Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Last Eight
Last night's games:
Paraguay v. Japan
Deadly dull for long periods, and Takeshi Okada can certainly take some of the blame for that. Not emboldened by the win against Denmark, the Japanese manager again started Keisuke Honda in a lone striker role for which he is so clearly unsuited, and this time, with fifteen yards generally separating him from the midfield, he was unable to make much of an impact. With Paraguay content to keep easy possession in their back third and tempt the Japanese forward, it was a sterile first half; Daisuke Matsui did manage to hit the woodwork, and Roque Santa Cruz had a decent chance at the other end, but on the whole the 45 minutes were enough to send neutrals to sleep.
The second half was a little more lively, with Yoshito Okubo becoming more prominent for Japan, but extra time and penalties always looked likely. Nelson Haedo Valdez added some bite to the Paraguayan attack when he came on, managing to turn the Japanese defenders once or twice, but neither goalkeeper came particuarly close to being breached. Japan made poor use of their set-pieces this time, with Yasuhito Endo not quite getting his range right; Paraguay, for their part, could not master the Nakazawa-Tulio pairing in the air, although they were a little more successful on the ground.
So the penalty curse had to descend on someone, and it was the hard-working Yuichi Komano, the man whom John Aloisi used as a hurdle in 2006. Hard luck on the Japanese right-back, who had a fairly good tournament, although I still can't quite understand why he was preferred throughout to the far more dynamic Atsuto Uchida.
Spain v. Portugal
Another sadly turgid game which came to life, quite significantly, only after Fernando Torres was replaced. Spain were dreadfully sluggish for the first half-hour despite playing a team interested only in containing them; David Villa's thrusts infield from the left weren't working, Sergio Busquets lost the ball in midfield repeatedly, and of course Torres was allowing himself to be tackled far too easily. The most incisive player in the first period was Portugal's Fabio Coentrao, who has probably earned himself a move to a bigger club following the finals. It was Coentrao who produced the best chance of that insipid first half, setting up Tiago for a shot which Iker Casillas did well to save.
Had that deflection from Hugo Almeida's shot crept in early in the second half, all could have been different. With Portugal camped on the edge of their box (as they surely would have been), would it have been another case of Barca v. Inter? Very probably.
After replacing the ineffectual Torres, Fernando Llorente created a chance for himself within a minute, and this was surely the spur for Spain's revival after the hour. It culminated in what was actually quite a good goal, the Barca partnership of Andres Iniesta and Xavi combining neatly to set up Villa, who snapped up the chance on the second attempt.
Portugal's attempts to get back into the game subsequently were, quite frankly, token ones. Yes, the late volley from Danny required a desperate block from Joan Capdevila, but that was as close as Portugal came, with Cristiano Ronaldo putting in a fittingly peripheral performance in what has been a very disappointing World Cup for him. The ludicrous dismissal of Ricardo Costa near the end was another grim reminder that play-acting is alive and well at this World Cup, and that it sometimes pays.
Spain should get past Paraguay, but it won't be easy. The last time the two sides met at the tournament, Spain actually found the Paraguayans' dogged defence an insoluble puzzle until the arrival of Fernando Morientes at half-time. The tall Real Madrid striker changed the game, and for all the current Spanish side's technical mastery, they occasionally seem to be lacking a player like Morientes, a genuine No.9 who can really lift the side on his day. Fernando Torres is not looking like such a specimen at the moment.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Holland v. Slovakia
For the first hour this match was unremittingly tedious; even Arjen Robben's highly characteristic goal had an air of inevitability about it. The Dutch shuffled the ball around the midfield unambitiously as they have done so often during this tournament, and the Slovaks appeared resigned to their fate even before the goal. The game briefly came to life soon after the hour with two good chances for Miroslav Stoch and Robert Vittek, both of which required good saves from Maarten Stekelenburg, but once Dirk Kuyt had taken advantage of some slack Slovak defending to lay on the second for Wes Sneijder, it was no longer a contest.
For Slovakia, despite their progression from the group stage, it was a fairly unimpressive tournament showing. The coach's son failed to kick on from his bright performance in the opening game, and the failure of Stoch and above all Marek Hamsik to impose themselves at all on any of the matches tells its own story.
For the Dutch, it was another story of getting the desired result with the minimum of fuss. Bert van Marwijk's team have yet to be tested at all seriously in this tournament, but that will certainly change against Brazil...and perhaps the ease of their progression to the quarter-finals might end up working against them.
