By Jay Mwamba
England put on a Liverpool-like display at Anfield to thrash Paraguay 4-0 in their last official friendly before the finals. Stand-in skipper Michael Owen (4th), Danny Murphy (47th), and Darius Vassell (55th) scored. Defender Celso Ayala added an own goal (81st).
Sweden, England’s first opponents in Group F, were less than stellar again in a 0-0 tie with Norway in Oslo. The Swedes drew 1-1 with Switzerland last month.
Nigeria, also members of the “Group of Death,” came from behind in Aberdeen to beat Scotland 2-1. The acrobatic Julius Aghahowa (40th, 68th), who is likely to dominate highlight reels in June with his celebratory backflips, grabbed both goals after Christian Dailly (7th) had nodded the Scots ahead.
Spanish ace Raul and his compadres ran riot in Belfast where the World Cup-bound Iberians trounced Northern Ireland 5-0 before 11,000 fans at Windsor Park. Raul netted twice (23rd, 54th), with the other goals coming from Ruben Baraja (48th), Carles Puyol (68th), and Fernando Morientes (78th).
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Three weeks after struggling against Cameroon in Vienna, Group F’s Argentina were once again being touted future champions after pipping a weakened German side 1-0 on Juan Pablo Sorin’s 47th minute header.
The Germans were missing nine players though injury or illness, including goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, Christian Ziege, Mehmet Scholl, Sebastian Deisler and Oliver Neuville.
France’s vaunted striking force was shackled by a defensive Russian team that managed to hold the World Cup holders to a 0-0 tie in Paris.
In Milan, Italy’s tussle with Uruguay ended in a 1-1 draw after Abreu (77th) had cancelled out Christian Panucci’s strike (73rd).
The potential blockbuster between Luis Figo’s Portugal and Brazil also finished 1-1 in Lisbon when the 22-year-old Ronaldinho (73rd) converted a penalty to peg back Sergio Conceicao’s 60th minute effort.
Substitute Francisco Gabriel (90th) connected in stoppage time to hand Mexico a 1-0 victory over Bulgaria in front of 42,000 fans at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.
The Mexican’s Group G rivals Croatia had a goal in each half, courtesy of Ivica Olic (44th) and Davor Suker (52nd penalty) in a 2-0 win over Bosnia in Zagreb.
Hakan Sukur (30th), and Mansiz Ilhan (81st) starred in a 2-0 win over Chile in Kerkrade, Holland, while South Africa salvaged a 0-0 tie against a relentless Ecuadorian side in Murcia, Spain.
Poland, beaten 2-0 at home by Japan last month, suffered another loss on their own turf, 2-1 to Romania this time. Tomasz Hajto (86th) made it respectable after Ionel Ganea (30th) and Adrian Mutu (36th) had Romania cruising in Bydgoszcz.
Costa Rica played in both co-host nations with mixed results. They tied Japan 1-1 in Yokohama after skipper Winston Parks (76th) had canceled out Tomokazu Myojin’s 69th minute goal, and three days later lost 2-0 to South Korea in D’gu. Cha Du-Ri (26th) and Choi T’-Uk (84th) were on target for the Koreans.
Jan Heintze (4th), Jon Dahl Tomasson (14th) and Dennis Rommedahl (37th) tallied for Denmark in a 3-1 victory over Isr’l in Copenhagen. Avi Nimni (90th pen.) had Isr’l’s face-saver in the controversial friendly.
In other results, Slovenia subdued Tunisia 1-0 in Ljublana thanks to Miran Pavlin (23rd), while Belgium and Slovakia drew 1-all in Brussels with Bart Goor (55th) and Vladimir Janocko (78th) scoring, respectively.