19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 14 SCORES (THURSDAY/JUNE 24)
- Group F - Slovakia v. Italy
- Group F - Paraguay v. New Zealand
- Group E - Netherlands v. Cameroon
- Group E - Denmark v. Japan
With half the field of the knockout stage already set, eight more sides put their fate on the line today... well, six. For the first time in the past three days, a team would play with absolutely nothing at stake. Cameroon had absolutely no way of claiming a spot in the sweet sixteen; their match against the Netherlands, who had nearly no way of falling out of first in Group E, would be largely ceremonial and a matter of pride. As John Isner and Nicolas Mahut battled valiantly northward in London, showing the grit and endurance and push beyond limitations that characterize the very best as they contested the longest match in tennis history, we bore witness to just what pride could accomplish when it was combined with a singular will and focus. So as the American and the Frenchman burned up the lawns of Wimbledon, four stadiums a hemisphere away prepared to welcome a different type of athletic warrior to their own plots of grass as the second week of the 2010 World Cup completed its schedule in preparation of the knockout...
- Paraguay (1-1-0, 4 pt, 3-1/+2 GD)
- Italy (0-2-0, 2 pt, 2-2/+0 GD)
- New Zealand (0-2-0, 2 pt, 2-2/+0 GD)
- Slovakia (0-1-1, 1 pt, 1-3/-2 GD)
Group F took the first stab at finishing its matches, taking the early time slot. Any one of the four teams could still qualify for the round. Paraguay needed just to draw to advance; New Zealand, their opponent, had merely to win and they were in. Even a draw, if it came by the same goal margin as an Italy-Slovakia draw, would leave lots being cast between the defending world champions and the upstart Kiwis. Slovakia, last in the group with just one point, had its own clear route to the next round: win over the Italians, who had looked imminently beatable during this tournament, and hope for either a Paraguay win or draw.
The All-Whites -- a misnomer as they played in all-black kits that made them look more like the national rugby team on the pitch than the soccer stars of the twin islands -- were doing their damnedest to get the advantage on the South Americans. Paraguay, for their part, were content to sit back and play lockdown defense while allowing the counterattack to produce its offense. It was a recipe for a goalless draw, leaving everything to come down to Italy and Slovakia.
And the Slovaks, the more desperate and hungry side, exhibited a sense of urgency that we haven't seen from the Italians in ages. Even when they won the World Cup four years ago, they never had to play as frantically as Slovakia played today. This brand of soccer was rewarded handsomely, when the pressure caused the Azzurri to blunder their way into a deficit. Daniele Di Rossi, trying to play out of his defensive end midway through the first half, handed the ball right over the the Slovaks, who pounced on the opportunity. The ball was slotted through to Robert Vittek, surging right in the middle of the pitch on the edge of the box. Vittek, sliding into his shot, struck a powerful low shot toward the far post with his right foot that beat Italy's number-two keeper Federico Marchetti (in for the injured Gianluigi Buffon) and put the underdog in the lead.
Halftime would have Italy paranoid, wondering if they were doomed to drop from the tournament altogether after some unimpressive performance had netted just two points in the first two matches. A draw here would put them through on goal differential, since neither New Zealand nor Paraguay were finding the goals necessary to heat up their scoreboard. Instead, it was Vittek getting his second goal of the match and third of the tournament (tying him with Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain for the lead in the race for the Golden Boot) to put Slovakia up 2-0 in the 73rd minute. Now Italy had just a quarter-hour and injury time to try to level the deficit and save face; otherwise, it would be Slovakia joining Paraguay in the next round.
Antonio Di Natale halved the deficit nine minutes from stoppage time, pouncing on a rebound coughed up by Slovak keeper Jan Mucha to prevent the shutout and keep Azzurri dreams alive. But then, just two minutes after coming into the match for Zdeno Strba, Kamil Kopunek used his first touch of the ball on a throw-in to make Italy pay for another now all-too-characteristic defensive gaffe to go back up by two goals. Even then, though, nothing was assured. Two minutes into stoppage time, Fabio Quagliarella got another goal for the Italians and put the deficit back at one. They relentlessly pressed forward, praying for the equalizer that would offer La Salvezza...
