowing that they were moments away from taking the lead in Group F, following Italy and Paraguay tying 1-1 yesterday. Instead, it’s all knotted up in the group, and Sunday’s match between Paraguay and Slovakia will go a long way towards deciding this one.

The Ivory Coast-Portugal match ended up a bit of a disappointment, finishing in a 0-0 draw, and North Korea refused to be overlooked, snatching a late goal and making for a nervous finish in a 2-1 loss to Brazil.

Ivory Coast-Portugal was a game of fits and starts, as neither team looked sure of just how much they were willing to attack. With Brazil very likely to win the group and North Korea extremely likely to finish last, the importance of this match couldn’t be overstated in determining who would finish second, and, unfortunately for the viewers, the Portuguese and Ivoirians appeared entirely too aware of this fact. In other words, both teams would have loved to get the win, but were even more afraid to lose, so each showed flashes of their attacking prowess while never really being willing to commit to sending numbers forward and press for a goal.

The Portuguese came out strong in the first 5-10 minutes, and Cristiano Ronaldo showed a desire to put his stamp on the game from the opening whistle, showing his pace early and earning a number of free kicks (albeit one of them was on a rather egregious dive). Indeed, fouls were a theme throughout this match, partly due to the players and partly due the referee’s obliging whistle. Both teams appeared unwilling to fully commit to the attack, because they knew a loss would likely send them out of the tournament. Ronaldo struck the post with a wick shot, but then faded, especially after receiving a yellow card for a confrontation with Guy Demel.

The second half showed improved play over the first 20 minutes, as both teams appeared ready to emerge from their defensive shells. The pace of the game sped up, and the two sides finally showed a bit of what they were capable of. In particular, Gervinho was a consistent threat. However, after both teams failed to net a goal, they again settled back into a more tentative style. The game received a shot of star power and intrigue in the 75th minute when Didier Drogba, his forearm wrapped in a plaster cast, made his World Cup debut. His touches were limited, as he looked unwilling to get involved in the more physical play in the midfield, but he still came very close to scoring in the final minutes on a lovely run into the box. His effort skipped across the goal mouth, though, and despite increased pressure from the Elephants of the Ivory Coast in the last five minutes, the game finished scoreless.

Ultimately, the 0-0 final score was an appropriate, if disappointing, result for the play of both teams.

In the second Group G match, Brazil managed to hold out for a win over a surprisingly scrappy North Korean squad. Although Brazil’s skill and technical ability was on display from the opening whistle, they didn’t dominate play in the beginning by any means.

The Brazilians, however, had the look of a side that knew it was heavily favored and was willing to take its time picking apart their opponent, as they gained momentum as the match continued. The breakthrough finally came in the 55th minute and was a result of a rather ambitious effort from the defender Maicon and yet another goalkeeping mistake. Poised on the touchline, apparently about to send the ball towards the penalty spot, Maicon instead hit the ball with the outside of his foot, sneaking the ball past North Korean keeper Ri Myong Guk, who was cheating slightly outwards in hopes of stopping the anticipated cross.

In the 72nd minute, Robinho finally fulfilled the potential of his early play, giving Brazil a 2-0 win with a nice through ball from the left side of the field to a streaking Elano on the far side of the penalty area. Elano was left only to side foot the ball into the side netting past a charging Myong Guk, and Brazil appeared well on their way towards a decisive victory.

The Brazilians failed to score again, though, and were quite thankful for Elano’s strike by the end, because Ji Yun Nam shocked everyone with a powerful run into the Brazilian box and a nice finish at the end.

I’ve already talked about North Korea a lot, but I had to throw this out there. Apparently, Jong Tae-se, a North Korean soccer player who was raised in Japan by North Korean parents, won over his new teammates when he joined the team by showing them his cell-phone, which they’d never seen before. I also saw a quote today, saying that the coach of the North Koreans was claiming that Kim Jong Il provided tactical advice to the team merely by facing South Africa and sending thought waves Southward (I promise I didn’t make that up). As I told a friend recently when he informed me that Kim Jong Il is supposedly a huge American films buff, Kim, and North Korea in general, have reached a point where I would literally believe anything about them. My favorite sportswriter, Bill Simmons, like to call this “The Tyson Zone" (after Mike Tyson) when someone does so much crazy stuff that you are no longer surprised by anything you hear or read about them. Congratulations Kim Jong Il, you can now be mentioned in the same breath with Courtney Love and Dennis Rodman. I promise, that’s it for the North Korea talk.

Tomorrow, at 7:30 AM, Honduras and Chile face off in what looks to finally be a match with some real attacking. Spain, quite possibly the most talented team overall in this tournament, faces Switzerland at 10:00 AM. Then the host nation plays its second match in a crucial clash with Uruguay at 2:30 PM.

If you missed it on TV today, check out this reenactment of the USA-England game. Specifically, fast-forward to the 50 second mark for a pretty accurate look at Robert Green’s mistake.

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