The last two days of seven o' clock match-ups (featuring Chile-Honduras and Slovakia-New Zealand) have been part of a tacit agreement I've had with the World Cup. I will wake up before dawn (here in my Pacific time zone) and watch these matches but World Cup, you've got to ease me into the day. No loud noises (I'm okay with the constant drone). No flashy lights. No fireworks.
I don't want to miss anything, so if you have a big match, make it the 2:30 p.m. Eastern start time. I should be awake by then.
So much for that deal, as Thursday's schedule hits top gear early, with Group B's leaders Argentina and South Korea clashing in a match-up with a clear formula for an upset. By day's end, one of the name teams in the tournament could be on the brink of elimination after France and Mexico face each other.
Thursday's matches in World Cup 2010:
Argentina versus South Korea, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 7:00 a.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: The two teams at the top of Group B meet in the day's best match-up. Too bad it's on the undercard, taking place while many are commuting or asleep.
Argentina is coming-off a 1-0 victory over Nigeria that could have been more had Vincent Aneyama not put in what is still the best goalkeeping performance of the tournament. South Korea's received plaudits for their 2-0 win over Greece, but considering the capabilities displayed by their opponents, the victory was more workmanlike than remarkable.
Player To Watch, Argentina: Lionel Messi, of course, but in the context of this match-up, take your pick from Martin Demichelis and Walter Samuel - Argentina's two starting center halves. South Korea's wing-play, with Lee Chong-Yung and Park Ji-Sung, will breakdown fullbacks Gabriel Heinze (on the left) and Jonas Gutierrez or Nicolás Otamendi (whoever starts on the right). Demichelis and Samuel will have to clean-up, but the center halves will have the same problems as their fullbacks dealing with South Korea's speed, movement and, over the course of the match, fitness. How Demichelis and Samuel can hold the defense together will dictate whether Argentina can avoid an upset.
Player To Watch, South Korea: Ki Sung-Yong made a good World Cup debut against Greece, but against Argentina he is going to have a chance to star. The movement of forward Park Chu-Young and Korea's two wingers will find space. It will be up to the young central midfielder to find his teammates and find them quickly, before Javier Mascherano can close him out. His possession, decisions, and execution will be crucial to Korea keeping the ball from a powerful Argentina attack that can dictate this match should Messi, Carlos Tévez, and Gonzalo Higuaín be allowed to get into counters. Ki's play can determine in which direction this goes.
Prediction: Argentina's defense matches up poorly with South Korea, and unless the Albiceleste can out-gun the Tigers of Asia (certainly possible) or Korea fails to execute in attack, this could be a mild upset. South Korea 2, Argentina 1, though Higuaín will have his chances to get Argentina a result.
Nigeria versus Greece, Polokwane, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Neither team looked good in their first match. Greece never threatened South Korea, and in the context of this tournament, a 0-2 loss looks practically lopsided.
Many have noted Nigeria did not play that poorly against Argentina, but if Aneyama has a normal day in goal, we're talking about how many problems Nigeria has in defense. Since Nigeria's goalie does not habitually perform that way, we should consider the Super Eagles troubled.
With both teams sitting on three points, the loser could be eliminated (depending on what happens in Argentina-South Korea).
Player To Watch, Nigeria: I feel like I keep harping on this - focusing on one player - but it's confounding that Peter Odemwingie did not start against Argentina. Against the rigid defense of Greece, Nigeria needs their best passer (and player most capable of being an on-field coach) on the pitch from kick-off. Odemwingie on the bench was a huge sign that new coach Lars Lagerback is having trouble settling into his role.
While that's easy (and probably wrong) for me to say from my chair half-way around the world, I'm really stretched for explanations why Lagerback would shoot his team in the collective foot by playing Odemwingie only 45 minutes.
Player To Watch, Greece: Captain Giorgios Karagounis needs to not only instill some confidence and purpose in his team after their disappointing result against Korea, he needs to win the midfield battle against a Super Eagle side that's decidedly thin in that area. Karagounis and Panathinaikos teammate Kostas Katsouranis can control this match and, by getting the likes of Theofanis Gekas more involved, threaten to get Greece their first World Cup point.
Prediction: Nigeria is the better team, but they don't have the creativity in attack to open up the Greek defense, and they did not show the play in midfield to keep Greece from generating the few opportunities they're capable of creating. This could be a surprisingly interesting (if blunt) affair, with a Nigeria 1, Greece 1 result keeping each team alive.
Yes, I did just predict two consecutive matches will see both teams score. And yes, contrary to your suspicions, I have watched this year's tournament. Have a little faith!
France versus Mexico, Bloemfontein, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Uruguay's win yesterday over South Africa puts Mexico and France temporarily three points off the Group A lead. Mexico got a good point in an emotional opening match against the hosts while France looked tame in their opener against Uruguay.
Player To Watch, France: Mexico's tendency to let the opposition break against them will make the prodigiously talented Franck Ribèry even more dangerous. Javier Aguirre and Mexico's desire to throw their full/wingbacks forward could isolate Ribèry on Mexican defenders.
The idea of Franck Ribery on a Siphwe Tshabalala-esque counter should have dwelled on the Mexican defense's minds since last Friday. If Patrice Evra can choose the right moments to come up from his left back position to support Ribèry, France could have a paved path to goals.
Player To Watch, Mexico: Gerardo Torrado and the Mexican midfield has come under criticism for failing to assert greater control in El Tri's opening match against South Africa, and against France an improved performance from the captain is the easiest path to three points. From his deep-sitting midfield position, Torrado can break the match open with the right choices picking-out Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela or Guillermo Franco. With early success doing so, Torrado could force French defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan up the pitch to deal with him, opening up space to use in front of the exploitable French back-line.
Prediction: France may have potential advantages down their left flank, but they haven't shown an ability to exploit such opportunities. Their tendency to gather themselves and methodically (cynically) attack augments Mexico's problems at the back. In the interim, Mexico's advantages through midfield and the French defense's problems with Mexico's attackers hint at a Mexico 2, France 1 result.