19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
(TUESDAY/JULY 6 & WEDNESDAY/JULY 7)
After three-plus weeks of play, the World Cup has whittled down its original field of 32 to the final two contestants who will be playing next Sunday for the right to hoist the World Cup. For the first time since 1978, both sides involved in this year's final have never won it all -- and for one side, 1978 saw them miss a second consecutive chance as Argentina won their first-ever Cup on home soil. The other has never reached this point before, a perennial underachiever hoping to shed the label once and for all. After a couple of intense semifinal clashes in Cape Town and Durban, we've got just four more days to go to find out if it is the Netherlands or Spain which will become the eighth nation to become the world champion of football...
1A/URUGUAY v. 1E/NETHERLANDS
Green Point Stadium - Cape Town - Tuesday/11:30am Pacific
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan)
The dream ended for South America as two-time world champions Uruguay failed to reach the final six decades after their last appearance. As much as people want to praise the Dutch in victory, though, the Uruguayans are just as deserving of some accolades despite the defeat. Sure, the lasting image of this nation's World Cup would be the infamous handball by Luis Suarez that kept Ghana out of the tournament.
But this South American side proved itself more resilient than its more loaded Brazilian and Argentine neighbors. It came into the tournament expected to do little; few really predicted the team even emerging from Group A. And while I did astutely pick them to advance ahead of France and South Africa, even I misjudged them when I had them taking second behind Mexico and losing in the quarterfinals. I thought this team had real dark-horse potential, but for Oscar Tabarez to have maneuvered this side past injuries and suspensions, formation changes and new lineups, and reach its first semifinal since 1970 was a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Of course, all of that meant little when Giovanni van Bronckhorst, taking the ball thirty yards out on the left side as the Netherlands switched the field in the 18th minute, unleashed one of the most beautiful goals of the tournament with his left foot. Rising with topspin, the ball curled down at the last moment past Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera's fingertips. Clanging off the far post, the ball ricocheted into the net and gave the Dutch a 1-0 lead that was just reward for their attacking verve coming out of the gate.
Complacency seemed to set in, though, as soon as Holland netted that opener. They started to sit back more -- and for a side who proved throughout the tournament that the best defense is a good offense, that when you're challenging the other team's goal (even without scoring) you're preventing the opposition from challenging your own keeper, the tactic backfired spectacularly. Uruguay started to heat up, the attack getting more comfortable as they realized they could still threaten the Dutch without Suarez opening up the offensive third of the field.
Alvaro Pereira found room in midfield to let off a left-footed shot at Stekelenburg in the Dutch goal in the 36th minute, forcing the save. Diego Forlan directed a header the wrong direction two minutes later, pushing it far off goal and out for the goal kick. But the Atletico Madrid striker would make amends in the 41st for his previous miss. Taking the pass from midfield, he started down the spine advancing toward the box. About five yards out from the edge of the penalty area, he switched over to his left foot and drilled a spinning ball that grazed over two Dutch defenders' heads and eluded the mitts of Stekelenburg to level things up. Halftime came with each team having scored a brilliant goal, 1-1 and 45 minutes left to decide a finalist.
Either side could take control at this point. Uruguay got the first stab at earning the lead when Diego Forlan stood over a free kick on the left edge of the box. His shot challenged Stekelenburg, who did well to push it out for a throw-in. From there, the ball was tossed long into the box. The Dutch pushed it out, but only as far as Diego Perez. But Perez, struck numb with indecision, forced his one-time opportunity well over the bar.
So it fell to the Dutch, three minutes later, to turn the situation around to their own favor. The ball came through for them, pushing upfield, and was switched from right to left. Snagging the ball before it reached the wing, Wesley Sneijder drifted right and used that foot to knock a low-drilled shot toward the far post. It seemed to carom off a defender before eluding the leg of Robin van Persie and into Muslera's net.
Uruguay, upon replay, were justified in arguing for the offside call -- van Persie's front leg seems to be ahead of his marker on the play when the ball leaves Sneijder's foot, but the linesman raised no flag and Irmatov allowed the score to stand. It was hard to argue too much with Irmatov, though... at 32, he has already been tabbed for five officiating assignments at this year's World Cup, the youngest referee to earn the opening match assignment involving the hosts since 1934, and was phenomenal overseeing the Argentina-Germany match as well in the quarterfinals.
With the call going against them, Uruguay -- heads out of the match -- seemed to deflate just a little. It was enough dejection to allow the Dutch a quick third, Dirk Kuyt cutting up the left side three minutes after their go-ahead strike and unleashing a cross that Arjen Robben rose up to powerfully head into the net past Muslera to double the lead to 3-1. The Dutch were now rolling, and Uruguay was desperately flailing attacks downfield hoping to pull back into the contest. But it would all be in vain. Forlan would come off the pitch in the 80th minute, leaving no really formidable attacker on the pitch for the South Americans.
Maxi Pereira would halve the score in the second minute of stoppage time, taking a quick free kick indirectly on the right edge of the box, switching the ball to his left foot before smacking a low-curling shot past Stekelenburg for the Uruguayan second. But it was too little too late for Tabarez's side. The whistle blew soon thereafter, the Charruas pressuring Stekelenburg and the Dutch to the very end, but the perseverance would be for nought this time as the Netherlands advanced to their first World Cup final since losing to Uruguayan nemesis Argentina in 1978...
1D/GERMANY v. 1H/SPAIN
Moses Mabhida Stadium - Durban - Wednesday/11:30am Pacific
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)
The scene was set in Durban for a rematch of the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain. Viktor Kassai, who watched over the Round of 16 match between the Americans and Ghana, was back in the semifinals earning another worthy assignment. Vicente Del Bosque and Joachim Low had their teams ready to meet one more time, a spot opposite the Netherlands in Sunday's final awaiting.
