Group G: THE GROUP OF DEATH!!
Brazil 0-0 Portugal
Ivory Coast 3-0 North Korea
1. Brazil 7 Points +3
2. Portugal 5 Points +7
3. Ivory Coast 4 Points +1
4. North Korea 0 Points -11
My Prediction For Qualification: Brazil and Portugal
There are some Groups in The World Cup that stay tight until the end, the third and final match filled with do or die possibilities for all four teams, and then there are others that are over after the second match; unfortunately, Group G proved to be the latter. Entering today's matches, Brazil had already qualified with 6 points and Portugal was sitting on a +9 goal differential advantage against Ivory Coast in the battle for second place; THE GROUP OF DEATH!! proved to deadly alright, but for the frontrunners, it was smooth sailing. Was it any wonder, then, that Portugal walked into their highly anticipated clash with Brazil in full-on damage limitation mode, throwing an organized, battling midfield toe-to-toe with Brazil who, missing the creativity of Kaka due to a red card suspension, were stuck in neutral for most of the match. This was a case of an immovable object meeting another immovable object, and the two sides played a physical, chippy game full of professional fouls, tough tackles and a sense that every ball would be contested for the full 90 minutes; Brazil had the better of the chances, with Nilmar breaking loose on the left of goal, only to see his tightly-angled shot tipped onto the crossbar by Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo. Luis Fabiano saw his momentum carry a header wide of the left post a few minutes later; it was an open chance and with Portugal locking down their backline, a better finish was needed. The Portuguese were happy to soak it all up and keep pushing Brazil back through a counterattacking Cristiano Ronaldo, and despite a few flashes of brilliance, Ronaldo never really threatened. Instead, it was left to Raul Meireles to slide in and push a low, driven ball just wide of the post; it was Portugal's best chance of the match and it, like so much of this match, came and went without incident. If you were unhappy with this match, disappointed to see two heavyweights cross cancel one another with their conservative tactics, well, I would get used to it; the knockout rounds are unforgiving and a single mistake can cost your team a shot at glory. I would expect to see more of the top teams grinding it out against each other from here on in.
Eduardo Shuts Down Shop (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
In Nelspruit, there was a whole other agenda; trailing by 9 goals in the wake of Portugal seven-goal destruction of North Korea, Ivory Coast had to hope for a Brazilian victory while running up the score against the North Koreans. They started off brightly, with Yaya Touré placing the ball into the corner of the net from 18 yards out and putting Ivory Coast up 1-0. From there, as predicted, it was target practice for the Ivorians; Koffi Romaric N'Dri scored on a header after Didier Drogba's shot hit the crossbar and fell to N'Dri for a contested header that he pushed in. In the 82nd minute, Salomon Kalou ran onto a dangerous cross and beat the keeper to the ball, tapping in for 3-0. It could have been five or six but for a foul here or a tight offside call there, but in the end, it didn't matter; with Brazil and Portugal tying, the Ivory Coast were eliminated, leaving Ghana as the only African team to qualify for the knockout stages. In the end, Portugal's two-draw strategy paid off; they have yet to give up a goal in the tournament and, after only giving up a few during qualifying, the look to be a very, very tough nut for anyone to crack. Which made me wonder heading into the Group H matches; knowing that Switzerland and Spain had to win (and Chile had to draw) in order to guarantee their place in the knockout round, which team they'd rather face in the knockout stages; Brazil or Portugal? Talk about picking your poison...
Yaya Touré Scores (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
A word about North Korea; after a brave battle against Brazil in their first match and a decent first half against Portugal, the team crumbled as expected against tough, physical opposition. I was disappointed for the players, who have worked so hard in qualifying and in obscurity to make it to the big show, but in the end, their isolation as players from the competitive landscape of professional football has clearly hurt the development of their football. Still, you can't help but to wish them and their true fans (not the paid impostors populating the stands in South Africa) the best as they head home; it is a disappointment, but you can only hope their spirit translates into a warm reception back home.
Spain 2-1 Chile
Switzerland 0-0 Honduras
1. Spain 6 Points +2
2. Chile 6 Points +1
3. Switzerland 4 Points +0
4, Honduras 1 Points -3
My Prediction For Qualification: Spain and Chile
If Group G was a bust, the final games in Group H turned into a must-see event; with defending European champions Spain on the ropes after a first game loss to Switzerland, Chile with two 1-0 wins under its belt and carrying 6 points and Switzerland on 3 points and playing Group minnows Honduras, it was a race to 6 points and the best goal differential for the three contenders. Even more fascinating was the way it finished, with scoreboard watching, a great save to keep hopes alive, and a final eight minutes without a single tackle or challenge. It was Spain vs Chile that entertained; David Villa's 40-yard goal in the 24th minute, scored with his left foot, was one of the great goals you'll ever see; with Fernando Torres bearing down on the penalty box, Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo came screaming 20 yards off his line to sweep the ball away, but instead of putting the ball into touch, it went straight to Villa, who one timed it with his left foot, a 40-yard curler that bounced into the corner of an empty net.
Villa Again. Get Used To it. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
From there, Villa, posted on the left wing and ceding his usual spot in the middle of the front line to a clearly off-form Torres, was consistently dangerous when he received the ball, and in the 37th minute, he found Andrés Iniesta at the top of the box, and Iniesta passed the ball perfectly into the corner to make it 2-0. On the play, Marco Estrada accidentally tripped Torres off the ball and the referee, who missed the trip, assumed foul play, giving Estrada his second yellow and a mandatory red card. It was harsh and, with Chile reduced to 10 men, it seemed clear that Spain would walk this match; it was not the case. Two minutes after the half, Rodrigo Millar drove a shot that deflected off of Gerard Piqué and into the net to bring Chile within one goal. Spain made a couple of substitutions, bringing on Cesc Fabregas for Torres and Javi Martínez for a liming Xabi Alonso, and they were off to the races; with Villa leading the line, he simply sat on the shoulder of the last defender and waited for a great through ball to put him in. You can't blame Spain for trying, but it was to no avail; they never had a really great chance on goal and Chile, clearly aware of the score between Switzerland and Honduras, decided to play it safe. Leading on goals scored and, assuming Switzerland would not score two goals in the final minutes, Chile simply sat back and let the Spanish pass the ball around, putting all ten men in their own half and allowing Spain the freedom to play keep away. When the final whistle blew to make it 2-1, a quick glance at the Switzerland vs Honduras score l;et them know their fate.
Switzerland came in needing a big win and a big Spanish win or a draw and a Spanish loss to make it out of the Group; they got neither, drawing 0-0 with Honduras and looking for all the world like they would never, ever in a million years score. Honduras, for their part, attacked and played a lively match and in the 71st minute, they had a sure winner saved brilliantly by Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio. It kept the Swiss in the match, and they kept pressing for a goal and hoping Spain could score again, but with Spain and Chile seeming to simultaneously let their result stand with about eight minutes to play and Switzerland unable to grab the goals needed, the resilient Swiss, who conquered Spain 1-0 all those days ago, found themselves heading home. It was a tough way to go out and a startling reversal of fortunes; Spain finished top of Group H, Chile a close second, with Switzerland and Honduras knocked out of The World Cup.
Benaglio Couldn't Save The Swiss (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
What It All Means
Group G winners Brazil take on Group H runners-up Chile on June 28th
Group H winners Spain take on
Iberian blood rivals Portugal on June 29th
And that means the end of Group play... congrats to all of the nations who moved on!
Up Next: Round of 16 Predictions