The long and winding road

First phase: End games

GERMANY MANAGER, Jürgen Klinsmann’s intention of putting on a show for the fans in Berlin, in his team’s last group game, was made somewhat easier by Ecuador’s decision to rest five key players. Nonetheless, Michael Ballack and co looked hugely impressive, thumping their opponents 3-0, with a further brace from Miroslav Klose and a first strike from Lukas Podolski wrapping up Group A.

England topped Group B after, what can only be described, as yet another game of two halves. The scintillating opening 45 minutes against Sweden saw Michael Owen limp out of the World Cup and Joe Cole produce a 35-yard wonder strike, was followed by a second playing period to forget. Marcus Allback equalised five minutes after the restart, Olof Mellberg hit the bar, and Henrik Larsson saw his effort saved brilliantly by Paul Robinson. All at sea, England replaced the tiring Wayne Rooney with Steven Gerrard, who calmed frayed nerves with a headed goal in the 85th minute. The lead did not last however, Larsson finding room in the dying seconds to squeeze in a second equalising effort.

Already qualified, Argentina and Holland engaged in an exhibition match in the last Group C encounter, neither side risking too much as they fought out a watchable goalless draw to maintain the status quo.

Portugal made it three wins out of three in Group D, despite leaving out five players carrying yellow cards. The influential Ronaldo, Valente, Costinha, Deco and Pauleta were all missing as Maniche gave Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men an early lead. A Simão Sabrosa penalty put Portugal clear after 24 minutes, but Mexico fought back, José Fonseca reducing the deficit before the interval. Omar Bravo then skied a penalty high over the bar, before Mexico lost Luis Perez to a second bookable offence. Portugal only just hung on for victory.

The complicated constellation in Group E was resolved by Italy eliminating the Czech Republic, and Ghana doing the same to the US. An average Italian performance, against opponents reduced to 10 men for the second half, resulted in a group-topping 2-0 win. Ghana benefited from a more than generous penalty award to sink American hopes 2-1, thus becoming the only African side to progress.

Hitherto unconvincing Group F leaders, Brazil, found their rhythm against Japan, but only after falling behind to a 33rd minute Keiji Tamada strike. Out of form Ronaldo signalled his return with an equaliser on the stroke of half-time, before rounding the 4-1 win off with a great finish near the end. In between, Juninho and Gilberto had made the game safe with goals of their own. Ronaldo became the joint highest scorer in World Cup history, level with the legendary Gerd Müller on 14 goals. In the parallel group encounter, Australia twice came from behind to thwart Croatia’s ambitions and take second place. Darijo Srna had opened the scoring for the Croats in the third minute, Craig Moore put his side level from the penalty spot, Niko Kovac restored the lead, until it fell to Harry Kewell to make it 2-2.

Switzerland headed-up Group G, following a 2-0 success over South Korea, France claiming the runner-up spot with Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry finding the back of the net against Togo.      

Spain, who had hit the Ukraine for four in their opening Group H fixture, recovered from an early setback against Tunisia to run out the easy 3-1 winners, before going on to maintain their 100 per cent record, fielding a reserve side against Saudi Arabia last Friday. The Ukraine, back on track after thrashing Saudi Arabia 4-0, had to rely on an Andrei Shevchenko dive producing a penalty to secure second place against 10 man Tunisia.