Now that the group stage games are over – and both 2006’s finalists, Italy and France, have fallen by the wayside – the knockout rounds begin.
The first of the Last 16 ties to be contested sees Diego Forlan’s Uruguay take on Park Ji-Sung’s South Korea.
Uruguay will feel full of confidence after finishing above the South African hosts, France and Mexico, especially when some had written the 5th-placed South American qualifiers off before a ball had been kicked. Their forwards, Forlan, Suarez and Cavani, have looked sharp and tricky to contain, whilst at the back, they are one of only 3 teams who have yet to concede a single goal, much thanks to Lugano and Fucile.
South Korea rode their luck somewhat in scraping into the next round but their ability to grind teams down and be a match for anyone has earned them another shot at glory. Monaco’s Park Chu-Young seems to be in the right place at the right time (like a young version of Robbie Fowler), even if he occasionally scores at the wrong end! Playing with a fluid, counter-attacking style rather than all-out attack, South Korea thrive on the weakness of their opposition instead of dictating the play. But with a worrying inability to shut down the opposition’s attackers, they have failed to keep a single clean sheet and conceded more goals than they have scored.
A better team than France and South Africa but probably not as strong as Mexico, Uruguay should triumph over a good, if not brilliant, South Korea. Both teams will score but Forlan looks to be the man to win this game.
With previous history between the two nations, Mexico vs Argentina promises to be something special.
Since the early international retirement of Jared Borgetti, Mexico’s excellent all-round play has weakened up front. Bringing back Chuatemoc Blanco seemed the only logical way to add a certified goal-machine into the ranks of a fast but blunt side. Argentina have an equivalent player in their ranks in Martin Palermo – both are club heroes, both were retired, both score crucial, wonderful goals and both are at the end of their careers. But there the comparisons end. Palermo is a ‘luxury’ player, rather like how Liverpool’s Reina was used in the final group game of Euro 2008; there is no need to bring him on except to give the main strikers a breather. As for Blanco, his introductions have been critical and unavoidable.
With particular emphasis on quick passing and an intuitive midfield, Mexico require the middle three of Guardado, Torrado and Marquez to be on top form for 90 minutes if they are to stand a chance of beating the ferocious Argentina. Their goalkeeper, Oscar Perez, has been fantastic and will need similar feats of excellence to keep Higuain, Di Maria, Messi and Milito at bay.
As for Argentina, should they fail to beat Mexico for the second successive time in the Last 16 (they acheived an Extra Time 2-1 win in 2006), it would be an enormous shock. Put simply, they are the form team, the ones nobody wants to play. A hefty goal difference and 3 wins from 3 makes them certainly joint-favourites with Brazil to win this competition. Their focal point, and one of the world’s most consistently spectacular forwards, is Higuain – not Messi. It is more important that Higuain is on form than Messi as Argentina’s attacks more often than not feed the Real Madrid man with goal-scoring opportunities, whereas Messi’s main role is to pass and take defenders away.
Argentina to win this one by a margin of two goals and Higuain to continue his form as 2010’s joint-top scorer.