by Neil Morris
Group B: South Korea v. Greece, 7:30 a.m. ESPN
The day’s first game has all the earmarks of a close encounter. This is a scrappy Asian team taking on a scrappy European team, and while the match may not be high scoring, it will be spirited. Greece is still largely the tightly compact, counterattacking squad that stunned the world by winning UEFA Euro 2004. However, they have never won a World Cup match, and, excluding Euro ’04, they have lost 10 of their 12 international games by an aggregate score of 23-2. The Taeguk Warriors are a disciplined, fit team who won their opening match in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. A draw would be the logical result for two teams vying for second place in their group (behind presumptive top-rung Argentina) and afraid to lose their first match.
Players to watch:
Theofanis Gekas, Greece: The veteran striker rose to the occasion during European World Cup qualifying, leading the region with ten goals, outpacing Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Villa.
Park Ji-Sung, South Korea: The versatile Manchester United winger is team captain and playing in his third World Cup. He is a consistent offensive and defensive force.
Prediction: 1-1 draw
Group B: Argentina v. Nigeria, 10:00 a.m. ESPN
Expect fireworks. Nigeria is representing their continent against one of the elite national teams in the world. Both teams are fast, athletic, and offensive minded. And, both are notorious for a lack of discipline (Coach Maradona?). It should be one of the more entertaining matches of the first round. The bad news for Nigeria starts with the knee injury that befell John Obi Mikel, their standout midfielder. Moreover, the Super Eagles have never beaten a non-European side at the World Cup, while the Argentines have lost only one of their nine group stage matches over the last three World Cups.
Players to watch:
Lionel Messi, Argentina: The only man who might be able to stop the best player in the world is his own coach, as it is an open question whether Maradona will switch formations to accommodate Messi’s roaming, creative style.
Obafemi Martins, Nigeria: Although playing in his first World Cup match, the 25-year-old striker has played in Serie A, the Premiere League, and currently the Bundesliga. His two second-half goals versus Kenya secured the Super Eagles’ World Cup spot.
Prediction: Argentina wins 3-2
Group C: England v. United States, 2:30 p.m. ABC
Everyone hopes for this to be a great match, but wisdom says England should easily fend off the Americans. For my money, the United States’ overall World Cup success ultimately rests on coach Bob Bradley finding a way to rotate and maximize the minutes of forwards Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, and Herculez Gomez. However, the U.S. defense has been a sieve in the lead-up to the Cup, and while fitness has been the blame, poor organization is the real culprit. The American’s speed will create exciting chances, but it will not be enough to overcome the defensive woes and the offensive prowess of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard. In 2005, England’s B-team (Kieran Richardson was their star that day!) easily handled the Americans at Soldier Field; in 2008, England easily bested the U.S. at Wembley. Tomorrow will not be any different.
Players to watch:
John Terry, England: The team’s former skipper (no need to delve into all that) will lineup at center back alongside the chronically unfit Ledley King, who replaces injured captain Rio Ferdinand. Terry will have to anchor England’s defense against a speedy American scoring third.
Tim Howard, U.S.A.: Howard is a world class goalkeeper, but he will have to find another gear to keep the talented and experienced English scorers at bay. Otherwise, the U.S. won’t be able to tally enough goals to keep up.
Prediction: 3-1 win for the Three Lions
Attorney, movie critic, and once an American big-three-sports-only fan, Neil Morris now uses terms like "pitch" to mean a field instead of a throw. He covers the Carolina RailHawks and the North American Soccer League for the Independent. His secret analytical weapon, however, is his brother Brian, a Euro soccer-snob who still sticks by West Ham United and thinks MLS is just something you use to research real estate listings.