Monday delivered the biggest upset thus far of the tournament, when Japan managed to knock-off a very poor-playing Cameroon squad, but it was Netherlands who really took control of Group E with a 2-0 win over Denmark. Lastly, Italy battled back from a slow start to tie Paraguay 1-1 in the opening Group F match.
Netherlands vs. Denmark was the early game on Monday. As they always seem to do, Netherlands controlled the possession throughout most of the game. They showed some potential in the first half, consistently pushing the ball up the right side with Liverpool man Dirk Kuyt, but they failed to really put together any golden scoring chances. They were very systematic in their approach, showing a lot of patience in working the ball around, but they just seemed to lack a bit of edge or creativity they needed to really put together quality chances. Despite the overall skill the Dutch have as a team, I definitely think they miss Arjen Robben (out with a small hamstring tear) on the wing. The jury’s still out on whether he’ll play in the group stage, and I think he won’t if the Duch can avoid it. They’ll need him for the knockout stage, though.
The Danes played decently, looking threatening on a couple of occasions, but were extremely unfortunate to fall behind in the 46th minute on an own goal by Simon Bruce Paulson.
In the end, though, the Dutch deserved the win, and they sealed the game with a second goal by Dirk Kuyt in the 85th minute. Indeed, the Dutch looked much strong in general in the second half after the insertion of Eljero Elia around the 65th minute. Elia brought some pace and was willing to go at the Danish defenders with speed, and his run into the box on a through ball from Wesley Sneijder ultimately led to the second goal. Although Elia knocked his shot off the right post, Kuyt was there to clean it up. Overall, a much better second half from the Dutch and you have to wonder whether Elia will get some more time in their next match or whether manager Bert van Marwijk will elect to keep him in the super-sub role.
In the second Group E match, Cameroon and Japan faced off in a game that was rather bland and lacking in quality from both sides until about ten minutes left in the match. Cameroon, who came in as the favorite, was very disappointing on the attack. Despite employing an attacking 4-3-3 formation, they hardly ever looked threatening, never solving the puzzle of how to navigate the Japanese defense or link up in the final third of the field. To be fair, Japan didn’t look likely to score either before or after their goal, but they took advantage of one of the few chances in the match and came away with the win. Japan’s goal came on a close-range finish from Keisuke Honda, who found some space on the back post, calmly settled a cross, and slotted it past the Cameroon keeper.
Despite pulling for Cameroon, I was hopeful that the goal would at least open up what had been a tentative game up until that point, but it just looked as though neither team had the quality or technical ability to put anything together. In particular, Cameroon’s touch failed them repeatedly today, and they squandered a number of chances by turning the ball over again and again in midfield throughout the second half. Meanwhile, Japan just looked pretty happy to settle in defensively after going up earlier.
Fortunately, in the final ten minutes, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon finally showed some teeth and were really unlucky not to tie the game in the 86th minute when Mbia blasted an absolute missile that rattled off the crossbar.
It’s going to be very tough for my boys of Cameroon at this point, who absolutely have to win their next match against Denmark. They’ll also need at least a tie against Netherlands in their final game, so it’s definitely an uphill climb from here.
Also, this was apparently Japan’s first ever World Cup win outside of Japan (they hosted in partnership with South Korea in 2002), and it came, coincidentally, against a team playing its first ever World Cup match on its home continent. More importantly, it gave thousands of Japanese tourists the chance to bring their expensive cameras to South Africa to take pictures of the games and the stadiums, take pictures of themselves in the foreground of the game and the stadium, and then take all take turns taking pictures of each other in various combinations standing in the foreground of the game and the stadium. Sorry, but that’s one of the things I love about the World Cup (and the Olympics I suppose): getting to make stereotyped statements about the players and fans, because they’re all from the same country and defined by their nationality at this tournament. When else do you get to walk around saying the Nigerians did so and so, the Italians are always terrible at this, the French are a bunch of cheaters, and so on? Plus, if you actually are a racist or xenophobe, there’s no better way to let out your feelings in a harmless way. You can sit at home and cheer for the Americans to triumph over the rest of the world, quietly seethe at all the Mexicans during their game, and yell at the Slovenians and Algerians to stay out of American territory during our games later this week. That could totally be a therapy technique, right?
