World Cup catch-up

On the eve of the quarter-finals, we review the stunning matches of the Round of 16

USA vs. Ghana

USA vs. Ghana

Day 16

Uruguay 2 – ­ South Korea 1

In the Round of 16’s first match, observers eagerly awaited an unheralded hero to emerge ­ and one did, in the form of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. In just the 8th minute, a cross from the left wing by Diego Forlan was badly misplayed by South Korean goalkeeper Sung-Ryong Jung; Suarez was there to slam the ball into the back of the goal.

Park Chu-Young was hoping to provide similar heroics for his side, and ­ he nearly did in the 5th minute, when his right-footed free kick from 25 yards out struck the goal post. Then, in the 32nd, he whipped in a left-footed shot from a similar distance that went just wide.

As the game entered the second half, the rain began pressing ­ as did the South Korean attack. Eventually the Asian side would find the equalizing goal, but not from Park; rather, Lee Chung-Yong headed one home in the 68th minute after a poor defensive clearance and indecision from Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. As the stands emptied in the rapidly deteriorating weather, the game looked destined for extra time ­ until Suarez stepped up in the 80th minute. Dropping his shoulder to deceive a defender, he then took a quick turn inside the penalty area and unleashed a wicked, curling shot that found the inside of the far goal post.

South Korea, who controlled the majority of possession during the game, wouldn’t relent, and nearly tied the score again in the 87th minute when Dong-Gook Lee snuck behind the Uruguay defence and slipped a shot past Muslera; but the ball trickled tantalizingly close to the goal line before being cleared away by Diego Lugano. When the final whistle blew, Suarez’s double was enough to push the South American inside into the quarter-finals.

Ghana 2 – ­ USA 1 (after extra time)

Not only did this game represent a rematch from the 2006 tournament (which Ghana won 2-1), but it carried an immense amount of psychological subtext: the U.S. was coming off of its most dramatic soccer victory ever with ­ their injury-time win against Algeria, ­ while Ghana had emerged as the sole African team to qualify for the Round of 16, in the first World Cup played on African soil.

The players and fans didn’t need to wait long for their emotions to explode. ­ Kevin-Prince Boateng was given far too much time to move towards the American goal in the 5th minute, and made the USA pay by slotting home a left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area. Later in the first half, American striker Robbie Findley had a good chance to equalize from inside the Ghanaian penalty area, but the shot was blocked by the foot of goalkeeper Richard Kingson.

Kingson made several other critical saves throughout the game, but he was left helpless in the 62nd minute when ­ defender Jonathan Mensah clumsily fouled Clint Dempsey inside the area, gifting the Americans with a penalty kick. The USA’s hero against Algeria, Landon Donovan, stepped up and coolly converted the spot kick, leveling the score.

Tied after the second half, the game proceeded into extra time. Asamoah Gyan, already with two goals in the tournament, deftly split the USA’s central defence in the third minute of the first extra time period and cracked a half-volley past ‘keeper Tim Howard to put Ghana back in front for good. The USA desperately pressed for a tying goal, but the Ghanaian defence held out, ending the American dream and earning the Black Stars a spot in the final eight (becoming only the third African team to ever reach the World Cup quarter-finals).

Next day

Day 17

Germany vs. England

Germany vs. England

Germany 4 – ­ England 1

For the first half hour, the Germans demonstrated the smooth passing and solid ball possession that made them one of the tournament favourites. Their first goal, however, was as basic as could be: Manuel Neuer lofted a goal kick into the English end, and a lapse in England’s central defence allowed Miroslav Klose to pick the ball up and slot it past David James in the 20th minute. Twelve minutes later, however, the Germans’ smooth passing was in full effect, as Lukas Podolski accepted a lobbed cross from Thomas Mueller and smashed it into the England goal from a tight angle.

England pulled one back in the 37th minute, as captain Steven Gerrard swooped a cross into the German penalty area that Matthew Upson headed into the goal. A minute later, in one of the major flashpoints of the entire tournament, Frank Lampard hit a volley from 20 yards out that bounced off the crossbar and over the goal line; however, the goal was not given.

