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Fri. 12th June:
Paraguay v. Bulgaria
Saudi Arabia v. Denmark
France v. South Africa
On a sunny afternoon in Montpellier, Stoichkov himself shined early. The Bulgarian started full of self-belief and on a mission for an early goal.
While Stiochkov was proving a headache; picking up balls from the midfield, and knocks from the Paraguayan defenders around the penalty area, Bulgaria's Balakov received a head-wound in the 16th minute, from Ayala's elbow. The number 10 returned to the pitch with his head fully bandaged and continued the crusade.
In the 26th minute, Paraguay's Acuna curled in a beautifully dipping ball, but the Bulgarian goalkeeper was easily down to it. Just as the game seemed to lull, and lazy fouling seemed the order, Stoichkov cracked onto a poor clearance from the Latin American pretenders, and thundered a shot against the bottom of the post. Chilavert didn't seem interested -- he didn't see it!
Jankov's free kick five minutes from half-time did have Chilavert reaching though.
Moments later Cardozzo only had the Bulgarian keeper to beat at the other end, but fired wide, from the edge of the area. (Half-time: 0-0).
In the second half, Balakov played without the head holster and continued to apply the pressure with Iliev, Penev, and Stoichkov.
Around the 65th minute, Stoichkov worked down the left again, and pulled the ball back for Penev. The number 9 wasted the chance by lifting it high, and was soon substituted.
Campos was downed by Ivanov as he made a break for goal in the 73rd minute. A chance for Chilavert, the flamboyant Paraguayan goalkeeper, to come up to take the kick and entertain the fans. Luckily for him, the deflection gave him to to return to his own goalmouth while the corner was being taken.
Stoichkov was soon there with the ball too, and almost punished him.
The Paraguayans had their chances too, especially in the
closing minutes, Zdravkov calmly
smothering everything. A second yellow card for
Bulgaria's Nankov produced the first sending off of the tournament.
Another World Cup draw -- sadly no goals.
The Danish win the most vocal national anthem singers award to date, but they didn't have a lot to sing about after the start. The Saudi players entered into a little ring of conference before they took their places for the kick-off. What were they saying? Let's make this the mother of all boring encounters.
The slow-hand clap on the quarter hour explained the progress of this match. A Saudi fan singing prayers through a loud speaker made more sense than much of what was happening on the pitch.
Brian Laudrup and company failed to find an oasis through the wall of Saudis, and instead showed a drought of ideas. I have a lack of imagination too.
The Saudi keeper is very unorthodox, and likes to slap at the ball like his Moroccan counterpart; only he prefers to concede corners rather than goals.
In a 41st minute free-kick, Peter Schmeichel was forced to pull out a save, but he had prepared himself to deal with it relatively easily by his standards. Corners never troubled the Manchester United number 1 either. If the Saudis had been facing Benzekri of Morocco, they might have made the score-sheet before half-time. (Half-time: 0-0).
On the hour, I thought we were going to see some football. Two end to end attacks, then sadly back to the jockeying, teasing, and wasting of balls, space, and my time. Watching a game of Subuteo would have been more fun.
A cheer went up for the entry of Tottenham's Nielsen in the 65th minute, and three minutes later red flares were let off; a goal?
Denmark went in front thanks to a header from Marc Rieper of Celtic. A
long lob came into the penalty area, the Danes look puzzled and the ball was rolled out to
Jorgansen of Udinese, who chipped the telling cross back in. The Danes started to look
like one time European Champions, but again the final touch, the scoring touch, just
wasn't there. Was this really two football teams
trying to be the best in the world?
Allez, Allez -- for France, this was the opening day. Les Bleus, playing at home, could not afford to sit back like some of the other heavyweights; The French expect.
The referee showed his courage early; to wave play on when a forward running Zidane fell over himself.
The South Africans weren't intimidated either, pushing up through any openings the French were leaving. Fast and furious, the first fifteen minutes was like wine in a desert after the drought of inspiration in the earlier Saudi Arabian debacle.
An injured Guivarc'h was replaced by Dugarry on the half hour. Seven minutes later, the ecstatic Dugarry, was celebrating the header he scored from Zidane's corner.
The South Africans showed tremendous courage and spirit. The atmosphere must have been extremely overpowering, yet they kept their concentration and quietened the crowd with their surprisingly tenacious play.
Vonk seemed lucky with a save from Petit as the ball crashed against his forearms and settled under his legs. A second now might have killed the spirit of the South Africans. In turn South Africa almost equalized when Masinga headed on a free-kick just before half-time. (Half-time: 1-0).
Thirteen minutes into the second half, Deschamps was booked and a French goal disallowed, much to the disapproval of the home fans. Deschamps, as captain, signaled to his players to button la bouche.
The South Africans continued to impress with their never-say-die attitude, their contagious desire to close down and cut out every French attack or cross, and their swift acceleration when switching to offensive.
In such an attacking game, both teams left openings, but although the South Africans passed more than well enough, the clinical finisher wasn't there.
With less than ten minutes to go something fell apart. Dugarry received a ball in the penalty area, and with three defenders on his back he managed to swivel and release a pass to Djorkaeff. Djorkaeff's shot was helped in by an unfortunate Issa. Own goal of the tournament number three.
Sadly McCarthy was stretchered off in the dying moments of
this exceptional match -- and what was a closely fought contest turned into a rout, as Henry picked up a loose
ball, beat two players and coolly chipped the advancing South African keeper.
To the Stadium
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