The world cup continues apace and has now settled into a nice rhythm. At the time of writing, 23 matches of the 64 in total have been played, and some definitive solutions can be made.
First of all, two African teams have been knocked out. Egypt and Morocco cannot make the second round. For Egypt, the injury and lack of fitness of their talisman Mo Salah seem to have knocked the wind out of their sails, and all they have to look out for is securing a first ever victory in the world cup finals by beating a rapidly improving Saudi Arabia.
For Morocco, a valiant performance against Portugal could not give them a first victory at the world cup, and they were eliminated with two 1-0 losses. They leave with their heads held up high, but hopefully having gained valuable experience for the upcoming African Cup of Nations qualifiers and maybe even future world cup campaigns.
The second conclusion I have made is that South American teams are also not faring too well. Of their five representatives, only Uruguay has won a match, and even them struggled past perceived weaker opposition, struggling past both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in terribly boring matches.
The big one is Argentina. After huffing and puffing to a 1-1 draw with Iceland in their first group game, they faced an unpredictable Croatia in their second game. Lining up in an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation, the Argentines dominated the match in the early quarters although their defense made errors that went unpunished, the Croats looking dangerous on the break. A massive mistake in the 53rd minute by their goalkeeper, Chelsea reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero, when he tried to do a confused loop/pass to a teammate, was intercepted by Croatia forward Ante Rebic who scored a great volley. 1-0 to the Croats. From there on, it was Argentina attacking, and Croatia defending. As the Argentines grew increasingly desperate, without really testing the Croats, the Argentina coach threw on more attackers, bringing in Pablo Dyabala for Enzo Perez, and the young starlet Cristiano Pavon for defender Eduardo Salvio. It did not work. Instead, Croatia added two more goals, with Luka Modric scoring a screamer that will surely make the highlight reel of this world cup before Ivan Rakitic added salt to injury with a third in injury time.
The three-nil loss means Argentina face an uphill task just to make the second round. The fallout on Twitter was huge. From blaming Lionel Messi, one of the greatest ever to play the game, to ridiculing the coach, to an analysis of the team performance, everyone had an opinion on the game. I found the blaming of Lionel Messi, coming off a record-breaking campaign where he won both the Copa del Rey and the La Liga title, as well as leading the La Liga race for Pichichi (top scorer) and most assists, to be excessive. Argentina is a team which went through three coaches in qualifying and were thrashed 6-1 by Spain in a friendly before the world cup. Messi is not blameless, but more blame should lie with those at the Argentina FA and with the coaching setup.
Looking at the future matches
Africa’s three teams still in the world cup, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria could all feasibly qualify or fail to. I do not have much hope for Nigeria who has already lost 2-0 to Croatia, but they might surprise us If they can conjure a win against tricky Iceland and a wounded Argentina.
Tunisia, on the other hand, faces a formidable Belgium on Saturday, and they need a minor miracle against the Europeans. Unfortunately, I cannot see anything other than a second defeat and elimination for them too. I am, however, willing to be surprised.
Senegal, the only African team with a win this world cup, will hope to beat Japan and ensure a ticket to the second round.
South American teams will also be looking for an improved performance, with Brazil hoping to beat Costa Rica and Columbia hoping to improve and beat a tricky Poland side in their second match. For Peru, the adventure is already over. Two opening losses to Denmark and France mean they are headed home after their third match.
In conclusion, this seems to be shaping up to be a European world cup, with many of their teams faring well. However, watch out for the Germans. After their shock loss to Mexico, their match against a very experienced and defensive Swedish side that knocked out Italy for qualifying is key. Lose that, and Germany will join Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014 as defending world cup champions who failed to make the second round.