Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup Game 28: New Zealand 1, Italy 1

Wow, where to start?

Many of the themes of World Cup 2010 were on display. First and foremost was the struggle of the Top 8 teams. Consider that of the top 9 teams in Fifa's World Rankings, the aggregate record so far is six wins, three losses and five draws. The Netherlands and Argentina and Brazil are fairly safe, while France is in trouble. England, Italy, Portugal, and Germany could all still go through, but, amazingly could all go home.

Italy dominated play. At one point they had fifteen corners to New Zealand's zero. Shots on goal were 20-3. The last fifteen minutes reminded me of the end of the Brazil-USA Confederation Cup Final with wave after wave going forward. That said, Italy's only goal was on a penalty kick for a tugged shirt. (I'm guessing American Michael Bradley wishes the referees for these two matches had been switched.)

Like Group C this group now faces a final set of matches where any of the four teams can go forward. Slovakia plays Italy and would need a win and help in the other match. New Zealand plays a Paraguay side that has looked the best so far but the Kiwis are playing with house money and are dead even with Italy in terms of goals scored and goal differential.

Italy had a ball deflect off the inside of the goal post, but the spin made it bounce harmlessly away. There is a game of inches.

All that being said, remember that four years ago the Italians weren't exactly lighting it up at this point, failing to score a game winner against an American side that was playing with 9 men. They got a good draw in the knock out stage (Australia, Ukraine) and then beat the home Germans to go to the final and win on penalty kicks. So the difference between not being in great form and not still being a threat is quite different. "Survive and advance" Jim Valvano used to the say about the NCAA basketball tournament. In that tournament, you often see a heavy favorite struggle early against a lesser opponent and yet survive (think of Florida beating Butler in Round 1 before going on to success or UCLA needing a buzzer beater to top Missouri in the second round before going on to win the tournament). It's not so much that this result could be a "wake up" call as that to go out you have to actually LOSE a game not just give up a tie.

When asked if his team could beat Slovakia and advance to the knockout stage the New Zealand coach said "does it matter?" That says it all. House money.

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