Brazil v. Chile
For a little while, with Chile joyously throwing themselves into attack, it looked like an upset might be on the cards. True, most of the knowledgeable pundits had tagged Chile as Brazil's ideal opponent at this stage, a team that would push forward to give them the space in behind in which Dunga's side thrives. But Brazil did seem genuinely rattled in the first fifteen minutes.
One felt, though, that Chile had to make something of their temporary initiative if they were going to pull it off. They didn't, Brazil settled, the corners came for the side in yellow with ever greater frequency, and eventually they hit paydirt from one of them. Then, as Argentina did against Mexico, they scored an excellent second which demonstrated their methods perfectly. The header on from Luis Fabiano, Robinho's surge down the wing, and finally Kaka's neat little prod through to the man who started the move and finished it adroitly. Game over.
Alexis Sanchez, Chile's star, was blunted cleverly by the Brazilians. Michel Bastos, who did much better than expected, stuck close to the Chilean winger, and on the rare occasions when Bastos ventured upfield the impressive Ramires was there to close down. Dunga's tactics were so effective that for a fifteen-minute period at the beginning of the second half Sanchez barely got a touch; when he finally found himself on the ball again, he gave it away immediately. It was strange, with this in mind, that Sanchez didn't switch over to the left, with Maicon much more committed to getting forward. It never happened, and as a result Chile's main supply line never functioned.
Brazil v. Holland in the quarters...a match between two smash-and-grab sides likely to feel each other out for a considerable period. Both have looked ominously impressive so far; perhaps the Brazilians are slightly to be favoured, but there shouldn't be more than a goal in it either way.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Hurst and Lampard
Germany v. England
For those who believe that England won the World Cup in 1966 thanks to a goal-that-wasn't, the ludicrous disallowing of Frank Lampard's goal last night is the ultimate case of poetic justice.
Chalk up another demonstration of FIFA's stupidity in refusing to countenance the use of video technology, and perhaps this time the IFAB will think about it a bit more seriously (if Sepp Blatter allows them to).
Although one could say that a 4-1 scoreline makes a single controversial non-goal less than relevant, the timing was crucial. England had pulled themselves back to 2-1 thanks to Matthew Upson's tremendous leap and header, and an equaliser in the space of a couple of minutes could well have left the Germans shattered. Instead, they regained their composure, settled back into the game and scored twice more in the second half as England left gaping holes at the back.
James Milner did start on the right instead of either Aaron Lennon or Shaun Wright-Phillips, and with the right-footed Steven Gerrard filling the left midfield role, England were horribly short of width in the opening exchanges...and, indeed, throughout the match. The Germans were not making much impact in the first twenty minutes either, however; whatever noises were coming out of their camp about England not being a special opponent for them, they were treating the match very ponderously.
Suddenly, a ridiculously simple goal. You know there's something wrong with the defence when the goalkeeper is credited with the assist, and Upson's failure to track Miroslav Klose from a goalkick was unforgivable at international level. Upson compounded the error with two more in quick succession, getting caught well upfield for a swift German counter that ended in a fine save by David James from Klose, and then repeating the mistake when Klose's delightful touch set Thomas Muller free on the right, to set up Lukas Podolski for the Germans' second.
By the end of the game, Germany were playing contemptuous possession football, reminding the English of their technical superiority at every turn, if you'll pardon the pun. England had clearly lost any remaining self-belief by that point, but the display of keep-ball was a stark indication of the difference between the two sides. If Lampard's goal had counted, the complexion of the game would undoubtedly have changed...but I still think Joachim Loew's team would have come out on top eventually.
For England at South Africa 2010, it was largely a story of two stars who completely failed to shine, namely Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. Rooney at least has the excuse of being not 100% fit, but the desire to stamp his authority on a game seemed to be missing in South Africa. And Gerrard may not have been happy with his left-wing role (I don't blame him), but his leadership qualities must have been left out of his suitcase this time around. It was pitiful to see the Liverpool skipper slash three shots off target in the closing minutes against Germany; this was not the Gerrard we were hoping to see.
And the lack of width...why on earth was James Milner not replaced with a proper winger, rather than another basically central man in Joe Cole? It seemed to bespeak a defeatist attitude on Fabio Capello's part, and in the long run the Italian's reign, however successful the qualifying series, will probably be seen as little better than Sven-Goran Eriksson's. Like the Swede, he showed no courage in desperate situations.
