More drama for the United States
A late winner in game one; an even later equaliser (but of the bad sort) to lose game two. At least there's no lack of drama when the United States play. On Sunday night, US fans were treated to their second straight thriller -- only this time they got their highs and lows in a markedly different order. Going behind early after Geoff Cameron made a catastrophic defensive error, the US were forced to battle back against a Portuguese side that loves to counterattack. Had the Americans been blown out here, they'd have found it hard pressed to qualify from the group.
That's why the performance was so impressive -- Jurgen Klinsmann's team didn't take too many risks but found ways of putting pressure on Beto's goal regardless, pushing their way back into the match inch by precious inch. Jermaine Jones' second-half strike was no less than they deserved, and Clint Dempsey's follow-up in the 81st minute carried all the hallmarks of an iconic winner.
But it wasn't to be. Deep into stoppage time, American hearts were broken. Cristiano Ronaldo, quiet all game, hobbled his way free on the right wing after Michael Bradley's midfield giveaway. This hadn't been Ronaldo's tournament* -- the most interesting thing he'd done prior to injury time on Sunday was have his oh-so-perfect hair start to melt in the Brazilian heat -- but, with one knee barely working, he showed just why he's the current holder of the Ballon d'Or. A perfect cross took Matt Besler out of the picture, Cameron didn't react in time and Silvestre Varela powered a header past Tim Howard to make it 2-2.
*It still isn't Ronaldo's tournament. In his mind, at least, he'd need to win the Golden Boot and Golden Ball (the World Cup itself is probably secondary) for that.
It was the last kick of the game, and it turned the group upside down. The United States had been set to go top and qualify outright; the Portuguese were about to be knocked out. Now there's still fear as the USA head into Thursday's showdown against Germany, while Portugal still have faint hope of making it to the knockout stages.
For the American fans watching, Varela's header must have felt like a kick in the teeth, a devastating blow after all of the hard work put into the game. But sport is about highs and lows, and soccer's no different: at least this low shouldn't matter too much in terms of who manages to escape the Group of Exciting Draws. And that a 2-2 tie against Portugal is mourned is an excellent marker of just how far the sport has come in the United States.
Thursday is shaping up to be a cracker of a day.
Belgium vs. Russia lets us catch our breath
A heartfelt thank-you to Belgium and Russia, playing out the first of Sunday's matches with such style that fans inside the stadium took the opportunity to have an afternoon nap.
You might be tempted to think this is a sarcastic "thanks", but really, the World Cup needed this sort of game. It was duller than last week's meeting between Nigeria and Iran, more dreadful than the first half of Iran's defense of Argentina. It looked as though Iran were going to take top honors as the World Cup's most boring team, but now Russia has slipped in to take that award.
So we should probably say thanks to Fabio Capello as well. When Capello was confirmed as England manager back in 2008, he insisted it would be his last job in football. Turns out, he's a big fan of money. That means fans are rewarded with cautious, plodding play, while players showing pace and creativity get a chance to take it easy on the bench.
With just one win to his World Cup record (England's 1-0 over Slovenia) it's no surprise that Russia played as they did. With a fear of defeat guiding their play, there was no true creator on the pitch, so even as they got forward, they were unable to do much to really threaten the Belgium goal.
Belgium, for their part, were muzzled by Russia, who managed to make a side full of bright young attackers look positively dreary. Belgium have their problems as well -- namely, it seemed no one in the team was on the same page, with Dries Mertens' numerous runs up the right fizzling out, with no one there to make a final touch -- but they can be thrilling. Just not when Russia are involved.
But, just as we all need a little rain to appreciate the sunshine, this World Cup needs its moments of dreariness. Belgium vs. Russia was like being locked inside on a stormy day, having to play Monopoly by candlelight while praying the power would come back on. But that meant Algeria's 4-2 win over South Korea was positively dizzying, like that first day of spring when you unearth the shorts from the back of the wardrobe and go hunt down the ice cream man.
Celebrating an unlikely thriller
Against Belgium, Algeria's presence as an attacking force was essentially imaginary. Given a lead by an early penalty, Algeria decided to shut up shop and dare the Belgians to try to break them down, which turned out to be a bad plan, because the Belgians duly broke them down. The Fennec Foxes were a defence-minded team on zero points.
Against Russia, South Korea's presence as a coherent football team was essentially imaginary. Given a lead by Igor Akinfeev's whoopsie, the Koreans couldn't hold it, and they looked just as bad as they did in qualifying (which was fairly traumatically bad) in drawing 1-1.
It's not difficult to see why there were such low expectations ahead of Sunday's middle match. And yet we ended up with an absolutely absurd game. Algeria raced out to a 3-0 lead at halftime which could and should have been more, but then Korea found their legs and ended up battling to a rather less humiliating 4-2 defeat. That they might have, if luck had been on their side, salvaged a point from their second-half display is remarkable, and their attempted comeback was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tournament so far.
If you weren't cheering on the Koreans as they looked to become just the second side in World Cup history to overturn a three-goal halftime deficit, you're either Algerian or criminally allergic to fun. There's nothing more amusing for the neutral than seeing a side dominate before melting under concentrated pressure, the opposition turning ignominous defeat into something far grander as they push and push and, well, fail. Mostly.
The comeback didn't happen, although it might have had Ki Sung-Yeung's 60th-minute thunderbolt found the net rather than Rais M'Bolhi's glove. But that it was attempted at all, that South Korea survived their mauling with enough confidence and dignity to give Algeria a scare, that this all came in a game with no right to be a six-goal saunter through the garden of crazed attacking football, that a good chunk of the planet was living and dying with every Korean attack, that it was immediately proceeded by the dreary mess that was Belgium versus Russia ... this game stood out, even in a World Cup that's been packed to the very gills with outstanding matches.
The only regret is that the Koreans couldn't get the score to within one for the final five minutes. Imagine the carnage that would have ensued.