World Cup Daily: Italy has more to give; Dutch vs. Danes a letdown
Aging Italy looked like two different teams in each half against Paraguay
Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen made several controversial lineup omissions
No team has scored a goal and gone on to lose in the first 11 games
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Nobody could agree on Italy's prospects in South Africa this summer, and nothing's that much more certain one game in. Coming into the tournament, all the talk about Italy focused on how elderly the squad was, featuring 11 survivors from 2006, including 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro. Coach Marcello Lippi, 62, should've quit while he was ahead, went the refrain.
After a sluggish first half Monday -- in which Antolin Alcaraz headed Paraguay ahead thanks to some uncharacteristically inattentive Italian defending at a free kick from Aureliano Torres on the left -- the jokes about walking frames didn't seem quite so funny.
In the second half, however, Lippi shuffled his pack, swapping Claudio Marchisio for Mauro Camoranesi (another holdover from '06) and pushing two men forward rather than one. The midfield instantly looked more comfortable and creative. Granted, Daniele de Rossi's equalizer was made possible by Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar's embarrassing flap at an incoming corner kick, but Italy continued to attack for the remainder of the match -- perhaps not urgently, but it is far from alone on that score.
Italy will surely play better in games to come, though whether it needs to in order to escape Group F remains in question -- Paraguay represented its toughest competition. Let's remember that Italy has rarely been a first-round megastar, and if the opening days of this World Cup have taught us anything, it's that "job done" is sometimes the best we can expect.
For all that, I was impressed by Simone Pepe on Italy's left. He covered an awful lot of ground, pulling Italy out of its own half at pace and setting up some of its best chances. This rather lovely bit of skill allowed him to evade the attentions of Torres. Capable of striking it with either foot, he could be key to a better 90-minute performance by the Italians.
Denmark left back Simon Poulsen's own goal, when he completely fluffed his clearing header to send the ball spinning into teammate Daniel Agger's back and into the net, derailed Denmark against the Netherlands. Up until that point, Denmark had matched the Dutch.
Defender Yuji Nakazawa was noticeable at the back as Japan kept Cameroon's late (and increasingly frantic) efforts to equalize from amounting to anything, while Keisuke Honda, Japan's goal-scorer, caught the eye up front. But Daisuke Matsui was a vital cog in the Japanese machine. Having put an early shot on target and then supplied Honda for the goal, Matsui's runs down the right pulled the Cameroon midfield toward him, disrupting their own attempts to get the ball forward.
Netherlands vs. Denmark wasn't a memorable humdinger. It's probably a case of expecting too much (this was never going to be 1970s vintage vs. 1980s vintage), but the style in which both qualified promised more than the dull, often hesitant football we got today. The Danes were restricted to a couple of runs down the right before the own goal took any wind out of their sails, while Robin van Persie's insistence on an extra touch or five hampered Dutch attacks. Only Dutch winger Eljero Elia's appearance after 67 minutes brought a bit of sparkle to the game.
Hardly rich pickings today, but Honda's goal against Cameroon was nice reward for a good shift up front. As Matsui's ball comes in, he peels off the last defender to make time and space for a touch before lashing the ball past Hamidou Souleymanou.
Hat's off to Paul le Guen, who made France's Raymond Domenech look like Rinus Michels with his Cameroon lineup against Japan. In Alex Song's absence, Joel Matip was cautious and sat deep, leaving Pierre Webo (whose primary contribution was to fall over a lot) isolated up front and Samuel Eto'o curiously adrift on the right. Achille Emana's introduction just after the hour mark brought a little more forward thinking to Cameroon's play, but Eto'o simply sank deeper.
"I don't give a f--- about anybody, just make my moves." -- Dutch super-sub Elia gives a TV interview after coming on to set up the Netherlands' second goal. Wonder why they banned him from Twitter?
After 11 games, it seems a goal guarantees at least a point -- no team has scored a goal and gone on to lose.
There's speculation that goakeeper Gianluigi Buffon picked up an injury in the first half of Italy's draw with Paraguay (he didn't appear in the second), and Paraguayan substitute Jonathan Santana ended the game hobbling. Tuesday's games will come too early for New Zealand's Tim Brown, whose recovery from a broken shoulder isn't quite there. Martin Skrtel should be fit to take his place in Slovakia's back line. Didier Drogba is back in training for the Ivory Coast, but he's in doubt for Tuesday's game against Portugal.
Game of the day looks like the Group G encounter between Ivory Coast and Portugal. Ignoring the letdowns of several of the matches so far, let's hope for a fast and furious encounter -- two crafty midfields with pace ahead of them in the form of Ronaldo and Danny/Simao for Portugal and Salomon Kalou and Seydou Doumbia for Ivory Coast.
The second half of Group F plays tomorrow, with New Zealand and Slovakia meeting in what may be the best chance for either to put some points on the board. Slovakia has more pace to burn, but New Zealand will ensure the midfield is a congested workplace for Marek Hamsik.
The action finishes with Brazil's match against North Korea, whose compact, defensive game threatens to stymie Brazil unless players such as Kaka can escape the attentions of An Yong Hak -- and stop him switching defense to attack as quickly as he can do.
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