Group B looks a little lightweight on paper: Germany qualified for this World Cup via a lucky-losers playoff with the Netherlands that went to penalties; Venezuela finished third in South American qualifying; Mexico slipped up in CONCACAF qualifying and missed the final of a tournament it is accustomed to winning; Vanuatu landed in South Korea as the second-best team from Oceania.
All of that adds up to what looks a potentially fragile field, with the possibility of some surprising results as the teams in Group B seek to find form and get themselves to the knockout rounds. In that regard, the first set of games didn't disappoint.
Venezuela 2-0 Germany
Despite Germany's modest qualifying campaign and the fact a German team hasn't won this tournament since 1981 or been to a final four since 1987, it is difficult to shake the impression that German national teams are good at World Cups. Hence mlssoccer.com's insistence that Venezuela "upset" Germany in this match. Is South America's third-best team in qualifying beating Europe's fifth-best an upset? Maybe, maybe not.
This game was relatively even, statistically, but Venezuela's lively attacking unit looks like it will trouble many opponents in this tournament. The match turned on a four-minute stretch early in the second half. First, in the 51st minute, Ronaldo Pena simply bullied his way into the penalty area and rounded the 'keeper with confidence to finish into an empty net.
In the 54th minute, Adalberto Penaranda went on a run that seemed to have got carried away with itself and neutralized its own threat. He laid the ball off Sergio Cordova, who bulleted a shot past the 'keeper from what had seemed an innocuous angle.
RB Leipzig's Gino Fechner started the match, but was subbed out in the 63rd minute as Germany Guido Streichsbier looked for ways to to help his team dig out of a two-goal hole. The comeback never arrived, and Venezuela is the early favorite to top Group B.
Germany plays Mexico next, on May 23. Venezuela and Vanuatu face off on the same day.
Mexico 3-2 Vanuatu
In the other Group B match, Mexico got a fright from World Cup debutant Vanuatu.
The expectation is that Vanuatu will be out of its depth in this group and provide an easy three points to the other teams. If other results are tight, qualification from Group B might be decided by which of Germany, Venezuela and Mexico beat Vanuatu by the most goals.
As such, Mexico's task was to score early and often to establish the sort of goal difference that would prove formidable if required as a tiebreaker. After 25 minutes, all was going to plan for El Tri: two goalkeeping howlers gifted goals to Kevin Magana and Ronaldo Cisneros. But then the goals stopped coming. Worse, in the 52nd minute, Vanuatu put together some confident passing in the final third and Bong Kalo drove home his team's first-ever goal at this tournament.
Ten minutes later, Ronaldo Wilkins went near post from outside the area - and Vanuatu had equalized.
To be clear, Mexico should have scored about six, but chances were squandered, and one memorable near-miss bounced teasingly off an inside corner of the frame of the goal. But Vanuatu survived all of this to make it deep into stoppage time with the score tied. As such, El Tri's winner was heartbreaking.
Edson Alvarez's 94th-minute goal kept Mexico's campaign on track, but it also spoiled an improbable dream for the least-fancied team in the tournament.
El Tri has made life a little difficult for itself with this result. The pattern of play suggests the other teams in the group will beat Vanuatu by a considerably greater margin than Mexico managed - which means the CONCACAF qualifier likely loses out on any tiebreaker scenario. The Mexicans will put this result down to early-tournament nerves and rust and hope more fluid performances remove the need for any tie-breaking calculations.
Vanuatu didn't get the result to surprise the world that its seemed to have earned, but surely some confidence can be gained from the goals scored. The team's defense doesn't look nearly good enough to keep Germany or Venezuela at bay, but perhaps there are a few more goals in the Oceania qualifier's future.
- Venezuela vs Vanuatu - 4:00 am, Eastern; Tuesday, May 23
- Mexico vs Germany - 7:00 am, Eastern; Tuesday, May 23