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World Cup Round Up: Groups A and B

In Football on June 23, 2010 at 12:40 am

Group A

French Farce Opens The Door For Uruguay

Irish bile was rising ever since Thierry Henry left them with nothing to do for the Summer but bombard phone-in shows with their righteous self regard, and set up Facebook groups demanding inclusion as a ‘33rd team’. But all those bitter prayers paid off as the French collapsed in a quite astonishing manner, leaving the path clear for Uruguay and Mexico to advance.

Luis Suarez nets the winner against Mexico

First of all, praise must go to Uruguay. The South Americans deservedly topped the group by a clear three points, and they had to do it the hard way by taking on the 2006 finalists when they were still in relatively good health. That 0-0 draw may have been the first match that sparked the usual World Cup doomsayers into action, but they repaid their debt in full by spanking South Africa 3-0 in their own backyard and pipping the Mexicans in an entertaining final game. Luis Suarez finally got himself on the scoresheet in that game, after Diego Forlan had sparked their bid into life with a virtuoso display against the hosts. With Edison Cavani  slowly finding his feet aswell, they have the firepower to make a real dent in the competition.

This lively strikeforce may be getting the headlines, but their backline has quietly amassed three clean sheets to kick off the tournament. Captain Diego Lugano had some awkward moments against France, but has dug in and is now a rock at the back. Partnered by the younger Diego Godin for the first two games, and Mauricio Victorino for the Mexican showdown, the backline holds the key for this side. If they can keep it tight at the back, they will have a chance against anyone.

They dominated the midfield against Mexico, and if they can do the same against the South Koreans then a quarter final spot should be well within their scope.

Despite losing their final group game, Mexico progress to the second round on goal difference ahead of the hosts. They looked vulnerable in their warm-up games and then conceded first in their opener, but they showed the steel in their side by snatching a priceless point and then taking advantage of the French disaster. Questions remain at the back, as Uruguay squandered a number of openings, but they play an attacking style of football which is a joy to watch at times.

It’s likely that they’ll drop the misfiring Guillermo Franco to the bench for their second round clash with Argentina, and bring in Javier Hernandez to spearhead their attack. The youngster has looked really sharp so

Hernandez opens the scoring against France

far and took his goal expertly in the 2-0 win over France. If they are to have any chance against Diego Maradona’s marauding army of attackers, they can’t afford to waste the kind of openings they have in their first three games.

Apart from Hernandez, Andres Guardado showed what threat he possesses in their final game, while Giovani dos Santos and the legendary Cuauhtemoc Blanco will also find the chinks in the Argentinian back four. If left back Carlos Salcido can make an impression going forward, it could be a difficult night for the unfortunate Jonas Gutierrez, a hard-working left winger inexplicably deputising for the absent Javier Zanetti on the Argentinian right flank.

Of the two sides who went out, only South Africa can hold their head high. They almost escaped with a massive win over Mexico in their opener, before succumbing to a rampant Uruguay. Had they had a bit more luck, that game would certainly not have finished 3-0, and they could very possibly have squeezed into the knockout stages.

They finished their tournament on a high though, and regardless of the state of the French side they will rightly cherish that 2-1 win. They showed real heart and determination in that match, and had us all believing in the impossible when they led 2-0 at the break. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but they showed enough to have real hope for future World Cups.

The same can not be said of the team languishing in last place, France. A game and a half of turgid, goalless football had onlookers bored to tears, but hardly hinted at the explosive conflict to come. The sight of the captain Patrice Evra angrily ripping off his captain’s armband at full time in the Mexican loss was a warning sign, but nobody could have predicted how quickly these spoilt players went into meltdown.

Where does French football go from here?

Ironically, the inept Raymond Domenech is the one person who has come out of this mess relatively unscathed. It was well known before the tournament that he commanded no respect in the dressing room, and he had become a laughing stock outside of it too. The French Federation should have some very tricky questions to answer as to why he was not shown the door a long time ago.

But the most disgraceful element of this whole farce is the behaviour of the players themselves. Rumours of racial tensions abound, while cliques have supposedly formed, causing fault lines to appear in the squad. The dropping of captain Henry may have been one of the catalysts. Nicolas Anelka’s foul-mouthed half-time tirade left Domenech no option but to dismiss him, and things disintegrated from there.

