World Cup news – day 15…

Australia and Ghana both reached the knockout phase on a day which saw the Czech Republic depart, Brazil and Italy top their groups and plenty of drama, incident and superb football thrown in for good measure.

Ghana took advantage of Italy’s win over the Czech Republic to pip Karel Bruckner’s side to the runner-up slot in Group E by beating the U.S.A. 2-1 in Nuremburg. The African side opened the scoring midway through the first half when Haminu Dramani picked Claudio Reyna’s pocket and curled a low shot past Kasey Keller. The U.S.A. responded just before half time with a well-taken goal by Clint Dempsey, but the Ghanaians clawed their way back through FIFA Man of the Match Stephen Appiah‘s controversial penalty awarded by Markus Merk for Oguchi Onyewu’s innocuous looking challenge on Razak Pimpong.

Despite a good deal of possession and pressure in the second half, Bruce Arena’s side failed to capitalise with Fulham’s Brian McBride and Onyewu both spurning good chances to level and Ghana hung on to reach the last sixteen in their first ever World Cup appearance. Michael Essien picked up his second yellow card of the tournament, meaning that he will miss the Black Stars’ dream second round clash with Brazil in Dortmund next Tuesday – surely a huge loss for the only African side to make the knockout phase this year, given his impressive performances in the group stage.

In Group E’s other game, Petr Cech and the Czech Republic crashed out of the competition, losing 2-0 to a workmanlike Italy in Hamburg.

The Czechs started the game well, with Pavel Nedved in imperious form as he forced Juventus colleague Gianluigi Buffon into two smart saves inside the first fifteen minutes. The situation deteriorated for the Azzuri a few minutes later when Alessandro Nesta picked up an injury and was forced to withdraw, however it was his replacement Marco Materazzi who swung the game back in Italy’s favour. The former Everton defender had been on the pitch for less than ten minutes when he rose to meet Francesco Totti’s corner and headed past Cech to give the Italians the lead.

The game effectively ended as a contest just before the break when Jan Polak, sporting one of football’s most ridiculous haircuts, was shown a second yellow card for a rash tackle on Totti. With the Czechs down to ten men, Italy controlled the game in the second half and despite Nedved going close again their dominance eventually told. With three minutes remaining, Filippo Inzaghi broke the habit of a lifetime by beating the offside trap, rounding Cech to stroke the ball home and seal the game for the Italians. Marcello Lippi’s side finished on top of Group E having conceded just one goal.

In Group F, Brazil eased into the second round with a 4-1 win over Japan in Dortmund. The Japanese shocked the holders when they took the lead through Keiji Tamada’s excellent strike ten minutes before the break, but the 2002 winners equalised on the stroke of half time when Ronaldo nodded home from close range following good work by Ronaldinho and Cicinho.

Brazil finally hit their stride in the second half, playing their best forty-five minutes of the tournament so far. Juninho Pernambucano’s long-range effort sailed past (or rather through) Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi in the Japanese goal before Gilberto made the game safe with a left-foot drive from a tight angle. Ronaldo picked up his second and rounded the game off with a superb curling shot after making himself space following Robinho’s pinpoint pass. The three-time World Player of the Year has come in for a great deal of criticism of late, but even with a physique that the average darts player would be proud of and an apparent case of kinesophobia he now stands with Gerd Muller at the top of the World Cup goalscoring charts with fourteen goals, having eclipsed Brazil legend Pele (twelve) and France’s Just Fontaine (thirteen). Whilst Brazil and their number nine haven’t quite hit the heights just yet, rumours of their demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

As Brazil upped the tempo, Croatia and Australia fought out an incredible 2-2 draw in one of the games of the tournament which saw the Socceroos make the second phase for the first time in their history.

Darijo Srna put the Croatians ahead with less than three minutes gone when he powered a superb free-kick past Zeljko Kalac, a man who bore more resemblance to a character from the Addams family than a goalkeeper. Australia shrugged off the setback and lifted themselves quickly, dominating possession thereafter and virtually setting up camp in the Croatian half. Their pressure eventually told when Stjepan Tomas handled in the area and Newcastle’s Craig Moore equalised from the resulting spot-kick.

The second half rewrote the definition of ‘end-to-end football’. Both sides pushed forward in search of the decisive goal, with Croatia profiting after Lurch Kalac rather charitably allowed Kovac’s weak shot to bobble over him giving Croatia a 2-1 lead and one foot in the last sixteen.

The Australians threw everything at the Croatian goal in their quest for an equaliser, with Kewell forcing a superb save from keeper Stipe Pletikosa who later ended up beneath a scrum after former Coventry and Portsmouth striker John Aloisi attempted to bundle the ball home. As time ticked away the game reached a crescendo of drama, tension and farce thanks to the contribution of referee Graham Poll. Kewell, who looked to be in an offside position, scored one of the most important goals of his career when he kept his head and thumped in the equaliser from close range. Dario Simic and Brett Emerton were both dismissed for two yellow cards, now being handed out by Poll as though he were on some form of bookings commission.

The man in black then added the ‘Carry On’ element to the game when he issued a second yellow to Josip Simunic and, without realising that he had already booked him, failed to show the traditional red card. Tim Cahill looked to have won the game for Australia in injury time but the final whistle had gone. Poll, having also missed another blatant handball by Tomas then sealed a comical performance as Simunic remonstrated with the hapless English official who brandished a third yellow card, finally sending the Croatian off as a rather bemused football world watched the Socceroos celebrating. Enjoy the beach, Graham.

Australia will meet Italy in Kaiserslautern on Monday in search of a place in the quarter-finals.

Today sees the final group games take place before the second phase gets underway tomorrow afternoon in Munich. Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine side will progress with a win or a draw against Tunisia, provided that Saudi Arabia don’t perform miracles by beating Spain, who have already qualified, in the group’s other game.

France’s World Cup could end at the group stage for the second tournament in succession when Group G reaches it’s conclusion this evening. William Gallas and Claude Makelele will appear for Raymond Domenech’s men, who need to beat an already eliminated Togo side by at least two clear goals to be certain of qualification; one will not be good enough should South Korea draw with Switzerland.

Elsewhere in football Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were all indicted on charges of corruption in the Italian game. The hearings will commence next week and a verdict is expected over the weekend of July 7-9, which coincides with the World Cup final. The suggestion is that punishments could range from fines and bans from the game for the individuals involved (none of them players), to possible relegation and exclusion from European competition for any clubs found guilty of match-fixing.