The second set of group games begin in earnest, and give us an entertaining match-up, another look at the host team, and crucial match between two teams that find themselves at risk of an unexpectedly early exit.
Argentina v. South Korea (Group B, 7:30 AM ET)
Yum! Only a very few teams managed to score multiple goals in the first round, and of those South Korea might have been the most unexpected. The Koreans looked really good, keeping a bigger Greece squad at bay and showing real quality in the attacking areas of midfield. They even got a really nice strike out of captain Park Ji-Sung, which might mean that our dire prediction about their abilities in front of goal might be overstated. Because South Korea are currently ahead on goal difference, even a draw here gives them the inside track to winning the group. This is more or less a free roll for them, which makes them dangerous.
In our first round preview, we identified two big questions for Argentina: (1) could Lionel Messi bring it for Argentina the way he has for Barcelona; and (2) did Juan Sebastian Veron have enough left in the tank to act as Argentina’s midfield engine. Question #1 was answered with a pretty emphatic “yes”. Messi didn’t score, but he was a constant danger and looked like the sort of one-man wrecking crew he so often was in La Liga this year.
Question #2…well, that answer was considerably more equivocal. Veron played so-so, and was substituted off after about 70 minutes. His performance might be excused by the fact that Nigeria played an up-and-down game that didn’t really lend itself to a composed midfield performance—the game alternated stretches of wingers going off to the races with stretches of unsuccessful long balls. Veron will be needed more against South Korea, who will look to press the ball more and are better organized at the back. Someone will have to get the ball to the attacking talent in the right place, and we’re still not sure Veron is that guy.
Prediction: Argentina 2-2 South Korea. Must see.
Greece v. Nigeria (Group B, 10AM)
Woof. Greece looked absolutely terrible against South Korea. The lack of offense wasn’t a surprise, but the lack of organization at the back very much was. If these guys aren’t at the top of their game tactically, their lack of talent will lead to a series of woodshed beatings. One such beating is already in the can; another seems likely to follow against Argentina. This is Greece’s best chance to get its first-ever World Cup point.
We sort of don’t know how to feel about Nigeria. On the one hand, it’s not really surprising for a team to look bad playing against Argentina. On the other, nobody besides goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama looked much good at all. For all their terrible play against South Korea, you’d have to figure that Greece will reorganize to the point that Nigeria will have to do something special to unlock them. Right now, it’s unclear where that something special will come from.
Prediction: 0-0. Must not see.
France v. Mexico (Group A, 2:30 PM)
Both teams are undoubtedly disappointed by their first round ties. The difference is that France must also be disappointed about their level of play, whereas Mexico are likely just frustrated that their advantage in possession didn’t translate into a win.
So, let’s see. France never really threatened a dull Uruguay team. One of their better attacking players (Florent Malouda) was benched because of some unspecified conflict with the team’s super-flake coach, “Everybody Hates” Raymond Domenech, who learned just before coming to the World Cup that he has already been fired as of the end of the tournament. And the locker room might be split over who should be captain. So, off to a good start for Les Bleus. They really are much better than they’ve shown recently, but at this point, you’d have to think that entropy has taken over. It’s getting eerily 2002 in here.
Mexico, on the other hand, played pretty well against a fired up South African team, and was slightly unlucky not to win. They looked great in the middle 80% of the field, but showed a little bit of weakness up front and at the back. If you want to worry about Mexico, worry that this is becoming a pattern—they’ve outplayed their result more than once over the WC and warm-up season. So this might not be bad luck (or not only bad luck), but a sign that the team isn’t quite connecting up enough to get them over the top. For this match, watch whichever of Carlos Vela or Gio Dos Santos gets matched up against whichever stopgap plays in the right side of France’s defense.
Prediction: Mexico 2-0 France. We think the Mexicans put it together.