By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Monday: The first of the tournament's major upsets came from Japan, who recorded its first ever Cup win on foreign soil by defeating Cameroon 1-0. The Blue Samurai's finesse style clashed mightily with the physical Indomitable Lions, but they somehow managed to nullify Samuel Eto'o in the attack. Cameroon's captain failed to record a shot as his team lacked organization or any sort of urgency around him. Keisuke Honda set up ten yards off the net's left post and scored the lone goal late in the first half when he put an easy touch on Daisuke Matsui's cross, kept his composure, and finished strong to give Japan its lead. Cameroon made some late bids in the match's final ten minutes but was unable to convert. Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima stopped the shots that the crossbar didn't, securing the win and turning Cameroon's Indomitable nickname into a misnomer, at least on this day.
Also Monday: There's no getting around the yawns and eye rubbing that come with 7:30 a.m., but those who got up to see the Netherlands take the pitch against Denmark hoped that the play of the attack-minded Dutch would wake them up, or at least supplement a couple cups of coffee. Unfortunately for the early risers, Holland's exciting brand of soccer showed itself infrequently early on. Following halftime, though, the Oranje's engine got started and the Dutch put substantially more pressure on net while dominating in the possession game. Beneficiaries of an own-goal within the half's opening minute, the Netherlands also scored on an 85th minute strike from Dirk Kuyt to earn a 2-0 victory and the current top spot in its group.
Into the 63rd minute of the afternoon match, it seemed as though another upset may be in the cards as Paraguay led Italy 1-0. The defending champs quelled these concerns when new-ish national teamer Simone Pepe's corner set up a blast from Cup winning midfielder Daniele De Rossi, thanks largely to an overambitious effort from Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar. The score would hold in rain-soaked Cape Town and send each team away with a point.
What it means: Japan's victory puts the team in great positioning going forward, but the greatest implication to come of the match is the importance now bestowed upon Saturday's tilt between Cameroon and Denmark. Look for a lot of urgency as a loss for either team will almost certainly eliminate its tournament hopes and a draw would still be far from ideal. Japan has Holland to look forward to, but unlike some upset incarnations, the Samurais actually looked very strong and deserving against Cameroon. If they could somehow hold the Dutch to a draw, Japan would stand a fantastic shot at advancing out of group play, unlikely though it may seem.
Italy isn't pleased with the draw, but Paraguay represents its toughest competition in Group F by far. In truth, both teams should beat up on New Zealand and Slovakia. For Paraguay, then, the result is phenomenal. The champs will find some solace in having scored on a corner as its offensive success in 2006 primarily came from set pieces. Still, the draw is a disappointment for Italy.
What to watch on Tuesday: All eyes will be on Group G's first two matches as Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast, and North Korea together comprise this year's Group of Death. Three of these teams should advance to the Round of 16. Two will. The result of Ivory Coast and Portugal's match, perhaps the most important opener in the tournament, will go a long way towards determining which will join likely group winner Brazil in the knockout round. Christiano Ronaldo is arguably soccer's biggest star, but he'll be looking to drop the choker label that has plagued him for much of his career and especially since his Manchester United fell in the 2009 Champion's League final. Ivory Coast is solid throughout but may compete without captain and Chelsea superstar Didier Drogba, listed as doubtful after breaking his arm in a friendly on June 4. Without Drogba, the Elephants fight an uphill battle in the tournament's most talented pool. With him, they're legitimate Cup contenders. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson says the decision is the striker's and won't be made until just hours before the game.
Also Tuesday: Brazil's match against North Korea gives us our first opportunity to see the five-time champions in this year's finals action. Though relatively little is known about North Korea, which is participating in its first Cup since 1966, it's probably fair to assume a Brazilian victory. We do know the team to feature good speed, but we also know better than to think it quicker than star-studded Selecao. And even if Korea's quickness can match Brazil's, the Latin powerhouse's new emphasis on defense should mitigate any counterattack the mysterious team, representing a most mysterious country, can muster. Also in Brazil's advantage? Only a tournament victory will suffice, and they know it. Such urgency will prevent the team from dropping its opener.
Group F's first set of matches will conclude early in the day when New Zealand and Slovakia play at 7:30. That few Americans will be either up or able to watch probably means good things for the sport's growth in the US the match won't be pretty. This being the Kiwis first Cup since 1982 and Slovakia's first ever, these teams are pleased to have even qualified and are not in the same class as Paraguay or Italy.
Question of the Day: How drastic is Brazil's much-discussed change in style? The team is still stacked with sensational playmakers and always will be for that matter but coach Dunga has emphasized a tougher, more defensive system that may upset fans of Joga Bonito. It could, however, yield one of the country's most complete and balanced teams ever. If so, prospects for the rest of the world dim considerably.
Full schedule (all times EDT): New Zealand v Slovakia Royal Bafoekeng Stadium, Rustenburg 7:30 a.m.; Ivory Coast v Portugal Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth 10:00 a.m.; Brazil v North Korea Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: "The press have dubbed this the 'Group of Death'. With all due respect to North Korea three teams are chasing two places. It doesn't matter if one of the trio plays the best soccer in the world, only two can go through. - Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, on the talented Group G.