Little Boy Blue's World Cup Diary - Day 11

Last updated : 11 June 2002 By Little Boy Blue

June 10... Day 11

Not so very long ago, the very notion that SOUTH KOREA and the USA would be worthy of recognition among the major players in the World Cup would have had the men in white coats arriving at the front door. However, both earned respect with their impressive opening victories over Poland and Portugal so there was no lack of interest when they went head-to-head in Daegu this morning and, in terms of entertainment value, they served up a game which was as good as anything produced by the more fancied nations.

America needed to start well, if only to curb the enthusiasm of the big crowd, and, although under pressure right from the outset, they did just that after 24 minutes when Clint Mathis burst through to blast a fierce shot into the Korean net. But World Cup hosts have a habit of getting more than the occasional home town decision and six minutes from half-time the Koreans enjoyed the benefit of the doubt when Hwang Sun Hong went down when challenged by Jeff Agoos. A dodgy penalty if ever there was one but justice was done when Brad Freidel dived to save Lee Eul Yong's spot kick.

Having taken a second half battering in their 3-2 win over Portugal, I wondered about the Yanks' ability to survive again, especially as I was convinced the award of the penalty would not be the Koreans' one and only break. To be fair to the home side, they bossed the game - I was very disappointed with Claudio Reyna's contribution but I suspect he was not fully fit - and they forced several excellent saves from Freidel before finally drawing level in the 77th minute. The American defence was guilty of ball-watching and Ahn Jung Hwan rose unchallenged to head home from close range and Korea could have snatched it right at the end when Choi Yong Soo fired over the top from eight yards.

The 1-1 draw means that both sides now need only to avoid defeat in their final fixtures with their European group rivals to be sure of progress to the next round, sending out further notice of world football's steadily changing pecking order. With home advantage, the Koreans will surely fancy themselves as group winners but I've a sneaking suspicion that, while the co-hosts will get their draw with Portugal on Friday, America will beat Poland to finish on top. All of which could mean USA v Italy and South Korea v Croatia in the second round.

Elsewhere, Group H is shaping up very nicely, with Japan moving into pole position with yesterday's victory over Russia, so it was essential that BELGIUM built on their opening draw with the Nips by seeing off TUNISIA. All appeared to be going to plan when Marc Wilmots shot the Belgians into the lead after 13 minutes but Tunisia clearly felt the need to make amends for their disappointing performance against the Russians and were not prepared to roll over and die. A stunning free-kick from Bouzaiene restored equality to proceedings just four minutes later and the North Africans looked dangerous with several swift breaks.

All the half-time talk in the TV studio had been of the Belgian squad not being in their first flush of youth and the effect the heat and humidity would have on them, yet it was the old codgers who looked like they had regained the upper hand in the second half but, as the game wore on, they lacked the killer touch. As in the first half, they had to be aware of the threat of a Tunisian counterattack. Indeed, Belgium spent the closing stages on the back foot and, by drawing 1-1, they have handed the initiative back to Russia, leaving themselves with the daunting task of having to beat the Ruskis on Friday to retain any interest in the tournament.

When the World Cup draw was made, I'm sure both PORTUGAL and POLAND envisaged going into today's encounter with three points already in the bag, content to carve out a draw which would leave them needing only to sort out the upstarts of Korea and America later in the week to complete the formality of their stroll into the knock-out stages. Last week's results kicked that theory into touch and this morning's 1-1 draw in Daegu has left both of the European contenders facing elimination, regardless of the outcome of this match.

After his nightmare against America, it was something of a surprise to see Vitor Baia still between the posts for Portugal. Rui Costa is clearly the scapegoat for that debacle and paid for it by losing his place in the side but the Portuguese started this game equally sloppily, whereas Poland appeared to have been rattled into action. The pace and power of Olizadebe looked likely to cause problems for Fernando Couto and the big Nigerian was the target every time the Poles moved forward. But Portugal gradually clawed themselves into it and the first half developed into quite a contest.

Pauleta fired Portugal into a 14th minute lead when he beat Jerzy Dudek at his near post with a powerful right foot shot and controversial match referee, Mr Bonkle from Dallas, also made a big impression on the early stages, issuing three yellow cards inside the first 26 minutes and adding two more before half-time (how he avoided issuing more after the break is something of a mystery). Settling on their lead, the Portuguese were quite happy to let the Poles knock hit-and-hope balls towards Olizadebe, confident that he would be outnumbered, and the first half ended with a monsoon rainstorm making life difficult for both sets of players.

After Mr Bonkle had disallowed what looked like a Polish equalizer, Portugal took a tighter grip on the game and, although Luis Figo was clearly nursing an injury, they were clearly the more creative side. Olizadebe looked more and more cumbersome as time ticked away and, ultimately, Poland's World Cup dream ended midway through the second half when Pauleta met an inch-perfect cross from Figo and shot home from close range. There were several close calls in and around the Polish goalmouth as the Portuguese began to look like the team many fancied to do well and Pauleta deservedly completed his hat-trick when he turned his marker and slammed a low left foot shot past the helpless Dudek.

Second half sub Rui Costa made it 4-0 near the end to wrap up a victory which has given Portugal a chance of progressing but, unfortunately for them, they require to beat South Korea to be sure of staying alive and, amidst the World Cup fever which has gripped the host nations, that will be no easy task. There best hope of qualifying would appear to lie in getting a draw against Korea, while hoping that Poland can go out with a bang by beating America to give the Portuguese a parachute on goal difference. But I can't see it happening.

Today's games have taken us to the halfway stage of World Cup 2002 and, with the final series of group games looming large on the horizon, the next few days promise to be intriguing, with all but six of the 32 finalists still harbouring hopes of progressing further. Just for the fun of it, this is how I see the second round panning out, with the likely winners in block caps.

June 15
GERMANY v South Africa: Senegal v ARGENTINA.
June 16
England v FRANCE: SPAIN v Eire.
June 17
Croatia v SOUTH KOREA: BRAZIL v Russia.
June 18
JAPAN v Turkey: United States v ITALY.

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