Group C results: Colombia 3 El Salvador 0; Turkey 2 Australia 1

It may not have seemed immediately obvious to the increasingly frustrated Turkish fans in Trabzon. But even as they were losing 1-0 to Australia, Turkey were guaranteed a place in the last 16 of ‘their’ tournament, thanks to their opening game trouncing of then-hapless El Salvador. Fortunately, the Young Socceroos made it three winning positions squandered out of three, although midfielder Okay Yokulsu had to belie his name three minutes from time to maintain that record. Aussie keeper Paul Izzo (which should be a nickname but isn’t…bet he’s called ‘Izzy’) may have been caught flat-footed by Hakan Calhanoglu’s 25-yard in-swinger off the post for Turkey’s equaliser. But there was nothing he could do about Yokulsu’s moment of extreme inspiration.

Yoklulsu had a ball-circumference of a gap to find in the top corner of the net, from 25 yards again…and did so with a chip-drive Tiger Woods at his long-ago best would have been smugly satisfied with. I will bet a considerable amount of money that he will never, EVER do that again. Mind you, Australia’s goal wasn’t bad, either. And they produced their best display of the tournament to quieten the home crowd. Actually, that wasn’t much of a task. After regular reminders that Turkish crowds were among world football’s most passionate, their relative no-show for this tournament has been a surprise and, like the team if we’re being honest, a bit of a let-down. We were also informed, by Eurosport’s Danny Mills – who has been through it – and Mark Bright – who hasn’t but thought he’d talk about it anyway, that Turkish crowds were usually in the stadium “five or six hours before kick-off” with mischief in mind. Curious, then, that with a match to watch during that time (Greece/Paraguay – below), the people of Trabzon were almost entirely absent.

Maybe Friday prayers played a part. But whatever Friday prayers were said didn’t work. And those that did eventually turn up probably wished they hadn’t for the first hour. By the time Jamie McLaren volleyed Australia in front, early in the second half, they should have been out of sight. Turkey’s Aykut Ozer made a fabulous low save from Ryan Williams’  shot. But Corey Gameiro only had himself to blame for side-footing wide of a semi-open goal moments later. Usually, we are bombarded with reminders that tournaments “need the host nation to progress.” Even Mark Bright seemed reluctant to shoe-horn that cliché into his commentary-box contributions here. Probably because in this tournament, thus far anyway, it hasn’t been true.

Over in Gaziantep, a crowd already royally entertained by Mexico and Mali (see below) were students at a Juan Quintero masterclass. The Colombian playmaker may not have been the most popular player in Turkey after scoring Colombia’s winner against the hosts on Tuesday. But such thoughts should have been banished from even the most one-eyed of Turkish fans by Quintero’s mastery over again-hapless El Salvador.
Quintero’s resting place for the new European club season is still a matter for debate. He has, in the manner of the modern man (or woman, for that matter), given hints on ‘Twitter’ that he won’t be at current club Pescara, in Italy’s second-tier (“Thank you and goodbye” was the gist of his twittering). And top-tier Italians Udinese are among his stronger-rumoured destinations. So, perhaps Watford could take him on loan, thereby – on this mismatch’s evidence, at least – dismissing most of their Premier League relegation fears at a stroke.

Quintero threatened to cut a frustrated figure against El Salvador. Colombia led 2-0 at the break and had the game and the group won, unless El Salvador became beneficiaries of a lot of luck and a strong following wind. And Quintero was in the mood for more, so decided to serve chance-upon-chance on a plate for his willing forward runners. This was much to the delight of commentary box denizens Tim Caple and Gary O’Reilly. “Another lefty,” noted O’Reilly, in appreciation of the genius of left-footed players from Lionel Messi down, rather than a withering criticism of Quintero’s politics. While Caple warned against being too effusive in praise for Quintero, only to ignore his own advice for the rest of the evening.
Unfortunately, Quintero’s runners were not both willing and able. First-half goalscorers, Andres Renteria and battering ram and apparent misprint centre-forward Jhon Cordoba, found increasingly inventive ways of looking Quintero’s gift horses in the mouth, as did Cristian Palomeque and late substitute Brayan Perea.

So Quintero was left to do it, nearly, all himself, playing a wall pass off Perea in stoppage-time before taking out all his pent-up frustration on the match ball, which whizzed past El Salvador keeper Rolando Morales at a rate of knots, covering 22 yards at a speed only the fastest of fast bowlers could consistently match. Renteria’s 21st-minute opener was a potential netbuster too; Cordoba’s penalty four minutes later, less so. “Wouldn’t trouble the speed camera, that penalty,” O’Reilly noted with trademark (wit). O’Reilly also noted that Olivier Ayala’s shirt-tug on Cordoba left the referee with “no option but to give a penalty.” Well, he could have given a free-kick, as the foul was outside the box… Either way, Colombia were in the comfort zone, as El Salvador’s sole attacking threat was increasingly speculative 40-yard lobs by Diego Coca (another “another lefty” – O’Reilly). And we were left with the Quintero Show to keep us going during the second half, which was plenty, thank you very much.

