Okay. Well, apart from Germany & Poland, we’ve seen everybody once, so now is about as good a time as any to have a quick look at what we’ve seen so far. It has been a terrific tournament so far. Only two goalless draws, and both of those matches were very watchable. On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, three teams have stood out: Italy, Argentina and Spain. Spain, of course, I’ve only recently dissected. Can they hold it together, psychologically? The pieces are in place. Raul seems to have accepted that he has got to fight for his place in the team. Puyol looks like quite a find. But… the result against Ukraine was flattering. Argentina looked strong and well-organised against a technically excellent Ivory Coast team. Ominously, they haven’t even played Lionel Messi yet, either. Having said that, I’m less than completely convinced by their defence but, if I were a gambler this is where my money would be going at present. If Italy can start firing on all cylinders as an attacking force, they could well go al the way. As with Spain, doubts linger over their mental fragility – Italy can look awesome one week, and then crumble against mediocre opposition the next – but they are certainly capable of going all the way. We should also keep a close eye on the Czechs: whilst they played out the most one-sided match of the opening round of matches against the USA, we’ll know more about them once they’ve played better opposition. We’ll have a look at everybody in order now.
Group A: Germany, of course, are more or less there. I’m surprised and delighted by the reaction that they have received in this country. Maybe it’s because they’re playing such attractive, attacking football. Maybe it’s because no-one thinks that they’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of winning it. Poland are already out. I think that they would have been even if they’d held out for a draw in Dortmund last night. Ecuador looked tidy and competent, but not sufficently infused with individual talent to go further than the second round. This is the sort of comment that I could well live to regret. Costa Rica, finally, have attacking flair. It was surprising yet delightful to see Paulo Wanchope’s long-legged, loping runs causing such consternation amongst what was passing for a German defence last Friday, their own sloppy defensive play cost them against the Germans and will, I suspect continue to do so.
Group B: Four and a half hours before Trinidad match probably isn’t the best time to write objectively about England. They were infuriating against Paraguay. Forget the substitutions, the heat and the referee: they stopped playing with twenty minutes to go. Tonight is the real acid test: are they mentally strong enough to overcome a Trinidad side that were playing above themselves to draw with Sweden? The Swedes can’t afford such profligacy in front of goal against Paraguay tonight. They paid a price for playing Henrik Larsson too deeply. I can’t really call this group. The first three matches were too tight. My head says England and Sweden – neither of them can play that abjectly again, surely – but my heart says we could be on for a massive surprise tonight. Trinidad could take England right to the wire.
Group C: Go on, admit it. Argentina looked pretty awesome against the Ivory Coast, didn’t they? Riquelme, Saviola, Crespo… it’s a pretty awesome line-up. Their only weakness seems to be defensively. They allowed Ivory Coast to create far too many chances. That said, Holland can (if they can get Van Nistelrooy interested for 90 minutes) get something out of their match against the Argentines. The group decider will be Ivory Coast-Holland. The Dutch aren’t the romantics that they used to be, and I suspect that they’ll edge it. As for Serbia… they fall into the category of teams that will be found out for their lack of attacking ambition.
Group D: I fully expect Portugal to get through this group as winners, but don’t expect them to make easy work of it. That’s just not the Portguese way. Fortunately for them, Mexico are just as cursed (if not more so) in this sort of competition. Angola will struggle without the added incentive of putting one over the old colonial masters (they played very well against Portugal, but looked defensively suspect), and Iran will continue to be punished for as long as they play the goalkeeper that played against Mexico. I fully expect this group to be tied up by Saturday team-time, which will at least set up a couple of interesting final matches. Mexico and Portugal will be able to try and out-gun each other for first place (nand neither is hort of attacking options), whilst Iran and Angola will be playing for pride.
Group E: This is another group that should be tied up by the end of the weekend. Italy play a USA team that surprised many people (myself included) with how poor they were against the Czechs. Against Ghana, Italy rode their luck at times, but were, I think too good for them. The Czechs were outstanding against the USA, even if you subscribe to the “a team can only play as well as the team that they’re playing against” theory. They’ll miss Koller, but Rosicky is on fire, and they’re also strong defensively. Ghana played the most open football of any of the African teams, but such tactics tend to leave gaps at the back, and the Czechs are certainly capable of exploiting this. And yes, I’m still amazed at the £22m that Chelsea have paid for Michael Essien.
Group F: Let’s not get carried away here. Australia’s 3-1 win over Japan was, whilst a fine result, a flattering one too. Still, they seem to have plenty of attacking options and their, ahem, “robust” style of play could unnerve Brazil, who were distinctly average against Croatia. How this group swings could well depend on which Brazil turn up against Australia. I still foresee them going through (because I can’t see anybody not beating Japan), but if they fail to beat Australia and Croatia see off the Japanese, it could go right to the wire. They need to buck their ideas up.
Group G: France were terrible against a limited Switzerland side the other day, and I’d be less than surprised if they struggled against the pacy, high-tempo style of South Korea. Togo were desperately unlucky against the Koreans, but I think that getting through the group stages will beyond them. So, we could be going into the final round of matches with France needing to win and hoping that other results go their way. I think they’ll still make it, though it’ll be a closer thing than anybody predicted. Switzerland to join them – possibly as group winners.
Group H: As I said above, Spain’s result against Ukraine was good one, but they’ve flattered to deceive before and certainly lucky in their first match. 2-0 up against 11 men is very different to 3-0 up against 10 men. Ukraine were done a massive favour when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia cancelled each other out later on yesterday, but their confidence must be shot. Out of the other two, I’d have to go with Tunisia to put up the stiffest challenge. With a bit of luck again and their top strikers on form, I dread to think what Spain might do to the Saudis.
And that’s that. I daresay that I’ll be back after Ecuador – Costa Rica for the usual mixture of lightweight tactical analysis, spelling mistakes, getting the players’ names wrong, and slagging off the commentator,