Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Winners, Losers from Today's Friendlies

Twenty-six of the 32 nations headed to South Africa 2010 played today, an "international" day that also coincides with "100 days to go!" before the first match of the World Cup.

Seven matches were head-to-heads between teams headed for the World Cup.

Not yet critical moments, but definitely interesting.

Let's look at the winners and losers ... and those who didn't quite do either. And the score isn't always what we will base our opinions on.

Big winners (alphabetically): Argentina, England, Nigeria, Serbia, Spain, Uruguay.

--Argentina went to Munich and throttled the Germans, 1-0, and even 100 days out from the World Cup that is an important result for coach Diego "The Dope" Maradona. Arguably the most significant victory for his side since he took over. Gonzalo Higuain got the goal for the Argentines before a crowd of 65,000. Btw, the Germans were described as "tired, timid and disorganized" in a wire report. Hmm.

--England didn't venture further than Wembley, but the Three Lions fairly thrashed the recent winners of the Cup of Africa Nations, Egypt, 3-1, before a crowd of 80,000. The gangly Peter Crouch scored twice and winger Shaun Wright-Phillips also found the net. A nice result over a quality opponent that led 1-0.

--Nigeria was playing Congo (the big one), which is no great shakes, but thrashed it, 5-2. The fact that Nigeria showed any life is an improvement on its CAN performance and a nice start for new coach Lars Lagerback. Midfielder Osas Ideham had two goals, and both starting forwards (Peter Utaka and Victor Obinna) scored, as well.

--Serbia went to Algiers and nuked Algeria, 3-0, before 60,000 Algeria fans. This is the most impressive score of the night and will get the attention of those who play in Serbia's group (such as Germany). Zdravko Kuzmanovic scored a goal and assisted on another for the Serbians, who probably now rate as co-favorites to win Group D.

--Spain walked into the Stade de France and pretty much dominated the French, 2-0. It was Spain's first victory over France on French soil since 1968 and no fluke: Spain dominated time of possession 60-40 percent. David Villa and Sergio Ramos scored for Spain, which has lost only once in its last 45 internationals -- to the U.S. in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals.

--Uruguay is generally overlooked by those trying to forecast who gets to the knockout round, but winning 3-1 over the Swiss, in Switzerland, in cold weather, certainly is an attention-getter. Diego Forlan got the first goal for Uruguay, after the Swiss scored on a penalty. And Group A (France, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay) now looks as if it has another real contender for the knockout phase.

Semi-big winners: Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea.

--Portugal defeated China 2-0, at home, in Coimbre. Pretty much as they should have, considering China is a mess. Hugo Almeida scored for Portugal, as did Liedson, a sub at halftime for Cristiano Ronaldo. Not much of a crowd (20,000) and apparently an unimpressive performance by the winners.

--Slovenia blitzed Qatar, 4-1, at Maribor, and the Slovenes' coach suggested they should have scored more. And maybe they should have; the Gulf teams are particularly weak just now. A bit disconcerting that only 5,000 turned up for the match. Still, four goals ... will get the attention of fellow Group B sides Algeria, England and the U.S.

--South Korea played in London, at the home field of Queen's Park Rangers, and dominated Ivory Coast at a neutral venue, 2-0. Lee Dong Gook and Kwak Tae Hwi scored for the Koreans, who will be no pushover in South Africa. Ivory Coast generally is touted as the African side most likely to make a deep run at South Africa, and their excuse for this one is not having a coach. They fired their Serbian coach last week, and Guus Hiddink (or whomever) is not yet on board.

Tweeners: Cameroon, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, United States.

--Cameroon played Italy to a 0-0 tie at Monaco. Any time a non-Euro side gets a result on European soil, it's not a bad day. Not scoring makes it not a good day.

--Ghana played at Bosnia-Herzegovina, which narrowly missed the World Cup, and got beat, 2-1. They can shrug it off, though, because the Black Stars scored and they were playing on European soil against a solid opponent.

--Italy tied Cameroon in the match mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Nothing to be excited about, but coach Marcelo Lippi tried out a 3-4-3 formation with a half dozen guys who are unlikely to start in South Africa, and Italy had the better of the run of play, it seems. So, a little creepy not to score, but this wasn't the A Team that started, and those weren't stiffs on the other side.

--Mexico went to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, sort of "Azteca Norte" for El Tri, and rolled over New Zealand 2-0 before a crowd of more than 90,000. (Biggest crowd of the night.) Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela scored for Mexico, but this isn't a big victory because New Zealand is feeble; Mexico was playing, essentially, a home game; and because El Tri didn't score until the 54th minute.

--New Zealand. See above. Losing 2-0 to Mexico in southern California and not giving up a goal for nearly an hour gives the Kiwis hope they can perhaps steal a point out of SA2010.

