U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
After far and away the most boring match of this World Cup to date (let's never speak of Nigeria's goalless draw with Iran again) came perhaps the most exciting.
Forget silly debates about whether this will finally be the result that sees the United States "get" football, this was a thrilling game in its own right and separate from other factors. It had high stakes, end-to-end drama and a true Hollywood finish (we said forget silly debates, not tired cliches).
Having witnessed Germany demolish Portugal 4-0 earlier in the day to kick off Group G, both Ghana and the United States suddenly knew that a win in Natal would hugely improve their chances of reaching the knockout stages, just as a defeat would surely end them. For the United States, however, there was even more to the game than that—having lost to the Black Stars in each of the last two World Cups, they were also chasing revenge.
They got off to the perfect start; Clint Dempsey steering home the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history to put Jurgen Klinsmann's side in the lead with less than half a minute played, per ESPN Stats and Info.
But then Ghana began to take control of the game. As the U.S. lost Jozy Altidore and then Matt Besler to injury, their backs were pushed farther and farther against the wall. With less than 10 minutes left in the game, Ghana got a deserved equalizer through Andre Ayew.
At that point it looked like there was only going to be one winner and that Ghana would once again crush American dreams. But Klinsmann's side had different ideas. Dogged running from Fabian Johnson earned the U.S. a late corner, which substitute Graham Zusi duly delivered perfectly into the box. And there was another substitute, John Brooks, in the right place at the right time to head home the game's decisive third goal.
The celebrations of Brooks—practically collapsing into the turf in disbelief—and Klinsmann—roaring from the touchline like a madman—underlined the significance of the moment. The Americans had beaten their unlikely rivals, and now know avoiding defeat against Portugal on Sunday (or beating Klinsmann's homeland after that) would put them on the verge of the knockout stages.
"It was a grind, but it was a wonderful win at the end of the day," Klinsmann told reporters, per ABC. "We got the three points that we badly wanted."
The challenge of beating Portugal should hold little fear for them, even if, all emotion aside, neither they nor Ghana particularly impressed on a technical level on Monday. Portugal looked bereft of ideas and tactical discipline as they were ravaged by Germany, with Cristiano Ronaldo far below his best and Pepe's early red card for a bizarre piece of indiscipline a fitting example of their general issues.
Germany will win Group G, of that we can now be pretty confident, but second place in the group is firmly up for grabs.
The United States still have a lot of work to do, but on Monday they dug deep and made the perfect start. This already brilliant World Cup is richer for their contribution.
Results in brief - Day 5
Germany 4-0 Portugal
(Mueller (3), Hummels)
Iran 0-0 Nigeria
Ghana 1-2 United States
(A. Ayew; Dempsey, Brooks)
1. Notes from Day Five
Two Germans fight to break the same record... Legendary Brazil striker Ronaldo is the all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup play with 15 Finals goals to his credit. Miroslav Klose is just one behind, however, and it was expected he might break the record at some point during this tournament.
We have all been focusing on the wrong German, however. With Klose watching from the bench against Portugal, Thomas Mueller grabbed his sixth, seventh and eighth goals in a World Cup, four years after he won the competition's Golden Boot. Mueller needs six more goals to draw level with Ronaldo during this tournament.
Even if he does not, he should not panic—at just 24 he figures to have a few more opportunities to add to the strong legacy of goalscoring Muellers.
Pepe plays the villain, again... Some pundits may have questioned Mueller's initial reaction to receiving an arm to the face, but that is an odd line of argument. We see far worse examples of play-acting every game—wait until the first time Neymar is fouled on Tuesday—and players know that the "rewards" for highlighting such instances can be high. In the end, Mueller got more than he bargained for, Pepe head-butting him in anger and in the process only clinching his own downfall.
Every person involved with Portugal has every right to be absolutely livid with the Real Madrid defender, who is 31. Paulo Bento's side might actually be better of without him.
The first bad game of the tournament!... Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Iran vs. Nigeria never had many elements required of an exciting contest. Instead it ticked three boxes: the first boring game of the competition, the first draw and the first goalless contest at that.
