19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 12 SCORES (TUESDAY/JUNE 22)
- Group A - South Africa 2, France 1
- Group A - Uruguay 1, Mexico 0
- Group B - Argentina 2, Greece 0
- Group B - Nigeria 2, South Korea 2
The moment has now come to start whittling down the 32 teams in South Africa to the sixteen who will advance to the knockout stage, and for those teams to determine how the bracket will look when they get there. It is the time when teams who were full of expectation now find themselves either anticipating their next opponent or struggling with the weight of stifled dreams. A pedigree doesn't mean a damn thing at this point, name recognition only serving to make the praises lighter in victory and the condemnation more damning in the wake of a tough loss. It is put-up-or-shut-up time, starting with Groups A and B today and winding through the next three days of competition. With qualification at stake, everyone was on edge as each group finished out its round robin with simultaneous final matches...
- Uruguay (1-1-0, 4 pt, 3-0/+3 GD)
- Mexico (1-1-0, 4 pt, 3-1/+2 GD)
- France (0-1-1, 1 pt, 0-2/-2 GD)
- South Africa (0-1-1, 1 pt, 1-4/-3 GD)
Group A had definitely taken on a definite Latin flair on its final day. Both France and South Africa conceivably still had opportunity to advance to the next stage, but they were both dependent on the right result falling in the other game. Mexico and Uruguay were squaring off with first place at stake. A win for either would hand them the group; the other would have to depend on their lead in goal differential to carry them through. A draw would automatically send both on to the knockout stage, with Uruguay in the driver's seat based on their 3-0 win over South Africa in the second set of games.
Squaring off in front of 33,000 in Rustenburg, Uruguay didn't sit back on their laurels and just passively wait for the draw to complete. They almost took the advantage in the first fifteen minutes after both Maxi Pereira and Luis Suarez missed shots that likely would have beaten Mexican goalie Oscar Perez. Mexico wasn't just sitting back, though; they had their own chances, including a beautiful header from the ageless (well... 37-year-old) Cuauhtemoc Blanco that dipped over the bar and out of reach of even Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera. Andreas Guardado, in for suspended Efrain Juarez, whipped off a shot in the 22nd minute that smacked the crossbar and stayed out of the net. It would prove the best chance that Mexico would get this match... and when Edinson Cavani whipped in a cross that Suarez guided true two minutes from halftime, it merely sealed Uruguay's spot as the top dog in Group A. Mexico prevented Cavani several times along with shots on net by Alvaro Pereira and Diego Lugano in the second half to keep their goal differential in the positive ledger.
So it all came down to South Africa and France in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein. Nearly 40,000 were in attendance to see whether or not Bafana Bafana could take the fight to France and erupt with a handful of goals that could vault them up the standings and prevent the seeming inevitability of an early exit from the tournament. The hosts were definitely the more coherent of the two sides, the 2006 runner-up having spent the past week self-destructing in the cold unforgiving glare of the world's fanatics. A beautiful corner kick in the 20th minute, dipping down just beyond the outstretched fingertips of French keeper Hugo Lloris, met the head of central defender Bongani Khumalo. Khumalo guided the cross true into the net -- crashing to the ground entangled with his marker -- to nab a first goal and set the entire nation into ecstatic wishing. When, five minutes later, Yoann Gourcuff sent up a flying elbow that caught a defender in the face and earned a red card and early shower for the infraction, the vuvuzelas resounded even louder. Masilela and Tshabalala gave them even more reason to hope eight minutes from halftime when their efforts to advance up the left flank were deflected right into the path of the advancing Katlego Mphela -- all the forward had to do was walk the ball into the net for the second. France, though disjointed, would maintain their composure enough to prevent another goal in the second half... and even managed to claw back one goal. South Africa was knocked out of the tournament after just three matches, the first host ever to face such a fate, but they acquitted themselves in style and still look poised to host one hell of a show from here.
- Argentina (2-0-0, 6 pt, 5-1/+4 GD)
- South Korea (1-0-1, 3 pt, 3-4/-1 GD)
- Greece (1-0-1, 3 pt, 2-3/-1 GD)
- Nigeria (0-0-2, 0 pt, 1-3/-2 GD)
Argentina, already assured of a spot in the next round, would have had to suffer a catastrophic collapse against Greece and a huge win by South Korea to drop out of their top position and a date with Mexico in the Round of 16. It all came down to the other three in the group to see which one would take the second spot. The Koreans had the upper hand, having already claimed a victory against Greece and were up against winless Nigeria. Greece, having claimed a controversial win over Nigeria, were also sitting with three points going in but with one fewer goal scored. The Africans, winless, still technically had a shot at qualification -- they needed an Argentina victory over Greece and a victory over South Korea to qualify, no matter the scorelines.
The first half of the equation -- Argentina's victory -- didn't even look like something assured until the last fifteen minutes of the match. Coach Diego Maradona had replaced his main strike force of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain with a second pairing of Sergio Aguero and Diego Milito. Aguero had worked well with Higuain and Lionel Messi when the former scored his hat trick earlier in group play, but alongside Milito up front neither was working as effectively as possible. Once Aguero was replaced, the goal came almost immediately. Milito batted down a pass with his chest that fell right back to Martin Demichelis. It wasn't pretty, but it gave them a perfect record in group play. But once Milito was taken off in favor of wily veteran Martin Palermo, getting some face time in the final group game, the attack flowed even more freely. One minute from stoppage time Palermo got his goal, claiming the 2-0 win for Argentina and asserting their strength ahead of the Round of 16.
So the question became whether it would be South Korea or Nigeria who would earn the right to face Uruguay in the first knockout round. The Asians needed just a draw; Nigeria, needing to call upon the attacking spirit for which they were once renowned, had to win the match. But, improbably given their prior two losses, it was a simple win-and-in situation for the Africans. A dozen minutes into the match, it appeared that African dreams would be realized today after South Africa missed their slim window for success when Chidi Odiah whipped in a cross from the right wing in and found the bolting Kalu Uche, a spectacular piece of execution that exploited a crucial breakdown on South Korea's left side. Lee Jung-Su came in at the far post, beating the offside trap on a free kick to tie the match at one apiece before halftime and handing the virtual qualification to their ledger. A second South Korean goal on the opposite side of halftime would effectively seal the deal for them, as Park Chu-Young converted a bouncing direct free kick to put the side up 2-1. A penalty conversion twenty minutes from time would reignite the Nigerian hope, but hope was all that was left. Obafemi Martins, a second-half substitute for Nwankwo Kanu, nearly claimed the winner ten minutes from stoppage time when he was slotted cleanly through on goal... but while he lifted the ball over the keeper, he steered it clear across the goalmouth and wide for the goal kick. It would be the last best chance for the Nigerians, who would have to settle for a single point, too little too late.
And with that the sun set on the tournament for two of the African teams. On the other hand, the story has also continued to swirl around the woes of the Europeans (0-for-2 so far in the group stage after Greece and Frace were knocked out today) and the continued brilliance of the Americas (2-0 for the South, 1-0 for the North so far). Tomorrow's clashes will decide the fate for two more African sides, Ghana and Algeria... and those rooting for the United States against the latter will be hoping they are also the Untied States this time around, a clear path lying to the second round with a win over the Algerians. Stay tuned tomorrow as two more groups determine their four candidates for the knockout route to the Cup...