Argentina v. Mexico
These two produced one of the best games of the 2006 tournament, and at least the crowd got to see some good goals this time, even if they didn't completely get their money's worth. Mexico looked like they might cause a shock early on, with Carlos Salcido's surprise effort from deep pinging off the bar and Andres Guardado's chance going agonizingly wide just minutes later.
In response, Argentina slowed the pace of the game down to a walk, and Mexico in turn were content not to force the issue. Leo Messi, drifting here, there and everywhere, finally found the room to run at the defence and play in Carlos Tevez; and then came the second atrocious refereeing non-decision of the day's action.
Again: a simple matter to disallow the goal after a five-second referral to the video. Instead, another classic refutation of the fatuous argument that recourse to video evidence would intolerably slow down the pace of the game; the Mexicans surround the referee for a full two minutes only to be eventually shooed away in disgust. Slowing down the pace of the game? Laughable.
But I digress.
Mexico's defence was obviously rattled, and a horrible mistake from the otherwise dependable Ricardo Osorio allowed an unforgiving Gonzalo Higuain in for a second, after which everyone knew that it was game over. Ultimately, for all the promise of their bright opener against South Africa and the determined win over France, it was a typical Mexican World Cup effort: dazzling interplay at times, plenty for the purists to savour, but...failure at the pointy end. At least Javier Fernandez, soon to move to Manchester United, provided El Tri fans with a real striker's goal to treasure at the end.
And so, a replay of the tumultuous quarter-final of 2006. Both teams are slightly weak in defence; Martin DeMichelis has been awfully vulnerable for Argentina (just ask the Koreans), while Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich still don't quite convince as a central pairing for the Germans. The key to the game could be Mesut Ozil, who has definitely been one of the players of the tournament to date. Diego Maradona is unlikely to reinforce his midfield merely to deny Ozil space, so Javier Mascherano - who can give away repeated fouls at times - will have his work cut out. Likewise, of course, the Germans will find Messi a real handful, especially if their fullbacks venture too far upfield and leave him the sort of space on the wing (especially the right) in which he thrives.
It will be a fascinating match-up.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
One Epic Too Many
But first to:
Uruguay v. South Korea
An intriguing game which saw the team that played the more positive football go under. Conceding such a defensively awful early goal requires a resolute spirit for a team to get back into the game, and the Koreans certainly showed it; after an inconclusive period towards the middle of the first half, Huh Jung-Moo's men began to get on top; it was significant, shortly after the half-hour, to see the fullbacks Lee Young-Pyo and Cha Du-Ri (both veterans of the 2002 tournament, incidentally) taking up permanent residence in the Uruguayan half.
The increasing lassitude of Uruguay's efforts communicated itself to Luis Suarez, when he failed utterly to take proper advantage of Kim Jung-Woo's loose pass just after the break, in what could have been a crucial moment. Instead, Korea took the initiative again, and were ultimately rewarded with a deserved equaliser. Strange that the Asian sides, for so long considered weaklings at set-pieces, are scoring so many set-piece goals in South Africa!
Uruguay needed to reverse the momentum, and to their credit they did so. Interestingly, it was not Diego Forlan, their putative leader on the park, but Diego Perez who provided the extra thrust, and in the end a moment of individual class from Suarez was enough. Uruguay through to the quarter-finals then, for the first time in 40 years, but the manner of the victory was not completely convincing.
USA v. Ghana
Milovan Rajevac's Ghana side were unrecognisable from the shaky unit which scraped a lucky win against Serbia and played feebly to draw 1-1 with Australia despite their numerical advantage. Much was achieved by the replacement of the ineffectual Prince Tagoe by young Samuel Inkoom, one of the best players of the World Under-20 tournament in Egypt last year. Rajevac's re-organization of the side was excellent: Inkoom, nominally a defender, played on the right side of midfield but tracked back diligently, while Kwadwo Asamoah sat a little deeper than usual, ensuring that the Ghanaians outnumbered - and often outplayed - their opponents in midfield.
The USA, by contrast, looked tired after their exertions against Algeria, and there was little communication between the midfield and the frontline in the opening half. Ricardo Clark was a strange selection, and indeed he didn't last long, after giving the ball away for Ghana to score their traumatising early goal. With Maurice Edu restored to the midfield, the Americans gradually got a hold of the game, although Ghana still bossed the rest of the half, Andre Ayew in paticular causing Steve Cherundolo plenty of headaches on the left.
