Reports of the death of Iberian soccer have been grossly exaggerated. After displaying all the penetrative edge of a sponge against Ivory Coast in its opener, Portugal came alive in a second-half mauling of North Korea in a game that ended 7-0 on Monday. The result gives Portugal a massive boost and leaves Ivory Coast's hopes of progressing hanging by a thread. It also cues up what promises to be an effervescent meeting between Portugal and Brazil on Friday.
Spain, for its part, retained the style of its play against Switzerland, but also found an edge sharp enough to cut through defenses at will. Better finishing might have doubled the 2-0 score line against Honduras.
Portugal and Spain -- who could meet in the round of 16 -- are finally playing the kind of soccer we expected to see and getting results. Portugal had six different scorers Monday; and though David Villa bagged both for Spain, six other players also tried their luck in front of goal.
Neither Honduras nor North Korea was ever likely to offer the most testing or flamboyant opposition, but seeing (European) passing sides make light work of such obdurate defenses is reassuring with the thrills of the knockout stages waiting on the other side of this week's final group games.
Cristiano Ronaldo was named Man of the Match against North Korea, but graciously handed the award to Tiago, who had arguably the finest match of his career. Getting all over the pitch and playing Xavi-esque passes, Tiago set up Raul Meireles for Portugal's first, started the move that led to its third and scored its fourth and seventh with well-timed moves into the box. His reverse pass to Ronaldo in the 72nd minute deserved the goal that Ri Myong-guk prevented.
Weren't we supposed to be excited that Humberto Suazo would be fit for Chile's match with Switzerland? He was Chile's leading scorer in qualifying but looked a good yard off the pace before being replaced by Jorge Valdivia at halftime. The fresh-air shot on the edge of the area in the 12th minute summed up his day.
Spain looked comfortable handling the assaults Honduras sporadically attempted on the Spanish half. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets (169 passes between them, 85 percent reaching their intended recipient) owned the center of the pitch, and their long passes -- Alonso's in particular -- constantly set Jesus Navas and Villa on their way. And a quick name-check for Cha Jong-hyok, who tired in the second half of North Korea's defeat to Portugal, but kept Ronaldo in his pocket in the first.
Portugal scoring seven second-half goals, having been admirably rebuffed by North Korea in the first half, came as a mild surprise, but wasn't quite as shocking as the sight of Villa stroking a penalty wide as he went for the hat trick after two lovely goals.
Goals don't come much better than Portugal's second, try as it did to prove otherwise. Miguel, only just over the halfway line, plays a cross-field pass that looks like it must be a zip wire attached to Meireles' chest, from where it's nudged into Hugo Almeida's path. Almeida returns it to Meireles, who cuts out the Korean defense with a slide-rule pass to Simao. One touch to control it, then Simao tucks it under the goalkeeper with casual aplomb.
Portugal coach Carlos Quieroz's altered starting XI -- Tiago in place of Deco, Simao for Danny, Hugo Almeida rather than Liedson -- proved to be an emphatic success. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque will be pretty pleased at how his less conservative team worked, too. Fernando Torres looks rusty, but his presence attracted defenders who might otherwise have stilted Villa's jaunts toward goal.
"At the World Cup we need the best referees available, and not just a referee who blows the whistle on the beach." -- Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld won't win any prizes for race relations after adding his voice to those calling for FIFA to be a little less global in its selection of referees. Saudi referee Khalil Al Ghamdi produced nine yellow cards and one red during the Swiss defeat to Chile. All this, on the same day Malian referee Koman Coulibaly -- who wrongly disallowed Maurice Edu's goal for the U.S. against Slovenia -- was removed from FIFA's list.
558 -- minutes at World Cup finals in which Switzerland managed not to concede a goal. Holding out until the 76th minute against Chile earned Switzerland the record, overtaking Italy's 550-minute streak between 1986 and 1990.
The word from the Brazil camp is that Elano suffered a bruised shin that forced him off the pitch in Sunday's victory over Ivory Coast, but that he will be fit for the final group game against Portugal.
Mexico on Tuesday will probably face Uruguay without Carlos Vela (leg), with Andres Guardado coming in. Argentina has Juan Seba Veron back for Tuesday's match with Greece but could miss central defender Walter Samuel if he can't shake off a thigh injury.
After 11 days of miserly three-games-a-day scheduling, we'll have four games to feast on for the next four days. On Tuesday, Groups A and B are concluded in simultaneous kick-offs at 10 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. (ET).
A tie between Uruguay and Mexico would put both through in that order, which means Uruguay can afford, to some extent, to sit on the back foot. It would be disappointing to see that happen, however, and Oscar Tabarez has insisted his team will play to win. Whether that'll translate to the most open game remains to be seen.
You can bet on France at 50/1 not to turn up for its match with South Africa, which it would have to win by at least four or five goals (and hope that the other game isn't tied) to go through. Raymond Domenech has said that qualification would require "a miracle" and hasn't ruled out some players opting not to play, but South Africa (which needs to score a couple more than that) has promised a full-throttle effort.
In Group B, Argentina needs a point to confirm its place at the top, and only Greece stands in the way. Diego Maradona says "it would be a sin not to give [Lionel] Messi to the people," and there's talk that Sergio Aguero will start in place of Carlos Tevez, who's had a quiet tournament. Greece will hope to keep things tight and do some damage from set pieces, but this could be a messy exit for Otto Rehhagel's team.
Nigeria doesn't have a point yet, but isn't mathematically out of the running. "We still have a chance of qualifying," coach Lars Lagerback said, but his captain isn't toeing the party line. "We're basically out of the tournament," Joseph Yobo said. No doubt he's heard that South Korea, which outclassed Greece and won't pay too much heed to its defeat to Argentina, will be playing to win and has the pace to cause Nigeria headaches.