19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 10 SCORES (SUNDAY/JUNE 20)
- Group F - Paraguay 2, Slovakia 0
- Group F - Italy 1, New Zealand 1
- Group G - Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1
I spent my Sunday morning waking up at 4:30 am, unable to keep myself away from Paraguay-Slovakia in Group F. I had to be up early anyway, as my wife and I had volunteered at the annual neighborhood Summer Solstice Pancake Breakfast. So there I was, huddled under a blanket as I tried in vain to keep my eyes open for every second of the action. But there I was, sitting in the dark as Paraguay thoroughly dismantled the Europeans. They controlled the run of play, even though Slovakia would have a slightly higher rate of possession (52%-48%). Paraguay was relentless, trying to take their chances on goal.
Even in the early going, Paraguay was doing more to press forward, set up their attack. And that's what gets you to qualify for the next round and step into the driver's seat with a chance to win the group. The efforts paid off for the Paraguayans in the 26th minute, when Lucas Barrios slotted a ball right to Enrique Vera, who was splitting two Slovak defenders en route to a clear-cut goal. The 1-0 scoreline would hold until the 84th minute, when Cristian Riveros cleaned up the pinball ricochets off a free kick and let his left foot do the speaking to double the lead.
Slovakia had already looked as though they were content to get a draw from this match. When Paraguay scored their first, the wind came out of those sails. They definitely tried their damnedest to crack the Paraguayan defenses -- but when you can't get your first shot ON goal until stoppage time in the second half, you don't have a hope in hell of surviving through to the final whistle to collect a point. Riveros simply ended the misery and gave Paraguay a second goal to buffer their goal differential. They figured, with Italy playing later against New Zealand, they might need it...
I, however, would not be catching this contest. I was off to the park to brew some coffee for the pancake breakfast. My wife and I headed for the roaster where she works to pick up brewers and coffee and other miscellaneous equipment for the festivities. The entire way, there I was, following the matchcast on my phone. (I hear you can even pay for Mobile TV these days... but since I don't pay for my television at home, and I only just started paying for data on my phone, I think it's readily apparent that I'm not a guy who pays for things on a whim. So the matchcast it was for me.)
ESPN put up this gem in the fifth minute: "New Zealand has conceded an average of 3.25 goals per game in the World Cup finals and has scored only once in its last three matches." So what did the All-Whites do immediately afterward? Score a goal, against the defending world champions, to take the lead in the seventh minute. As I was able to see later in a replay, a free kick was deflected on its way to curling into the box. Fabio Cannavaro, that aging Italian defensive stalwart, had a play on the ball but flicked it right in the path of Shane Smeltz. Smeltz knew exactly what to do with that shot -- bury it past Italian goalie Federico Marchetti, the backup starting in place of injured Gianluigi Buffon. Whether or not Smeltz was offside, it was a clean play and an astute read of Cannavaro's gaffe.
After the draw to Paraguay, we started to question the composition of an Italian team that has relied on its past gladiators to try to create present successes. With that move by Smeltz past Cannavaro, we began to wonder anew. Now this team is not quite as toxic as the French, which wouldn't even train today in solidarity for Nicolas Anelka and who drove the team director to the point of resignation. But the window of opportunity for the Azzurri seems to have passed by this point in the tournament. Sure, they could still qualify for the next round -- their match against Slovakia should net three points, even with their present woes, and that would be enough to put them through.
But even after Tommy Smith was shown the yellow card for pulling down Daniele Di Rossi in the box -- a penalty that was, upon further review, full of award-winning embellishment from the Italian -- and Vincenzo Iaquinto expertly converted the penalty kick for the equalizer, it was soon apparent that the Italians were willing and able to simply stymie any further chances for both their opponents and themselves. That, unlike what Paraguay did throughout their match, is not the stuff of which champions are made. And that's why the defending champs are sitting behind an afterthought South American nation that skirts under the radar thanks to its more prestigious neighbors. Italy may have the World Cups in its trophy case, but based on the current run of form Paraguay is the team more likely out of Group F to collect the next one...