The result is particularly disappointing for Nigeria, who were embarrassingly poor in attack for much of the match. With Bosnia & Herzegovina so impressive against Argentina, even in defeat, this was surely a game they really had to win if they wanted to reach the knockout stages. Having drawn, however, they now need to out-muscle the Europeans when they meet. Based on Monday's evidence, that will be very difficult for them.
Overtraining brings the pain?... Much has been made about Jurgen Klinsmann's grueling fitness regime in the build-up to this competition, with the U.S. players driven to get in peak condition to face the challenges in Brazil. Yet against Ghana, two players—Jozy Altidore and Matt Besler—were both substituted with suspected muscle strains, while others seemed to feel pain at different points during the game.
Then again, in the closing moments, the Americans clearly seemed to be flagging less than their opponents, an extra edge that enabled them to see out a memorable victory. So perhaps the training, or overtraining, paid off after all?
2. Quote of the Day
I don't know if he was sent off because of his reputation.
- Portugal coach Paulo Bento (per Sky Sports)
No, Mr. Bento, Pepe was not sent off because of his reputation. It was because he head-butted another player. That is not allowed!
3. Tweet of the Day
Da Bae doe! I might have to be team Ghana on this one idc idc idc pic.twitter.com/3GDQPU5KGe— Rihanna (@rihanna) June 16, 2014
Pepe's heat map from the first half pic.twitter.com/K72CGDsx73— Jamie Morton (@chicky_babes) June 16, 2014
Put Brooks in the Hall of Fame I don't care which one all of them— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) June 16, 2014
4. Goal of the Day
So John Brooks' goal was undoubtedly the most dramatic, and therefore the "best" in those terms, but that has already been well covered. So instead we opt for his team-mate Dempsey's, who showed poise and no little skill to get his country off to the perfect start.
5. A good day for...
Who else but John Brooks?! The Hertha Berlin defender was considered unlikely to make the United States squad a few weeks ago, let alone actually ever get on the pitch in a World Cup match. But an injury to Matt Besler led Klinsmann to throw in the 21-year-old for the second half against Ghana. With just minutes remaining, he was the one who steered Graham Zusi's cross home for the winning goal.
The youngster's celebration, visibly overcome by the magnitude of the moment, was a brilliantly emotional one. Arguably the highlight of the World Cup so far, regardless of your allegiances.
6. A bad day for...
Cristiano Ronaldo. While Neymar and Lionel Messi have both got off to fast starts at this World Cup, Ronaldo was left almost as a spectator as his country were absolutely ravaged in their opener against Germany.
The 4-0 defeat is not the end of the world—neither Ghana nor the United States looked particularly dangerous later in the evening and should be beatable—but it left the Real Madrid man with a lot of work to do, which might not be easy if he is still carrying any sort of knee issue.
7. Tuesday's schedule
Belgium vs. Algeria (Group H: 5 p.m. GMT/ 12 p.m. ET)
Arguably the last viable contender to get their campaign underway, Belgium face Algeria with an unusual amount of expectations on their shoulders. The small European country have not been in a World Cup since 2002, but they come into this one with the sort of talent that has some predicting them to go a long way.
They will need to start well against Algeria, however, who lack the same talent at their disposal—but have more experience at this level and will be difficult to break down.
Brazil vs. Mexico (Group A: 8 p.m. GMT/ 3 p.m. ET)
The hosts play their second game before two sides in the competition play their first, a situation that might offend some purists. Both these sides won their opening games, relieving the pressure on this contest.
Brazil should win fairly comfortably, but how they perform against Mexico—after a stuttering display against Croatia—will give us more information about their true strength.
Russia vs. South Korea (Group H: 11 p.m. GMT/ 6 p.m. ET)
The last two sides to play. This game does not figure to be a classic—but then who can be sure the way this World Cup has gone so far? Russia beat Portugal in their qualifying group and have Fabio Capello as coach. But they seem to lack a real attacking threat to go with a slightly suspect defence.
Their experience and physicality might still be enough to see off South Korea, who have only twice escaped the group stages at a World Cup.