By Kevin Koczwara, Ryan Fleming, and Joe Meloni
We have already looked at the teams that performed the best and the teams that played the worst in the first round of play of the World Cup. Now it is time for us to pick the teams that overachieved and the underachieved in the second round of play.
Kevin: Portugal is probably the team that looked best to most after its 7-0 drumming of North Korea, but not me.
I was most impressed by the All Whites of New Zealand this week, and last. The Kiwis put in an amazing effort against the reigning World Champions, Italy, and earned themselves a 1-1 draw.
Simon Elliott sent a free kick into the Italy penalty area that bounced off of Fabio Cannavaro and into the path of a surging Shane Smeltz, who shot the ball into the back of the net in the seventh minute of the game. There are grumblings that Smeltz may have been offside on the play, but there was no ruling on the field and the goal stood.
Smeltz’s early goal was reminiscent of New Zealand’s stoppage time goal against Slovakia in the opening round of play. Winston Reid scored late in that match to equalize with the Eastern European squad. It was New Zealand’s first-ever goal and point in the World Cup Finals.
To tie Slovakia was one thing for the Kiwis, but to get the lead against Italy was another.
Italy would score the equalizer in the 29th minute when Vincenzo Iaquinta scored a penalty kick. New Zealand would hold out until half-time with the tie and no one expected them to keep it for another 45 minutes, but they did.
Despite only having one shot on goal, Smeltz’s strike, 29 percent of possession, and zero corner kicks, the All Whites held on to the draw and kept their hopes of advancing into the knock out stages for the first time alive. New Zealand played with guts and left everything on the field as the Azzurri attack never relented. The Kiwis were forced to clear the ball 51 times and defend a staggering 15 corner kicks. As the pressure mounted, Italy crumbled and the All Whites earned the draw. Now they need a win against Paraguay to secure their place in the next round and keep living the dream.
If the dream does die, at least the All Whites can hold their heads high with the best win in their national team’s history.
Ryan: Yeah, I said it, Australia. It’s one thing to get completely manhandled by one of the youngest teams in the tournament, Germany, but to fend off Ghana for over 60 minutes down a man and come away with a point will make any fan proud.
The Socceroos’ (who incidentally boast the best nickname ever) spirits were in the sky early when Bret Holman tallied in the 10th minute, providing and early surge of confidence. The optimistic spirit wouldn’t last, though. Harry Kewell was sent off on a arguable hand ball in the box, which led toa Ghana penalty.
Unfortunately for the Socceroos, Asamoah Gyan converted from the penalty spot, once again bringing abysmal thoughts and another here-we-go-again moment into the heads of those who watched the horrid display against Die Mannschaft last week; a 4-0 drubbing in which many considered the most entertaining match to that point.
Australia proved many wrong, standing tall and even carrying the play, creating more chances at moments throughout the game. It earned a point, and even though qualifying for the Round of 16 is a longshot, the Socceroos told the world that at least they belonged.
Joe: Brazil entered this tournament with a few questions due the tactical style preferred by manager Dunga. It was clear after Sunday’s thorough victory over an uninspired Ivory Coast side, that the Brazilians were just as much a contender as their previous teams were.
All three goals demonstrated their ability to create offense at will, while the goal they allowed proved they’re the only team in the tournament that doesn’t have to defend well to win. Having Champions League-winning goalkeeper Julio Cesar backing them up doesn’t exactly hurt either.
Luis Fabiano broke from his ESPN-proclaimed slump midway through the first half with a crushing strike over the shoulder of the Ivorian goalkeeper. Fabiano struck again in the beginning of the second half in a demonstration of Brazilian skill and official incompetence. After playing the ball with his hand, he flicked it over a defender’s head before taking aim at the goalkeeper again to bag his second marker of the match.
Another Brazilian virtuoso waiting to break out did just that late in the second. Kaka, who helped set up Fabiano’s first goal, drew a flock of Ivorian defenders as he slowly approached the penalty-area before finding a streaking Elano for a simple one-touch into the goal.
