Friday, June 18, 2010

Group F opening games

Paraguay 1-1 Italy

This was an engaging game with quality passing football on show. Paraguay looked like a side who had finished only one point behind Brazil in qualification and were well worth their 1-0 lead at half-time. They were happy to soak up Italian pressure and catch them on the break with slick fluid passing. Alcarez's header to put them into the lead was quality. Italy, for all their ball, were rather stale at times. And when the equaliser finally game it was fortuitous. Goalkeeper Villmar completely missed the cross and de Rossi was on hand to stab home. For Italy I felt the best players were Pepe who looked dangerous all game, and Camaronesi who came on in the second half. They clearly missed the quality of Pirlo in midfield. Buffon also suffered an injury...what damage will that do to the hopes of Italians everywhere? Paraguay have had it tough with star man Cabanas ruled out of the tournament before it began (thanks to the shooting in the head I have previously blogged about) and Santa Cruz only just coming back from injury. But they are a real prospect in Group F in my view.

New Zealand 1-1 Slovakia

The moment all we Kiwis had been waiting for. New Zealand back on the biggest stage of them all, 28 years between drinks. This was widely viewed as New Zealand's greatest chance to get a result at the World Cup but the international media had written us off. New Zealand played its usual 3-4-3 with the only talking point of the starting lineup being that Vicelich was to partner Elliott in midfield.

The first half finished all square. This wasn't without nervy moments as Paston almost embarrassed himself with a clearance that instead skimmed gently off his foot. He did well enough to recover though. New Zealand had done well to limit Slovakia to a couple of good chances. The best being when their two most impressive players combined - Weiss feeding Sestak for a good chance - but he fired wide. The best chance of the half was arguably Killen's tame header that didn't threaten a goal. New Zealand certainly weren't overawed.

Disaster struck early in the second half when Vittek headed in a Weiss cross. Reid arguably hadn't marked tightly enough but the Kiwis had a right to be aggrieved, replays showed he was clearly offside, by about a foot. New Zealand didn't create many second half chances but the striker who threatened the most was always Smeltz. Fallon and Killen by contrast never looked like scoring, although they helped well with the defending. Central midfield gave the ball away too often and Elliott who had played well in the first half started to tire and made too many mistakes in the second. The central defensive trio of Nelsen, Smith and Reid were beautifully composed however and are the real strength to the Kiwis. Bertos was often anonymous as he was sucked into defensive duties too often and Lochhead was an inconsistent mixture of good and bad.

I thought the final chance had come and gone when Smeltz headed a cross wide with less than two minutes remaining. But with the last play of the game Smeltz sent in an excellent cross and Reid powered a header home to write his name in NZ folklore. It was a beautiful goal and the Kiwis celebrated their first ever World Cup point. Reid was booked for removing his shirt so he needs to be careful in the second match to avoid a suspension.

In truth it was a poor game but for a Kiwi supporter like me it was intense, it was fascinating and it was ultimately rewarding. The Slovakian manager Vladimir Weiss called it a minor sporting tragedy but in truth, whilst they had looked better than New Zealand with ball at feet they had not created enough goalscoring opportunities to win.

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