By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Tuesday: Group B started play with no certainties and only one near lock: that Argentina would advance. Albiceleste's opponent Greece and group mates Nigeria and South Korea all stood a chance at advancing with the right set of circumstances. After holding the two-time champions to a scoreless draw for over 77 minutes, Greece conceded a beauty to Argentine defender Martin Demichelis that effectively ended its tournament. Martin Palermo added a late second goal off a Lionel Messi rebound to yield a 2-0 final, winning Group B for Diego Maradona's squad. For the third straight match, Messi put forth a dominant effort for Argentina but did not score in the process.
Argentina's win meant that a draw would move South Korea forward while Nigeria, despite losing its first two matches, could advance with a win. Down early after an Ikechukwu Uche goal, the Taeguk Warriors parenthesized halftime with goals and carried a 2-1 lead into the match's last half hour. Nigeria's Yakubu successfully converted a 69th minute penalty, though, keeping the Super Eagles' hopes alive. The African club put heavy pressure on South Korea down until the end but the Warriors held on for the draw, thereby advancing to the second round for the first time outside of Asia.
Also Tuesday: As has become the norm, Uruguay's defense was unbreakable against Mexico in posting a third consecutive clean sheet. The two teams would have been guaranteed a spot in the second round with a draw but Luis Suarez scored just before halftime for Los Charruas. With the 1-0 victory, Uruguay won Group A. Mexico's fate was to be decided by the other Group A match.
South Africa entered its morning match with France needing a whole lot to go right in order to see its tournament continue. For a while, it all did. Playing before a loud and proud home crowd, Bafana Bafana scored twice in the first half as Uruguay got out to a 1-0 lead in Rustenburg. With France playing a man down following Yoann Gourcuff's 25th minute red card, the Boys needed just a couple more goals to advance against all odds. Florent Malouda's goal for France in the 70th minute (the team's first in the tournament) quickly dashed all hopes. South Africa was able to collect a win in its send-off, but for the first time in World Cup history the hosts will not advance. France's tournament is also over, and Mexico advances on goal differential.
After the match, France's run of poor behavior surfaced one last time when coach Raymond Domenach refused to shake hands with his South African counterpart, Carlos Alberto Parreira. This wasn't just a matter of Domenach forgetting to meet the opposition coach post-match. The manager was approached by Parreira while in the handshaking process and was willing to partake in the show of respect until noting just whose hand was extended. Upon seeing Parreira, he changed his mind. It had seemed like perhaps France, to its credit (and just about everyone else's disappointment), would leave its final match without any more dramatics, but Domenach came through with one more disgrace at the last possible opportunity. Au revoir, Les Bleus!
What it all means: With the victory, Uruguay wins Group A and will see South Korea in the second round. Mexico gets a substantially tougher assignment in Argentina. Uruguay was overlooked coming into the tournament. The country has always been a soccer stronghold and the team's defense was dominant in group play. The back line won't see too much of a challenge from the Taeguk Warriors and suddenly looks like a team that could make some noise in the tournament.
South Africa goes out with its pride very much intact. As for France, the team that never should have even advanced out of qualifying likely wishes it didn't at this point. It was a disgraceful performance on and off the field from Les Bleus, whose downward spiral continues as the team leaves the 2010 tournament.
Argentina started the tournament with questions surrounding Maradona and Messi, but both have been spectacular thus far. The Group B winner has set itself up for a deep run in the tournament. South Korea entered looking to prove itself as a legitimate soccer country and its advancing to the Round of 16 renders that mission accomplished. Greece should take some solace out of playing Argentina well and collecting its first Cup win against Nigeria. It remains an up-and-coming soccer country. Africa has to be disappointed to see Nigeria join Cameroon and South Africa as eliminated African nations, knowing that it will take a couple of miracles for Algeria and Ivory Coast not to join that crew.
What to watch on Wednesday: It's win and in for the United States against Algeria. By now we all know the story with this team: they're happy to have drawn England and they should have beaten Slovenia. They really, really, should have (when else can you say that about a game without sounding like a crybaby?). But for every narrative there's an unspoken side of the story, and in America's case it's as follows: They have gotten out to horrible starts, particularly on the defensive end. That all-around urgency they showed in the second half against Slovenia? It needs to be there throughout on Wednesday. Algeria can advance too with a win and some help. Confident following its scoreless draw with England, the Desert Foxes won't take it easy. It's on the Yanks to come out strong and advance themselves to the Round of 16. Should they succeed, World Cup fever will spread to the point of pandemic in America.
Also Wednesday: England and Slovenia can each guarantee themselves a trip to the knockout round with a victory. The Three Lions have so far faced two very disappointing results in drawing both America and Algeria, but it's still win-and-in for a team that just a week and a half ago was a tournament favorite. The two teams are trending in opposite directions but a loss or draw would be another massive disappointment for England. The pressure's on for both, but especially the Brits. After all, it'll be a dream come true for the UK tabloids if they were not to advance in this tournament, thought to be the country's best opportunity for victory in ages.
Serbia rocked Group D when it beat Germany last week, sending the group into relative chaos. Now they'll face an Australian team that will be without veterans Harry Kewell and Craig Moore knowing that a win would send them forth. For its part, Australia always plays hard and will get Tim Cahill back in the midfield after a one match suspension. With nothing to lose and everything to gain by scoring as frequently as possible, the Socceroos will provide pressure. Serbia is nothing if not organized and disciplined and shouldn't concede too much. But if the Serbs can only take one point from this one, it might not be enough.
One point would be enough for surprising Ghana, however. The Black Stars will meet a German squad that has shown signs of both invincibility and mortality in its first two matches. Ghana, Africa's only real hope for representation in the second round, will enter the match with defense even more on the mind than usual. To the chagrin of some supporters, the team stuck with its 4-5-1 formation for the entirety of its draw with Australia, refusing to put more emphasis on the attack. Against Die Mannschaft, those same fans would likely be pleased to see all 11 Black Stars back on defensive end. If Germany does find itself on one end of a draw and Serbia wins, it would spell elimination, marking its earliest trip home since 1938.
Question of the Day: Slovenia started to crack when the US started to put on the pressure last week. Wednesday, they need just a point against England to advance to the second round. Can the Cup's smallest country survive the pressure coming on a massive stage from the Three Lions who feature some of the biggest stars in the world? Perhaps more than anything for Slovenia, the match will be a test of composure.
Full schedule (all times EDT): Slovenia v England Port Elizabeth Stadium, Port Elizabeth 10:00 a.m.; United States of America v Slovenia Loftus Versfeld Stadium, TshwanePretoria 10:00 a.m.; Ghana v Germany Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg 2:30 p.m.; Australia v Serbia Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: "I'm so proud for the boys. The way our boys played from the very beginning. They made this country proud. They proved that they made a good progression...My main feeling is pride. We knew this group was going to be a very difficult group. I can't say I'm sad, I'm happy. - South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira after Bafana Bafana's tournament finale.