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Another mixed day in South Africa, but an overall pattern is starting to etch itself onto this World Cup: while African and European teams falter and flail, the South Americans are making soccer look as easy as only South Americans can. Today saw convincing wins for Paraguay and Brazil in games that most of us expected to be closer.
But Slovakia lost 2-0 to Paraguay with only one shot on target to its name, and showed an astonishing lack of ambition given the tightness of Group F. Coach Vladimir Weiss had made changes up front that suggested we might see more of Stanislav Sestak and Robert Vittek, not less, but Paraguay's bright start placed the emphasis on the Slovakian defense and it never really shook it off, despite a rather less energetic display from Paraguay as the second half wore on.
What looked like the matchup of the day between Brazil and the Ivory Coast was similarly one-sided. Brazil easing to a 3-0 lead in the first hour as Didier Drogba began to look more and more isolated up front for Ivory Coast. He took his 79th-minute header well to reduce the deficit to two, but Brazil was able to play the whole game at its own pace, which frequently dropped somewhere close to walking. When it did put its foot down, Kaka, Robinho and Luis Fabiano danced around defenders with ease.
Which is not a feat replicated by Italy's frontline, held to a 1-1 draw by New Zealand defenders who played like their lives depended on it as they fought to protect an early lead. A soft penalty put paid to that ambition, but the tie was clung to just as tightly. Italy enjoyed most of the possession but struggled to get close enough to trouble keeper Mark Paston, and when it did, he did his stock no harm at all with a couple of fine saves. The final whistle, coinciding with a drip-drop of news from the chaotic French camp, started the race to write European football's obituary.
Paston and left-back Tommy Smith made notable interventions as New Zealand withstood almost constant Italian pressure, but captain Ryan Nelsen was immense in that regard -- Paston would have been far busier without him. Ever-alert, he cut out balls before they could fulfil their dangerous potential, and put his body on the line to minimize their impact when they did. Even in the 90th minute, having spent time on the deck with cramp, he leapt in front of Gianluca Zambrotta's shot like a lion defending his pride.
Italy striker Alberto Gilardino hasn't registered a shot on target in 117 minutes on the pitch so far in this World Cup, which had him glued into this spot until Kader Keita pulled a Rivaldo in the closing minutes of Brazil's win over Ivory Coast. Keita ran into the back of Kaka, whose mistake was to brace himself for impact -- the instant Keita felt Kaka's arm in his ribs, he went down clutching his face. The referee missed the incident completely and seemed to give the card on the basis of Keita's writhing.
Justo Villar's shonky flap cost Paraguay against Italy last time out, but he deserves credit for today, despite Slovakia's incredible reluctance to attack. He could have set out a picnic in goal this morning and not spilt the wine, but was sharp enough to tip to a thundering Vittek drive over the bar in the 89th minute. With Paraguay 2-0 up, it wouldn't have made much difference to the result, but with Group F tight, the boost it gives his side's goal difference might come in handy.
Seven minutes into the day's second match, Italy was 1-0 down to New Zealand. The reigning world champion, for a bit of context, had conceded to the 2000/1 World Cup minnow. Granted, Italy hasn't played like a world champion, and New Zealand has hidden its gigantic odds well, but even the widest of wide-eyed optimists can hardly have hoped for such a good start.
Brazil laid on a feast today and Fabiano's second of the match would have won hands down if the striker had, well, kept his hands down. As it was, a beautiful jaunt past two defenders and an excellent left-foot finish were joined together by a spot of handball. Brazil's third goal, added by Elano, was entirely legitimate and had its own magic, having been created by Kaka's sashaying dash down the left.
New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert gets a thumbs up for being brave enough to field, at least nominally, a 3-4-3 formation against Italy -- courage that was well rewarded. Sven Goran Eriksson, by contrast, seemed to take an age to change things up for Ivory Coast, and made a couple of like-for-like replacements that never really looked like overhauling the deficit.
"We are aware of our responsibilities as those wearing the colors of our country. Also for those we have towards our fans and countless children who keep Les Bleus as role models. We forget none of our duties. We will do everything individually and also in a collective spirit to ensure that France regains its honor with a positive performance on Tuesday" -- statement from the French football team, after refusing to train in protest as Nicolas Anelka's expulsion and after the media recorded a very public spat between Patrice Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne. That's professionalism, kids.
Of the teams to have played two matches so far, New Zealand has registered the fewest shots: 11. Mind you, it still has more points than France and as many as England ...
Elano was stretchered off in the second half of Brazil's win over Ivory Coast with what looked like a serious injury to his right shin.
Deco looks doubtful for Portugal with a hip injury, but opponents North Korea go into tomorrow with no injuries to report.
Switzerland could have Alexander Frei back, at least on the bench, while Valon Behrami might start. Chile will welcome back striker Humberto Suazo from a hamstring injury.
Fernando Torres seems likely to play from the start for Spain against Switzerland Monday, however Andres Iniesta is doubtful with a thigh muscle problem.
Portugal and North Korea haven't met since their epic quarterfinal encounter in 1966, when the Koreans took an unlikely 3-0 lead before being torn apart by Eusebio, who scored four of Portugal's five goals. On current evidence, the Portuguese do not have a comparable hero in their ranks this around, but then neither do the Koreans, for all their energetic pressing, seem likely to pull into that kind of lead.
Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has Chile as the strong favorite against his side tomorrow morning, and suspects it might prove a more difficult opponent to defend against than Spain. He's a hard man to disagree with here; Chile certainly knitted passes together at far greater pace against Honduras than Spain was able to against Switzerland. It also has a three-man attack, which should pose more questions of the unerring Swiss defense than David Villa was able to alone for Spain.
Tomorrow's evening kick-off sees Spain -- shocked from its first match defeat but in nothing like the disarray seen elsewhere in Europe -- play Honduras. Spain was slated for the lack of imagination it showed against Switzerland, but the defeat was only its second in 49 matches. The Hondurans battled admirably with Chile's pacy forwards, but may be the unlucky victims of a demonstrative comeback performance from Spain.