Wednesday marked the end of Round 1 of the group stage with Group H making its tournament debut. I’m assuming that H stands for Hispanic, since Chile, Honduras, and Spain make up 3 of the participants, and Switzerland, which completes the foursome, was somehow mistakenly included. They’re like the red-headed stepchild.
More importantly, Wednesday also brought us some good games and exciting play in what has (let’s be honest) been a somewhat underwhelming tournament thus far. Additionally, we also saw the biggest upset of the tournament when Switzerland managed to escape with a 1-0 win over heavily favored Spain. Switzerland’s goal came against the run of play, and Spain, though they heavily dominated in possession and shots, were never able to put one in the net. Chile-Honduras finished with the same scoreline but a totally different story, as Chile, the dominant team in this match, got the victory. In the day’s final game, Uruguay took down the hosts 3-0 putting a huge dent in South Africa’s chances of making it to the knockout stages.
In the early game, Chile, who finished second in South American qualifying only to Brazil, came into the match with a reputation as a great attacking side, and they certainly did nothing to change this perception as they looked energetic and aggressive from the opening whistle.
The most striking thing about the Chilean attack was their pace, and I don’t just mean the actual speed of the players. More important than that was their overall speed of play in how quickly the ball moved from player to player and how rapidly each player made their decisions. Anytime Honduras turned the ball over or Chile received the ball on a clearance, they were usually back near the penalty area, sending in a cross, or even taking a shot within a minute. The best comparison I can make is to the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns during the “seven-seconds-or less” era.
In any case, Chile dominated the play, Honduras never looked likely to do much offensively, and Chile were unfortunate not to score more. In particular, Alexis Sanchez looked dangerous scampering down the wings and into the box. The single goal that they did score came in the 34th minute on a low cross into the box. A Honduran defender actually reached the ball first, but failed to do more than clear it off of the Chilean attacker’s foot and into the goal. It may have been a bit fortuitous, but nobody would claim that Chile didn’t deserve the win by the end of the game.
Spain also came out attacking in their match, though perhaps not quite with the same abandon as Chile. The Spaniards showed why they’re the European champions and the number two team in the world, putting on a passing clinic and making clever runs all day long. In the first half they were stymied by a stubborn Swiss defense, some solid goalkeeping, and their own lack of killer instinct in front of goal. Unlike many teams we’ve seen in this tournament, who have suffered from overly direct play and a lack of creativity, the Spaniards actually appeared to overpass a bit instead of just taking a few more shots on goal.
Switzerland, who had showed some skill on a few first half counterattacks, managed to grab a goal around the () minute on a scrappy effort by Gelson Fernandes. The ball took a somewhat unlucky deflection for Spain, who saw an attempted clearance take a deflection and fall perfectly into the path of Eren Derdiyok. Derdiyok did well to beat Spanish keeper Iker Casillas to the ball and after a small scrum in front of goal Fernandes came through to knock the ball into the open net. It must be noted that Casillas’ effort was somewhat lacking, as he was a bit slow off his line and his attempt at the ball ended up looking more like a slide tackle than any sort of keeper’s slide or attempted save.
Following the goal, Spain attacked with even more ferocity (Andres Iniest looked especially threatening), and most watching probably felt they’d at least get one goal back, but the Swiss defense stood strong.
I also think that Spain contributed somewhat to their own demise with the tactical approach they took in the final third of the game. They brought on several substitutes including Fernando Torres (returning from knee surgery) and Jesus Navas around the 60 minute mark, and, though I had no problem with the substitutions in themselves, I was somewhat puzzled by their single-minded insistence to force the ball to Navas down the right side. Navas never looked likely to do any more with his left foot than run or step over the ball, and his defender appeared satisfied to cheat heavily towards Navas’ right side. Thus, the winger was limited to sending searching crosses into the box from a deeper position. Spain seemed satisfied with this, as they kept funneling the ball his way, but I never thought the Swiss defense, with a decided height advantage over Spain, looked likely to concede a goal on a cross. Despite a few chances, most notably Xavi’s ringer off the crossbar in the 71st minute, Switzerland held on and pulled off the biggest upset of this year’s tournament so far.
Since we have now seen every single team play, following the Spain-Switzerland match, I thought about doing a full list of power rankings for the tournament, but ultimately decided it was pointless after only seeing each team play once. It would be somewhat like ranking every NFL team after week 1 of the season. What I can do, though, is give you the top 10 most fun teams to watch, so you know what games to look out for next week as each team faces off in their second World Cup match.
1. Germany-They were the only team to score more than two goals in this round and they did it against an Australia team that was fairly well-regarded before the tournament. Bottom line: score four goals and you make number 1.
2. Spain- Despite the loss, still looked the most talented offensive teams and will give you at least a guaranteed five or six “Wow!!!” moments each game.
3. Chile-Always going to come out attacking, no matter who they’re playing, and they have the talent to scare any team as well.
4. Argentina-Though they failed to notch more than a goal against Nigeria, their skill shown through at times and any team with Lionel Messi on it is always one to keep an eye on.
5. Brazil-Despite some more organization and not being the free-flowing, samba-loving team they once were, Brazil is still capable, with players like Kaka, Robinho, and Maicon (who scored, arguably, the goal of the tournament thus far), of putting together some breathtaking play.
6. South Korea-Tough to judge just how good they are, since they played a lackluster Greek squad, but their movement and passing were very lovely.
7. Mexico- A quick team with some nice, young attackers. They looked a little disappointing in their first match but should force the issue against France tomorrow.
8. Netherlands-Although they lacked a bit of verve in their first match, they still showed some great passing and possession soccer. If left-wing substitute Elias or the injured Arjen Robben see more time, they’ll be an even more exciting side.
9. Ghana-Many of the African teams were somewhat disappointing in the first round, but Ghana looked the strongest. Nearly all of them are capable of playing with a nice size-speed combination, and Ghana appeared the most willing to go forward.
10. England-This is almost by default, since nobody else has really made much of a case. However, it’s important to remember that England spent much of Saturday’s game playing against a defense that is one of the better in the tournament when it’s playing up to its full potential (see 2-0 win vs. Spain last year). Also, Wayne Rooney is probably the best striker in the world right now, and, after being held in check last weekend, he’s more than likely to break out against Algeria on Friday.
In the first game of round 2 in group play, Uruguay thumped South Africa, dimming the hopes of Bufana Bufana and giving the droning vuvuzelas a somewhat mournful tone by day’s end. I didn’t want to sell this match short or the importance of the hosts’ losing, by pushing this to the end, but I mainly wanted to talk about round 1 of the group stage first. South Africa didn’t look particularly fearsome in this game, and Diego Forlan gave Uruguay an early lead on a deflected shot that dipped into the top of the net. Forlan then sealed the match on a penalty kick when the South African keeper took down Luis Suarez in the 86th minute. Alvaro Pereira added a third in stoppage time. South Africa will now be left with the unenviable task of getting a win against France, the team favored by many to win the group (although not by me).
Tomorrow, two of my top 10 most-watchable teams Argentina and South Korea play each other in the 10:00 game. In the 7:30 match, it’s Nigeria-Greece, and at 2:30, it’ll be interesting to see how France reacts to Mexico’s speedy offense.