Italian gloom, Romario's Cup hopes fade
As Argentina, Spain and England basked in the afterglow of impressive victories on Thursday, Italy suffered a major injury setback and Romario's World Cup hopes faded.
Experienced Italian defender Gianluca Pessotto was ruled out of the tournament after sustaining knee ligament damage in a low-key 1-1 draw with Uruguay on Wednesday.
The dominant image from a disappointing game in Milan was of Pessotto leaving the ground on crutches, leaving a downbeat Italian squad to question the wisdom of playing friendlies at this stage of the season.
"The evening was ruined by the injury to Gianluca (Pessotto)," Lazio defender Alessandro Nesta said. "These games need to be held, I agree, but this is a very particular time.
"The legs don't recover like they did earlier (in the season). At the end of a championship you need a rest period in order to be able to perform at the World Cup. Otherwise, I don't know what we will be able to give."
Pessotto's loss came just three days after midfielder Demetrio Albertini's World Cup hopes were ended by an Achilles tendon injury.
Meanwhile, veteran striker Romario's chances of making Brazil's World Cup squad suffered another setback when he ran out of games to impress national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
His club Vasco da Gama were knocked out of the Copa Brasil after losing 4-0 at Sao Paulo on Wednesday, and Romario will not play again before the start of May, when Scolari names his squad for Japan and South Korea.
The 36-year-old, who spearheaded the Brazil team that won the 1994 World Cup but missed France '98 through injury, has not been picked by Scolari since July, even though he has been averaging a goal a game for his club.
Romario was at least able to put his personal disappointment behind him to praise Brazil's performance in their 1-1 draw with Portugal earlier on Wednesday.
"The team played well especially taking into account the quality of the opposition," he said.
On the pitch, it was Argentina, Spain and England who had most to be pleased about.
An injury-hit Argentina side won 1-0 at the home of their old rivals Germany, Spain demolished Northern Ireland 5-0 and England, without their captain David Beckham, crushed fellow World Cup finalists Paraguay 4-0. Midfielder Juan Pablo Sorin sealed Argentina's win with a header, leaving his coach Marcelo Bielsa a satisfied man.
"I think this is a deserved victory because we created more chances," said Bielsa, who had to cope without the injured Roberto Ayala, Juan Sebastian Veron, Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo.
"The injury situation is a problem but it affects all the teams and it's something we've just got to live with," he added.
England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson admitted he was pleased his side's rout of Paraguay had brought some new selection headaches, with young midfielders Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole among those pushing their claims for places in the World Cup squad.
"It's made it harder rather than easier," Eriksson said. "And that's very, very good. It shows there's great competition for places."
Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho believes his side's performance in Belfast was built on the sort of character they will need at the World Cup.
"We knew we were going to come up against a fighting team and we ourselves had to battle from the start," said Camacho, mindful of Spain's reputation for losing to weaker opponents at major tournaments.
"We did what we set out to do and with this mental strength it's going to be difficult for other teams to beat us."
Off the pitch, there were two pieces of good news for World Cup organisers 43 days before the start of the tournament, with South Korea's stadiums given the all-clear to host matches and confirmation that 'The Three Tenors' will perform a concert in Yokohama, Japan on June 27.
Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti have sung at the past three World Cups, but soccer fans will need to savour every note as the big three have decided this will be the last time they perform together at soccer's showpiece event.