The elimination rounds of the World Cup began with a bang today, as Ghana knocked off the United States for the second straight tournament, repeating the 2-1 heartbreak of 2006.
Ghana's Black Stars, the sole surviving African team, set up a quarterfinal match with a surprisingly good Uruguay squad. But more on that to come, so read on, my friends!
(View group results and bracket here)
Look, we all know who the favorites are in the Cup. The top ten of the FIFA world rankings table is heavily represented, as only Italy, France, and Croatia missed the party.
The French did what they do best (choke, surrender, complain), and Italy was just plain old. Croatia didn't even make the tournament.
Brazil and Spain have got to be heavily favored now that all the chips are on the table. But if this tournament has been one thing so far, it's been unpredictable. Spain has already lost once, to Switzerland, and Brazil let a pitiful North Korean team hang in against their supposedly fearsome squad for way too long.
So let's take a look at the lower-ranked teams who are gunning for glory in South Africa, and see if any of them have a shot to shock the world in July.
No. 45 Japan is the lowest ranked side in the Round of Sixteen. In the past, the Japanese have had a reputation for being solid, yet boring and uncreative.
Hmm. Sounds a lot like the American squad I just saw knocked out! What it doesn't sound like is the actual Japan of 2010. Keisuke Honda, especially, has been impressive.
Japan won two out of its three games in Group E, dominating Denmark 3-1 and surviving a top-20 Cameroon squad 1-0. Their lone loss came against the Netherlands, who along with Portugal, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil round out the consensus top five.
Japan will match up with No. 31 Paraguay, with the winner of that game taking on the survivor of a potentially epic Spain-Portugal tilt. I think they have a good shot against Paraguay, the Group F champs, but advancing to the semis by topping one of the Iberian giants would be nothing short of a miracle.
Still, I like what I've seen from this team so far.
Slovakia (No. 34), Ghana (No. 32), and Paraguay (No. 31) are the other surprise teams to crash the knockout round.
It would kinda be cheating for me to pick Ghana to advance, since they already won today. I think their matchup against Uruguay (No. 16) is going to be extremely interesting.
Ghana plays good defense, packing a lot of men into the box with terrific team speed to punish slow-moving attacks like the States'. I also love the way that their midfielders play together - they seem to all be on the same page with crisp, competent passing.
Uruguay, on the other hand, can counter with great attackers in Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, who scored a pair of goals against South Korea this morning. This pair has the speed and creativity to create some real problems for Ghana.
The Uruguayans also played great defense throughout the group stage - they didn't allow a single goal against France, South Africa, or Mexico.
For my money, the winner of this game will be your World Cup bracket-buster, because all of the other underdogs face nasty first round opponents.
Slovakia drew the Netherlands (no chance, right?), while shorthanded Chile (No. 17) faces a familiar opponent in Brazil.
Their all-time record? Not pretty. Brazil has won 46, lost six, and the sides have drawn 12 times. I'd give it about a 95% chance that the favorites will be advancing on that side of the bracket, setting up an epic battle in the quarters.
This could play into the hands of the winner of Uruguay-Ghana, if play gets chippy and players get ejected. The Netherlands is a notoriously assholey side. And Brazilian star Kaka already has one red card in this World Cup.
That leaves us with just one dark horse (caballo negro?) to discuss, and No. 18 Mexico got a tough draw in an Argentina team which is firing on all cylinders after sweeping through the group stage. Much as I'd like to predict an upset here, I think Maradona and his stars Gonzalo Higuain (three goals so far) and Lionel Messi (no goals, he's overdue!) will make short work of El Tri.
Here's how I'd rate the fourteen remaining teams' chances of making the final.
Will be pissed if they don't:
Won't be surprised if they do:
A decent chance:
An outside shot:
Signs point to "no":
Would be a miracle:
And there you have it! Tomorrow we get England-Germany (The Blitz II - gotta love that World War Two bad blood) and Argentina-Mexico. Should be another great day of soccer in South Africa!