Well, that wraps up the group stage, now it’s on to the real entertainment, the knockout stages. It has been a tremendous World Cup so far, although the pace of things definitely dropped off over the last set of matches as many teams were all too happy to give….just….enough….effort to take….just….enough….points to get through. Some of these games have been excruciating. Case in point what, under different circumstances, could have been a very entertaining match-up between the German powerhouse and a tough, spirited American side. Unfortunately, it was not that particular USA team we saw in action today. I certainly can’t argue with the strategy of playing for a draw against a team so clearly your superior. However, once Muller scored in the 55th minute to give the Germans the lead and put the US in serious jeopardy of elimination I expected a bit of red-white-and-blue energy, a big desperate push for an equalizer, anything and everything to make sure their fate didn’t rest in the hands of Ghana or, ugh, Portugal. But no, apparently even losing was going to be acceptable on this day, as long as it wasn’t by too many, I guess. This despite the fact that for most of the second half Ghana and Portugal were tied, meaning one more Ghanaian goal would send the USA home. Limp effort, and disappointing. 0 shots on goal, just 4 attempts, and their only “chance” of the game coming with about 15 seconds left. Talk about building up some momentum for the next game. But in the end it worked out for them, thanks to a semi-ironic winner from Cristiano Ronaldo (his first of the tournament, and just his 3rd in total over the course of 3 separate World Cups), this one sending the USA through just as his perfect late cross the other day prolonged their agony for another match. Funny coincidence, and hopefully the last time we hear his name until next fall.
One thing I forgot to mention yesterday was how great a job the Italian referee did in the Argentina-Nigeria game. I’m always quick to point out horrible refereeing decisions (and there have been some beauties so far), it’s only fair to point out a job well done. Obviously these are fast-paced, high-pressure games involving players who put an enormous amount of thought and effort into tricking the referees. For a crew to handle a game of that magnitude without, in my opinion, missing a single call is impressive to say the least. Expect to see plenty more of Nicola Rizzoli, possibly right up to the final.
Tight game between Russia and Algeria, this one could have gone either way. But Algeria is for real, and they are going through to the final 16 to take on Germany. Wouldn’t want to bet much on their chances in that one but you never know, Germany hasn’t looked too convincing since beating up on 10-man Portugal. For the third straight game Belgium scored in the final 10 minutes for a one-goal victory, although they will feel some pride at doing so playing half the game with just 10 men. As uninspiring 9 points as you could hope to come up with. The Americans should like their chances against them, assuming they actually come out to play and not just waste 120 minutes and hope for the best in penalties.
Ahem, sole possession of first place now for yours truly, although considering there are 15 people within 8 points of the lead I don’t think I’ll start planning the parade just yet. And as much as it pains me to keep harping on poor Ang, I feel I have to make note of the fact that not only does she still sit in last place but now has just 1 pick left in action (the so far uninspiring Edison Cavani), which is 3 less than anybody else. Although in her defense, it’s not like loading up on Spain, Italy and Portugal sounded too bad at the time.
And now the real fun begins – remember that each of the Round of 16 matches is now worth 4 points to the winner. Huzzah!