Another shrewd substitution from Bob Bradley at the break altered the complexion of the game. With Benny Feilhaber now reinforcing the midfield, allowing Bradley jnr. (among others) to break into attack more frequently, the USA started to assume control. Their equaliser was thoroughly merited, although Landon Donovan was a little lucky that his penalty crept in off the post.
But Ghana did not panic as they did against Australia, and although young Jonathan Mensah looked less than sure-footed in defence once again, his experienced namesake beside him thwarted dangerous-looking American offensives more than once. As normal time came to a close, it was obvious that the Americans were tiring.
Not least the central defensive pairing of Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, who were simply beaten to a long ball by Asamoah Gyan early in extra time; a smart finish, and the game was won. Bob Bradley's troops simply didn't have the energy to mount a serious challenge after that, although some cynical time-wasting from the Ghanaians played its part as well.
Ghana deserve credit for picking themselves up from two winless games to halt the spirited Americans, but I favour Uruguay slightly against them. Without the suspended Ayew, they will be short of surprises in attack, and if Isaac Vorsah cannot reach full fitness before the match, the clever Uruguay frontline could make life difficult for Jonathan Mensah or Lee Addy.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Many years from now, Japanese fans may look upon yesterday's 3-1 win over Denmark as a real turning point for their national side. They have beaten European opposition before, of course, even in the World Cup. But this one was away from home, in a crunch game, against a team with a history of making it past the group stage at the tournament. And the manner in which they achieved their victory was even more impressive than the result.
Denmark came out with all guns blazing, but the Japanese calmly repelled the early onslaught, scored two sumptuous free-kick goals, and soaked up the pressure maturely from that point on. It was a world away from the panicky performances of Asian sides at the tournament in the past.
Tulio Tanaka and especially Yuji Nakazawa were superb in defence, showing once and for all that the top Asian sides can no longer be intimidated in the air. Keisuke Honda's was one of the best individual performances of the World Cup so far; the CSKA Moscow youngster showed poise, adroitness and football intelligence in spades. His dazzling little run to set up the final goal for Shinji Okazaki was a moment of real class, worthy of the best South American playmakers.
Denmark ended up relying too heavily on the heroes of 2002, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst's wry comment that the Danes were playing like the Dutch in South Africa while the Dutch were playing like the Germans is not far off the mark. The Dutch have played colourless, low-risk but highly effective football, while the Danes have shown plenty of willingness to attack, but little co-ordination. The fading of Jon Dahl Tomasson has been one of the tournament's more poignant sidelights; had he been at his best, Denmark would surely have made Japan work much harder for the three points. At least he managed to get on the scoresheet, albeit in utterly unconvincing fashion.
One of the recurring themes of the first round of this tournament, in fact, has been the failure of teams under the aegis of long-time coaches who have stuck loyally to the same personnel for some time. Raymond Domenech, Otto Rehhagel, Morten Olsen...and the list goes on.
The Dutch marched on, with another workmanlike performance against a disappointing Cameroon. The further Bert van Marwijk's team go in this tournament (and they have the capacity to go very far indeed), the more cliches about "total football" one is likely to read in the football press. Truth be told, the current crop (an appropriate word, that, given their hairstyles) of Dutch internationals has little in common with the long-haired revolutionaries of 1974 beyond nationality. This is a highly disciplined side in which the team ethic is paramount, and it says a lot about van Marwijk's approach that the exciting Eljero Elia has been used so sparingly, and that the one-paced Khalid Boulahrouz was preferred to the more adventurous Gregory van der Wiel against Cameroon.
Pim Verbeek could perhaps learn something about the mechanics of his favoured 4-2-3-1 from Holland's performances; although the double midfield screen of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong was there, van Bommel acted as a link-man, occasionally getting forward to join Wesley Sneijder and his colleagues in the three-quarter line. On the subject of Sneijder, he has had a very, very good tournament so far, continuing his excellent form from the latter stages of the Champions League. Holland's winning goal, featuring a menacing cameo from a slowly-returning-to-fitness Arjen Robben, should serve as a warning of more to come for their future opponents.
