Given the events of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, you would have been forgiven for expecting further upsets here at the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005. Not so in Group A, which went to form with Germany and Argentina, in that order, making it through to the semi-finals.
For the valiant but ultimately ineffective Tunisian and Australian sides, there was only the long walk home. Read on as FIFAworldcup.com reprises the thrills and spills of a thoroughly entertaining group.
Old foes clash in semi-finals
In what could well be a prelude to the showpiece event in a year's time, Germany and Argentina, the only Group A sides already guaranteed a place at Germany 2006 both made it to the last four. The key to their progress was a subtle blend of speed, tactical discipline and forceful attacking.
Making excellent use of their talented youngsters, Jurgen Klinsmann's Nationalmannschaft, with the experienced Michael Ballack at the helm, made sure of their place in the semi-finals with victories over Australia (4-3) and Tunisia (3-0) respectively. A similar mix of youth and experience did the trick for Jose Pekerman's Argentina, who were also pushed hard before prevailing against the African and Oceania champions (2-1) and (4-2) respectively.
Top spot in the group was only decided after the final game. The showdown between the finalists of Mexico 86 and Italia 90 lived up to the pre-match billing as the two giants slugged it out in an absorbing 2-2 draw.
After finishing top on goal difference, the hosts now face Brazil. "This is a tournament we want to win as it's one of the few opportunities we have to test ourselves against the world's best in an official competition ahead of Germany 2006," said the German coach Klinsmann. No less ambitious was his Argentine counterpart Pekerman, who said: "While we came here to look at other alternatives for the side, we can't deny that we want to go as far as we can in the tournament. Our history and national pride demand it." Standing between the Albiceleste and a place in the final are Mexico.
Tunisia and Australia came into this tournament in Germany with high hopes of crashing the party and perhaps getting themselves past the group stage. However, endeavour and a burning desire to succeed proved insufficient when they came up against the group heavyweights. Roger Lemerre's Tunisia showed lots of potential but paid heavily for their inexperience. A missed penalty against Argentina by Imed Mhadbebi could have changed the course of the game, as could some glaring misses in the first half of their game against Germany.
Australia's case was slightly different. They found their range without too much difficulty, scoring a combined total of five goals in their games against the big two. But it was a porous defence that leaked eight goals in the same two games that was to prove their ultimate undoing.
By the time the bottom two met in their final group game, they were playing for pride alone. The north Africans held sway and bowed out with the consolation of having won at least one of their games. "Despite losing our first two games, we performed very well against quality sides. This experience will serve us well next year when we hope to be back," Lemerre said after his side's final game.
Australia coach Frank Farina, for his part, was more self-critical in his analysis. "We made a lot of errors and paid dearly for them. If we intend to win in the future, then we need to keep our concentration and stop making silly mistakes in defence. The important thing is that we now know what areas we need to work on," he said.
Undoubtedly, both sides will have learnt some valuable lessons that will serve them well as they enter the final straight of the respective FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Six matches proved sufficient to confirm once again that, tactics aside, it is skilful individuals that decide the outcome of games. These were in plentiful supply in Group A, where we saw glimpses of some talented players who may well be back to entertain us again this time next year. The Australian John Aloisi, with his four goals, provided the silver lining for the Socceroos, while Santos, with his native Brazilian ball skills, shone brightest in the Tunisian attack.
However, Ballack and Juan Riquelme can rightfully be called the standout players of Group A, after picking two Anheuser Busch Man of the Match awards apiece. The German star, who was rested for his side's final group game against Argentina, scored two goals and was instrumental in the triumphs over Australia and Tunisia. The Argentine Riquelme, not to be outdone, scored in every game from dead-ball situations and was nominated by the FIFA Technical Study Group for his performances against Tunisia and Germany. Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luciano Figueroa were also singled out by the TSG.
The numbers game
A quick glance at the statistics confirms that Group A was the most prolific. Six games produced an amazing 25 goals a truly remarkable feat when you consider that Group B produced less than half this figure (12). Germany lead the goal tally with nine, although the individual top-scorer was Australia's Aloisi with four. With his side now out, the Osasuna striker will unfortunately be unable to add to his tally. Most goals conceded also goes to Farina's men who shipped ten in their three outings.
As for discipline, the players deserve credit for getting through six hard-fought games without the appearance of a red card, although 30 yellows are testimony to how serious they were taking the competition. Australia and Germany led that ranking with nine cautions, while Argentina, with just five, showed that fair play can still pay.