Fernando Torres, the hero of that 2008 final with the championship-clinching goal, found himself sitting on the bench in favor of Pedro up front with David Villa. After an unexceptional World Cup following April knee surgery, the Liverpool striker has been a shell of his potential this summer in South Africa. The change by Del Bosque looked prescient early, with Pedro and Villa combining with a midfield fueled by fellow Barcelona stars to find space and chances on goal. Villa was nearly in for the opener six minutes in, but German keeper Manuel Neuer pounced at the last moment to dispossess the shooter.
Germany was finding room behind on the counterattack, Klose forcing a tense exchange along the Spanish goal line that Iker Casillas was just able to boot clear. Spain, though, were getting the lion's share of the opportunities, controlling possession and forcing Die Mannschaft to spend their energy defending. It nearly paid off again, a corner kick yielding a beautiful chance in the box. But Carlos Puyol, creeping forward on the set piece, did a poor job guiding his header and put the effort over the bar. The first quarter-hour went by with neither side cracking through despite both getting chances.
Germany were earning corners, but nothing was coming through well for the finishers. Spain's central defense was being tested on counters, as both wingbacks were pressing forward on the flanks. Sergio Ramos, the dangerous right back, nearly made his gambling pay off when he beat the offside trap in the 19th minute and fired wide on Neuer's goal. When Spain had the ball, they looked incredibly dangerous -- as dangerous as all those gaps in their defense would be if they let Germany win clear possession before they could swarm back in numbers.
The way both teams were playing, it was feeling as the first half wound into its last fifteen minutes as though it would come down to the first goal to determine the direction of the match. Germany at this point had put no shots on goal, with Spain already having challenged Neuer four times in the first half hour of play. The Germans dispossessed Spain yet again on the edge of the box... and then, turning field, Trochowski directed a stout challenge on net from the right that forced Casillas into his first real save of the match. Spain, though, settled once again with possession and Germany continued thwarting their advances.
Chances came and chances went, Spain setting up elaborate pass-heavy attacks and Germany racing into space behind the attacking Iberians. As halftime drew close, a deadlock seemed to play into Spain's favor. Germany had not gained one of those devastating momentum-snatching early goals as they did against both England and Argentina. Three minutes from stoppage time, the Spaniards got a free kick about 25 yards out on the right of the box. Xavi bungled the opportunity, getting no lift or pace into the box with the effort.
Spain were getting desperate to get that goal, knowing that they could close down the holes in space with a lead and frustrate the Germans in the second half. Pedro had a brilliant chance in the 45th minute but waffled on pulling the trigger. Just a minute added in extra time, Germany had a chance with Ozil. Pulled down as he went toward goal, Kassai called for the sides to play on. Soon after, the whistle blew and the break came, Spain lucky to get away with the non-call by the referee that should likely have yielded a penalty kick.
Spain came right back out for the start of the second half and took the attacking initiative once again. Xavi Alonso had two great chances in the opening five minutes of the half, shooting wide to both sides of Neuer's goal. Germany were hardly getting any possession at all, the European champions playing keep-away from the hottest team of this World Cup. In the 52nd minute, Marcel Jansen came on for Jerome Boateng, Low hoping a change would tighten up the fluid Spanish offense on that side of the field.
Spain had another chance fall wide in the 55th minute, Iniesta turning in on the right, finding Xavi in the middle. Instead of taking his chance, the midfielder played on to David Villa to his left. Teeing up his right foot, Villa curled a ball that could not get enough English on it and went just around the far post to Neuer's left. The momentum was all decked out in red at the moment, a quarter of an hour passed and Spain really missing all throughout a brilliant flurry of activity that really should've netted a go-ahead score amongst the half-dozen key moments. Germany held its resolve and kept things scoreless.
Then they put things quickly downfield, and Klose almost got his record-tying fifteenth career World Cup goal on a throw-in. The chance came up wanting, though, and there Spain were once again working in the attacking third. Germany made a second change in the 62nd minute, Piotr Trochowski off in favor of Toni Kroos. Spain remained in its original configuration, and still dangerous. Sergio Ramos was brought down streaking into the box, and once again Kassai denied a penalty. The referee was doing a phenomenal job reading the falls and the fouls so far, letting play flow throughout the match.
And then Spain got a corner from the right of Neuer, and Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique both got high in the air above the German defense. It was Puyol who got his head on the Jabulani, driving this attempt directly on target and like a laser past the German keeper for the 1-0 lead sixteen minutes from stoppage time. Germany now had to change their game plan, press the pace and force their offensive side to come through.
Germany earned a dubious free kick, a lon launched into the box for Klose. Casillas, though, would get to it just in time, launching a promising counterattack to Villa upfield that just petered out. The Germans were pressing, a full role reversal for the two sides as Spain waited for their opportunity to exploit gaps in the German defense and Low's side lusted after possession and an equalizer.
Spain looked more comfortable regardless of which role they were playing on the Durban pitch. Three minutes of stoppage time were all that stood between the whistle and a date with the Netherlands. Ninety seconds left, Germany earned possession at midfield and pressed forward one last time. Puyol, having earned what would prove the winning goal, denied Germany a clear shot from the middle. The Spaniards were just killing time, yet still making Neuer sweat in the German goal. The vuvuzelas pulsated throughout the stadium as the full-time whistle sounded... Germany was denied yet again a shot at the finals, the second straight Cup they bombed out in the semifinals...