For Cameroon, it was a disappointing tournament, and Australian fans must be concerned about the possible appointment of Paul le Guen to the Socceroos' job, given his failure to settle on an effective system for Africa's most experienced World Cup nation. There was some consolation towards the close in the form of the lively, lanky young Vincent Aboubakar, definitely a player for the future.
The "Group of Death" ultimately played itself out in highly conventional fashion, with the two favourites settling for a draw in a game which was essentially a mutual tactical exercise. Portugal made no attempt to target Brazil's suspect left flank until the late arrival of Simao, while Brazil were able to give Nilmar a try in the three-quarter role in the enforced absence of Kaka. It would have been comforting for Dunga to note that Maicon and Dani Alves could indeed work in tandem on the right, with the latter tucking inside while Maicon raided down the touchline. A stalemate always looked the most likely outcome, however, one which suited both sides admirably.
The Ivorians never looked like they had any belief that they could rein in the Portuguese on goal difference after the 7-0 thumping of North Korea, and it's hard to blame them. Still, after they went two up early on, they might have pressed on in the hope of another psychological choke from the North Koreans. But they continued playing at a measured pace, and the Koreans in fact created a couple of chances of their own in the second period. The Africans received some fresh impetus when Aruna Dindane and Salomon Kalou came on, but one more was all they could manage. The Ivorians have truly been unlucky to have had their golden generation placed in the two toughest groups of the last two World Cups, and Brazil 2014 will probably be one step too far for the likes of Drogba, the Toure brothers, Dindane and a few others.
Since I passed this group by in the second round, a look back first of all.
Chile v. Switzerland was a very strange game. First there was the sendoff of Valon Behrami, a highly debatable decision probably influenced by some more play-acting, which is becoming sadly widespread at this tournament. Chile had already committed themselves to attack, and it looked likely that an avalanche of goals would follow. But the Swiss held out as they had against Spain, and for all Chile's excellent approach play, the dynamism of Alexis Sanchez, the thoughtful promptings of Matias Fernandez, they ultimately created little in the final third.
In the second half, the tide almost appeared to be turning in Switzerland's favour when the Chileans suddenly scored. Esteban Paredes may well have been offside in the lead-up, and after their stern defensive efforts it seemed a little harsh on the Swiss. Then came a bizarre final ten minutes, in which Switzerland pushed up to the half-way line and Paredes missed two easy chances on the break; Chile might regret these misses if qualification comes down to goal difference, as it may well do. Neither miss, however, was as glaring as the sitter squandered by Eren Derdiyok at the other end in the final minute of normal time.
Spain were a little laboured in the opening period of their game against a defensive Honduras, but once their trump card David Villa had put them two up early in the second half, they loosened up and began to play some beautiful football. Villa was unquestionably the star of the evening despite his missed penalty, cutting in from the left to great effect and consistently taking up the most effective positions. Jesus Navas was not an unqualified success on the right, often telegraphing his crosses and allowing them to be intercepted, and of course Fernando Torres' general play was considerably below par for such a gifted player.
Even in the final game against Chile he didn't impress. This encounter started vibrantly, with both sides striving to gain the upper hand by dint of sheer attacking intent. In a reversal of their game against Switzerland, this time it was the Chileans who just appeared to be getting on top when Spain scored; perhaps the only goal they will score on the break in this tournament, as they are unlikely to come across any other side as openly attack-minded as Chile. Villa's finish was again superb; the odds on his finishing top marksman in South Africa must be shortening.
The second goal was very well-crafted, and with the sendoff of Marco Estrada the result was never going to be in doubt. Estrada could be considered a little unlucky, since his contact with Torres was minimal (nonexistent?), but in fairness he should probably have received a second yellow already for a cynical foul a few minutes earlier. It was the second time in the tournament that the Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez has produced a red card for the right team at the wrong time. Chile did well to pull a goal back by throwing the kitchen sink at Spain just after the break, but the momentum was never going to last.
Brazil will pose a formidable hurdle for Marcelo Bielsa's talented side in the second round, especially since they will be without two excellent defenders in Waldo Ponce and Gary Medel, as well as Estrada. Still, at least Matias Fernandez will be back, and Alexis Sanchez - the player of the finals so far, in my opinion - should experience some joy against the defensively uncertain Michel Bastos on Brazil's left flank.
