Filed by Gentry Estes
We’ve reached the end of the opening round of the group stage without many fireworks. Lacking is the trademark upset that so often accompanies the early days of World Cup action. Instead, group favorites across the board pulled points out of opening matches, leaving little alterations in the projected path to the finals.
EUROPE: On familiar turf, UEFA clubs went 7-4-3 in the opening round, with half the defeats and two draws against each other. The Czech Republic, Netherlands and Spain were particularly impressive.
SOCCER-ROOS: World Cup strangers Australia mined three goals out of the final 10 minutes for a thrilling 3-1 comeback over Japan. If it makes disheartened American fans feel better, the Aussies call it “soccer” too.
RECARDO LAVOLPE: The chain-smoking Mexican coach was scolded by FIFA for lighting up on the sideline. Good thing the stress isn’t real high after two timely substitutions produced a key 3-1 victory over Iran.
AFRICA: Tunisia’s 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday saved African teams from a dismal 0-5 start to this World Cup. Perhaps changes are due Africa’s qualifying process after continental powerhouses Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa missed out.
SWEDEN: A lackluster 0-0 result against 10-man Trinidad & Tobago marked a long drop from the Swedes’ third-place finish in 1994.
BRUCE ARENA: Costly tactical errors and an inability to adjust out of an overly tentative strategy made the U.S. coach the fall guy for the Czech Republic disaster. Time to forget those rumors linking Arena to a job at a big-money European club.
In a World Cup with few real upsets thus far, Trinidad & Tobago’s draw against Sweden stands out as the most surprising result. The smallest nation in the field, T&T should be in way over its head against England on Thursday.
It wasn’t that world-class wannabes United States and Ukraine dropped opening matches, rather it was the way they lost them. The U.S. clearly wasn’t ready against the Czech Republic. Nor was the Ukraine, a qualifying monster that was somehow dismantled 4-0 by Spain on Wednesday to take the U.S. out of last place.
Tomas Rosicky, M, Czech Republic: The critical second goal against the U.S. came on an unstoppable 40-yard rocket. Consider it the strike of the tournament thus far. In all, the Czech midfielder proved twice as good as any American player.
Arjen Robben, F, Netherlands: The Chelsea striker broke through for a goal and six shots, becoming the difference in a 1-0 victory over dangerous Serbia & Montenegro.
Shaka Hislop, GK, Trinidad & Tobago: Six vital saves and a spotless performance allowed the underdogs of the tournament to draw mighty Sweden, a famous result back home regardless of the next two matches.
1. Brazil: Tourney favorites weren’t sharp, yet still topped Croatia 1-0.
2. Argentina: No early letdown in victory over dangerous Ivory Coast
3. Italy: Efficient 2-0 win over Ghana answered questions of scandal at home.
4. Germany: Host nation needs to bolster defense to challenge the big boys.
5. Czech Republic: Sure, the U.S. stunk. But the Czechs had plenty to do with that.
E-mail Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org