Two Liverpool squad members in action in the past two days...
And two big shockers.
Anybody who watched Slovakia and New Zealand in full yesterday should first be psychologically evaluated, then, if cleared, commended for their commitment to the World Cup.
I didn't pass the first step, but I watched all 93-plus minutes through weary eyes, and as it turned out the match produced arguably the competition's most exciting moment thus far.
Slovakia took a 1-0 lead early in the second half through after Robert Vittek's header from an offside position beat Mark Paston. The Slovaks had been building in influence and were the more dominant side throughout, but Vittek was clearly offside. But it was 1-0 regardless, and they were on their way to the top of Group F.
New Zealand gradually worked their way back into the match, and finally in the dying minutes the All Whites got their best look of the match. Shane Smeltz found himself unmarked in the box, but he could only head Tony Lochhead's cross well wide.
And then, in what was literally the closing seconds, Smeltz worked himself free on the edge of the area and delivered an inch-perfect cross to the head of Winston Reid, whose header got past a stranded Jan Mucha and earned New Zealand their first point in World Cup history.
Martin Skrtel, Liverpool's lone representative on the day, had a somewhat up-and-down match. At times he looked to be at his best, dominating in the air and shutting down any New Zealand efforts into the area. But at other times he looked off the pace and out of sorts, and while he wasn't at fault for the equalizer, the back line as a whole were mighty suspect. Coulda, shoulda, woulda for the Slovaks, who were punished for their inability to find a second goal.
Moving onto today, then, which brought with it one of the more hotly anticipated match-ups of the opening round with Spain taking on Switzerland. It certainly wasn't because the Swiss were expected to give the Euro 2008 champions a test---Spain entered as firm favorites and were, at least for me, one of the front-runners to finally break up what's been a dull opening round.
So of course, Switzerland won 1-0 on a bundled goal by Gelson Fernandes in the 52nd minute. For all their depth in quality, Spain couldn't find an equalizer and were on the wrong end of the tournament's most shocking result. The best chance at an equalizer came from former Liverpool heartbreaker Xabi Alonso, whose arrowed effort in the 70th minute crashed off the bar. It would have easily been the goal of the tournament so far, but ultimately it was another chance missed.
Liverpool's (or Chelsa's, or Barca's, or Inter's) Fernando Torres came on in the 61st minute for Sergio Busquets and generally looked decent, although he spurned a couple of chances at an equalizer. It'll be interesting to see how Vincente del Bosque uses him from this point on---the manager seems to prefer a 4-2-3-1, but today it was frustrated by a well-organized Swiss defense. You've got to think he'll make some sort of adjustment in attack, and it's likely going to involve Liverpool's number nine. Sadly nothing on the horizon for Pepe Reina, however, as Iker Casillas showed no signs of relinquishing the number one role despite the calamity around the Swiss winner.
With Uruguay's 3-0 defeat of the hosts, the World Cup is now officially into the second round. Hopefully that result spices things up a bit, as the tournament on the whole has been Jabulanied a bit.
Three more for Liverpool tomorrow---Javier Mascherano and Maxi Rodriguez will be in the mix to face a talented South Korean side, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Greece will try to bounce back against Nigeria. To a group, it seems like everything is well and truly up for grabs, meaning things can only get better from here.