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Today heralded the arrival of attacking football, with Group H's Spain, tournament co-favorite, and Chile getting their campaigns underway. The second Group A match, which pitted the positive host South Africa against a Uruguay team that needed to come out of its shell, also looked likely to give things a kick up the backside.
Chile kept its side of the bargain with ceaseless waves of attack, overwhelming Honduras as much as any side can be said to overwhelm a side while winning 1-0. Three-quarters of its shots might have been off target, but the Chileans peppered Noel Valladares' area with attempts from start to finish. South Africa and Uruguay delivered too, both teams looking pumped up and playing to win. The South Americans (looking like a different team to that which drew so meekly with France) dominated the best chances and quashed South Africa's hopes with an 80th-minute penalty decision that cost it its keeper.
The game everybody was waiting for, however, was Spain's meeting with Switzerland. Chile showed adventure but a quality final touch was often missing -- something we were counting on Spain to have to spare. But, though Spain had 63 percent of possession (it seemed like much more) and stroked some nice passes around, Chile beat it for neat, quick, attacking football; Uruguay beat it for penetration. Switzerland packed two rows of four in front of its penalty area and forced Spain to come up with a plan B.
But it never materialized and five minutes into the second half, the Swiss bundled home a messy goal after goalkeeper Diego Benaglio's long kick immediately put pressure on the Spanish defense. The arrival of Jesus Navas brought greater speed and intent to Spain's right, but fellow substitute Fernando Torres only really confirmed that he was match-rusty. Before the game, predicting a win for Switzerland would have won you a ticket to your local asylum. In the last 20 minutes or so, it seemed worryingly evident that Spain had run out of ideas. No team has lost its first match and gone on to win the World Cup.
Diego Forlan, playing between Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, led Uruguay's frontline with a serene menace. "He could play in his slippers, no one's getting anywhere near him," uttered BBC summarizer Mark Lawrenson, dispensing with his customary curmudgeonly persona. His movement, the instinctive way in which he shapes his body around the ball, the certainty with which he strikes it: all terrific today. When he drifted out to the left, he pinged in some impressive crosses -- the cross-field ball to Suarez, who pushed it into the six-yard box for Alvaro Pereira to head home Uruguay's third, being particularly sweet.
We're still scratching our heads trying to work out why Iker Casillasopted to try and keep firstEren Derdiyok and then Gelson Fernandes out with his feet, when he's so reliable with his hands.
Chilean fullback Mauricio Isla provided his showier teammate, Alexis Sanchez, with excellent support today, covering more ground and at greater pace than anyone else in a Chile shirt. He was helped in that endeavor by the fact that Honduras so rarely forced him to defend, but he was always available on the right and frequently got into the box himself.
One of -- if not the -- finest attacking nation was surprisingly comfortably held by a team with an earnest defense, who no one imagined would resist Spain's advances for 95 minutes. The even bigger surprise was that Switzerland seemed to get better as the game went on, growing in confidence after penetrating a Spanish defense that had hardly had a thing to do in the first half. I, like so many others, bemoaned the Swiss defensiveness as a primary tactic, so it was pleasing to see Ottmar Hitzfeld's side tempted to attack even with an improbable (and hugely valuable) lead to defend.
Boo! The ball's rubbish, no one's scored from distance, moan, whinge. No matter how much paint Forlan's shot took off the underside of the crossbar, I'm claiming it as the moment at which we consign all the waffle about the ball to the bin. And he struck a fine penalty into the roof of the net in the closing stages, too.
Question marks over whether Vicente del Bosque got it right today. It may sound silly -- had Switzerland made a mistake, you fancy Spain would have pounced on it -- but given how tough his team found it to get through or even around the Swiss back line, waiting until the hour mark to bring off Sergio Busquets is a move worth debating. Busquets, playing behind Xavi and the already defense-minded Xabi Alonso, was surplus to requirements -- the Swiss bypassed the midfield in any case when they scored. Andres Iniesta played 77 minutes but was only occasionally at his sparkling best. No doubt del Bosque felt, like the rest of us, that a Spanish goal was only a matter of time, but an instant reaction to Switzerland's 50th-minute goal might have done the trick. Having Navas andDavid Silva on either flank was surely worth a try.
Quote of the day
"We all know how the French are, and Platini is French, and he thinks he is better than the rest" -- Diego Maradona reacts to Michel Platini's criticism of his coaching by bad-mouthing a whole nation.
At the end of the first 16 matches in South Africa, the goals average stood at a measly 1.56. If you take out Germany's 4-0 destruction of Australia, that drops to 1.4 goals per game.
Argentina will play without Juan Seba Veron (calf strain), since Maradona is unwilling to risk his fitness for the rest of the tournament. Maxi Rodriguez will step into his boots in the middle.
Greece will get a boost in defence with the return of Evangelos Moras, who has recovered from a groin injury, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who was left out of the side against South Korea.
French goalkeeper Cedric Carrasso picked up a thigh injury in training yesterday, but FIFA has refused a request to call-up Monaco's Stephane Ruffier. First and second choices Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda are both still fit.
First out of the blocks tomorrow will be Argentina and South Korea, current leaders of Group B. Huh Jung Moo's side is in confident mood after a bright -- and winning -- performance against Greece, and Maradona is mindful enough of the threat it poses to be thinking of rejigging his line-up. Jonas Gutierrez didn't always look comfortable against Nigeria, and there's some talk that he'll step forward into a more familiar midfield role with Nicolas Burdisso going into the back line.
The meeting between Greece and Nigeria is a must-win match for both if either is to make a dent on Argentina and South Korea's ambitions. Nigeria, which has already got Maradona's team out of the way, looks the stronger and has promised to chase a win. The lackluster display with which Greece began the tournament suggests Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama won't get another chance to showcase his superb reflexes.
The day finishes with France vs. Mexico, a game that Mexican forward Carlos Vela has labeled "kill or be killed." Raymond Domenech has responded to France's soporific opening draw with Uruguay by tinkering with his formation in training, and we may see Franck Ribery start in the middle, in place of Yoann Gourcuff, with Florent Malouda starting on the left. Mexico's Javier Hernandez may also get longer on the pitch than last time out.