'Tuesday's final two matches provided reminds of what is possible when a goalkeeper is at the top of his game', writes Paul Freelend, 'and what can happen when the last line of defence has an all-too-human moment'.
Keepers Akinfeev and Jung share shaky displays - Russia v South Korea takeaways
The first round of group matches at the 2014 World Cup did not quite end with a whimper, even if it did bring the second consecutive draw in a tournament that thus far has been fairly free of shared spoils.
South Korea and Russia drew 1-1 in Group H late on Tuesday night in a match that both sides likely left thinking they could have won. Here are some takeaways from the evening:
My kingdom for a keeper
Tuesday’s final two matches provided reminders of what is possible when a goalkeeper is at the top of his game – and what can happen when the last line of defence has an all-too-human moment.
Mexico slowed Brazil’s procession to the knockout rounds with a 0-0 draw, thanks in large part to goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa transmogrifying into a blend of Neville Southall, Lev Yashin and Goro from Mortal Kombat. Ochoa’s standout performance gave the Mexico defence the confidence to step forward and meet the Brazilian attackers head-on, knowing he would be there to erase any slip-ups.
Russia and South Korea did not have that luxury. Neither Igor Akinfeev nor Jung Sung-ryong instilled much confidence in their respective teams, and Akinfeev’s untimely bobble of Lee Keun-ho’s shot must have aroused flashbacks for Russia coach Fabio Capello of Robert Green fumbling Clint Dempsey’s shot into the England net during the 2010 World Cup.
The good news for Akinfeev is that Russia’s next match is less than a week away, giving in a chance to exorcise any mental demons left over from Tuesday. The bad news is that match is against presumptive Group H favourites Belgium, who likely will not be any easier on his nerves.
Progress of a sort
Not much was expected of South Korea after entering the World Cup with losses to Tunisia (1-0) and Ghana (4-0) in their last two warm-up matches. While their inability to hang on to their fortuitous advantage will concern coach Hong Myung-bo, he and his team can take heart in their overall performance against a Russia side that won their European qualifying group.
The Korean defence largely held firm, aside from the inability to clear the ball that led to Alexander Kerzhakov’s equaliser, and the midfield offered much more than the endless running that has been South Korea’s trademark since the 2002 World Cup. Of greater concern to Hong will be solving the absence of goals. Park Chu-young continues to look out of sorts, and Son Heung-min is more of a playmaker than a chance-finisher. Kim Shin-wook may need to make an appearance if South Korea hope to beat Algeria in their next match and avoid needing a win against Belgium to advance.
Slow start for Asia
After the first round of group matches, Asia’s four World Cup entrants have amassed all of two points. Australia and Japan opened with losses despite looking good in stretches, and Iran ground out a 0-0 draw with Nigeria that won them few admirers but one more point than many pundits expected.
While disappointing, it is in keeping with the boom-and-bust cycle Asian sides seem to experience in World Cups. They managed just five points at the 1998 World Cup before earning 14 in 2002 – seven each by Japan and South Korea, zero by China and Saudi Arabia. Asia brought home seven points from the 2006 World Cup before managing 14 in South Africa, with Japan and South Korea both advancing to the last 16.
The continent’s prospects in Brazil remain mixed. Japan and South Korea have winnable ties against Greece and Algeria, respectively, in the next round of matches while Australia face the Netherlands and Iran take on Argentina. At least two more wins might be necessary for Asia to avoid sweating over keeping its four-and-a-half World Cup bids.
Not much for night owls
The 2am starts for the final contest of each matchday are ideal for the more nocturnal World Cup watchers. Those kickoffs have brought some fine matches, such as England-Italy and Ghana-United States.
However, Russia-South Korea was the start of a run of matches that may have nightowls turning in early, or at least reaching for a good book. The next few 2am starts may end up being quality matches, but the names on the marquee do not set the neutrals’ pulses racing.
Wednesday brings Cameroon taking on Croatia in the late kickoff, followed by Japan facing Greece on Thursday, Honduras-Ecuador on Friday and Nigeria-Bosnia on Saturday. The United States and Portugal’s Group G encounter on Sunday is the final 2am match before the simultaneous kickoffs in each group finale.
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