World Cup news – days 19 and 20…

Four years ago Guus Hiddink led South Korea to the semi-finals of the World Cup. On that fairytale run they benefited from several appallingly inept refereeing decisions, not least when they played Italy in the second round. Prior to Ahn Jung-Hwan’s golden goal for South Korea in extra-time Giovanni Trapattoni’s team had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for offside, a player sent off for diving instead of being awarded a penalty, and a variety of other bad calls go against them.

On Monday Italy had their revenge with a 1-0 win over Hiddink’s Australia. Once again Hiddink’s side were handed an unfair advantage by a poor refereeing decision when early in the second half Italy and ex-Everton defender Marco Materazzi was red carded for a tackle on Marco Bresciano. Materazzi’s tackle was rash and cynical, but it deserved no more than a yellow because Juventus defender Fabio Cannavaro (linked with a move to Stamford Bridge earlier this week) was covering back. Australia played well and went on to dominate the remainder of the match but seemed afraid to make their advantage count, although Italy did what Italy do best: defended brilliantly.

Australia’s lack of killer instinct cost them. In the third minute of injury time, Fabio Grosso, Italy’s left back, dribbled the ball past Bresciano and into the Aussies’ penalty area where Lucas Neill, probably the Socceroo’s best player of the tournament and not the psycho we’re used to seeing in the Premiership, awaited him. Grosso made to cross, fooling Neill into thrusting out his right leg before sliding to ground; Grosso jinked right and took full advantage of the prone Neill, tumbling over him. There was no intent on Neill’s part to bring down or obstruct Grosso, but Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo put his whistle to his lips and blew for a penalty. Up stepped the playboy of Italian football, the overrated Francesco Totti, to slot home high beyond Mark Schwarzer’s right hand. There was no time for a restart. What goes around comes around.

In Monday’s other match between Switzerland and Ukraine, nothing of note happened for one hundred and twenty minutes. During what was the most insipid and mind-numbing game of the tournament so far (I doubt there will be worse for quite some time) neither side looked like scoring, seeming to fear losing rather than having any desire to win. In the subsequent and first penalty shoot-out of this World Cup, Chelsea new boy Andrey Shevchenko saw his, Ukraine’s first, saved. It hardly mattered; Switzerland didn’t net a single penalty. Ukraine will play Italy on Friday.

I stand by my belief that Brazil won’t win the tournament despite their somewhat fortunate 3-0 victory over a proud Ghana yesterday afternoon. Ronaldo put Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side one up within five minutes, in the process becoming the highest scorer in World Cup finals history. Kaka took advantage of some naive Ghana defending, slipped the ball through for the lumbering striker to cleverly round goalkeeper Richard Kingston with a trademark step-over and slot home his fifteenth World Cup goal, thus breaking Gerd Muller’s previous record tally of fourteen. Ghana were always up against it after that shaky start. They played some good football but a combination of wasteful finishing and poor defending cost them. Jonathan was at the game and will probably write about it later.

Yesterday’s evening game saw perennial big tournament underachievers Spain lose 3-1 to France. Les Bleus and a resurgent Zinedine Zidane put paid to yet another Spanish side which flattered to deceive. Luis Aragones’ team are not the new Brazil after all. The game was marred by Thierry Henry’s shameful attempt to get Carles Puyol sent off. In the 81st minute, Puyol used his arm to block Henry as the pair chased a loose ball; the Arsenal player fell to the floor as if pole-axed, clutching his face. Replays showed that Puyol’s arm never came higher than Henry’s chest. The Barcelona player was booked but Henry got off scot-free. The subsequent free-kick led to France’s second goal, a Patrick Vieira header at the far post. Spain were undone for a third time in the 92nd minute when Zidane slotted home after some trademark dribbling skills. France will play Brazil on Saturday in a repeat of the 1998 final, which France won 3-0.