Being down 2-1 rather than level at 2-2 heading into the second half, England pressed the attack ­ and Lampard nearly did find the equalizer in the 52nd minute, with a well-taken free kick that struck the crossbar again (but didn’t get near the goal line, this time). With England pressing forward, the lethal German counterattack struck twice in quick succession. In the 67th minute, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s pass gave Mueller an opening to score Germany’s third goal; three minutes later, Mesut Ozil beat Gareth Barry down the wing and played a cross into Mueller, whose second goal put a decisive stamp on Germany’s victory.

Argentina 3 – ­ Mexico 1

With Germany awaiting the winner, both sides knew they would need a strong showing if they were to advance in the tournament. Mexico had the first quality chance, as Carlos Salcido struck the crossbar with a long-range shot in the 8th minute, after the ball’s flight was badly misjudged by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

The game then had its own flashpoint in the 26th minute ­ Argentina scored its opening goal after Lionel Messi played a short lob in to Carlos Tevez who, on replays, appeared to be in an offside position. The referee consulted with his assistant as the Mexicans loudly protested, but the goal ultimately stood. Argentina then struck again in the 33rd minute when Gonzalo Higuain took advantage of a terrible pass by Mexican defender Ricardo Osorio, danced into the penalty area and put away his fourth goal of the tournament.

Tevez put the game away early in the second half, with a highlight-reel blast from 25 yards out that made the score 3-0. Mexico scored a consolation goal (and a pretty one, at that) in the 71st minute when Javier Hernandez made a quick turn inside the Argentina penalty area and smashed the ball into the top of the net. But Argentina held on for the remainder of the game to set up a rematch of their quarterfinal duel with Germany from the 2006 World Cup.

Next day

Day 18

Netherlands supporters celebrate

Netherlands supporters celebrate

Netherlands 2 – ­ Slovakia 1

The Dutch were looking to firmly establish themselves as legitimate title contenders, while the Slovaks hoped to build on a surprising and dramatic 3-2 win over Italy in their final group stage game. After some back and forth play to start the game, with a few chances at goal for either team, Arjen Robben struck first in the 18th minute, snaking to the edge of the Slovakian penalty area and sniping a left-footed shot into the bottom corner of the net.

Robben nearly scored a carbon copy of his first goal four minutes into the second half, but he was denied by goalkeeper Jan Mucha, who made another diving stop on Robin van Persie 30 seconds later. Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was then called into action in the 67th minute ­ first to make a leaping save off of Miroslav Stoch’s 18-yard shot, and then a half-minute later, to parry away a short-range blast from Robert Vittek. Vittek found himself with another chance inside the Dutch penalty area in the 78th minute, but drifted his shot way over the crossbar.

Despite those chances, the feisty Slovaks couldn’t find the tying goal, and the Oranje sealed their victory in the 84th minute when Dirk Kuyt maneuvered his way around Mucha and slid a cross to Wesley Sneijder, who cracked the ball into an empty net. Slovakia did get one final bit of glory when Martin Jakubko was dragged down inside the penalty area in the 93rd minute, winning a penalty kick. Vittek stepped up and scored his fourth goal of the tournament ­ but it was the final kick of the match, and of Slovakia’s tournament, as the Dutch surged ahead into the next round.

Brazil 3 – ­ Chile 0

The upstart Chileans came into the game knowing that not only has Brazil won the World Cup five times, but that Chile hadn’t beaten their continental counterparts in 10 years. That didn’t seem to faze them in the opening minutes, as they started the game hot and put some pressure on the Brazilian defence. But Brazil got the best early chance, as a shot from Gilberto Silva in the 9th minute forced a diving save from goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.

