Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Knockout Stage

After two weeks of thrilling action, the group stage of World Cup 2010 South Africa has come to an end, with 16 teams remaining to enter the knockout stage of the competition, which begins today.

Which brings us to our World Cup pool, in which four friends and I each drew six teams out of a hat, with $10 (I erroneously thought it was $20 in my initial post on the subject) from each to be paid to the person holding the golden ticket bearing the name of the eventual World Cup–winning nation.

And, of course, things didn't quite go according to form.

1. Spain: La Seleccion were pre-tournament favorites, but they shockingly lost their first game to Switzerland before recovering with two stylish wins over Honduras and Chile. Player for player, they have the most talented squad in South Africa. It will be interesting to see if these Galacticos can put it together for a deep run. Next up: Portugal, on Tuesday, in what could be one of the most exciting matches of the Cup.

2. Italy (eliminated): The defending champion Azzurri were embarrassingly knocked out in round one, after three awful performances.

3. United States: Playing the role of comeback kids, the Americans rallied to secure two dramatic draws in their first two matches (albeit, the first via a gift from the English) and then won their third on a thrilling injury-time winner by Landon Donovan. Next up: Ghana, today.

4. Paraguay: The least-bad of the teams in Group F, Paraguay topped the group which defined underachievement. Next up: Japan, on Tuesday.

5. Australia (eliminated): The Socceroos couldn't repeat their charmed run of 2006, exiting the cup after a win, draw and loss in the group stage on goal differential to Ghana.

6. North Korea (eliminated): Their sole highlight was scoring against Brazil in their opening match.

1. England: The Three Lions have looked incredibly shaky, with a poor draw against the U.S. following goalkeeper Robert Green's gaffe heard 'round the world in their first match and a thoroughly disastrous draw against Algeria in their second redeemed only by an unexciting but effective 1-0 win over Slovenia to secure second place in Group C. Next up: Germany, tomorrow.

2. Portugal: One of world soccer's most stylish and yet confounding squads, Portugal had a truly bizarre first stage, with scoreless draws vs. the Ivory Coast and Brazil sandwiched around a 7-0 thrashing of North Korea. Can star Cristiano Ronaldo -- arguably the world's second-best player -- lead them to the promised land? Next up: Spain, on Tuesday.

3. Mexico: El Tri was fortunate to escape their opening match against hosts South Africa with a draw, then they thumped 2006 finalists France before losing to Uruguay by a goal to finish second in Group A. Next up: Argentina, tomorrow.

4. Cameroon (eliminated): Striker Samuel Eto'o is coming off two unprecedented seasons on club level, winning league titles, domestic cups and the European Champions League in each of the past two years with two different teams -- Barcelona and Inter Milan -- but he and his countrymen couldn't advance out of the group stage, losing to Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands in succession for a disappointing result to their 2010 campaign.

5. Honduras (eliminated): Losses to Chile and Spain and a draw to Switzerland equaled a hasty exit from the group stage.

6. Japan: Tenacious performances by Japan led to 1-0 win over Cameroon and a 3-1 decision over Denmark, enough to overcome their 1-0 loss to Netherlands and secure passage to the knockout stage. Next up: Paraguay, on Tuesday.

1. Brazil: The Selecao predictably triumphed in Group G, defeating North Korea and the Ivory Coast before being held to a scoreless draw by an overly defensive Portugal squad in their third match. The world's favorite team has added a defensive mindset to their offensive flair in 2010, and they're hungry to take home the trophy for the sixth time. Next up: Chile, on Monday.

2. France (eliminated): Providing the best soap opera of the tournament, France drew their first match against Uruguay, had starting striker Nicolas Anelka thrown out of the team following their second-game drubbing by Mexico, then saw captain Patrice Evra benched for the game three loss to South Africa following an argument with Les Bleus' trainer that resulted in said trainer and the vice-chair of the French Football Federation quitting in disgust and the team refusing to train. Sacrebleu! And good riddance.

