World Cup round of 16 round-up - Eight down, eight to go as quarter-finals draw near
The knockout stage of any football tournament is always liable to increase both excitement and anticipation as the winner-take-all nature of the ties means there can be no second chances. Some teams may still insist on caginess over ambition, but eventually even they must conjure up a way of winning. The World Cup is no different.
The last-16 provides an opportunity for the contenders to go through the gears and also gives an opportunity for those who scrambled through to regroup and forget what has occurred previously and start again. Many observers imagined that this latter approach would be taken by England in their titanic clash with Germany. Fabio Capello’s side’s narrow victory in their final group match against Slovenia suggested better performances were ahead. However, this view had not accounted for the magnificence of Germany and the sheer ineptitude of England.
The opening half-hour saw the English embarrassed by Joachim Low’s gifted youngsters. Helped by midfield dominance, Bastian Schweinsteiger and the brilliant Mezut Ozil controlled the game as the Germans took advantage of wretched English defending to race into a two-goal lead courtesy of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. Matthew Upson briefly gave England hope and perhaps it might have been different if Frank Lampard’s deft lob had not been wrongly disallowed when it had clearly crossed the line. The goal did have the advantage however of making FIFA-supremo Sepp Blatter squirm, however.
Lampard struck the bar for England early in the second-half but that was to be as good as it got for the Three Lions. Their naivety in chasing a one-goal deficit with still 25 minutes to play was ruthlessly exposed with two-break away goals in as a many minutes from Thomas Muller. The match left England’s ‘Golden Generation’ exposed for the myth that they are and offered a glimpse of a dominant future German side.
The previous day saw Uruguay compete in their first knock-out match since Italia ‘90 against Korea Republic and take the lead against the run-of play through European Golden Boot winner Luis Suarez less than ten minutes in, following an error by goalkeeper Jung Sung. But La Celeste then sat back and were punished with an equaliser on 68 minutes through Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chong-Yong’s brave header. The Koreans had chances to win but it was Suarez again who struck decisively with an exquisite curling effort ten minutes from time.
In their first quarter-final tie since 1970, Uruguay - population 3.5m - face a country backed by a continent in the shape of Ghana, Africa’s sole remaining representative. The Black Stars bagged a spot in the final eight by edging out a brave United States side that paid dearly for two defensive lapses. Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has been the very definition of a player ‘playing for a move’, gave his side the lead with a long-range shot that, in truth, Tim Howard should have saved. Again, the side taking the lead sought to hang onto their advantage and again were made to pay as Landon Donavan netted from the spot following Jonathan Mensah’s challenge on Clint Dempsey. The Americans - backed by former President Bill Clinton - were undone in extra-time by a fantastic finish from the hit-and-miss Asamoah Gyan and it is Ghana who venture onwards for a date with Uruguay.
If the tournament has proven anything so far, it is that South American football is in rude health and none are in more sprightly condition at this moment in time than Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Their comprehensive 3-1 hammering of Mexico was further evidence of this, although Carlos Tevez’s opener should not have been awarded given he was clearly offside. The situation was not helped by a replay of the incident on the giant screen for all to share in the officials’ error. Gonzalo Higuain shot himself joint-top of the Golden-Boot race when he took advantage of Ricardo Osario’s aberration for his fourth of the competition. As Mexico huffed and puffed, Tevez smashed in a wonderful third to set up a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 finals and a game versus Germany. Javier Hernandez grabbed a lovely consolation for Mexico but it mattered little. Ominously for the rest, Lionel Messi remains goalless.
Meanwhile, the other South American heavyweight also hit three past hapless opponents and kept alive the mouth-watering possibility of a meeting with Argentina on July 11. Brazil were magnificently efficient in disposing of an enterprising Chile side who had entertained wildly in the opening weeks of the tournament. Driven on by the magnificent Gilberto Silva, the Selecao progress to a meeting with the Netherlands on Friday thanks to a header from Juan, Luis Fabiano’s third of this World Cup and Robinho’s first in South Africa.
The Netherlands meanwhile continue their stealth-like pursuit of a first world title following their 2-0 win over Slovakia. Unlike yesteryear, a steely determination has replaced Oranje flamboyance. Nonetheless, their 100 per cent record suggests this is a team confident in its approach and aiming to peak at just the right time. With the flying Arjen Robben back in the line-up and Wesley Sneijder pulling the strings, they possess enough quality in the attacking third to do real damage in a mouth-watering clash against Brazil. It was that duo who scored the goals, although goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg made two crucial stops.
Paraguay’s victory over Japan contained a couple of firsts - the first match of this World Cup to go to penalties, resulting in another first, Paraguay’s first-ever appearance in the quarter-finals in their history. In truth the match was a drab affair, with fear paralysing both sides. As it was, Yuichi Komano was the fall-guy who missed his spot-kick, allowing Paraguay to sneak a 5-4 penalty win and a place against Spain on Saturday.