But first, let's review the past 48 games. Here are my nominations for the best and the worst of the, er, lower 48:
Best Team (Most Likely to Win Tournament)
1. Brazil. That 0-0 bomb against Portugal should do very little to change anyone's understanding of this team. Until they get beat, they are the favorites, plain and simple.
2. Argentina. The form team of the tournament so far. With 7 goals for and only one misplay against, they have the best goal differential of any team that did not get the opportunity to play North Korea. Messi still somehow hasn't scored, but his magical play-making has been in evidence; and the avalanche of posts and bars and bare-misses in round one says to me that he's due to explode in round two.
3. Netherlands. They haven't shown quite the offensive firepower I hoped for, but they're getting the job done. Their biggest remaining obstacle is the draw: after Slovakia, they've got to take on Brazil, and somehow I don't see the Brazilians losing that early this year. But if it's going to be an Oranje tournament, they're going to have spring a major victory sooner rather than later, so why not?
4. Spain. I predicted they'd struggle, and they have. Sort of. The Spanish still haven't hit their offensive stride, and were somewhat fortunate against Chile (the goaltender mis-play and early red card gave an air of decisiveness to that game that their play on the field had not warranted). Still, they topped the group and clearly have the guns for a deep run. We'll see if it happens.
5. Portgual. I hate to admit it, but these guys are still a threat. Along with Uruguay, they're the only advancing team not to have allowed a single goal, but unlike Uruguay, they have offensive weaponry to match. And they did it in the Group of Death, not against the beleagured French and overmatched hosts. I could easily see them sneaking past Spain on Tuesday.
1. Argentina. They've got best player in the world (and if Argentina makes the final, Cup MVP, even if he doesn't score much), the best strikers in the world, and their coach is the "Ron Artest of the World Cup." What's not to love? Unless they match up against an Anglo-American team, I'll be pulling for the Argentines the rest of the way.
2. USA. I said it before, and I'll say it again: the Americans have played in three of the tournament's most exciting games. We're not the most skilled team, or the most subtle, but we unfailingly try to score, and drama somehow seems to surround us. This bodes well, I think, in round 2.
3. Germany. Of all the European teams here, they've shown the most flair so far -- even if 80% of it came in one match against an unprepared Australia. Still, a potential quarterfinal match against Argentina has got to make neutral fans drool.
4. Chile. Not enough goals so far to quite fulfill the attacking promise of their tactics, but I've caught all three Chile matches and they've all been worth watching. If they had kept all their men on the pitch against Spain, another goal might easily have come; I expect the Brazil match to be riddled with scores.
5. South Korea. Guess which teams has seen the most goals scored in its three games so far? Both #1 and #2 hail from the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans, of course, juked their stats (13 totals) by allowing every possible Portuguese touch to sneak into the net; but South Korea, scoring 5 and conceding 6, just seem play an open, goal-friendly style. I've never been a huge fan of theirs, but this is a good thing.
1. David Villa vs. Three Hondurans. Spain 2, Honduras 0. My favorite kind of goal -- the solo burst of dribbling genius that opens up to a brilliant strike on net.
2. Maicon's Acute-Angle Dagger. Brazil 2, North Korea 1. Perhaps not quite as pretty as Villa's gem, but probably more memorable. Never seen anything quite like this before.
3. Donavan's Miracle. USA 1, Algeria 0. On situational rather than aesthetic merits -- it was a slightly botched breakaway, really, but it was also by far the most dramatic, fate-changing goal of the entire competition: an injury time winner that sends one team through and another home.
4. Honda's Delicate Touch. Japan 3, Denmark 1. Japan's free kick goals were fabulous, but Honda's black-flick to Okazaki for the third goal was the most stylish assist of the tournament.
5. Tshabalala Gets Us Underway. South Africa 1, Mexico 1. The tournament opener still gets high marks in my book.