FOX Soccer Exclusive
Italy and Paraguay add flair to dull World Cup Day 4
No-shows are quickly becoming the story of this World Cup.
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On the field Monday in South Africa, fans endured two listless matches, devoid of the passion and intensity that are expected from the world’s biggest sporting event. Holland came away with the top slot in Group E thanks to an uninspired 2-0 win over Denmark while Japan edged Cameroon 1-0 in a match marred by long stretches of poor play. Things perked up a bit in the nightcap as Italy and Paraguay drew 1-1 in the day’s sharpest match.
In the stands, FIFA was once more confronted with enormous numbers of empty seats that are making the governing body look foolish — and possibly harming the perception of the Cup itself.
Off the field, a scary overnight in Durban, involving riot police confronting World Cup workers striking against low wages, became the first major incident at these games. Pictures of the police using teargas and rubber bullets in the early morning hours were not images that a Cup bedeviled by security fears wanted beamed around the world. (Tonight in Cape Town, stewards walked out prior to kickoff as that dispute escalated, with police taking over their positions).
Italy and Paraguay provided the best of the day’s action, with an enthralling contest in rainy Cape Town that demonstrated how potent both teams truly are.
Paraguay is known for stout defense, and showed it off — conceding only one goal on a rare goalkeeping mistake from Justo Villar. The much-maligned ball was not to blame on this occasion; Villar came out for a corner kick and simply failed to collect it, allowing Daniele De Rossi to knock in the equalizer for Italy.
But the flip side of that defensive focus was that Paraguay didn’t do much on offense: they took one shot on goal the entire match — fortunately for them, they scored on it. A fine header by Bruges defender Antolin Alcaraz off a free kick by Aureliano Torres late in the first half allowed Paraguay to nab the lead. Alcaraz eluded De Rossi and out-jumped Fabio Cannavaro to head the ball home and open the match up.
The result won’t trouble Italy too much: they showed total dominance in the second half and had Paraguay on the ropes by the time the final whistle went. Both teams have to be supremely confident that they can get past fellow Group F members Slovakia and New Zealand, who face off in tomorrow’s opener.
What will concern Italian manager Marcelo Lippi is a key injury: Italy’s longstanding keeper, Gigi Buffon, had to be removed at the half. Conflicting early reports had the veteran suffering back or hamstring problems. Fortunately, Italy has two capable backups but Buffon is a cut above most in the game.
Billed as a potential classic, today’s opening game between Holland and Denmark turned out to be a snooze. A clinical, flairless and perhaps slightly cynical Dutch side came away from Soccer City with a 2-0 win thanks to an own goal from Danish defender Simon Poulsen and a late tap-in by Dirk Kuyt.
Holland’s first goal was something of a fluke; it was a cross sent in by Robin van Persie, intended for Kuyt that S.B. Poulsen headed off the back of Daniel Agger into the back of the net. Until that point, the game had been boringly opaque: without the injured Arjen Robben, the Dutch showed little creativity while the Danes, sensing their limits, showed no ability to attack with speed.
Individually, the game was wanting. Van Persie had a soft game up top for the Dutch and only when the quicker, sharper Eljero Elia finally replaced him did the Netherlands look more incisive. Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, a late and surprise inclusion, was only able to go an hour, and was clearly bothered by a nagging groin injury. Only Thomas Sorensen, the Stoke keeper who suffered an elbow injury in April against Chelsea, looked fully in form as he repelled nearly everything the Dutch offered.
One suspects that Holland was conserving energy for the next phase as they are widely expected to make a run at the crown. Off this performance, however, they either stand revealed as less than previously thought — or are a team unusually gifted at the art of concealment.
The afternoon game saw Cameroon, which many had tipped to be a breakout side, revealed as disorganized and impotent against a Japan team that is hardly world-class. Seemingly disinterested until the final 10 minutes of the game, a Cameroon side stocked with internationally-based club talent allowed Japan time, space, and the win.
It was also an awful match.
CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda got the game’s only goal late in the first half when he was left alone at the far post and allowed to tap in a simple cross from Daisuke Matsui. That gave Japan its first win in a Cup outside of Asia and set them on course to get out of the group.
But they were virtually gifted the match as Cameroon declined to attack Eiji Kawashima’s goal until the final five minutes of the game. Then, in the only flash of excitement, Stephane Mbio blasted a shot off the crossbar in the 85th, and then Mohamadou Idrissou saw Kawashima stifled his tricky backheel with just seconds remaining.
Bluntly, it was a horrible performance from the Indomitable Lions, who were unable to string passes together, looked chaotic in midfield, and seemed unwilling to talk to one another. They continued a string of subpar performances by African sides at this Cup, and now must regroup to they have any hope of reaching the knockout round.
New Zealand, the 800-1 underdogs, meet Slovakia (7:30 a.m. EDT) followed by a far more enticing match in Cote D’Ivoire-Portugal (10:00 a.m. EDT. Things wrap up with the Curiosity Clash between Brazil and North Korea (2:30 p.m. EDT)
Hit the snooze button and skip the opener. But tune in to see if Didier Drogba is able to make the game for Cote D’Ivoire against Portugal in what could be one of the best early matches in the tournament. The injured Drogba (elbow) is the best big-game striker on the planet and with him, CIV is a very good team. Without him, they’re average. Portugal has injury problems too: Nani was scratched from the Cup due to a bruised collarbone. Cristiano Ronaldo will be prancing and preening right on schedule, however.
Might also want to see the nightcap. Brazil is playing after all, and they rarely fail to put on a show. Few know much about the North Koreans, a team that has been accused of faking names and numbers in the past for reasons that are truly bizarre. They’re not good, but they will be fast and organized like their southern cousins, and can be a handful. When they lose, expect a flurry of bellicose statements from them about the running of the game; these would be funny if they weren’t so deeply sad.