Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 33 and 34: Group A

My quest to watch every game got both easier and harder. The movement to simulcasts meant no more 7:30 a.m. games, but it did mean I had to stream France and South Africa on the computer while watching Uruguay and Mexico.

Uruguay 1, Mexico 0
South Africa 2, France 1

The results mean that Uruguay wins the group and Mexico goes through second on goal differential.

The real story of this group, though, was France. Ranked in the Top 10 and a penalty kick shoot out away from winning the cup four years ago (and not that far removed from the Zidane glory days of winning it all themselves), the team struggled through qualifying, avoided a play-in loss to Northern Ireland on the infamous Henry handball, and failed to score a goal in the first two games. Team turmoil had a conditioning coach quit, a player (Anelka) sent home after the second game for insubordination, and, yet, amazingly, still had an outside sniff of qualifying for the second round with a decisive win against South Africa. Instead, they gave up an early goal and had a man sent off with a red card for an elbow to the the head.

Although a tie would move both Mexico and Uruguay to the next round, Mexico appeared to have enough of a goal differential cushion that a loss would not hurt them, so there was some incentive to play for the win. This game played out much as I had predicted, with Mexico moving forward early and Uruguay content with the counter attacks. When Uruguay scored a late first half goal, the complexion changed slightly. With South Africa up 2-0 and having a man advantage, Mexico suddenly found a seemingly insurmountable goal differential advantage cut in half. Thus the second half was a bit more tentative as the quest for the equalizing goal (which wouldn't have changed the rankings coming out of the group) became less important than scoreboard watching and ensuring they didn't give up any more goals. When France scored a short handed goal (welcome to the World Cup, guys, glad you finally showed up), the ordering of the group stage was set and the teams played out the string. (To be fair to South Africa about giving up the short-handed goal, they were pushing forward, even with a two goal lead, because they needed a bigger margin of victory.)

How to assess the chances of the two sides moving forward?

Uruguay will most likely play either Greece, South Korea, or Nigeria, and will be favored to beat any of those teams. If they were to make the quarterfinals they would play the winner of a match up between groups C and D, possibly the United States, England, Slovenia, Serbia, Ghana, or Australia...with an outside chance it could be Germany.) Given the way England is playing, none of those teams would scare Uruguay, though several could beat them. Still, the Uruguayan squad has to feel as though they have as good a chance at the semifinals as anyone, and if they can make it that far, anything can happen in one game (see US in Confederation Cup).

Mexico will almost certainly play Argentina (unless the Argentines give up four or more to the Greeks while failing to score). Argentina would certainly be favored, but Mexico has the right sort of demeanor for that game: because they think they are better than they are they will not be cowed. They also have the individual talent to make plays. (Guardado's strike that hit the crossbar in the first half of this game was almost a highlight show stopper.) A win there would get probably Germany, the United States or England. In other words, that side of the bracket is quite a bit tougher, explaining why Mexico pressed for a victory when a tie would put them through. The difference between winning Group A and coming in second was substantial, assuming, of course, that the Germany that played Australia with a man advantage is closer to what we'll see against Ghana than the Germany that played Serbia with a man disadvantage. Germany may be the hardest team to judge so far because they have played less than a half in two full games with equal footing.

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