So the groups have come to a close and what started off as a boring World Cup actually ended up with a few surprises and some very good closing match's
The biggest surprise wasn't the fact that France got knocked out in the group stage but the spectacular way in which they imploded, after a 0-0 draw against Uruguay they didn't look like a team likely to reach the final but they did seem to have something about them, especially keeper Hugo Lloris who is the only french player to leave this tournament with any creditability. Obviously what happened next has been very well documented and has seen French football descend into total and utter chaos with Anelka being sent home (just one of a long list of players he's fallen out with including Trezeguet, Pires, Giuly, Coupet) players striking then the French prime minister demanding answers. Patrice Evra refused to attend the press conference with Domenech after the final South Africa game saying he will hold a press conference at a later date to reveal all, and the public wait with baited breath. As if this wasn't enough Domenech the proceeded to cover himself in glory by having a stand up row with Carlos Parreira over a comment the South African coach made months ago.
South Africa actually put up a much better account of themselves than most predicted, actually finishing on the same number of points as 2nd place Mexico but going out on goal difference - their victory over France will be fondly remembered for years no matter how much disarray the French where in. Group A was exciting with only the opening days games a slight disappointment
Most people were waiting to see how Argentina performed and they didn't disappoint with attacking, flowing football that was both good on the eye and leaving them open defensively as proven by the howler they conceded against South Korea. One of the main talking points was how Maradona was going to get the best out of Messi and get him to repeat his performances with Argentina that he has done with Barcelona and it seems Maradona has solved it the simplest of ways - stick Messi in the hole behind the strikers and have all the play run through him. He has easily been one of the stand out players in the group stages and i fully expect him to keep performing as long as Argentina are left in the competition. Nigeria were absolutely awful and probably one of the worst teams that got to the World Cup and part of this will be blamed with the management change after the African Cup of Nations which left Lars Lagerbäck with very little time to develop the team and build his ideas into them, clearly his usually strict discipline didn't work with these guys following the red card against Greece. Greece themselves where nothing special although their proudest moment will be winning a game in a World Cup ever & their first win in a major tournament outside Euro 2004 beating the Nigerians 2-1. The other team in the group, South Korea, were exactly what we've come to expect from them, organised, disciplined & hard working fully deserving their place in the last 16
This group was interesting to say the least with most people expecting England to finish top and USA finish 2nd - but as with most things involving England it could never be that straight forward. After the opening games and that howler from Rob Green things looked pretty much as you'd expect with England & USA drawing but then came the 2nd round of games, with England turning in one of the worst performances seen under Capello, and probably their worst performance since losing to N.Ireland under Sven whilst in the other group game the USA had to come from 2-0 down at half time to draw 2-2 with Slovenia which left the group wide open and the usual last game pressure England so love to put themselves under. As per usual England just scrapped through thanks to some last ditch defending and the USA scored a last minute winner to go through on top of the group. Obviously its the getting through the group stage that matters but England's performance against Algeria was absolutely dire & the performance against Slovenia wasn't much better but now they can focus on the task ahead and worry about facing the Germans
This group provided surprises from the start with Germany's resounding thumping of Australia in the first game all the way through to Australia upsetting the odds and defeating Serbia in the last game. Ghana, who many people wrote off after Essien's injury sneaked through to the 2nd round and with a very tough defence, a hard working midfield & a very good attack they could really give the USA a run for their money in the 2nd round. I thought Serbia would get 2nd place and after beating Germany i honestly thought they had it but Australia had other ideas, themselves having on eye on 2nd place outplaying the Serbians in the final group game allowing Ghana to sneak through on goal difference - the same Australia team that looked so awful after the first game against Germany when they got hammered 4-0. Ultimately the 2 teams that deserved to go through managed to go through but it certainly was an unpredictable round of games
The Netherlands were always going to top this group, despite Robben's injury they still have a strong team over all and looked very efficient and technically sound with solid players all over the pitch. The real battle in this group would be for 2nd place, at the start i honestly thought all 3 teams left had a chance although after their poor showing in the warm ups i must admit i had written Japan off slightly but the display they turned in beating Cameroon 1-0 in the first game showed that whilst they don't have an outstanding attack what they do have, like most of the Asian teams, is an incredible team spirit and work ethic, personified by Keisuke Honda who has been outstanding for them at the heart of the midfield. Sadly for Cameroon the Eto'o v Milla fight proved to be a distraction as well as having the seemingly inept Paul Le Guen as manager. The final game between Japan & Denmark i thought would be a tight affair but Denmark failed to turn up and the Japanese made it through quite comfortably due to 2 good free-kicks combined with mistakes by Thomas Sorensen let the Japanese securing their passage through to the knockout stages, a special mention to Jon Dahl Tomasson who equalled the Danish goal scoring record in this game.
