A note on these grades. Each teams’ grade is not to be compared with another team, but is based on how they did according to expectations, the manner in which they did it in (playing style, ease/difficulty, adversity etc.) and how they carried themselves.
Netherlands – A
The Dutch became the second team to win all three of their group games and they did it without any internal fighting. Even Robben got a brief run out and in the 20 minutes he was on he had a spectacular shot denied by the woodwork which went straight into the path of a grateful Huntelaar who easily slotted it home.
They were rarely troubled in any of their games though it took a deflected block from the keeper to ensure their three points against Japan. They could have taken it easy in their final match against Cameroon, but they came out hard and were eventual winners.
They’re well organized and deadly going forward — now even more so with a healthy Robben. Their defense is solid and their engine room is humming perfectly along.
Now comes the real test (well, after they meet Slovakia) and the quality of teams once they reach the quarters should greatly improve. For now they aced their group stage games.
Japan – A-
Japan were supposed finish bottom of the group. They were certainly a team to be respected but every game against them was treated like the “easy” game.
Their pre-tournament games didn’t fare too well as they went 0-4 (all against teams going to the World Cup finals) and the media and public back home had their doubts about the Blue Samurai.
That all changed when they came to South Africa. They’re incredibly well organized at the back, but it’s from the back where they’re very potent going forward as they send their fullbacks screaming down the wings. Their midfield is wonderfully creative and very good at finding the runs by their strikers and wingbacks.
Their forwards are okay but they make intelligent runs which must be kept in check, and don’t foul them anywhere in free kick range as Denmark painfully found out.
The Jabulani has come under a lot of criticism by players and keepers alike, but today Japan made it their bitch by scoring two exquisite free kicks the likes of which Ronaldo, Lampard, Messi, etc… cannot seem to master with this new ball.
Up next for the Blue Samurai is Paraguay. This should be a very exciting encounter as they both play good football. I pip Japan to sneak on through to the quarters as they are more balanced and I hope they do it from a free kick.
Denmark – C-
This marks the first time in their history that the Danes failed to get out of the group stage. Having missed out on the festivities in Germany they came to South Africa with a veteran squad.
It was this I feel that let them down. They were always a half step behind the Dutch and the Japanese. Against Cameroon in one of the most entertaining games of the tournament, they were lucky not too lose or at least draw as Cameroon missed gilt-edge chance after another.
They didn’t play badly or negatively. In fact, every one of their games was exciting. Unfortunately it had to do with some of their own defensive errors.
Going forward though, they were a constant threat especially with Rommedahl rediscovering some of his 10.2 second 100 meter speed. Sadly, old warhorse Tomasson was anemic in front of goal as he tried to equal the Danish scoring record. In the final minutes of their last game against Japan, and already going home, he scored from a penalty and achieved the milestone.
In the end, I think the Danes and especially Morton Olsen underestimated Japan and had no real plan if they were to fall behind. Many of their players will no doubt retire from international duty after this cup and the team will go home disappointed.
Cameroon – D+/C-
Cameroon started the cup amid controversy as legend Roger Milla called out star striker and captain Samuel Eto’o for not recreating his club form for his country. Whereas that might be true, it is a little unfair as his club teammates possess a little more skill and quality then his national teammates.
Eto’o, always a sensitive soul, threatened to quit the team. Then after their first game loss to Japan, Paul Le Guen publicly questioned the team’s attitude when in turn Eto’o question they starting selection.
In their second game, they came out guns a-blazing with the team selection suggested by Eto’o. They created chance after chance but their finishing was poor. The Danes, patient and calm, attacked them on the counter and were 2-1 winners. The Indomitable Lions became the first team eliminated from the competition.
Admirably, they came out hard in the meaningless third game. Unfortunately, so did the Dutch. It was an exciting affair but their defense let them down and they ended their campaign winless.
I didn’t give them a failing grade as they played exciting attacking football. After the first game, they really put their hearts into it. Unfortunately their discipline, finishing abilities and organization were thrown out the window. They were responsible for one of the most entertaining start to finish games and were a pleasure to watch (from an attacking POV; defensively it was painful).
Ultimately they were a major disappointment, but I have soft spot for the Cameroon teams of ’90 and ’94 so I was generous with my marks.
Paraguay – B
The Paraguayan team came into the World Cup as the surprise of the South American qualifications. They were the second team to qualify and did it by beating all the traditional powerhouses.
Solid all over, they sadly, like many other teams, started off the tournament on a cautious note. They scored the opening goal against Italy but gave the defending champions too much respect, and they eventually gave up a poor goal.
Against Slovakia they resorted back to their free-flowing qualification style of play and totally dominated the Europeans, scoring two well-taken goals to boot.
Oddly though, in their third game they reverted back to their cautious style knowing a draw would see them through. They didn’t really try too hard and just made sure they maintained a clean sheet.