Firstly, you would think a player like Anelka would relish the chance of a first World Cup at 31. It seems ‘Le Sulk’ has never grown up though. The subsequent refusal of the squad to train was absolutely inexcusable, and the deranged rantings of Evra afterwards brought his mental health into question, rather than the ‘traitor’ who was being targeted.

The French public deserved far more from this embarrassment of a team, and the players involved have a lot to do to clear their names. Much more will emerge over this scandal, which has already been described as French football’s ‘Waterloo’. One thing is for sure though, nobody will envy the job which Laurent Blanc now faces.

All the Irish finding high comedy in this dark episode should consider this though; we lost to the worst team in the tournament.

Group B

Argentina Advance With Little Alarm

There was far less drama to be found in Group B, as Argentina serenely advanced without a hint of trouble. There was still a thrilling endgame though, as Nigeria took the South Koreans right to the wire in the final fixture, while the Greeks slowly shuffled off the stage.

Lionel Messi has had a stellar start to the tournament

Argentina have leap-frogged Spain and, in many cases Brazil as tournament favourites on the strength of their group wins. It’s hard to argue with this if you’ve witnessed the mesmerising sight of Messi in full flow, ably backed by a supporting cast which would be the envy of any other side. With a rotating forward line boasting Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Angel di Maria and top-scorer Gonzalo Higuain, they have enough goals in them to win two World Cups.

The problems begin at the back, however. As mentioned earlier, Jonas Gutierrez is not a right back, and as long as Maradona persists with playing him there, he will struggle. There were times during the game against Nigeria where the exclusion of Javier Zanetti looked like a mistake which would sabotage their bid, but Maradona stubbornly insists it will work.

Despite cutting an increasingly agitated figure on the sideline, the besuited legend (at times resembling a rebellious child on his confirmation day) has clearly instilled a great team spirit in his players. Along with the talent at his disposal, and a large helping of luck along the way, that may well be enough to allow him brandish a metaphorical (or perhaps literal, knowing Diego) middle finger at his detractors.

The other side to progress were South Korea, who may have used up their quota of luck already. Impressive in an opening day dismissal of Greece, their problems at the back were exposed in a 4-1 loss to Argentina, and they were lucky to escape with the point they needed against a wasteful Nigerian side.

It’s impossible not to warm to Lars Lagerback’s side, who play an open brand of football which allowed them to notch five goals in the group. Unfortunately, they conceded six after an opening day clean sheet, and it could have been more had Nigeria taken their chances.

Lee Jung Soo sets South Korea on their way

Park Ji Sung provides the thrust from the middle of the pitch, with Park Chu Young the main threat in front of goal. They set themselves up with two tightly packed banks of four in defence, but lack the discipline to maintain their shape at times. Silly fouls have also plagued them, with Argentina’s first two goals coming from set pieces, and Nigeria’s equaliser from a penalty.

They have a chance in the second round, playing one of the less fancied group winners in Uruguay. They will find it tough to keep the South Americans under wraps though, and need to break down their iron clad defence to have any chance at all.

Finishing 3rd in the group were everyone’s favourite European champions, the doughty Greece. They lacked their usual defensive solidity this time around though, leaking five goals which ultimately proved fatal. Their opening day loss to the Koreans left them with a mountain to climb, and sure enough they fell away in a typically negative 2-0 loss to the group winners.

In between though, came the highlight of their tournament, a 2-1 comeback win over Nigeria. Trailing 1-0, Sani Keita did them a huge favour by kicking out at Torosidis in full view of the referee, and condemning his team to a defensive 60 minutes. They couldn’t hold out, and the loss proved terminal.

You have to feel for Nigeria too, who battled mightily against Argentina in a 1-0 loss, and looked the better side against Greece when it was 11 v 11. They also took the lead against South Korea in a game that would have seen them go through with a win, and missed a host of golden chances.

Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, they must go back to the drawing board as a difficult World Cup for the African continent continues.

The moment Nigeria's bid imploded

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