Group A – The hosts:
Germany v Costa Rica
THE THREE-time world champions began their current campaign very much in the mould of their manager, Jürgen Klinsmann. Philipp Lahm produced a great effort from just outside the area in the sixth minute to put his country ahead, heralding the beginning of the highest scoring opening match in World Cup history. But in their drive for goals, the Germans seemed to have completely forgotten their defensive virtues of old.
Another six minutes, and the ageing former Derby, West Ham and Manchester City striker, Paulo Wanchope, was allowed to slip his markers and stroke the ball past the stranded Jens Lehmann. Five minutes later, top Bundesliga scorer, Miroslav Klose, had the hosts back in front, increasing the advantage after the restart, to make it 3-1 with half-an-hour to play. Yet Costa Rica came back, Wanchope, again, dissecting the static defence to strike. A 25-yard blast from Torsten Frings completed proceedings shortly before the end. However, on the down side, no team has ever won the trophy after winning the opening fixture. All this took place in front of 65,000 ecstatic supporters in Munich’s brand new Allianz Arena, without captain Michael Ballack. The new Chelsea signing sat the encounter out on the bench, after failing a fitness test 48 hours earlier. His future presence will not bolster his team’s defensive capabilities, which on Friday night’s evidence, will be severely tested by anyone other than a part-time team from the Caribbean.
In the same group, Poland were surprisingly beaten 2-0 by Ecuador. The unfancied South Americans took the lead through Carlos Tenorio in the first half and man of the match, Delgado, doubled the advantage 10 minutes from the end. Poland only managed their first shot on goal in the second half and hit the woodwork twice thereafter, but all to no avail.
Group B – 40 years later: England v Paraguay
AHEAD OF England’s long-awaited opening encounter with Paraguay, the news was good. Wayne Rooney had returned to England for a final and decisive scan on his foot and was given the all clear to rejoin the squad in Germany. If the bookmakers are to be believed (and they are rarely wrong), the 20-year-old will be ready to face Sweden on June 20, if required. Steven Gerrard’s back had also responded well to treatment, and the Liverpool captain took his place in the starting line-up in Frankfurt.
Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men set about their opponents with vigour, causing immediate panic among Paraguay’s overstretched back four. Only four minutes into the game, a trademark David Beckham free kick caused Carlos Gamarra to head the ball past his own keeper and into the net. On the back of the early lead, England proceeded to dominate the first half and should have punctuated their superiority with further goals, especially in view of the fact that Paraguay’s first-choice keeper had to be substituted six minutes into the game. Instead, England came out after the interval and handed the initiative to their previously outplayed opponents. In the end, Beckham and Crouch were seen defending desperately, as they hung on to their slender advantage. Still, given that Trinidad & Tobago will not prove a stumbling block – the Soca Warriors heroically held Sweden to a goalless draw, despite being reduced to 10 men at the start of the second half – the foundation for reaching the second round should have been laid.
Group D – Colonial wars: Portugal v Angola
THE FIRST ‘friendly’ between these two once closely connected countries resulted in a 6-0 thumping for the Africans in 1989. The second, and to date last, encounter between the pair in 2001, saw Nuno Gomes, Luís Figo and Luís Boa Morte among the scorers as Portugal took a 5-1 lead. Reduced to seven players and completely demoralised, the Angolans abandoned the game half-way through the second half.
Five years later, in Cologne, such a disagreeable end was not to occur. As the streets emptied on Sunday night, supporters gathered in eager anticipation of a ‘goal-fest’. Instead, the favourites were struck down by the curse of the early strike already experienced by Germany and England. It only took Pauleta four minutes to convert a clever square ball from Figo, and Portugal were leading. But precious little followed, as Ronaldo concentrated on showboating, and Angola started finding their feet. At the end, a draw would not have been unjust, and the team will have to improve considerably if it is to justify the nation’s high expectations. Perhaps the return of the injured Deco will make the difference.
Group D opponents Mexico and Iran delivered an exciting match, that saw the central Americans emerge as the most likely challengers to Portugal’s status as favourites to top the mini-table. Relative newcomer to the national team, Omar Bravo, gave his country the lead in the 28th minute, and then re-established the advantage in the second half, after Yahya Golmohammadi had equalised. The 3-1 victory was completed by Brazilian-born Ferydoon Zandi, who headed home from distance, 10 minutes before the end.
Best of the rest
IN GROUP C, dubbed ‘the group of death’, Argentina made a great start in Hamburg against the Ivory Coast, goals from Hernan Crespo and Saviola establishing a 2-0 lead by the interval. But the heirs of Diego Maradona relaxed in the second half, allowing their opponents back into the game. Didier Drogba reduced the deficit 10 minutes before the end, setting up a tense finale during which the Argentineans just managed to hang on for victory. Rivals Serbia & Montenegro, joined battle with Holland 24 hours later, losing out to a first half Arjen Robben strike. The Chelsea winger capped an impressive individual performance, with a great goal following an incisive through ball from Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie. Serbia & Montenegro created several scoring opportunities and saw more of the game after the interval, but van der Sar made sure of the three points. Holland and Argentina have the advantage, but this group can still throw up some surprises.