For the first half hour, both sides demonstrated the slick ball control that South American squads are known for ­ but it was Brazil that broke through and took control in the 35th minute. A well-weighted corner kick from Maicon gave Juan a free header, which he turned into the back of the net. Three minutes later, the team displayed some classic Brazilian flair, as Robinho’s pass found Kaka, who quickly sprung Luis Fabiano into the Chilean penalty area ­ a juke around Bravo and all of a sudden, it was 2-0.

Chile strove valiantly to get back into the game in the second half, but the Samba Kings asserted their superiority in the 59th minute, as Ramires slalomed through the Chilean defence and slid a pass to Robinho, who cleanly struck a one-touch shot behind Bravo. Umberto Suazo found himself with a few decent scoring opportunities in the final half hour, but Brazil confidently closed out the match without conceding. For Chile, their decade-long hex against Brazil continues, while Brazilian fans are left dreaming: could this be the first step towards their unprecedented sixth World Cup crown?

Next day

Day 19

Portugal vs. Spain

Portugal vs. Spain

Paraguay 0 – ­ Japan 0 (Paraguay wins 5-3 on penalties)

Neither team had ever advanced beyond the Round of 16 before, so the game was predictably cagey to begin with, as no one wanted to make that first crucial mistake. The first good scoring chance came from Lucas Barrios in the 19th minute, but his shot from within the penalty area was stopped by Eiji Kawashima. Two minutes later, Daisuke Matsui had an even better chance at the other end, but his dipping right-footed strike struck the Paraguay crossbar. For the most part, though, the first half lacked both style and substance, and ended in a scoreless stalemate.

The second half, despite showing some signs of positivity, was similarly devoid of legitimate scoring opportunities. Paraguay, despite holding a lion’s share of ball possession, couldn’t penetrate the Japanese defence to seriously challenge Kawashima’s goal. So, off to extra time they went ­ yet, again, aside from a sliding shot by Nelson Valdez in the 97th minute (saved by Kawashima), the two 15-minute extra periods expired without producing dangerous scoring chances. When the final whistle blew, the players collapsed, knowing the drama and tension of penalty kicks lay ahead.

After 120 goalless minutes, Paraguay slotted home their first three penalty kicks, while Japan scored their first two. But that first crucial mistake finally came when defender Yuichi Komano struck the crossbar with Japan’s third kick. From there, Paraguay simply needed to score their final two shots to advance, and they did, with striker Oscar Cardozo converting the clinching goal.

Spain 1 – ­ Portugal 0

As one might have expected, both teams came flying out of the gate in this match. Fernando Torres nearly scored a mere 45 seconds in, but his curling shot was parried away by goalkeeper Eduardo, who also had to stop two shots from David Villa within the first seven minutes. His goalkeeping counterpart, Iker Casillas, was called into action in the 20th minute, first to make a fingertip save of Tiago’s long-range shot, and then to punch the rebound away from the oncoming Hugo Almeida. After that, the game settled down somewhat, as both teams clamped down defensively.

As the first half ended without a goal, it looked as though it was going to take a special piece of skill to break the deadlock. That moment almost came in the 61st minute, but substitute Fernando Llorente’s diving header was stopped by Eduardo. Two minutes later, though, the breakthrough finally arrived when some precise passing cracked the Portuguese defence and allowed David Villa through to Eduardo’s goal, which he promptly filled with the game ball.

It was the first goal Portugal conceded in the tournament, and the Spanish hungrily pressed for another one. Sergio Ramos made a quick turn in the area in the 70th minute, unleashing a shot that was just pressed wide by Eduardo’s fingers. Villa then looked for his second goal of the game in the 77th minute, but Eduardo deflected his long-range blast. Finally, Llorente nodded a cross just wide of the goal post in the 87th minute. Ultimately, Portugal performed admirably on the defensive end to keep the powerful Spaniards to a single goal ­ but Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the Portuguese attackers had no answer for Villa’s tally, which was enough to send Spain into the next stage.

Daniel Squizzato writes for Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer, which takes a passionate (and often irreverent) look at the Canadian soccer scene, major international tournaments and all sorts of odds and ends related to the beautiful game.