Expect the best, prepare for the WTF?
After the excitement brought on by today’s early match, I’m sure we all expected it to continue and increase with the other two games. Considering the countries involved – the #1 and #3 ranked teams, the #27-but-featuring-a-seriously-kick-ass-striker-who-stopped-a-Civil-War team, and a team ranked 105th hailing from a nuke-filled dictatorship run by a man not wholly distinguishable from a cartoon villain – it certainly seemed like headline material.
The reality? Well, it’s a bit of a puzzle. Both games were hard-fought and were interesting to a degree and lively at times – but both also induced some head-shaking and confusion. In the earlier of the two, Portugal and Ivory Coast played to a 0-0 draw. Now, as Marc has said and as I also believe, a draw, even a nil-nil, can be entertaining. I’m not sure if I’d use that word for this match, but I wouldn’t go so far as Bobby McMahon did on the Fox Soccer Report tonight and call it “dreadful” either. I think we just really expected something different. There wasn’t much attacking in the game – CIV’s shot tally was 9(2) and Portugal’s was only 7(1) – and there were only a few memorable goal possibilities. Cristiano Ronaldo slammed a shot off the post from about 30 yards out early on, and that was pretty much the only real chance in the whole first half. In the second half, CIV saw a couple of half-chances from Salomon Kalou and Kolo Toure, and then super-super-sub Didier Drogba (who started on the bench due to being mostly-but-not-totally recovered from his fractured elbow) had one bright moment in stoppage time inside the area, but missed the target.
Both sides moved with speed through most of the game, and seemed fairly organized and determined to either push through the other or shut it down (both CIV and Portugal played each role for portions of the match), but nothing really came together. In a game with the likes of Ronaldo, Deco and Drogba (even for only 25 minutes), no goals is surprising enough, but so few chances even more so. Although it wasn’t entirely off-kilter – we did get plenty of diving from Ronaldo, as well a bit of argy-bargy when the Ivorians decided they’d had enough of him, so that at least was comfortingly familiar.
The late game of the day was always going to be interesting in a sense, with the top team in the world taking on a generally unknown and mysterious minnow from Asia. When talking about it beforehand, I joked that Brazil would steamroll North Korea to the tune of about 8-0. It was a joke, but to be honest I didn’t think it would be far below that. Turns out I was a tad off. I also said, sans snark, that they might do to North Korea what they did to the US last summer – play casually and hang back in the first half, go to the locker room and have a laugh at halftime, then come out in the second and say “Oh yeah, by the way, we’re Brazil” and make with the winning. That was a little more accurate.
Brazil seemed content to play at about half the pace and skill they’re capable of in the first half, and it seemed clear that they’d gone into the match with very little concern over their opponent, as had many of the viewers, I’m sure. They controlled possession easily (at full time they’d had 63%) and passed the ball around generally well, but were put back on their heels a bit when coming up against a strong and solid North Korean defense. Brazil could hardly break through, and when they did, their fancy footwork was often interrupted by two or more red jerseys. Robinho had a few chances throughout the first half, but saw his passes into the area knocked away and his own shots saved or gone wide. You started to see a bit of frustration creeping into the South Americans near the end of the first half, but they still showed little urgency with their attack and North Korea continued to put a lot of pressure on them, and to show some flashes of speed and skill when they had the chance.
The numbers belie that a bit – Brazil’s shots totaled 26(10) (to North Korea’s 11(3)); I didn’t keep specific track but I’d bet a fortune the majority of those came in the second half. This is when, as I’d imagined, they started to play closer to their abilities. The passing improved (with, for me, the notable exception of Kaka, who looked oddly flat for most of this match), the attack got more focused, and the goals finally came. Maicon put them on the board first in the 55th with an impossible shot from practically on the endline that curled just between the near post and the North Korean keeper. Elano added a second in the 72nd off a beautiful pass from Robinho. The score held at 2-0 until just before stoppage time, when Ji Yun-Nam broke through the yellow shirts and drove a hard strike past Julio Cesar to make the final score 2-1. North Korea walked away with no points, but even nabbing a goal must have seemed like an unlikely dream at the beginning.
Both matches served as good examples of the saying that games aren’t played on paper. A goalless end to a game between two strong sides, each with their own shining star of a striker? The best team in the world being tentative and lackadaisical, while a largely derided unknown piles on the pressure? Not what I expected on the day…but then for me, that’s part of the fun. You really never know what you’re going to see.