The 2010 World Cup has been fascinating to follow so far, with surprising underdogs, underachieving big names and refereeing controversies among many other elements. Here's a few quick thoughts on the tournament’s group stage and Round of 16 games to date, and what those matches might tell us about the rest of the tournament.
Group A: Winner: Uruguay, Runner-up: Mexico
This group was one of the most disappointing in terms of the quality of play, but it did offer some surprising results. Uruguay were in fine form throughout, collecting two wins and a draw, and Diego Forlan proved to be one of the best strikers in the tournament thus far, collecting two goals in the three group-stage games (two more than the man who took his place at Manchester United, the considerably more hyped Wayne Rooney). Group A was more notable for its failures, though, including the 2006 finalists France, who struggled to one point in three matches, and hosts South Africa, who turned in a better showing than expected en route to four points but still became the first host country to not make it out of group play. Mexico did about as expected, but weren't terribly impressive and only made it out of the group on goal differential. It's not particularly surprising that Uruguay advanced past South Korea in the Round of 16 Saturday, while Mexico were thumped by Argentina Sunday. Uruguay should be able to make their way to the semifinals past the overachieving Ghanaians on Friday, but the rest of this group has been written off, and deservedly so.
Group B: Winner: Argentina, Runner-up: South Korea
Argentina put on a clinic in this group, winning all three of their matches and scoring seven goals while only allowing one. While Diego Maradona may be insane, perhaps his insanity is perfect for this team, or perhaps they're just too talented to be dragged down by him. They haven't really faced any serious opposition yet, though, as South Korea, Greece and Nigeria all failed to put up much of a fight, and the Mexicans were underwhelming opponents in the Round of 16. Still, Argentina have been one of the most impressive sides so far, and their quarterfinal match with Germany should be one of the most anticipated of the tournament. The rest of the group was pretty much a write-off, though; Nigeria were ineffective without John Obi Mikel, Greece had their moments, but couldn't recapture their form of Euro 2004, and South Korea made it through basically by default before getting beaten by Uruguay in the Round of 16. That's a fair indictment of this group, which was always Argentina and everyone else.
Group C: Winner: USA, Runner-up: England
This group produced some of the most exciting action, largely because there wasn't much difference in quality between the U.S., England and Slovenia. Even Algeria found a way to gum up the works, holding the English to a 0-0 draw. The Americans and English made it through, which was probably deserved based on squad quality, but American progress only came thanks to a last-second strike from Landon Donovan. Second place was a somewhat harsh fate for the English, who only conceded a single goal in the group stage thanks to Robert Green's Hand Of Clod moment, but they were continually inept going forward and never lived up to their potential. They actually put up a decent fight against the fearsome Germans in the Round of 16, and might have been able to squeeze out a victory if the referee hadn't stupidly overlooked Frank Lampard's equalizer, but Germany was a much better side on paper and on the day and deserved to advance. Meanwhile, the Americans looked very strong at times in the group stage, but they were unable to take advantage of a more favourable Round of 16 matchup with Ghana, falling 2-1 thanks to an extra-time goal. Group C delivered more parity than quality, which produced excitement but not long tournament runs.
Group D: Winner: Germany, Runner-up: Ghana
This group also featured parity, but there was considerable high-quality action on display as well. Germany looked brilliant in their opening 4-0 thumping of a decent Australian team, but very vulnerable against the last-place Serbs. They recovered to beat Ghana in their final game and claim the group title. Serbia kept everything close with their defensive style, and did better against the Germans than anyone else, but they couldn't take advantage of the weaker teams. The Australians and Ghanians duked it out in the middle of the group, with both producing a win, a draw, and a loss, but Ghana made it through on goal differential thanks to the Australians' opening-match humiliation. Both Germany and Ghana put on solid displays in their Round of 16 matches, with the Germans dispatching England in style while the Ghanaians upset the favoured Americans, but both have tougher tasks ahead. Germany may be able to take down the high-flying Argentines, but that will be a difficult challenge. They look more likely to advance than Ghana, though, despite the latter's easier draw against Uruguay.
Group E: Winner: Netherlands, Runner-up: Japan
Group E featured another dominant performance, with the Netherlands claiming nine points from their three matches. The football on display wasn't as picturesque as the usual Dutch brand, though, especially during those moments when Arjen Robben was not featured. Still, the Dutch got it done in clinical fashion, something that they've occasionally missed in the past, and they used that same style to dispatch an overmatched Slovakia 2-1 in the Round of 16 this morning. Japan earned a deserved second-place finish with two wins and a loss, while the Danes couldn't find consistency and Cameroon imploded spectacularly. The Japanese will face Paraguay tomorrow in what should be a relatively even match, and they'll have a chance to continue Group E's success.
Group F: Winner: Paraguay, Runner-up: Slovakia
This was a curious group. On the surface, defending world champions Italy seemed sure to walk through this one despite several key personnel losses since the 2006 World Cup, but they stumbled to two draws and a loss and finished in last. New Zealand was at the other end of the spectrum, as their squad featuring amateurs, bankers and clubless players looked overmatched, but they piled up three draws and looked very solid in the process. The group wound up very even, and Paraguay claimed top spot with just five points, while Slovakia squeaked into second with four. The Slovaks fell to the Dutch today in an expected result, but Paraguay can carry the honour of Group F tomorrow against the Japanese.
Group G: Winner: Brazil, Runner-up: Portugal
On the surface, this looked like a traditional Group of Death, featuring three strong countries and a potential wildcard in the North Koreans. It didn't really play out that way, though; North Korea largely rolled over and played dead, and the Ivory Coast was much less impressive than predicted (partly thanks to an arm injury that limited Didier Drogba). Brazil put on an impressive clinic in their first two games and then held second-place Portugal to an effective draw in their final match. The Portuguese were less impressive (except for their 7-0 thrashing of North Korea), but were efficient and picked up second place without too much trouble. The Brazilians took down Chile relatively easily today, but Portugal face a tougher task against Spain. They certainly have a chance, though, and Group G could be well-represented in the remaining stages of this tournament.
Group H: Winner: Spain, Runner-up: Chile
The final standings in this group worked out as many might have predicted, with Spain finishing on top, Chile in second, the Swiss a close third and Honduras a distant fourth. The path to that point was interesting, though, with Chile leading most of the way through, the Swiss beating Spain and the Spaniards stealing first place in with a 2-1 victory over Chile in their final match. That victory may yet prove crucial to the tournament outcome, as Spain avoided the Brazil juggernaut in the Round of 16. They will still have to get by Portugal, but if they do, either Paraguay or Japan await in the quarterfinals, and the Spanish would be favoured against either. They have a long way to go, but a run to at least the semifinals may be in the cards for the Euro 2008 champions despite their slow start at this year’s World Cup.