- What a great pleasure it is to see South American teams doing so well. Chile were the only ones which couldn't top their group and/or finish undefeated. They were just one goal shy of making it. The other four? No defeats and top of their groups. Uruguay didn't even concede a goal. Up to the point when David VILLA scored Spain's first goal on Friday, no South American team had even trailed at any time in any game! They were never behind in the score until VILLA scored. That defeat by Chile meant that it will be impossible for all CONMEBOL teams to make it to the Quarter-finals (can you imagine 5 out of 8 teams from the same region?). It will be impossible because La Roja will now face Brazil (a clash which, on the other hand, guarantees at least one South American side in the QF).
-Asians did a good job too. 2 out of 4 is not that bad. Australia are from Oceania but they qualified though the AFC so they count as an Asian representative in my opinion. And they missed out on goal-difference mainly because of their terrible performance v. Germany. South Korea and Japan are still alive and this time nobody can say it's just because they are hosting the tournament!
-What a disappointing tournament for Africans! Cameroon 0 pt; Algeria (no goals scored) and Nigeria 1 pt; Ivory Coast and South Africa (only host in the history of the World Cup to be eliminated in the group stage) 4 pts and only Ghana qualified (also 4 points). It was a perfect opportunity for them to shine and they were terrible (the exception being the Black Stars, a team that coped well despite missing their main star Michael ESSIEN and suffering with Sulley MUNTARI bothered by injuries too).
-CONCACAF? The only two decent teams from that confederation surprised a few people and made it to the Round of 16. Mexico did so by coming out of the so-called Group of Death, whilst the USA topped the group their shared with England. Honduras on the other hand...
-And the Europeans...well...only 6 out of 13 teams from the UEFA are still alive in the competition. But guess what? They will all face European rivals in the second round. So three of them will be eliminated. Not what you can call 'progress' after we saw four European sides playing the semifinals in Germany 2006. Giants like France and Italy have hugely disappointed. Greece and Switzerland came to take part in a track and field competition or something like that...because they didn't care about the ball. They were just running around. Preferably just a few yards away from their goalkeepers. And then some other teams like Slovenia, Serbia and Denmark which didn't have what it takes to advance.
-One big concern for me going forward is THE REFEREES. We've seen some guys call things they wouldn't get away with in my neighbourhood. It seemed like some of these referees have never played or even watch enough football. I've seen matches ruined single-handedly by refs. Switzerland-Chile is an example of a man possessed showing yellows and reds at will. The joke of a referee that ignored TWO hand-balls by Luis HANDIANO...sorry...Luis FABIANO in the same move -that ended in Brazil scoring their vital second goal v. Ivory Coast- was just that...a joke. He topped it up with a good laugh with Luis LIARIANO...sorry...Luis FABIANO, who swore he never touched it with his hand! Not to mention the man who denied the USA of a fantastic comeback win over Slovenia when he saw a ghost pushing a Slovenian defender in the penalty area. I mean...if we are going to see this kind of referees in the knock-out stages, we better brace ourselves for a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. Sort it out, FIFA! Sort it out!
-Enough with the Jabulani argument. When I hear it from Diego, I respect his opinion, but you have to admit that it would be impossible to blame the ball for every sin there is in this World Cup after seeing how HONDA and ENDO sent the damn thing wherever they wanted to send it. Or how PODOLSKI, MÜLLER, LAHM and ÖZIL seem to have no problems with it. Or how MESSI keeps being denied by the woodwork or whoever is in goal against Argentina but he rarely sends a ball off target. None of the many goalkeeping blunders can be blamed on the Jabulani either. They were all human errors (especially Robert GREEN's). Very short grass and wet surfaces, however, topped with a little bit of altitude could very much be more solid arguments to explain the lack of precision and the below-average level of football we've been watching.
-When it comes to the best players from this first round (and after having watched every match -the exception being those which happened at the same time of others in the third round of matches, though I checked the highlights and some of them I watched simultaneously in two different screens-), here's my attempt of the ideal starting XI:
Diego BENAGLIO (SUI - He kept Switzerland alive until the very end. Conceded only one goal and was the main reason why they got a win over Spain and then lost only by one goal to Chile. A shame he couldn't score. Neither could his team-mates!)
MAICON (BRA - You gotta give it to him. Scored a brilliant goal against North Korea to help settle the nerves of his entire team. Played a good game v. Ivory Coast too and didn't make mistakes v. Portugal. Didn't play his best yet, but with what he did, it proved to be enough).
Tulio TANAKA (JPN - This is the man who scored two own-goals in two friendly matches just before the World Cup -England and Ivory Coast-, though he became famous for breaking Didier DROGBA's arm. It looks as if he left all that madness behind and he has become the backbone of a very tough Japanese defence clearing everything that went his way for a team that lost only marginally to Holland and conceded just 2 goals in three matches).
Bruno ALVES (POR - No goals conceded by his team. Very solid and commanding. Impossible to beat in the air -so far- and able to start attacking actions from the back).