And then my wife and I made it home in time to catch the first Brazilian goal. Just as we turned on the game, the ball was in the net and the swarms of yellow-shirted athletes started celebrating. The replay showed a beauty -- at least for Brazil. For the Ivory Coast, it showed a defensive lapse that was wholly inexcusable. There were nine guys around a trio of Brazilians. Kaka, running down the middle, split several defenders and maintained possession through the scrum. He scooted the ball forward over one foot. Luis Fabiano stepped over a sliding defender, glued the ball to his foot and then struck dead on past Boubacar Barry in the Ivorian net. It was a tight-angle blast reminiscent of the goal Landon Donovan scored against Slovenia a couple days back, hard and unstoppable despite the goalie being right there in position.
Those last twenty or so minutes, though, yielded nothing like the fast-paced action my wife and I enjoyed yesterday during Denmark-Cameroon. The whistle mercifully blew for halftime, and we went outside for a cigarette. Well, we wandered our perimeter in the backyard, seeing weeds here and entangled vines there, blackberries outgrowing their space and mint doing the same elsewhere. So we got to work, tossing on some gloves and getting in there to uproot a bunch of unwanted green matter in our soil and to trim back that which was simply unruly. The cigarette died; we lit another. Next thing we knew, the garden was looking a hell of a lot better... and over a half hour had passed!
I bolted back inside... just in time to see the replay of Brazil's third goal of the match. It was already over a quarter-hour into the second half, and I'd missed two goals in real time. Apparently Fabiano snapped out of his goal-scoring drought, having not scored for Brazil since November before his first-half strike. Five minutes into the second half, he controlled a long pass from midfield with his chest (and possibly, upon lots of glances of the replay, with his arm) once, twice, thrice past a couple of Ivorian defenders and then teed up a volley that snuck inside the post past Barry with little the keeper could do.
And then that third goal, the one I came in to see, was another masterful display of the creativity which so many had feared was lost from Brazil's game when Dunga was hired as their manager. Kaka, playing with flair and passion, once again gained control of the ball pressing into the attacking third of the field. Taking the pass from Michel Bastos, he skirted the left flank before turning in near the endline and whipping a low grounder past the goalmouth and into the path of a streaking Elano. A goal which looked like a mirror image of the one created yesterday by Rommedahl for Bendtner (that one coming off the right, this one from the left), it was a beautiful snapshot of the verve with which Brazil is capable of playing even with perhaps the most conservative roster possible.
Didier Drogba would smack in a superb header to eliminate Julio Cesar's clean sheet in with less than fifteen minutes before the final whistle. It was small consolation for the Ivorians, who once again looked out of the running for a spot in the knockout stage with the loss. Their frustration poured out onto the pitch, where things started getting ugly. Challenges were all coming studs-up; every touch was embellished, every arm swung just a little further from the body, every perceived slight being taken the worst way possible. Elano was injured in the leg by an errant tackle. Kaka received first one, then two, yellow cards and found himself out of the lineup for the final group match against Portugal. It was damn near a hatchet job, marring the final result with its brutality...
In that respect, it wasn't much different than all the infighting we've seen within the squads of several favorites. France is in full disarray, as Patrice Evra and Raymond Domenech had a spat again today and we saw the entire roster walk off the training pitch. Jean-Louis Valentin, the team director, threw up his hands and walked away to turn in his immediate resignation for the post. That's how bad things have become for the team which was expected to be right back in the thick of things after losing on penalty kicks in the final four years ago. (At least it wasn't expected by most... I saw them imploding ON the field. I had no clue they would also implode OFF the field; not even the best fiction writer could have envisioned this crazy a scenario on the world's biggest stage.)
These are the best of times, these are the worst of times. Be sure to keep tuning in... on the cusp of the deciding group games, we're sure to keep seeing plenty of the most beautiful as well as the most ugly facets of the most popular sport on earth as things progress onward in South Africa...