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June 23, 2010 could well become a date that goes down in U.S. sporting history. Not only did the U.S. spin imminent elimination into a place in the knockout stage with barely any time left on the clock, but it became the first U.S. team to top its World Cup group since 1930. The performance confirmed what we already knew: this team will fight, with every last sinew, to the death. In this regard, it is a deserved group winner. What's more, the leapfrog up to first place in the Group C table means it will avoid the trickier course through the knockout phase -- now destined for England.
When the final whistle blew on England's match with Slovenia, the 1-0 victory it had earned (with a performance of such pace and passion it was hardly recognizable as the England of the past week or so), was enough to put it top of Group C, but within seconds the U.S. nudged it down into second. Fabio Capello's team is trying to concentrate on enjoying its improved form and having avoided a group stage exit, but will probably still have preferred to steal top spot.
Because in Group D, Germany eventually found a way through Ghana to secure a 1-0 win that sets up a last-16 meeting with England on Sunday. Because Australia beat Serbia, Ghana too goes through, to face the U.S. on Saturday. It battled ably against a German side that has struggled to match the awe it inspired against Australia in its first match, but was ultimately undone by a fine strike. The intensity of the encounter diminished once news of Australia's goals trickled through.
Both Ghana and Germany displayed enough vulnerabilities to encourage this weekend's opponents, but the U.S. will certainly be the happier to have entered a quadrant with Ghana, and then either Uruguay or South Korea. England will face old enemy Germany with the prospect of Argentina, if it beats Mexico, on the horizon. The U.S. has a realistic shot at reaching the semifinals in South Africa if it can continue to perform with such relentless energy.
There's been a lot of whooping about Landon Donovan's performance against Algeria, but he wasn't as influential as he had been in the comeback against Slovenia, despite scoring the decisive goal today. The result was a team effort and it doesn't feel right to single out one player. England, too, produced a team result, but there were some notable performances, not least from James Milner. Milner had looked hopelessly out of his depth against the U.S. in the first match of the group, but played exactly the game required today. His crossing made sure that the selection of Jermain Defoe looked more than sensible, and he ran himself into the ground tracking back as England rode late pressure from Slovenia.
For a $9 million striker with and at 6-foot-7 to boot, Serbia's Nikola Zigic made finding the net look difficult. In the 67 minutes he was on the pitch, he managed three shots at goal, and none was on target. His replacement, Marko Pantelic, scored shortly after coming on.
Of its 19 shots, only four were on target, so Algeria can hardly be said to have given Tim Howard a hard time today. But Howard made a crucial contribution to the U.S.' forward play, particularly in the second half, by releasing the ball quickly and thoughtfully. The goal that sent the U.S. through to the knockout phase started with a long ball forward from Howard, mindful of the clock and the space Donovan had worked on the right.
Did you know tennis matches could last for three days? The U.S.' John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, of France, have been playing their first-round Wimbledon match since Tuesday, and it'll have to resume tomorrow after 10 hours' of play left them 59-59 in the fifth set. Still, perhaps slightly less shocking than Australia beating Serbia in Group D today. After a goalless hour, the Socceroos established a 2-0 lead, and survived conceding a goal and some intense Serbian pressure in the dying minutes to ensure that both teams went home.
I'm giving you a double whammy today, since I'll be denied entry to the U.S. forever more if I don't at least mention Donovan's 91st minute winner against Algeria. "The ball fell to me and time kind of stopped," Donovan said afterwards, still shell-shocked. But in the interest of fairness, the finest strike of the day was surely Mesut Ozil's goal for Germany. Receiving the ball in front of the area, he tips it up into the air with his toes, allows it to bounce, then lashes it into the net.
You have to hand it to Bob Bradley: he is not a coach afraid to make a call. And what calls he made today. The half-time replacement of Hercules Gomez with Benny Feilhaber wasn't exactly out of left-field, but when things were still goalless after an hour, Bradley withdrew midfielder Maurice Edu and threw on another striker in Edson Buddle. When that didn't work, Jonathan Bornstein made way for DaMarcus Beasley with 10 minutes to go. The U.S. piled into the final third -- Michael Bradley too -- with such determination that a sharper team than Algeria might readily have been able to take advantage. But Bob Bradley gambled on it fluffing its lines in front of goal, and it paid off.
"I'm just glad to find the net because this time last week, my World Cup was over" -- a jubilant Tim Cahill after Australia's win over Serbia, which probably wasn't quite so pleased.
5 -- the number of yellow cards players of other teams have been shown after fouling the U.S.' Jozy Altidore, including three against Algeria today.
Italy will still be without Gianluigi Buffon tomorrow, but it is likely that Andrea Pirlo will at least make the bench. The benches in the match between Paraguay and New Zealand will be boosted by the return of Jonathan Santana and Tim Brown respectively.
It's the turn of Groups E and F, which means another opportunity for Italy to figure out how to attack without anything like the minaccia (menace) it displayed in the latter stages of the last World Cup. Plus, it could do with a win against Slovakia to guarantee making it through -- though a draw will be enough if Paraguay beats New Zealand, both games are at 10 a.m. ET. The potential return of Pirlo will help. Slovakia, for its part, has promised to attack, but only mustered one shot on target in its last match despite fielding a nominally attacking lineup. Set pieces could be its best hope -- Italy has proved consistently hopeless at defending them.
Paraguay only needs a draw, but a win will see it top the group, so expect the same fast, pressing football that we've seen from it already -- there are no changes planned for the line-up that beat Slovakia. New Zealand isn't planning changes either, but will rely on chances to counter-attack through target man Rory Fallon.
Denmark and Japan face-off for second place in Group E at 2:30 p.m. ET; if Denmark wins, it will go through, any other result will guarantee Japan goes through. Japan will look to defend first, partly for that reason and partly because its already enjoyed success with an attentive, press-from-the-front approach. Denmark will hope for the best from Nicolas Bendtner, who is still carrying an injury, and Dennis Rommedahl.
Last but not least, Group E leader, the Netherlands, faces Cameroon, which can win little more than pride even if it wins. Arjen Robben looks set to play after some less than inspiring forward displays from his teammates, but most Dutch problems have come from the defensiveness of its opposition. Cameroon is unlikely to present such a firm obstacle.