... but it would prove too little, too late for Italy. Slovakia hung on for the 3-2 victory, knocking their opponent out of the tournament in the group stage for the first time in nearly forty years and causing it to be just the fourth defending champion to fail to reach the knockout bracket in the tournament's history. Instead, Paraguay would top the table ahead of the resilient Slovakian contingent, New Zealand earning the draw that allowed them to push the vanquished champs down to the cellar of Group F...
- Netherlands (2-0-0, 6 pt, 3-0/+3 GD)
- Japan (1-0-1, 3 pt, 1-1/+0 GD)
- Denmark (1-0-1, 3 pt, 2-3/-1 GD)
- Cameroon (0-0-2, 0 pt, 1-3/-2 GD)
This group effectively came right down to the Japan-Denmark clash. With Cameroon winless in their first two games, they became after their defeat to Denmark the first African side mathematically eliminated from the tournament last Sunday. By virtue of their win over Japan, the Netherlands had won their first two matches and had already claimed a spot in the next round. And with no goals conceded, they had the differential to withstand all but the worst turnabout to remain top of the group even were they to lose. So that game largely became merely academic, an exercise in exhibition, a chance for the Indomitable Lions to showcase their skils one last time and for the Dutch to try to match the Argentinians as three-win sides in the second round and to maintain their clean-sheet streak a la Uruguay.
So I didn't even bother turning on that match, deciding to focus my attention exclusively on Japan-Denmark. The Japanese needed just a draw, while the Danes had to win if they were to advance to the next round. As the Dutch and the Africans played scoreless through most of the first half, I knew I'd made the right choice. Japan, enjoying two of the best free-kick specialist in the tournament, scored twice in the first half hour. Keisuke Honda got the first, Yasuhito Endo the second, and for the first time since Yugoslavia did it in 1974 a nation had scored two goals in a single World Cup match off direct free kicks.
Holland, not to be outdone, got a go-ahead goal by Robin Van Persie in the 36th minute. Van Persie, who took the give-and-go with Rafael Van der Vaart and beat his marker to slot the ball home from the angle right of goal, ended a goalscoring drought in resplendent fashion, putting the Netherlands on pace to face Slovakia in the next round. It also signalled the likelihood that Japan would advance behind them to square off against Paraguay in the other half of the bracket...
And lo and behold, that's how it all came to pass. Cameroon would get an equalizer in the 65th minute, Samuel Eto'o converting a penalty kick after Van der Vaart blocked a Geremi free kick with his arms, but it wouldn't be enough to stave off the Dutch onslaught. The Indomitable Lions would be sent home winless and without even a draw from this World Cup after substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar cleaned up an Arjen Robben shot that glanced off the post for the match winner. The Dutch would stay perfect in group play during the 2010 World Cup and begin preparing for Slovakia.
Japan, thus, needed to preserve its two-goal lead in order to meet Paraguay in the next round. Denmark would get their opportunity to halve the deficit when the referee awarded a penalty kick following Makoto Hasebe's shove of Daniel Agger in the box. Jon Dahl Tomasson, he of the two-year international goal drought, stepped up to take the kick. Amazingly Kawashima saved the shot, but allowed a rebound... and then Tomasson nearly missed the wide-open net as he barely succeeded in getting Denmark on the board. The Japanese, though, would regain their cushion when Shinji Okazaki finished off a brilliant move by Honda three minutes from stoppage time to set the final score at 3-1.
So we will be treated to the matchup of the Netherlands against Slovakia in the next round, while Japan gets not defending champions Italy but another South American impressario, Paraguay. Tomorrow we will settle the final score... Brazil is already in, and Portugal will try to hold off the Selecao and keep their spot ahead of the Ivory Coast with Les Elephants playing against North Korea. Late matches will see Spain try to cling to the precipice of qualification when they take on Chile, and Group H will conclude with that match paired against the Switzerland-Honduras encounter. Will another powerhouse or two fall tomorrow? Stay tuned to find out...