The right two teams definitely went through from Group H, so much was abundantly clear from the hit-and-miss encounter between Switzerland and Honduras. The Swiss simply didn't have enough quality up front to make much impression on a negative but fairly solid team, and the Hondurans were extraordinarily casual on the break, particularly in the second half when they failed to make the most of a number of 2 v. 1 situations. A disappointing tournament, then, for Honduras; David Suazo is still an able frontman, as Australia learned at the 2000 Olympics, and there were other commendable performers for Honduras, including Emilio Izaguirre and Walter Martinez. Had they been in a more lightweight group, they may have caused a surprise or two.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Champions No More
Finally forced to come out and play, Slovakia took the game to the Italians from the outset, and looked quicker and much sharper. Although they have not been, by any stretch of the imagination, the most impressive of the last 16, the fact that they have gotten through the group despite their nominal star being plainly out of form is a credit to them.
One of the things that struck me particularly about Italy at this tournament compared to 2006 was this: they no longer possess players with real personality (the footballing kind, that is), with the charisma to change a game. In 2006, there was Andrea Pirlo the deep-lying playmaker, Filippo Inzaghi the save-the-day poacher, Fabio Cannavaro the rock at the back, Gianluigi Buffon the irascible and formidable keeper, Gennaro Gattuso the indomitable epitomy of grinta in midfield. There was even Fabio Grosso, the adventurous fullback in the tradition of Facchetti, Cabrini et al.
Each one of these players, at various times during the Italian triumph in Germany, managed to become the central figure of a game, the man for the moment. Even Marco Materazzi, bad boy turned set-piece predator, showed such qualities now and then. In South Africa, there was no-one to do so. Riccardo Montolivo, to take one example, is a neat, intelligent, industrious midfielder, but he is not going to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and win it for you at international level.
It stood to reason that when Fabio Quagliarella, a player who did show some character, came on in the second half, Italy's improvement was immediate. Quagliarella, in fact, went very close to saving Italy's bacon, first with that shot that was blocked on the line (or behind it?) by Martin Skrtel, and then with a sweep-volley that was marginally offside. And, of course, he was centrally involved in both of Italy's goals.
For all but the final ten minutes, the New Zealand v. Paraguay game was played at a pace somewhere between glacial and somnolent, and the general intensity level was akin to that of a gentle training run. Neither side seemed to have any real ambition to win the game, although it needed another fine save from Mark Paston at the end, from Edgar Benitez, for New Zealand to keep the scoreline blank. The All Whites' achievement in going through the tournament undefeated is a splendid one, but it is a shame that they couldn't adjust their mentality when the second round was a genuine possibility. A draw seemed to be the limit of their ambitions against Paraguay for too long.
And now, a belated review of the conclusion to...
USA v. Algeria was a highly entertaining game, the second such encounter that the Americans have been involved in. There is plenty to admire about the current USA side; the sight of six or seven men swarming around the Algerian box at times was inspiring, although few teams are likely to follow the example.
Both sides spurned excellent chances in the first half; Rafik Djebbour volleying onto the bar and Jozy Altidore whacking the ball over from close range. Algeria's approach was subtle, slowing down the play after the bursts of American aggression while targeting Jay DeMerit in the USA defence (Ghana, take note), with the pace and movement of Djebbour and Karim Matmour. It was anyone's game in the second period, with the occasional effectiveness of Jozy Altidore's bulldozer style being matched by Algeria's frequent half-chances at the other end. But the USA were certainly the more deserving winners, and the momentum arising from the game could prove vital in the second round.
The excitement of the Algeria v. USA game had its counterpart in the generally sterile England v. Slovenia encounter, in which the Slovenes charitably allowed England to camp themselves in their back third in a 15-minute period of the first half, during which England scored their goal. Jermain Defoe may have engaged in some sly tugging of Marko Suler's shirt, but on the whole England's half-time lead was deserved.
Although the game opened up slightly thereafter, Slovenia never looked likely to get back into the match, even with Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard wasteful and languid respectively. Valter Birsa's left foot was clearly going to be their only hope of salvation, but it was having a day off. A moment's inattention in the English defence allowed Slovenia three chances in quick succession halfway through the second period, but that was about it. A sad way for Slovenia to leave the tournament, but there is no real excuse for switching off in your final game.