--Netherlands defeated the U.S. 2-1 at Amsterdam before a crowd of 46,000. Nice result but not an overpowering one. Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored for the winners. At home, maybe the Dutch should win this one a bit more comfortably.

--United States. See above. Plus, the U.S. had never scored a goal against the Dutch in the Netherlands until last night, something Carlos Bocanegra managed in the 88th minute. And the Americans, known for their unwillingness to surrender, almost tied it in extra time.

Semi-big losers: Denmark, Germany, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Slovakia.

--Denmark lost 2-1 to an Austria squad last seen being hammered by Spain, 5-1. A mitigating factor: The match was in Austria.

--Germany lost to Argentina (see above), and didn't look good doing it, but the Argentines have some guys who can play and the Germans are known for often going into World Cups not looking like all that much ... and then making the semifinals. Too early to panic.

--Honduras had nearly its entire starting lineup in Istanbul to play non-qualifier Turkey, but the Turks handled them fairly easily, 2-0. We're back to the "difficult for non-Euros to win in Europe" thing, but if Honduras wanted to convince itself (or anyone else) that it isn't just an automatic victory for the other three teams Group H (Spain, Chile, Swizterland), it didn't do a very good job of it.

--Ivory Coast lost 2-0 to South Korea, which is ranked about 20 slots below them in the Fifa standings, but they don't have a coach, remember? Here's thinking they get smarter and sharper once Guus Hiddink (or whomever) takes over.

--Slovakia lost 1-0 at home to Norway, which is a bit disconcerting, but Norway finished second in its qualifying group, and isn't awful. Slovakia, though, is in a bit of a down patch and will need to get a result before heading to South Africa.

Big losers: Algeria, France, Greece, South Africa, Switzerland.

--Algeria should not lose 3-0 at home to anyone in the World Cup. Not to Brazil, and not to Serbia (see above, under big winners). A very alarming result, with 60,000 home fans in the stands. Following on a less-than-impressive Cup of African Nations performance.

--France's defeat at home to Spain, one of the two best teams in the world, would be only marginally worrisome, normally, but with Raymond Domenech still the coach, and still getting poor results, and the way Spain dominated the ball ... the French are shaping up as the top choice among seeded teams to get knocked out in group play.

--Greece lost 2-0 at home to Senegal, and that shouldn't happen. Clearly, the Greek system of fending off all challenges and scoring on a counter broke down. Senegal has talent, but the match was on Greek soil (albeit poorly attended, by 10,000), and non-Euro teams rarely defeat European teams in Europe. Otto Rehhegel needs to get his modestly talented lads back to what they do.

--South Africa tied Namibia 1-1, which would be an utter disaster had the whole Bafana Bafana team been at the match. (Their guys in Europe didn't come down.) Now it's just a regular disaster, because Namibia is ranked No. 111 in the world and started a mostly amateur starting lineup, players who were visibly winded by the end of the match. Namibia also scored the first goal (42nd minute) and led until the 70th minute. Played at Durban, before 50,000 in one of the World Cup stadiums, and with a bunch of hoopla marking the 100-days-till-kickoff point. South Africa still looks likely, very likely, to become the first host to fail to survive group play.

--Switzerland should not be getting blown out (3-1) by a South American team, at home, in early March. A scary result for Swiss fans, who thought their team was about to crack the ranks of the top 15-20 sides in the world.


  1. From what I saw, I thought the U.S. looked stale and over-matched. They didn't show much going forward and were constantly being dispossessed of the ball.

    Also, I was not impressed by the return of DeMarcus Beasley. He's not that fast anymore and gets pushed around too much to be effective with his slightly above-average service.

  2. The cool thing about right now is that regardless of all the Wednesday results - and the next round of exhibitions - no one knows what will happen three months from now.

    History shows the form of individual players and teams - it ebbs and flows less precisely than the tides. Simply put, sometimes people get hot for no good reason.

    Sometimes a newcomer turns giant-killer, like Croatia in 98. Sometimes a grossly under-rated team goes nearly all the way, like Turkey in 02.

    And sometimes a single player goes on a tear to carry his team. If somebody gets hot like Paolo Rossi did in 82 - somebody like Karim Ziani, Carlos Vela, Diego Forlan, Benni McCarthy or Humberto Suazo - there could be no end of surprises. People like Drogba and C. Ronaldo have known talent to take their squads deep in the tournament.

    Right now is dream time - let everyone hope all their best players heal, and that all their subs turn into supernatural game-changers. Call up a secret weapon teenager or a grizzled vet to breach the gaps. Keep the powder dry but don't be afraid to shoot for the moon. This is it.

    Even the lowest-rated team in the tournament, whoever you want to peg, they have a problem that a hundred other nations would love to have. They're still in, and in with a chance.

    Meanwhile, hats off to Mexico supporters for making a match en Etados Unidos the largest turnout of the week around the world.