When the dust settled on Group B, it was the teams from the Americas who had the most to smile about. Mexico exceeded most people's expectations by advancing to the last four as section winners having claimed a famous victory over Brazil. The Brazilians themselves sneaked through on goal difference ahead of a Japan side who can return to Asia with some satisfaction, but for European champions Greece, the FIFA Confederations Cup was a sobering experience as they finished bottom of the group without a goal to their name.
El Tri on top
Mexico began with a 2-1 victory over Japan, coming from behind to win through a spectacular header from Jose Francisco Fonseca. It was in their next match against Brazil in Hanover, however, that they made the world sit up and take notice. An excellent defensive display in which the whole team played their part stifled Brazil for significant spells and even when the Seleção did break through there was no getting past goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez. They still needed a goal, though, and this came from a trusted source, the head of Jared Borgetti much to the striker's relief, no doubt, after the saga of his thrice-taken penalty in the first half.
For Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe, the victory was evidence that "there are no invincible teams in the world any more". Few who watched Brazil tear Greece apart in a 3-0 triumph in their opening match would have guessed a defeat for Carlos Alberto Parreira's men was imminent. For all the attacking brilliance of Ronaldinho and Co, however, they subsequently displayed a defensive vulnerability not just in losing to Mexico but also in their 2-2 draw with Japan. Parreira, who lamented missed chances in both those matches, has admitted he took "a calculated risk" in fielding 20 players over the three games as he prepares for Germany 2006; fortunately for him, it was a gamble that paid off.
Only just, mind you, as Japan came mighty close to a first win against the world champions when super-sub Masashi Oguro drew them level in the dying moments in Cologne and then forced a scrambling save from Marcos as Brazil waited for the final whistle. Zico's side responded positively to their opening loss against Mexico as another Oguro goal defeated Greece before they then traded blows with Brazil and, in Zico's words, "proved they can match any team".
Greece's footballers did that in Europe last June, of course, but here they struggled for form, losing to both Brazil and Japan before a face-saving draw with Mexico in their final game. Coach Otto Rehhagel may have been missing several key players but he would have still hoped for better on his return to his homeland. "You can see the problems facing us at the moment," he observed. "If you do not score goals, you will not win games."
Mexico's squad may be packed with home-based players but German audiences should by now be familiar with some of them: goalkeeper Sanchez produced two Anheuser Busch Man of the Match performances in three games; Brazil-born Zinha scored a fine goal against Japan and impressed with his playmaking skills; up front the big striker Borgetti reinforced the positive impression left by his wonder goal against Italy in Korea/Japan 2002.
As for Brazil, even without Ronaldo, they retain the star quality to light up any tournament. Robinho, on his first European assignment, has displayed his rich promise with two goals so far and a display against Greece that earned him the Anheuser Busch Man of the Match award from FIFA's Technical Study Group. Adriano's goal in that same game was one of the strikes of the tournament so far, and when you add Ronaldinho and Kaka to the equation, the threat is fearsome.
If Greece did little to enhance their reputations, the same cannot be said of Japan's footballers, notably Shunsuke Nakamura who took the Budweiser Man of the Match awards against Greece and Brazil. In the latter match he rocketed the first Japanese equaliser past Marcos, before his free-kick against the post set up the second for Oguro, another man who had a tournament to remember with goals in two successive matches after coming off the bench.
In a tournament marked by its flow of goals, Group B has definitely been the poor relation. Where the six Group A games produced 25 goals, there were 12 scored in Group B. One obvious factor was the Greek goal drought while another was Mexico's miserly defence Lavolpe's side conceded just once in three games, which ensured they were able to win the group with only three goals to their name. No player in Group B managed more than the two goals scored by both Oguro and Robinho.
Finally, while Greek supporters cannot look back on a single goal, their team did them proud in one area at least by collecting just four yellow cards in three games. Only Brazil, with the same number of yellows, have a disciplinary record to match from a group stage which witnessed not one sending-off.