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Group A results: Spain 2 France 1; Ghana 4 United States 1
So. Farewell then. The United States. Given the 4-1 pastings the Americans took from Spain and Ghana, there will be some French eyebrows raised at the inability of their clearly talented youngsters to follow suit. That, though, would be to deny the Ghanaians credit for a blistering display against the US, which leaves them with three points, a level goal difference and a nervous wait to see if that tally, enough to ensure qualification as a superior third-place finisher in most previous tournaments, will be good enough in this rather more open event.
It would be a crying shame if the young Black Stars don’t make it, as there is no way that one of the worst eight teams in Turkey could have played like they did yesterday. They were quick out of the blocks against the States and just got quicker as the match went on, with 4-1 not flattering them in any way, despite being clawed back to 2-1 with twenty minutes left and under threat of not winning at all for a few short minutes afterwards. Players such as two-goal Ebenezer Assifuah, Frank Acheampong and Yiadom Boakye were not only too quick for their opponents but also, at times, for the TV cameramen. The official stats credited them with 17 (SEVENTEEN) shots on target. It was little wonder that American keeper Cody Cropper kept like he was in a daze in the closing stages. And it was no wonder at all that, as Eurosport’s Andy Bodfish noted with a rehearsed glee, Cropper “came one” as Ghana sought to improve their goal difference right to the end. If Cropper’s Southampton career were to last a decade, I would doubt that any goal of his would come under such a ferocious, sustained assault – even at Old Trafford with Robin Van Persie in the mood. Should Ghana be one of the four best third-placers (and they should be…), they’ll be the ones “nobody will fancy meeting.” Yes, even more so than England.
Spain’s casual dismantling of France was a different kind of excellent. Even with six changes, and without star performer Gerard Deulofeu, Spain were occasionally sumptuous, if still jittery enough at the back to allow anyone hope in the knock-out stages (keeper Daniel Sotres nearly allowed a gentle backpass to roll past him into the net moments after France brought matters back to 2-1). And the fact that they were the only team with a 100% record after two games in this otherwise wide-open competition (and in a quality group too) justifies their favourites tag; even if that was originally bestowed upon them by dint of being Spain. Jese was unlucky not to score in the first half but sent French keeper Alphonse Areola the wrong way – in open play – for the 56th-minute goal which keeps the tournament’s Golden Boot firmly in his sights and, at 2-0, sealed win number three for his team. And he set up Paco Alacer for Spain’s 23rd-minute opener. Not bad for a “false number nine.”
Les Bleuets (no, really) held onto second place thanks to Ghana’s pyrotechnics and look set to face Group C’s runners-up for a place in the quarter-finals, probably Turkey at the time of writing, though possibly El Salvador – the cumbersome 24-team format does at least keep teams, fans…and arithmeticians busy to the last. Either way, France should be more focused than they’ve been in the group, which should make them favourites. Well beaten though they were by Spain, they still had their moments – Geoffrey Kondogbia struck the post with 17 minutes left, which could have made things interesting. And in Paul Pogba, suspended here, and striker Yaya Sanogo, they have two potential tournament stars. Lose the Patrick Kielty-lookalike at right-back (Lucas Digne’s mohican just makes him look like Patrick Kielty with a mohican, the stuff of which sessions on a psychiatrist’s couch are made) and it might almost be possible to like this French side. Almost. And just one more thing. Stan Collymore made his tournament debut as a Eurosport analyst and instantly put all his colleagues in the shade. Articulate and well-researched, he’s way too good for that lowest-common-denominator muck served up by Talksport radio. Welcome, Stan.
Group B results: Nigeria 1 Korea Republic 0; Portugal 5 Cuba 0
No qualification worries for third-placed South Korea, you would imagine. A narrow Nigerian victory over the Asian champions was the result most likely to deliver qualification to both sides, although if Nigeria’s 1-0 win was a collaborative effort it was a magnificently disguised one. The official stats gave the Koreans two shots, which is at least one more than I can remember (the stats also gave them 52% first-half possession, which induced a snort of disbelief from Eurosport’s Andy Bodfish). And they were strangely – and unstereotypically – subdued in the first hour (“it’s been a strange game” – Bodfish). But deliberately so? No. The Nigerians danced gratefully into this void. They were backed by a better crowd than usual for this tournament, most of whom were dressed as if they were there for this match rather than Spain/France later in the evening – before anyone says anything. And maybe the Koreans were taken aback by their new-found, thoroughly unmerited status as pantomime villains.
Whatever the reasons, Nigeria were already well on top when Olarenwaju Kayode headed them in front on nine minutes, taking advantage of some “after you, Kim” hesitancy among Korean centre-backs and goalkeeper. And they continued to dominate, backed by frequent renditions of what sounded like “all we are saying is give us a goal” from some fans who clearly hadn’t been paying attention…or had arrived late and couldn’t see a scoreboard. Eurosport’s Bryan Hamilton described one Kyode effort late in the first half as “almost brilliant”, and that summed Nigeria up. Had their star performer to date, Abdul Ajagun, been on his game, the game might have been sewn up by half-time.
As it was, South Korea’s late search for a leveller induced some unheralded worry in the Nigerian defence…at least until the 85th-minute, when the Koreans loused up a training-ground free-kick move, leaving three forwards in a heap in the penalty box while the other one was… offside. And just one more thing (again). The Ali Sami Yen Arena pitch, on which the final is set to be played, is cutting up badly. South Korea’s Ryu Seungwoo had to be substituted when he unwittingly dug up a huge lump of turf and nearly fell down the hole he’d just created. The tournament has been played on otherwise exemplary playing surfaces – a sight for sore eyes after the African Cup of Nations (no Nelspruits here). So it would be a desperate shame if the final was to suffer in this regard.
Korean Republic failings meant Portugal only needed to draw with Cuba in their final game to qualify for the knockout stages, with a win taking them to the top of Group B and a game against a third-placed team elsewhere. And with hell not have discernibly frozen over by kick-off, the group was duly won. Cuban keeper Sandy Sanchez may sound like a mid-ranking US TV soap star but he was, by the length of the pool, Cuba’s best player against the Portuguese. It was one sign of Cuba’s problems that Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce was saying this about him when Cuba were 5-0 down with fifteen minutes still left.
It was another sign still that Sanchez was being praised for his speed off his line to deal with long balls. “He’s playing almost like a centre-half,” noted Boyce. The problem here was that much the same could be said of the centre-halves. Portugal made changes to their starting line-up but kept Bruma and Aladje – stand-out performers for contrasting reasons – in the attacking third. Such was Cuba’s defensive disarray that Aladje looked quick. But I wasn’t the only one confused, as Leroy Rosenior thought Portugal were “bright, sharp and…lackadaisical” in the first half. With Bruma in the side, serving goals on a plate as he did here, Aladje could be a Golden Boot contender, which is a sobering thought. Mind you, Bruma himself is an even better bet. “Looking dangerous,” said Boyce, as Bruma went close early on. “Looking selfish,” noted former centre-forward Rosenior, spotting one of an unmarked Aladje in front of the goal Bruma had just missed. If Bruma starts getting selfless, Aladje might need to get his feet measured.
Cuba are the first team to be formally eliminated from the competition. And whilst they’ve surely only beaten New Zealand to that because their group finished first, they’ve had a humbling experience here since South Korea eventually broke their resistance in their first game. They’ll have learnt a lot, especially if you do learn by your mistakes. But they had a lot to learn. Portugal, meanwhile, march on. It remains to be seen how good they would be without Bruma. But with him, they are contenders.
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