Selecting Brazil to win this tournament was hardly a tough choice at the beginning, but, if it keeps playing as it is now, Brazil may be the only choice.
Kevin: The Ivory Coast didn’t get the easiest of draws. In fact, it got the worst draw of any African nation. No country likes seeing Brazil in their group at the World Cup. Why would you? It is always one of the world’s best and has won the tournament five times. This year was no different – Brazil came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the world. But the Ivory Coast must have felt cursed when it saw that its group also included European powerhouse Portugal and an unknown wild card in North Korea.
Then someone in the higher-ups must have decided to throw in some more bad luck into the players’ pot by hiring Sven-Goran Eriksson just before the tournament. Eriksson was fired as Mexico’s national coach earlier this year because it was on the verge of missing the finals in one of the easiest qualifying groups in the world with arguably the most talented team in the group.
Then star striker Didier Drogba got hurt just before the tournament in a warm-up match. It was all going wrong for the Ivory Coast, and yet they didn’t band together and make something of the tournament thus far.
The Elephants played to a mind-numbing scoreless draw with Portugal in their first game, never really showing any desire to win the game until it was too late.
Then came the dreaded game against Brazil, and the Elephants almost refused the challenge. If FIFA hadn’t made them walk out there, then maybe they wouldn’t have. It was as if they didn’t really care to take the ball from the Brazilians. It looked as though Eriksson’s plan was to sit back and take the beating like a true masochists. His team got the 3-1 beating it deserved, no matter how much the second goal shouldn’t have counted because of two handballs by Luis Fabiano. No one on the field for the Ivory Coast complained a lick about the goal until after the game about the goal. They just didn’t care enough.
To top off the terrible display, the Elephants decided to become Shakespearean actors and do the lowest of the low on the soccer field. When Kader Keita decided to deceive the referee and fall to the ground after bumping into Kaka and claiming the Brazilian hit him in the face. It was almost Oscar worthy acting from Keita who rolled on the ground as if he was on fire. It was a disgraceful display from one of the most disappointing teams in the tournament.
Ryan: If you told me that England would tie the United States in their first game, I would have differed in opinion, but considered your point of view. If you told me that they would also tie Algeria, only scoring one goal in two games and that Slovenia would be at the top of Group C, I would have asked what drug you were on, thus admitted you to the local hospital.
Besides Les Bleus, the Three Lions have to be one of the more disappointing stories this World Cup, in turn commanding more space in related headlines throughout the world. Boss, Fabio Capello, the highest paid in the world, is under a lot of scrutiny, but he’s not doing much to assuage the anxious cries from the English fans.
The train that is England is running off the tracks and if it doesn’t get out of the group, on to the next round, Capello will be searching for a new job and England the laughing stock of the soccer world. Much like the situation within the France camp, there are talks of a possible tiff between the players and Capello. He continues to deny the allegations, but according to ESPN, is holding a conference with players to discuss any grievances they might have.
If Capello and his Lions don’t take away three points from their match against Slovenia on Wednesday, the Italian will be holding conference with prospective employers seated around him instead of those he is the boss of.
Joe: The French have too many issues to overcome, and the English just aren’t as good as they think they are. The Italians, however, have no excuse for the dreadful 90 minutes they played against New Zealand on Sunday.
Manager Marcello Lippi answered critics before the tournament by saying he made his selections because these are the players he’s comfortable with. Unfortunately for the Azzurri, the players don’t seem to be too comfortable with their manager. Lippi told reporters on Monday that his players refused to follow the gameplan he laid out to offset the size of the New Zealand players.
At the moment, not only are the Italians too old to win this tournament, but they’re too stubborn to account for their shortcomings. Should Fabio Cannavaro or Mauro Camoranesi decide they’re interested in defending their championship, they’ll start listening to man who led them there four years ago.
Oh yeah, finding a way to get Andrea Pirlo back into the lineup may help Italy find its offense again. Italy’s lone goal in its first two games came on a penalty against New Zealand on Sunday.
Ryan Fleming, Joe Meloni and Kevin Koczwara are the editors and writers for The Soccer Guys.