Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Watch - France 0-0 Uruguay

If the first game of the tournament was a vibrant and enjoyable one, then this evening's contest was more of a scrapfest.

It was probably to be expected. Neither outfit should be brimming with confidence, considering the great difficulty with which they qualified. One of the sides - and I can't quite remember which one - even had to resort to downright cheating in order to get to South Africa.

The French's problems don't even end at on-field indifference - there is major dissension in the ranks. Florent Malouda had a bust-up with manager Raymond Domenech, according to some media outlet, and supposedly many members of Les Bleus' squad don't see eye-to-eye with their coach. Someone should write a sitcom about it, entitled 'Everybody Hates Raymond', obviously.

So it was somewhat surprising that the Patrice Evra-captained French began the match in such vigorous fashion. West Ham-linked Sidney Govou should have put them ahead from a delicious Franck Ribery cross, Yoann Gourcuff might have from a swirling free-kick that Uruguay 'keeper Fernando Muslera palmed away well, while Nicolas Anelka also went reasonably close with a header.

But that intent from the Europeans soon dissipated and the game turned into a pretty laboured and bitty affair. Things didn't flow, there was no real quality and neither side looked capable of a moment of magic. Ribery, after a bright start, really went missing.

Forlan was pretty sharp, forcing Hugo Lloris to save smartly in the first half and slashing a powerful attempt wide in the second, and Abou Diaby and Jeremy Toulalan were France's stand outs, giving forceful performances from the middle of the park, but there wasn't a lot else to rave about.

You expected Domenech's charges to shed their meekness when Uruguay substitute Nicolas Lodeiro was sent off, the 21-year-old receiving a second booking for a nasty-looking lunge on Bacary Sagna.

But no. Malouda - more likely to give his boss a Glasgow kiss than a French one - Thierry Henry and the relatively unknown Toulouse forward Andre-Pierre Gignac made their side slightly more potent and Sagna did begin to buccaneer effectively down the right, but Muslera never appeared to be in any peril at any any stage.

These two may have been the favourites to advance from Group A at the start of the day, now though, things are a lot more open.

World Cup Watch - South Africa 1-1 Mexico

If any pundits, journalists, football know-it-alls or wandering nomads tell you that Mexico's late-ish equaliser in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup will ruin South Africa's party, break their hearts, or shatter their dreams, ignore them, because it won't. The celebrations may have been dented, but obliterated? Most definitely not.

Bafana Bafana may lack the technical astuteness of their Group A rivals but, if the first game of this infectious tournament is anything to go by, they will more than make up for that with their athleticism and commitment. Even if they exit this competition at the first hurdle, they won't do it shrouded in embarrassment, they'll do it with intent and swagger.

Carlos Alberto Parreira's side struggled to match their South-American opponents in the initial moments of Friday afternoon's game, though. Rarely-showcased Spurs winger Giovani dos Santos had a chance well blocked by Portsmouth's Aaron Mokoena within the first two or three minutes, while Arsenal's Carlos Vela and recently-released West Ham striker Guillermo Franco also fluffed chances for the Mexicans.

Franco, in particular, should have done much better with his efforts, seemingly having his noggin on back to front, or upside down like Jake Tucker from Family Guy, due to the awfulness of his two headed attempts.

El Tri played in a very similar vein to the way they did in that friendly at Wembley a couple of weeks ago - full of guile and neatness, but lacking in penetration, and despite dominating the opening half, they could have fallen behind.

Everton's Stephen Pienaar - given a bizarre "baptism" by his team mates in the the pre-match huddle - had an opportunity to christen his nation's World Cup but struck his 16th-minute free-kick over the bar, while lone frontman Katlego Mphela narrowly failed to connect with exuberant winger Siphiwe Tshabalala's inviting cross moments before the break.

After the interval, however, the net was bulged. Just past the 50-minute mark, South Africa did what their rivals had failed to - turn intricate build-up play into a goal.

Clever passing through midfield and a killer final pass allowed Tshabalala to find himself in on Mexican 'keeper Oscar Perez's goal. The dreadlocked attacker still had a lot to do from the edge of the box, but fired in an absolutely thunderous strike that swelled the net and left the partisan crowd vuvuzelaing wildly. A real Tshabalala ding dong if you will.

That corking goal instilled confidence into the hosts and sapped it out of the tourists and the men in yellow almost went two up, but Tshabalala's fellow winger Teko Modise lost balance when poised to shoot.

South Africa thought they had got away with it when effervescent goalie Itumeleng Khune smartly saved a fierce effort from dos Santos, but they were pegged back when, with 79 minutes on the clock, Barcelona stalwart Rafael Marquez took advantage of some woeful marking to slot home Mexico's leveller.

The last ten minutes weren't exactly filled with goal-mouth action, but Mphela did spurn a chance for Bafana Bafana, hitting the outside of the post when latching on to a long ball.

South Africa may feel like they missed a winning opportunity, but they did something possibly more vital - they showed that not only does the country deserve to host this prestigious tournament, but that their football team fully justifies their place in it.