In the afternoon match, Italy and Paraguay opened up Group F play in what might be characterized as a somewhat weak group. Italy is the number 1 seed in this group, and they’re one of the less-favored number-one teams. Paraguay looked strong in South American qualifying as did the Slovaks but neither are exactly world-beaters. As for New Zealand, this is their first trip to the World Cup since 1982, and they’re definitely in “everything past getting here is all gravy for us” mode.
Paraguay, despite not showing a lot of attacking prowess throughout, managed to go up 1-0 on a header by Antolin Al Caraz in 39th minute. Italy battled back and eventually tied it up on a close-range finish by Danielle De Rossi off a corner kick in the 63rd minute. The goal was the result of yet another goalkeeping gaffe, as Paraguayan keeprer Federico Marchetti came out to punch the ball clear and just flat out missed, leaving himself stranded and and a gaping goal for De Rossi to slide the ball into for the equalizer. Paraguay will no doubt have mixed emotions after the game versus Italy. Before kickoff, they’d have no doubt professed themselves pleased with a tie, but anytime you go up in a game, it’s always disappointing not to come away with the victory. As for Italy, they’ll also have mixed feelings. They wanted the win, as they showed by ratcheting up their attack in the final 25 minutes even after scoring the equalizer, but a tie isn’t the end of the world, considering the other two teams in the group are very beatable. Plus, Italy did look stronger as the game went on and definitely gained some confidence in the final minutes. Italian manager Marcello Lippi made several tactical substitutions, and though it wasn’t obvious that any of them had made a profound change on the game, Italy just looked slightly more confident and played with a little more pace in the final 25 minutes
It’s also important to remember that they’re missing their best playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who’s currently out with a calf injury. Pirlo may be back for Italy’s second match against New Zealand.
A second injury concern emerged during the game when Gianluigi Buffon, the legendary Italian keeper, was substituted out of the game at halftime. I heard during the game that it was a hamstring injury, but Marcello Lippi later stated that it was a back problem.
Ultimately, both can find some satisfaction in the result, but both will know that they need to improve if they hope to make any noise outside the group stage. I think the key match in this group will be next weekend’s clash between Slovakia and Paraguay.
In other news and notes from the day, American fans can breathe a sigh of relief after receiving word that keeper Tim Howard has been OK’d for Friday’s match against Slovenia. The extent of Howard’s injury still isn’t completely known, but with positive words coming out of the American camp, I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t play Friday.
Tomorrow brings one of the opening rounds most tantalizing matches as well as one of its most one-sided. Portugal and Ivory Coast face off at 9:30 AM in a game that will go a long towards determining how Group G will play out. One of the world’s best players (and a player who apparently also feels the need to do a lot of upper-body exercises in addition to working on his footskills) Christiano Ronaldo will take the field for Portugal. Also, Ivory Coast forward Didier Droba’s status for tomorrow’s game is still uncertain, and I’m really hoping he’ll make it on the field and play decently. It should make for a great match if he does.
Then, at 2:30, the most successful country in World Cup history, and tournament favorites, Brazil will face off against the secretive North Korean squad. I say secretive, because almost none of their players play outside of North Korea and almost nobody sees any North Korean league games, because, you know, it’s North Korea. This, of course, has given rise to rumors that the team actually uses a set of Siamese twins in goal (only counted as one player on the roster) and that one of their forwards actually carries around enriched uranium in his shorts. One rumor that I didn’t just make up (and which is probably true) is that Kim Jong Il plans to pull the plug on the whole tournament for all North Korean viewers if the national team goes out. North Koreans that want to watch the tournament better go ahead and start planning their vacation (are they even allowed to do that?), because there is absolutely no way that they’re getting out of this group.