Today’s matches are all about the subtleties and finer points of what the group phase will look like. This afternoon, Mexico play Portugal, and Iran play Angola. Portugal are already through, but first place is their minimum aim – the runners-up in this group are likely to be playing Argentina in the second round. So, don’t expect Portugal to put out a reserve team for this match, and don’t expect Mexico to either. If they lose and Angola can beat Iran by three goals, they’re out and the Africans are through. If Portugal were to beat Mexico by two clear goals, Angola would just need a two goal win. And so on. I can’t see Mexico massively upsetting the apple-cart here, though they’re likely to put their own supporters’ nerves through the mill on the way. Portugal should beat them (and may do it comfortably), but Angola haven’t shown any real attacking instinct so far and, although Iran have been poor in their first two matches, I’m not sure that I can see where these two or three clear goals are coming from.
Tonight, it’s exhibition match time. Neither Holland nor Argentina will be over-concerned at the prospect of playing Mexico or Portugal (both of whom have looked out-of-sorts so far), and will be still less worried about any potential threat from Angola. Having said that, though, other countries seem to have an irrational fear of playing England, so both are likely to be eager to avoid playing them in the quarter-finals. Couple this with the natural urge of professional footballers to not want to lose, and we could have the match of the round here. I suspect that, considering the depth of quality that they have, Argentina will rest a couple of players tonight, so we can expect to see a first start for Lionel Messi at the very least. The Dutch will be very keen to win (if for no other reason than to prove a point), but Argentina are probably still smarting from Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute winner against them in Marseille in 1998. I can’t see Argentina not getting the draw that they need to top the group, but Van Nistelrooy looked more interested against Ivory Coast than he had against Serbia & Montenegro, so anything’s possible.
Brilliant though Argentina were against Serbia, they only edged past Ivory Coast, and by later tonight we should have a clearer idea of whether they are likely to go all the way, or whether they have peaked far, far too soon. The Dutch have been largely functional so far, but secure in the knowledge that they have an eminently winnable second round tie, we may see a more flamboyant side to their game tonight. Elsewhere, we can expect Ivory Coast to finally get the points that their two very ood performances so far have deserved. Note to FIFA (on the slight, slight off-chance that Sepp Blatter reads this): next time, how about the top two seeds not playing the bottom two seeds first? We’re losing a lot of the excitement of the final round of matches because too many teams have won their first two matches. Or is the idea to get the top two seeds through as comfortably as possible?