Group D results: Mexico 4 Mali 1; Greece 1 Paraguay 1

Gaziantep has endured rather than enjoyed Group D, six goals in four games indicative of its (lack of) entertainment value. So the chants of “Turkiye, Turkiye” which rattled around the Kamil Ocak stadium throughout the evening suggested an understandable desire to be elsewhere.
But Gaziantep’s football fans were ultimately rewarded for their patience, by Juan Quintero’s efforts for Colombia (above) and the “exhausting, exhilarating, entertaining and, at times, brutal” affair (Eurosport’s Jon O’Driscoll at half-time) that was Mexico’s crushing victory over Mali, which guaranteed previous table-proppers Mexico a second-round spot. (The second half was all those things, in larger quantities, which moved O’Driscoll to add “punishing” to his list of adjectives).

The fervour with which Mexico celebrated Uvaldo Luna’s 86th-minute goal suggested they knew the significance of going 4-1 up, and finishing with a positive goal difference alongside their three points, although it wasn’t until Australia’s defeat to the hosts that Mexico’s qualification was ensured. Mali’s apparent satisfaction with a point some way before the end of their 0-0 draw with Greece (still the competition’s only goalless game to date) suggested that they fancied their chances of getting something from Mexico and tip-toeing into the last 16 themselves on the back of three draws. That plan blew up in their faces in one minute eighteen seconds. And all they ended up “getting” from Mexico was a hiding. Serves them right, some might say. Such as me, for instance.

Mali keeper Germain Berthe will have worse games than this, though not worse starts. Both goalkeepers’ early kick-outs were appalling. But Berthe’s pinpoint pass to Mexican striker Marco Bueno was the most appalling and Bueno’s snappily-taken volley found the gaping goal with Berthe stood on the wrong corner of the six-yard box entirely. Berthe made considerable amends with an absolutely wonderful save to deny Jesus Corona moments later (“should have scored” – Rosenior, in full-on ‘ungenerous former-striker’ mode).  This, however, only delayed the inevitable collapse of Mali’s “let’s nick a point” plan, Corona getting on the scoresheet just five minutes later. Mali, though, contained too may Traores, Keitas and Sissokos to be that bad (the Bamako phone book must be a repetitive read). And they had a brief flicker of hope when Mexico took a proverbial siesta between the 50th and 62nd minutes.

Unfortunately, Mali’s goal – a far-from-thunderous volley by centre-back Samba Diallo which caught Mexican keeper Richard Sanchez… well… napping – awoke the Mexicans from their slumber. And after Jesus Escobosa, minus right boot, slotted home the third (with his left foot, in case you were wondering), it was a case of how many. Mexico knew that four would be enough and the only surprise was that they had to wait until so near the end to celebrate (they will, as the cliché suggests, be “a team to avoid” in the second round, despite having to face a group winner). Mind you, given their appalling finishing against Greece in their opening game, maybe we shouldn’t have been that shocked. Match stats showed that Mali contributed fractionally more than Mexico to a shot count of one-every-two minutes. But most of their efforts entered the stratosphere at some point. And some people will surely believe that no matter how many Traores etc take to the field, two Jesus’s will always win through.

Penalty shoot-outs, as Spain and Italy’s senior teams demonstrated in the Confederations Cup in Brazil, are only lotteries if you treat them that way. So there was surely a case for one such shoot-out after Greece and Paraguay played out a 1-1 draw which left them undividable on all the methods Fifa deemed fit for the purpose, the world’s governing body eschewing the number of bookings, which briefly threatened to determine three of the four places in one of this year’s African Cup of Nations’ groups.  Greece would have won on beards and founding Olympic Games, while Paraguay had the edge on kit and former Mexican international Zavier Aguirre-lookalike coaches. So Fifa, probably wisely, decided on drawing of lots…which Greece won in front of a crowd scarcely smaller than that which had watched their match.

Whether Greece deserved this for their football is a moot point. Either side of the Paraguay captain Gustavo Gomez’s entirely fair dismissal (he should have seen red for the elbow which got him his first yellow), Greece dominated possession and clear chances. Yet Paraguay scored the better goal, sub Bryan Montenegro’s nifty overhead kick, and drew despite having ten men for 67 minutes. If Colombia’s Juan Quintero despaired as his colleagues laid waste to his wonderful passing, then Greek full-back Konstantinos Stafylidis will now know how he feels, as cross-after-cross from his left foot was reduced to historical footnote by errant Greeks. Greece were typified by Andreas Bouchalakis, who looked almost as dangerous from 35 yards against Paraguay, twice, as he had from 35 inches against Mali.

So it was probably some sort of ironic that their goal was a close-range header by Dimitrios Diamantikos from a typically accurate Stafylidis free-kick, especially as Diamantikos nearly snapped himself in half wasting another pinpoint Stafylidis delivery late on. And having taken so many pains to get ahead, it was probably little wonder that they only stayed there for five minutes. Greek fans will probably argue that they had the more positive attitude on the day. And they were probably right. Oh… and they would have won on bookings too.

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