The England v. Germany tie is very hard to call. All the clashes between the two countries at World Cup level have been tantalisingly close, and I would expect that most of the English underperformers will lift against the old enemy. The key could be the left flank of the German defence, which has looked somewhat vulnerable; although James Milner was probably England's best-on-field against Slovenia, he is no real winger, and Fabio Capello might prefer the pace of Aaron Lennon in the clash against the Germans. England has no equivalent to the creativity of Mesut Ozil, but whether the German strikeforce can pull their socks up after two disappointing displays against Serbia and Ghana is another matter.
Group E review coming up soon, along with tomorrow morning's action.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
You can do it in disarray, disharmony and dishonour, as the French did on Wednesday morning. You can do it in heartbreaking fashion, as Slovenia did (unbeknownst to themselves) this morning. Or, you can do it with immense pride and a reaffirmed belief in your own abilities, as the Socceroos did.
This morning's effort against Serbia was far, far and away the finest Socceroo performance of the Verbeek era, and in fact one of the best of the last twenty years. Australia defeated a strong European nation, despite getting no help from the referee and little from Lady Luck.
If nothing else, the game was a stark reminder that the traditional virtues of Australian football - an aggressive approach backed up with impressive fitness levels, constant pressuring of the opposition and shrewd use of our physical attributes - can still succeed at international level. It took a desperate situation for Pim Verbeek's team to shake off the negativity of the last two and a half years, but shake it off they did, and in emphatic style.
A shame that, thanks to the catastrophic result in Durban, it wasn't quite enough.
Michael Beauchamp deserves great credit for stepping so ably into Craig Moore's shoes; in his first World Cup appearance, the Melbourne Heart stopper did a sterling job, putting in a number of key tackles (especially when Luke Wilkshire had become stranded upfield) and never losing his composure.
Although Milos Krasic caused havoc on the right in the early stages, something that the commentators didn't really acknowledge was that David Carney gained the upper hand in that little battle as the game wore on. He was given plenty of help on the left by the diligent Carl Valeri, who had another fine game.
Wilkshire was probably Australia's player of the tournament, and he was typically tireless again, ultimately running himself into the ground. With so many of the old brigade likely to make their way to the exit door before the Asian Cup, it's comforting to know that Wilkshire will probably still be around in 2014.
The Serbs would probably have run away with the game had they converted their three good chances in the first half, but on each occasion it was Mark Schwarzer, man-mountain incarnate, who did just enough to blunt the opportunity. It was a great shame that Serbia's consolation goal, which held more importance than most such animals, was partly down to Schwarzer's fumble. Certainly, he can be spared any castigation for that.
Verbeek has attracted plenty of criticism for the drubbing by Germany, so it's only fair to afford him some praise where it's due. His substitutions were well-timed again, although perhaps Jason Culina, rather than Valeri, should have been removed to make way for Brett Holman; perhaps Verbeek was hoping for one of Culina's long-range specials, which are becoming somewhat rare. As it was, it was Holman who provided the thrust from midfield, getting back to basics and simply running at the defence and letting fly. Sometimes, football is indeed a simple game.
So then, to the future. The new coach, whoever he may be, will have a bit of dead wood to clear out. The first names on the list should be Messrs. Grella and Culina, neither of whom have much to offer the Socceroos in the lead-up to 2014. Scott Chipperfield has been a magnificent servant of the side, but I'm sure even he would admit that it's time to say farewell.
As it is, sadly, for Harry Kewell. The temptation will be to keep him on, to hope for some of the same brilliance that he used to produce in his Leeds days (and once or twice at Germany 2006), but the world has moved on. There are other options on the left coming up fast, and Kewell is even less suited to a striking role in his dotage than he was in the Frank Farina era.
The 2006 generation will take some replacing, and the current crop of twentysomethings are finding it hard to establish themselves in Europe. But national teams need constant renewal, and the 2011 Asian Cup (in which the Socceroos will surely be under less pressure than they were in 2007) represents an ideal rehearsal space.
Briefly, to the other match in Group D overnight. It was a dramatic game without being a particuarly impressive one; Germany showed none of the panache they had evinced against Australia, and Ghana patently didn't do enough to win. The Ghanaians, for the second World Cup in a row, have been very, very lucky to make it through to the knockout phase: without Michael Essien, they are a callow, brittle unit, and the USA must be favoured to overpower them in the second phase. The Americans will be out for revenge, too, since it was against Ghana in 2006 that they suffered some abysmal refereeing decisions that killed their hopes of making the second round in Germany.
A review of the overnight action in Group C coming up...when I've had time to catch up with it!
