Germany looked to have lit the blue touch-paper on Sunday night and we all stood back and turned our faces to the skies. Two days later, we're still waiting for the big, loud fireworks to go off. New Zealand's draw with Slovakia was pleasant enough, like sparklers. The goalless draw between Ivory Coast and Portugal started with a fizz and a spark, but quickly went pfut. Brazil's win over North Korea didn't have the "ooh, aah" factor we'd hoped for, but it was at least an enjoyable watch. In fact, this was the first game that really felt worthy of being a World Cup finals encounter since South Africa held Mexico on Day 1.
We expected North Korea to be defensive, and the five-man back line sat on the edge of the penalty area for the entire first half, with the four-man midfield not far in front of it. Brazil's attempts to wiggle through the wall, no matter how deft the flicks, were halted every time, but what stopped this being a snoozefest was a) the fact that Kim Jong Hun's men looked to get forward when they could (and knowing that they'd come off worse if they had to try and take the ball past a Brazilian, passed it with encouraging urgency), and b) the fact that the Brazilians didn't give up or become petulant.
In the opening minutes of the second half, it was clear that Dunga's Brazil, however disappointingly pragmatic it may be considered back home, was willing to up the tempo to get around the Koreans. Maicon's goal, after 55 minutes, was the kind of strike that could just as easily have launched into orbit, but it put Brazil in a better mood nonetheless, and a second goal was always on the cards.
Elano found it 15 minutes later, fed in by Robinho having slipped through the rows of red shirts. It stuck a pin in any realistic hope that North Korea might pull off a shock result, but Brazil's pressing in the last 20 minutes was met by stern resistance, and when a free-kick was flung forwards in the 88th minute, Jong Tae Se found the legs -- and the heart -- to race onto the end of it, heading into Ji Yun Nam's path. The skill and composure with which Ji buried his shot suggest North Korea might yet enjoy its meetings with Ivory Coast and Portugal.
Robinho was Brazil's best player today by a reasonable distance, bringing pace, neat touches and the perfect through-ball for Elano's goal to the party. He did more running than any other forward player. It wouldn't do to ignore Slovakia's Vladimir Weiss, however, who outshone his teammate Marek Hamsik, from whom we expected the Slovaks' brightest sparkle to come. Switching from left to right and just about everywhere in between, Weiss was just about the only man on his team who deserved better than a draw.
Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't the worst player to take to the field today, but he was certainly the most disappointing, his long-range post-botherer of a shot apart. On Saturday, England's Frank Lampard went missing against the U.S., but still managed to make more passes (and complete more of them, 73% to 60%) short, medium and long. Ronaldo earned an early free-kick (and put Didier Zokora on a booking) by making the most of minimal contact, but it might have cost him the referee's trust. He spent the rest of the game shrieking for decisions that didn't go his way.
He won't go unsung by too many Kiwis after popping up with an equalizer in the 93rd minute against Slovakia, but Winston Reid's defensive game deserves a mention. With 20 minutes on the clock and Slovakia already a goal up, Reid slid in to cut out Stanislav Sestak's dangerous looking pass into the penalty area. New Zealand was on its last legs but Reid kept his side in the game to ensure that his late goal was worth something.
The South Koreans told us to expect better from their Northern neighbors, but drawn in a group containing Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal, it seemed a waste of time to entertain notions of North Korea doing more than proving irritatingly defensive. Having watched its fearlessness against Brazil, and the blunt edges of the Portuguese and Ivorian attacks, I rather like the cut of North Korea's jib even in that company.
Whether or not he meant it (did it come off his toes because he couldn't get his foot around it to shape the intended cross, or because he fancied his chances?), Maicon's goal against North Korea will rack up a fair few hits on YouTube. It was one of those goals that leaves you open-mouthed, making barely coherent noises for about three minutes. Given that he once scored a similar goal against Portugal, you'd have to say it was deliberate.
New Zealand's Ricki Herbert got a lot right today to win the nation's first-ever World Cup point. By playing three at the back and piling bodies into the midfield, he made life difficult for Slovakia (for whom Hamsik's game was diminished by being fielded out wide, rather than through the middle). When the All Whites were unlocked at the back, Slovakian scorer Robert Vittek received a great cross from Sestak in an offside position. The biggest worry for Herbert is that New Zealand badly lacked quality, even the threat of it, in the final third, but the draw it earned with Winston Reid's 93rd-minute header was utterly deserved.
"We just started laughing... it was just quite funny to come out with a little 'boo-boo'" -- Jay DeMerit reveals that Tim Howard let the rest of the squad know he would be fine to play against Slovenia by turning up at the pool with a band aid on the ribs Emile Heskey clattered into last weekend.
10 -- the game between Ivory Coast and Portugal contained 10 times as many fouls as it did shots on target.
A sciatic nerve problem forced Gianluigi Buffon out of Italy's match last night, and the doctors suspect he might have to miss its next. Didier Drogba made a second half appearance with a cast on his arm, and looks likely to start the Ivory Coast's second match.
Chile striker Humberto Suazo may well be fit for tomorrow's match against Honduras, recovering well enough from a thigh injury to at least make the bench. The same goes for Andres Iniesta, though he hopes to start for Spain. "If I feel good, then why not play?" he said. The Swiss, meanwhile, will have to start without Alexander Frei up front (ankle) and Valon Behrami in the middle (thigh).
Tomorrow kicks off with Honduras versus Chile, a meeting that could push the goal count up if it goes to form: Chile's team talks seem to consistent of one word, "attack," while Honduras looks shaky at the back. Reinaldo Rueda, the Honduran coach, has promised "desire" and "camaraderie," but they rarely score goals.
European champion Spain finally gets onto the pitch to conclude the action in Group G against Switzerland. Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld reckons "Little Switzerland could annoy the favorite," but Vicente del Bosque probably isn't too worried -- he has one of the strongest benches in the tournament and can swap Cesc Fabregas for Iniesta if the Barcelona midfielder isn't rated fully fit.
Then we're back to Group A in the last match of the day, with South Africa looking to continue its positive start against Uruguay. Both teams look like making changes in reaction to their first games -- Diego Forlan will probably be pulled deeper, behind Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, while Tsepo Masilela could start in place of Lucas Thwala for South Africa -- Thwala struggled against the pace of Paul Aguilar of Mexico, and the left back will face Maximilano Pereira, one of Uruguay's faster players.