Another group that saw a traditional European super power struggle and ultimately crash out early on with Italy performing way below expectations - most people think that there squad was to old but considering England have the highest average age of any of the squads at the tournament this can't really be considered a reason for failure although Canovarro did show his age a couple of times being out paced and at fault for a few of the goals. Paraguay were the solid team in this group, not losing a game and playing some solid football. Slovakia did very well considering they are one of the smallest nations at the world cup, the highlight easily a 3-2 beating of Italy in the game that got them through the the 2nd round and knocked the Italians out - although Fabio Quagliarella scored an incredible goal which will more than likely be one of, if not the, best goals of the tournament (this was later matched by David Villa's first goal against Chile).
The highlight of this group though, and in my opinion the tournament so far, was New Zealand who no one gave a chance of getting a point let alone finishing 3rd in their group and remaining undefeated in all group games, and by all rights they should have beaten Italy had it not been for a very soft penalty decision against them. What really impressed me about New Zealand was the fact they didn't rise to Italy's gamesmanship when the Italians had to resort to diving and play acting when they were in danger of a humiliating defeat. New Zealand can leave the competition with their heads held high and an air of dignity on their performances, it will be interesting to see how they kick on from this performance and with Australia now in the Asia qualifying zone i expect to see them back at the next world cup
The so called 'group of death' failed to really live up to expectations, with Brazil comfortably qualifying top of the group and the game that everyone was expecting to be a thrilling encounter, Brazil v Portugal, being one of the biggest let downs so far. This can partly be blamed on a very fussy & card happy ref along with Brazil not having Kaka and choosing to rest their other main creative outlet in Robinho whilst Portugal's tactic of hoof it to Ronaldo and hope didn't really work out very well. Another team that failed to live up to expectations where Ivory Coast who suffered a draw in the opening game against Portugal which hindered them to start with, combined with Drogba clearly not being 100% they didn't live up to the bill of challenging Portugal or even being the best team from Africa and this was shown in the Brazil game where they had to resort to play acting, fouling and general poor behaviour in an attempt to get an advantage. By the time this worked and they got Kaka sent off with some of the most disgraceful play acting ever seen (at least Rivaldo had the ball hit at him in 2002 even if it wasn't in his face) it didn't really matter with Brazil already 2 goals up. North Korea gave a very good showing themselves in the first game against Brazil but in the 2nd half against Portugal they fell appart and where subject to a humiliating 7-0 loss. The game against Ivory Coast was pretty much pointless for both teams and although it was a more exciting game than the Brazil Portugal game it became a very pointless match. The group of death tag is one that is terribly overused now and i can't wait till people stop dubbing at least one group that way, its almost as over used as the expectation of Brazil playing 'samba football' as this is not the way Brazilian footballers are produced anymore and anyone expecting to see Brazilian teams play as they did through the 60's, 70's & 80's need to wake up and realise that the Brazilians don't play like this anymore.
The first round of group games produced one of the biggest shocks seen in one game so far this tournament with Switzerland beating Spain 1-0 and opening the group up to begin with, however by the end of the second games it looked very much like Spain & Chile would be going through it was just a question of who would be top and who would come 2nd and this would be decided in the final game which was an exciting game with David Villa scoring an absolutely cracking first goal from about 35 yards after the keeper came rushing out to clear a ball straight to Villa. Iniesta also scored a cracking goal and with these 2 players fully fit Spain, and Barcelona, look like a very formidable opponent for any team. Spain started slowly but i think the game against Switzerland provided them with the kick up the backside they needed to realise they can't just turn up and win the whole thing. Chile are certainly very exciting as they only seem to know how to attack and will keep playing like this as long as their left in the tournament. Honduras were probably one of the worst teams in the tournament (bar France for obvious reasons) not only did they not score a goal but they never really looked like scoring either.
That's my quick review of the group's and now they are out the way we're on the way to the all important knockout stages with some very interesting ties to come. Hopefully we will see less of the play acting, silly refereeing and over all pettiness that has been a really negative part of this World Cup but with teams like Portugal & Spain (more specifically Sergio Busquets) left i won't hold my breath
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