Fabio COENTRAO (POR - Yes. Two Portuguese in my ideal defence. Who would have thought? But this man has been immense. Great pace and very dangerous going forward without forgetting about his defensive duties. One to keep a close eye on).
Mesut ÖZIL (GER - Impressed v. Australia and was the best player in a very solid Germany team. Faded out a little v. Serbia -though the manager replaced him with 20 minutes to go- and then gave Germany the ticket to the next round with a great goal v. Ghana. He is a very classy left-footed playmaker that is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very industrious team).
Egidio AREVALO (URU - One of only two players from Uruguay (the other is sub GK Martín SILVA) that are still competing in his domestic league. He plays for Peñarol. This bald holding midfielder has been a beast for Uruguay. He is everywhere. He is a constant help for his defenders and he can also show up by surprise in the opposing penalty area. A motor in the middle for La Celeste).
Keisuke HONDA (JPN - Yes. My second Japanese here. Somebody should check this blonde Japanese's passport because he looks like someone from South America. The way he plays is just a joy to watch. He gave Japan three points with a sweet finish against Cameroon. Then he opened the scoring in their crucial match v. Denmark with a rocket of a free-kick (Jabulani is not a Japanese word, is it?!) and to finish up a glorious first round for him and his team, he created something out of nowhere and gave his team-mate Shinji OKAZAKI a lovely back pass for him to score in front of an empty net. More of this, Keisuke San please!
Forwards: (I'm going with a 4-3-3 formation, yes. It could be a little unbalanced with only RIOS marking, but I don't care!).
Lionel MESSI (ARG - He didn't score yet, but who cares if he will provide the kind of performances he is providing. The best thing about it is that he is still not even close to his best. Everytime he is on the ball, things change. With him being at a 6 out of a possible 10 it was enough for Argentina to walk through their group and be one of only 2 teams with perfect record (the other being Holland). Played a part in 4 out of 7 goals scored by Argentina).
David VILLA (ESP - He missed a penalty v. Honduras. Had he scored that one, he would be top of the scoring charts in this World Cup. All important goals for El Guaje, especially on Friday v. Chile to help La Furia get closer to the Round of 16 after being in danger for losing to Switzerland in their debut. He is a constant threat and he has become Spain's all-time leading scorer at the World Cup -beating legends such as RAUL and Emilio BUTRAGUEÑO).
Robert VITTEK (SVK - No Gonzalo HIGUAIN for me. He is up there together with VITTEK and VILLA with 3 goals, but he played only two matches -this could be a reason to rank him higher, though I'm not going for it- and his performance v. Nigeria left a lot to be desired. VITTEK, on the other hand, was more consistent and his goals gave Slovakia 4 points (they got four points to qualify from Group D). He scored against New Zealand and then he scored two v. Italy. Big, strong centre forward with a surprising speed. A big reason to explain Slovakia's qualification to the next round).
Best Manager: Takeshi OKADA (JPN) - He keeps saying Japan are going to get to the semifinals. I'm starting to believe he is being serious about it. There was a brilliant and very funny Japanese TV show I used to watch when I lived in England and it was called 'TAKESHI's CASTLE'. Well...this Takeshi is damn serious about his job. Nothing to laugh about here.
Bench (one in each position):
Fernando MUSLERA (URU - Only one of two goalkeepers that haven't conceded a goal yet -the other being EDUARDO from Portugal. MUSLERA has been safe whenever someone managed to get past the tough Uruguayan defence).
Rafael MARQUEZ (MEX - Rafa has been crucial for Mexico. El Tri's captain scored against South Africa and sent a clinical assist to Javier HERNANDEZ for Mexico to open the scoring against France. Apart from that, the Barcelona defender-midfielder has been excellent in every aspect of the game).
Michael BRADLEY (USA - He has proven many times that he is not there just because he is the son of the manager. Michael scored many crucial goals for the USA in the WC qualifiers and he came up big when it mattered the most, scoring the equalizer for the Americans v. Slovenia. He's been outstanding for the USA in every game they played so far).
Landon DONOVAN (USA - And if BRADLEY was crucial for the Americans...what can you say about clutch performer Landon DONOVAN? He started the comeback v. Slovenia with a great goal and then clinched the USA qualification for the Round of 16 with a late late late goal v. Argelia).
Outstanding star in this first round: Who else but Diego Armando MARADONA? Not only he managed to get 9 points and give all but one outfield player (Ariel GARCE) some minutes, but he's been stealing all flashes and microphones since he arrived in South Africa. He sent PELE to the museum, he had an argument with KARAGOUNIS when the Greek midfielder wanted to pick up a fight with MESSI, he gave Lio the arm-band he wore like no other man did in the history of our national team and he even stopped a ball coming his way with a sweet 'taquito'. And all of this wearing that grey-almost-silver suit with a tie and a white shirt. May this endless series of serious and fun moments continue for a few more rounds. Four more rounds to be exact!
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