France's shameful showing against Mexico puts them in danger
The unpredictable World Cup we expected is finally here.
Hot on the heels of Switzerland’s wonder-win over Spain on Wednesday, Greece continued the upset streak by winning a World Cup game for the first time, downing Nigeria 2-1 at the Free State Stadium. In the nightcap, Mexico snatched its first Cup victory against France, 2-0, dealing the former champs what might be a fatal blow.
Only in the early match was order kept as Argentina rode a Gonzalo Higuain hat trick and the class of Lionel Messi to a 4-1 win over South Korea.
Best of all for the fans who have suffered through some truly awful games? After a dismal first round that featured just 25 goals in 16 games, the second round has burst to life: 13 were hammered home in the first four games, including Wednesday’s 3-0 Uruguay drubbing of hosts South Africa.
Following Thursday’s results, France is in deep trouble. Their star-studded lineup cannot score, they have yet to win a game at this World Cup, and they don’t even seem to be able to play two solid halves consecutively.
Thursday night at Peter Mokaba Stadium, Mexico dismantled a side filled with big-name players from big-name clubs, outhustling and outworking a French team that seemed devoid of pride, ideas and resiliency.
Javier Hernandez got what proved to be the winning goal in the 64th minute, running on to a great through ball from Rafa Marquez to beat the trap and leave the Frenchmen waving in vain for the offside flag. All alone against Hugo Lloris, Hernandez, the new Manchester United addition, couldn’t help but score, and in so doing gave his team the win. Cuauhtemoc Blanco added the insurance from the spot in the 79th after Eric Abidal felled sub Pablo Barrera in the box.
It was Mexico’s first win in World Cup play against France, a rivalry that dates to 1930. Moreover, it was further proof that the old order is changing. The days of French glory seem long gone, and Thursday night will add more fuel to the debate over the character of their players and the performance of embattled manager Raymond Domenech.
But amid the bloodletting in Paris, will too little credit be given to Mexico? Marquez, Carlos Salcido, Gio Dos Santos and subs Hernandez and Blanco all put in outstanding performances, but the reason France lost is that one side played as a team while the other did not. For all the luster of names like Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery, these men never showed why they should be considered game-changers, or even stars. Some of the French sulked through the match; others didn’t even bother to show up. None of them passed to one another.
And that’s why fans are cheering in Mexico City. With this win, Mexico joins Uruguay as the teams that control their own fate in Group A. France must win against hosts South Africa and hope that the Mexicans and Uruguayans don’t play to a draw that would move both into the next stage no matter what happens elsewhere.
Argentina showed why they are considered the class of the Cup at Soccer City Stadium, demolishing South Korea 4-1 behind a hat trick from Higuain and a man-of-the-match performance by Messi. Sparked by the introduction of Sergio Aguero, Argentina also weathered a resolute Korean comeback attempt to finally kill the game off with 15 minutes to play.
The match will be remembered as one of the best in the group stages. Both teams overcame mistakes, played flowing football and showed that their opponents must take them seriously. But the lopsided scoreline doesn’t reflect what an enthralling match this was, nor does it fully credit a powerful South Korean side that may well join the South Americans in the knockout stage.
Unfortunately for South Korea, the team proved dangerous at both ends of the pitch, as an own goal by Park Chu-young started things off on the wrong foot only 17 minutes in. But the match took two key turns.
The first was the removal of Argentine back Walter Samuel in the 18th minute after he suffered an apparent hamstring problem. His removal destabilized an Argentine back line that has been criticized. Second, that frailty was exposed in shocking manner when Lee Chung-yong capitalized on a mistake by Martin Demichelis to give the Koreans a goal and hope at the end of the first half, after Higuain’s first goal had seemed to tilt everything firmly toward Argentina. Demichelis failed to control a routine ball in the back, and the Bolton man was on the ball before the stunned defender could react. Sergio Romero had no chance on the goal.
With Argentina reeling a bit after the restart, the Koreans looked as if they could tie things up for a time, but Messi led the charge in the 75th. First he got his own rebound after a Jung Sung-ryong save at the far post, shooting again off the woodwork where Higuain was poised for the easy tap-in. Four minutes later Messi cleverly chipped the ball to Aguero, who fed Higuain for an unstoppable header.
Nigeria shot themselves in the foot later at Bloemfontein, displaying the disorganization and lack of control that has sadly become its modern hallmark. After the Super Eagles went up early thanks to yet another goalkeeping error, Sani Kaita was ejected (straight red) after raking Vasileios Torosidis on the touchline in a truly bizarre incident.
Until that point, the game had been nearly unwatchable. Nigeria had taken the lead against a stale and slow Greek side thanks to a dreadful error by Alexandros Tzorvas in the 16th minute, when he dove the wrong way on a long free kick from Kalu Uche to allow the Super Eagles the lead.
But Kaita’s ejection completely changed the game. Greece subbed striker Giorgos Samaras for defender Socrates Papastathopoulos and did something many thought they could not do: attack.
The reasons for those doubts are obvious: The Greeks had never scored a goal in the World Cup finals. Thursday night they scored two, stunning observers and rewarding Coach Otto Rehhagel’s faith for playing the 10-man Nigerians straight up.
Dimitris Salpigidis broke the drought when his shot ricocheted off the foot of Haruna Lukman and past Vincent Enyeama a minute before halftime. Vasilis Torosidis won the game in the 71st with a tap-in after Enyeama could not hold a shot from Alexandros Tziolis.
Enyeama, who turned in his second straight spectacular showing, left the field in tears, but the Super Eagles’ dream is not over. They face South Korea in what is now a must-win-and-hope game for the West Africans in a group that could finish with three teams on three points.
Germany vs. Serbia (7:30 a.m. EDT) starts things off from Port Elizabeth in the first of the day’s games, with the Americans facing Slovenia in a match they feel they must win at Johannesburg at 10 a.m. England meet Algeria in the nightcap at Cape Town (2:30 p.m. EDT).
Two and a half good games here, one would think.
Germany has looked the best of any team in South Africa, but the free-scoring Germans are sure to be tested by the Serbs’ organization and defensive prowess. Serbia needs full points after losing late to Ghana in the opener; they are without Aleksandar Lukovic after he was tossed for two quick cards.
The USA is favored against Slovenia, in what is realistically a must-win for the Americans. If the Yanks win, they control their own destiny. A draw means they have two points and will need a win against Algeria in the final match; a loss could have them bow out. The Slovenes, who are not pushovers, can qualify if they win.
England has to recover from their self-inflicted wounds; they not only gifted the Americans a tying goal, but also built the match into such a test of their manhood that any result other than a massive win was a loss of face. The vultures are circling, but the Algerians are slow and poor, so the Lions should recover.