3. Serbia (eliminated): Shocking Germany with a 1-0 victory in their second match will remain their highlight of 2010, as losses to Ghana and Australia led to a quick ouster.

4. Nigeria (eliminated): The Super Eagles' hopes of being Africa's standard-bearers were dashed with losses to Argentina and Greece and a draw to South Korea.

5. Ghana: They lost talisman Michael Essien to injury before the World Cup even started, but Ghana have persevered, beating Serbia in their opening match and drawing with Australia in their second before losing to group toppers Germany in their last first round contest. Next up: the U.S., today.

6. Denmark (eliminated): The Danes were not great, losing 2-0 to the Netherlands and then being dumped 3-1 by South Korea. Consolation prize: their second-match 2-1 win over Cameroon.

1. Netherlands: The Dutch won all three of their group stage matches to win Group E on nine points, but their Total Football style was never truly in evidence. The return of Arjen Robben from injury will help in the knockout round. Next up: Slovakia, on Monday.

2. Argentina: The Albiceleste have gone marauding through the group stage, easily topping Nigeria, South Korea and Greece to cruise into the knockout round on nine points, behind the scoring exploits of Gonzalo Higuain and the playmaking of the world's best player, Lionel Messi. Caution: The Argentines similarly dominated group play in 2006 only to flop in knockout time. And who knows what distraction manager Diego Maradona will provide. Next up: Mexico, tomorrow.

3. Greece (eliminated): The Greeks were hammered by South Korea and Argentina, rendering their win over Nigeria useless. Their win in Euro 2004 must be hereby consigned to an aberrant fluke.

4. Ivory Coast (eliminated): Didier Drogba gamely played through a broken arm but even his brilliance couldn't pull Les Elephantes through what many deemed the "group of death," with Brazil and Portugal ultimately proving too much.

5. Slovakia: After a draw to New Zealand and a bad loss to Paraguay, Slovakia thought they needed a miracle to advance out of the group stage. Luckily for them, they got one better: Italy for an opponent. Slovakia completely out-hustled and outplayed their more celebrated final-match adversaries and deservingly went through after a thrilling 3-2 victory. Next up: the Netherlands, on Monday.

6. South Korea: A 2-0 win over Greece got their campaign off to a nice start before Argentina kicked them all over the park 4-1. A 2-2 draw with Nigeria got them into the knockout round. Next up: Uruguay, today. UPDATE: In a very good match played in a driving rain, South Korea was level with Uruguay deep into the second half, before succumbing to some individual brilliance by Luis Suarez and losing 2-1.

1. Germany: A favorite to perform well at any major competition due to superior organizational skills and a deep sense of national pride, the three-time World Cup champions got off to a rousing start at South Africa 2010 with a 4-0 demolition of Australia before stumbling a bit in a 1-0 loss to Serbia. They regained their footing with a 1-0 victory over Ghana to top Group D. Next up: England, tomorrow.

2. Uruguay: Two-time champions Uruguay drew with France in their opener and then easily handled South Africa (3-0) before edging Mexico 1-0 to win Group A. Next up: South Korea, today. UPDATE: A terrific brace by Luis Suarez has taken Uruguay to the quarterfinals after a 2-1 victory over South Korea.

3. Chile: A pair of 1-0 wins over Honduras and Switzerland put Chile in position to win Group H, but a 2-0 loss to Spain left them second. Next up: Brazil, on Monday.

4. Slovenia (eliminated): When Slovenia beat Algeria 1-0 in their first match and jumped to a 2-0 lead over the U.S. in their second, they must have thought their football dreams were about to come true. Two second-half strikes by the U.S. left Slovenia smarting at having to settle for a draw, and when they couldn't score against England, their campaign was over.

5. Algeria (eliminated): It's hard to win if you don't score, and the Algerians never found the net in South Africa, going scoreless in a draw and two losses in Group C.

6. South Africa (eliminated): The hosts have put on a nice tournament, but Bafana Bafana unfortunately became the first host in World Cup history not to advance out of group play. But, they did have that glorious win over the hapless French in their last match.

More to come...