Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup 2010: What We've Seen So Far

With one round plus one game of the group stages complete, it's a good time to take a look at South Africa 2010. While the buzz of the vuvuzleas and the lack of scoring have dominated the conversation, a number of other compelling story lines are emerging.

South America is deep: Brazil and Argentina always grab the headlines, but this year's teams from South America are as talented as any in recent memory. Paraguay showed their grit in a 1-1 draw with Italy, while the skills of Diego Forlan earned Uruguay four points in their first two matches. Throw in Chile's win against Honduras, and the CONMEBOL teams have four wins and two draws in six matches.

Something crazy could go down in Group H: Since 1986, when the World Cup adopted the current group stage followed by 16-team bracket format, five points has always been enough to get a team to the knockout phases. Following Switzerland's upset of Spain, there's a strong possibility that a team with six points could be KOed. If Spain wins its next two matches (vs. Chile and Honduras) and Switzerland tops Honduras but then falls to Chile, Spain, Switzerland and Chile will all be level on points. It may come down to who puts the biggest thumping on poor Honduras.

African sides are headed for disappointment: Despite strong local support, the tournament has not started well for the African teams, with Ghana's win over Serbia the lone victory in seven tries. The home team kicked off the tournament with a flourish, but Bafana Bafana failed to seal a win against Mexico, and their 3-0 loss to Uruguay all but assured they'll be the first hosts not to advance past round one. Ivory Coast's 0-0 draw against Portugal was one of the tournament's letdown matches.

Strikers are struggling: Is it the infamous Jabulani ball? Is it the altitude? Perhaps a little of both. Regardless, the goal scoring fireworks have been in short supply in South Africa, with an alarming number of corner kicks and set pieces sailing well off the mark. Only the bumbling goalkeeping has offset an offensively challenged tournament.

A 1-0 match can be a thriller: While the lack of scoring brings out the soccer cynics, Switzerland and Spain proved you don't need goals galore to entertain. Switzerland's stunning goal turned what looked like a one-sided contest into the tournament's most exciting match so far. Anytime the underdog takes a lead and scraps to hold on, we see the game at its best. With both teams striking the post late in the match, these two European sides held our attention.

Germany's 4-0 win gives us a good World Cup conspiracy theory: In the first round of games, only one team cracked three goals, let alone four. The theory? The Germans had more time to practice with the Jabulani ball made by Adidas, a company based in... wait for it... Germany! Never mind the fact that Germany doubled the scoreline once Australia's top offensive threat, Tim Cahill, was shown the red card.

USA are looking A.O.K.: Earning a point against England was important not for the historical significance, but for how it sets Bob Bradley's team up for the next two games. A win and a draw against Slovenia and Algeria would give the U.S. five points and should see them through to the next round. (Although there's a scenario where they could be left out in a three-way tie). But the States should aim higher; if they can win the group, they'll dodge Germany in the Round of 16. Expect the U.S. to play an attacking style in the hopes of winning both matches and topping England on goal differential.

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