Coming in to the first day of the World Cup, fans may have expected Group A to be a toss up.
France, while clearly the group favorite, was an aging squad that sneaked into the tournament thanks only to a handball by Thierry Henry. Mexico had issues with team chemistry and internal politics. Uruguay, a somewhat unknown commodity, was inconsistent during qualification. And, South Africa, with little World Cup experience, was considered one of the weakest host nations ever.
After two draws in as many matches, fans who were unsure of how Group A would shape up are right back where they started.
The opening match saw South Africa feed off of the home crowd's energy. In the 55th minute, South Africa struck first when Siphiwe Tshabalala took a long diagonal through-ball by Kagisho Dikgacoi and drove it into the top right-hand corner of the goal. But, South Africa's dream start was short lived as Mexico's Rafael Marquez scored the equalizer in the 79th minute with a near-post finish.
Throughout the game South Africa had more energy and created a number of scoring opportunities, but were unable to capitalize on their chances, most notably when Katlego Mphela cranked a shot off the goal post near the end of regulation. Some may say that South Africa was lucky to escape with the point, but the team showed that, while the home field provided a boost, they have the talent and heart to keep up with anyone in Group A.
The second match pitted an unfocused France attack versus a determined Uruguay defense. Though the match ended in a scoreless draw, it was not without its moments.
Uruguay, acting as the defiant underdog, was led by the play of striker Diego Forlan, who had a few good looks end up just off target. But the real story of the match was Uraguay's stifling defensive play. Each time France advanced anywhere near the 18, Uruguay seemed to converge on the attackers and send the ball the other way.
Even the late addition of Thierry Henry and a red card on Uruguay midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro in the 80th minute were not enough to help France score a late goal and reaffirm themselves as the group leader.
After two games, Group A is still any nation's to win.
To advance to the next round, South Africa needs to retain the energy they displayed in their first match and find ways to convert scarce chances into goals. Mexico needs to regain their composure and play to their strengths of defense and counter-attacks. France needs to play more cohesively and find a fire that was sorely lacking in the first game. And, Uruguay needs to maintain their defensive onslaught, while finding ways to push forward and create more scoring chances.
In such an evenly matched group, each fixture is an opportunity for a squad to determine its own destiny. The teams that want it more and work as one will see the Round of 16.
Projected Group A Final Standings:
4. South Africa
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