Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Off the Ball Blog [Print without images]

Sunday, June 13, 2010
Updated: June 14, 9:48 AM ET
Defending champs headline Day 4


6:07 p.m., Red Lobster, 5 Times Square, New York City

I began writing this while watching the Group C brunch kickoff classic: Algeria against Slovenia. A couture clash of two tasty shirts. Slovenia's Nike-Charles Schulz collaboration pitched against the Desert Foxes' nipple-enhancing design. When the criminally devious Jabulani bobbled over Algerian Faouzi Chaouchi's insipid dive, I was struck by how quickly the commentator used the words "Robert" and "Green" as adjectives. Within 24 hours, the unfortunate player's name has become the state-of-the-art term for a goalkeeping catastrophe. Well done, mate! That's how the English team "Write the Future."

Goals have been at a premium thus far as the teams struggle to come to terms with the ball as much as with their opponents. (By the way: How long can it be before a goalkeeper scores in this World Cup? The freaky distances they can kick this Frisbee masquerading as a football are obscene.) To compensate, I have derived untold pleasure from the spate of creatively kamikaze handballs. To borrow a phrase: One nutso handball changes everything.

Here's what is on deck for Monday. Crash your work's server by watching these magnificent matchups.

Netherlands versus Denmark 7:30 a.m. ET, Soccer City

The Dutch provide a convenient rooting interest for anyone of Boer origin or those nostalgic for the high-octane offense of the ABA, blessed, as they are, with a potent and arrogantly free-flowing offensive trio of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie (rarely all fit at the same time, and Robben is set to miss this game with a hamstring injury.) After harnessing their superlative creativity within a technical system, they proceeded to amass a perfect record in qualifying. Defense has been a glass jaw, but the Netherlands' greatest traditional threat has been getting along. The Oranje have a rich history of self-destruction, preferring to in-fight over win bonuses, personality clashes or race issues rather than deploy their dazzling talent.

Van Persie has already made waves by dictating his preferred starting lineup to the media, a headstrong move that infuriated the players who did not make "his team." Nerves were further frayed when the Twitter-happy squad was banned from using the micro-blogging platform after striker Eljero Elia used it to trigger a race row courtesy of some derogatory comments aimed at Moroccans. If their players stay healthy and in their happy place, the Dutch could win it all.

Denmark is a modest European outfit that lacks both quality and depth but nevertheless was sufficiently well-organized in qualifying to pip both favored Portugal and archrival Sweden. Since the Danes' arrival in South Africa, the squad has been ravaged by injuries and "The Virus," which tore through the camp without mercy, even knocking gnomic coach Morten Olsen on his back for a couple of days. The Mexico 1970 World Cup was affected by Montezuma's revenge. What this mystery virus, which has infected a number of squads, will be called remains a mystery. Dr. Michael Davies has suggested it might turn out to be a nasty case of the Bafana Bafanas.

Olsen announced his intention to settle for a point in this game, which might turn out to be an ambitious goal. Erratic striker Nicklas Bendtner almost certainly will be missing because of a niggling groin strain, an injury that could have been exacerbated by his celebrity dating life. Bendtner, 22, has been frenetically courting a Danish royal, Baroness Caroline, whom he wooed while filming a reality show in which the baroness renovated her family home, Valdemars Castle. The baroness, 12 years his senior, is estimated to be worth $575 million. I'm just saying …

Despite their lack of firepower, the Danes are always entertaining to watch thanks to their joyous band of followers, known as "the Rolligans." However, even their boisterous ebullience is under threat thanks to a months-long strike at the Carlsberg factory that has severely limited the beer supply. The manufacturer had the temerity to try to cut back the number of free beers workers could imbibe and limit it to their lunch hour. Understandably, they went on strike, and a serious beer shortage has resulted that might cut into the nation's ability to find its infamous, eponymous "Way to Rock."

Japan versus Cameroon, 10 a.m. ET, Free State

In the 1980s, Japanese television carried a sadomasochistic game show named "Endurance," in which contestants competed to survive a series of ever more extreme feats of torture -- such as being shackled in the ocean with your nostrils forcibly opened while having industrial amounts of pepper dumped in your face. Watching the Japanese, who feature one of the shortest starting elevens at this World Cup, try to shackle the pitiless, throbbing Jabulani will surely be as cruel a sport as anything the "Endurance" producers could ever have dreamed up.

Despite the fact the Blue Samurai have never won a World Cup game outside their own country, their widely reviled coach, Takeshi Okada, unfathomably opted to pile the pressure on his own team by declaring them a sure bet to reach the semifinals. The statement, designed to instill a sense of confidence, was met with resounding laughter from all points. Hard-running and tactically nimble, the team lacks both physical strength and a legitimate striking threat. Flaccid in front of goal, it might cast CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda as a lone striker. I hope we glimpse Takayuki Morimoto, at least off the bench. With the face of a cherub and the sniping instincts of a ruthless hitman, the Catania forward might be the best chance for the Japanese to avoid (in the words of legendary Scottish coach, Tommy Docherty) "being home before their postcards."

Cameroon will become the next African team out of the gates to prove that the continent intends to mount a serious threat. The Indomitable Lions are a team indelibly etched into World Cup mythology thanks to their 1990 Roger Milla-inspired run into the quarterfinals. However, in more recent appearances, they have actually been incredibly domitable, managing to win just one of their past 10 World Cup matches.

Milla's contribution to the 2010 tournament has been slightly less constructive. His public criticism of Cameroon's captain, the Celine Dion-esque Samuel Eto'o, led the temperamental striker to threaten a boycott of the tournament. The tenor of his performances and of his mood will determine the fate of the team. However the Lions play, they are guaranteed to look amazing. As I have said before to all you "Project Runway" devotees watching, I predict their snug V-neck with a lion subtly detailing one shoulder will do for green what Brazil has done for canary yellow.

Italy versus Paraguay, 2:30 p.m. ET, Cape Town

A game heaven-made for purists who love their footy to be on the low-scoring side. Both teams have had striker problems. Made up of masters of the art of risk mitigation, Italy's defense will be solid, but it is unclear who will provide the punch up front. Paraguay's scoring woes stem from more unfortunate circumstances: Star striker Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightspot.

Long overshadowed by neighbors Argentina and Brazil, the Paraguayans would dearly love to be considered a regional footballing power, although the odds of their achieving this in South Africa lengthened significantly once Cabanas was gunned down. Will they score goals without him? Gallantly ineffective Roque Santa Cruz and clinical Oscar Cardozo must bring their scoring boots if they are not to repeat past World Cup performances at which they have failed to win more than a single game.

The Italians kick off their title defense shorn of their midfield metronome, Andrea Pirlo, who will miss the game because of a calf injury. Their squad has been lambasted for its age. The criticism has rankled master coach Marcello Lippi, as it is merely a reflection of his undying loyalty to many of the players who dug deep to lift the cup in 2006, such as Dubai-bound Fabio Cannavaro, irrespective of their recently diabolical club form.

Italian fans should fear not. Perhaps their Azzurri now have the world exactly where they want it. They have never been more dangerous than when written off. Always slow starters, they have lain below the radar as they attempt to become the first team to retain the trophy since the Brazilians in 1962.

If you want something to savor in this game in lieu of goals, enjoy keeper Gianluigi Buffon's attempt to extend his remarkable feat of keeping a clean sheet for his past 453 minutes of World Cup qualifying action, which is roughly the same amount of time this game might feel like to watch. If you get bored, tweet me.