If this World Cup has yet to really catch, there were high hopes beforehand that these two teams would provide the first really absorbing contest – both are packed with undoubted talent, and are probably battling for a single qualification sport behind Brazil. But with hindsight, this last factor was the critical one and ought to have made us realise that we’d be in for yet another game defined principally by caution. This game always looked likely to be the crunch one for both teams, and if it had come last it might have been a humdinger. Coming first, neither team was willing to take much in the way of risks, apparently happy to leave it to see who could nick a result off Brazil or else rack up the better goal difference against North Korea.
Yet another dull game then in a tournament that’s taking a very long time to get going. The Ivory Coast, to be fair, were missing their talisman Didier Drogba, at least for most of the game. He was passed fit after his recent elbow injury, and had the cast on his arm cleared by the relevant authorities, but was left on the bench until the final quarter of the match – to the evident disappointment of ITV who were itching to bill the game as Drogba v Ronaldo. Instead, Southgate made a half-hearted attempt to present it as “known v unknown”, which Matt Smith quickly scotched by observing how many of Ivory Coast’s player came from the English Premier League. Then there was the Sven angle – Eriksson being in charge of the Africans here – and Southgate was reminded repeatedly about his supposed comment comparing the former England manager to Iain Duncan Smith. He was a little coy on whether or not he’d ever actually said it, though his dislike of Eriksson as a manager certainly seemed apparent at half-time when he blamed his tactical mindset for the dullness of the game.
You couldn’t fault him on the last point at least, not much had happened in the first half (“dire”, said Townsend). For such incident as there was, Ronaldo was mostly at the centre of it. Now, I’m not big fan of his (let’s be honest, he cheats) but Jim Beglin’s determination to accuse him of diving at every opportunity seemed rather harsh here. Firstly Didier Zokora went through him rather widly with both feet, and was rightly booked even if contact had been slight. A little later he was caught on the edge of the box by Guy Demel; this time no foul was given, though both players were booked for some jostling in the aftermath. As replays showed a clear foul, Beglin continued to insist Ronaldo had dived.
In between those two incidents, Ronaldo showed his best side, turning his man and unleashing a shot from thirty yards which clattered the post with goalkeeper Boubacar Barry nowhere near. That was in the eleventh minute, and we were left to live off its memory for pretty much the rest of the game. Even the early signs that it might get a bit tasty and lead to a cardfest came to nothing.
In Drogba’s absence, Lille striker Gervinho led the line for the Ivorians, and although he was ploughing a pretty lone furrow much of the time with his teammates playing so deep, he did look lively, and was the focal point of all their efforts as they started to look more threatening early in the second half. It didn’t, however, produce any real chances, even with the introduction of Drogba after 65 minutes. Portugal did have the ball in the net at one stage, a Liédson header, but the whistle had already gone for a push. Other than that there were only a few long shots, mostly off-target, a Gervinho header that went over, another chance for Beglin to accuse Ronaldo of diving after a foul by Tiéné, and then – in injury time – Drogba finally got half a sight of goal when played through on the left hand side of the penalty area. Stretching for it, and under pressure from the defender, he could only whip it across goal and out towards the corner flag.
The game was summed up by its final kick. In the last minute of injury time, the Ivory Coast had a corner. Instead of firing it into the six yard box, they tapped it short, the final whistle went, and that was that. At least it leaves everything still to play for, but of all the tame matches we’ve had in the first few days this was perhaps the most disappointing because both teams offer some promise and are much-vaunted in some quarters. Portugal are, somehow, ranked third in the world, despite having reached this tournament via the play-offs, while the Ivory Coast have many players with regular Champions League experience and have for a while been tipped as the team most likely to produce the African breakthrough that we all hope (rather than expect) to happen sooner rather than later. On this evidence it’a hard to see that happening here. On form alone I’d still see them as slight favourites to make it through the group, but Portugal have the big advantage of playing Brazil last when they may well have already qualified. And whoever gets through in second place has a likely game against Spain in the last sixteen.
Back in the studio, Southgate was still blaming, principally, the Ivory Coast for the negative tactics, which seemed a little harsh to me as they’d done more of the pressing in the second half. But he was right to note that whichever team misses out, and it’s safe to assume one of them will, will regret not having given it more of a go in this match. Along with all of us who were watching it.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.