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
The First Four
Javier Aguirre may live to regret his sentimental decision to start the venerable Cuauhtemoc Blanco, rather than the younger and far more mobile Javier Hernandez, against Uruguay. The tempo of Mexico's play was thereby dampened, and Uruguay looked the sharper of the two sides in an interesting first half; the goal which decided the game was a disarmingly simple one, but not perhaps unexpected given the Mexicans' slight vulnerability at the back. Needing only a point to top the group, Uruguay allowed their opponents the run of the country in the second half, but it was back to the Mexico of old: lots of sumptuous interplay, lots of creativity in midfield, zero end product. Apart from Andres Guardado's fine shot on the turn in the first half and that header from Francisco Rodriguez that nearly crept in just after the hour, Mexico were disappointingly impotent in front of goal.
And so the Mexicans face Argentina, while Uruguay meet the South Koreans. Mexico will surely cause Diego Maradona's team some problems, as they did at the same stage four years ago, but I don't expect an upset. Argentina have long been Mexico's bogey team, and this Argentina squad is stronger than most.
You had to pull a wry grin on seeing France's starting eleven against South Africa. It had absolutely nothing to do with the tactical or practical demands of the game, and everything to do with the very public chaos within the French squad. Only those still on speaking terms with Raymond Domenech in the frame. No surprise, then, that this team put on a miserably dispirited performance against the hosts, who hardly played out of their skins. The harsh dismissal of Yoann Gourcuff didn't help, of course, but the French had looked a beaten side well before that. Farewell, then, to Domenech, whom the FFF are surely wishing they had removed after the debacle of Euro 2008. His final gesture of the tournament, the petulant refusal to shake Carlos Alberto Parreira's hand, says a great deal about the man and why French football will welcome his departure.
As for the hosts, it was heartening to see them exit the tournament with a creditable win. In terms of individual talent, they are still a fair way behind the West Africans, but Siphiwe Tshabalala may have earned himself a crack at Europe on the back of his performances in the World Cup.
I'm not sure about Diego Maradona's decision to ring the changes against Greece. There has been a tendency for teams to lose their momentum by fielding an alternate side after securing qualification in their opening two matches of tournaments...Euro 2008 was particularly instructive in this regard.
In any event, Maradona will be able to draw some conclusions from the game. Juan Sebastian Veron was one-paced and unimaginative in midfield again, and we are unlikely to see the Estudiantes veteran for the rest of the event, in my view. Gonzalo Higuain probably is a better fit for the Albiceleste's fluid system than Diego Milito, who found it hard to get into the action against the Greeks. And a comparison between the efforts of Gabriel Heinze and Clemente Rodriguez would favour the latter considerably.
It's worth remembering that the Greeks would have gone through had they kept the game scoreless. They certainly made every effort to do so, parking the double-decker against Messi et al. and holding them at bay for some time, although it took three inspired saves from Alexandros Tzorvas to keep Argentina from finding the net in the first half. Ultimately, though, quality and willingness to attack won out, to the delight of most neutrals. It was surely worrying for Maradona, however, that even though Greece were essentially playing with ten men in defence and Giorgios Samaras upfield, the Celtic frontman almost broke through the defence a few times.
Nigeria v. South Korea turned into an absolutely cracking game, very much a cup-tie in disguise, as the commentator Gary Bloom noted. It looked as if the Koreans might get physically overrun in the final ten minutes, but they kept their heads impressively and limited the Nigerians to only a few chances at the close. The Africans, in fact, missed their real opportunities much earlier.
I'm not one given to superlatives (of either the positive or the negative kind), but Yakubu Aiyegbeni's astonishing open-goal blunder must go down as one of the most egregious misses in the history of the competition, right up there with Julio Cardenosa against Brazil in 1978. Obafemi Martins also missed a very good chance some minutes later, but it was hardly as glaring an error as Yakubu's.
Nigeria were a little unlucky at this tournament. Some changes in personnel might have helped; it was a shame that we saw so little of Victor Obinna, who cut such an impressive figure at the Beijing Olympics. When he did come on this morning, two right-footed wallops near the end of normal time came very close to giving Nigeria the points and a place in the last 16.
As for South Korea, they have flattered to deceive somewhat, but they deserve their place in the second phase. Unlike most of the teams, they played their opening game in a positive manner, and it was good to see that they continued coming forward against Nigeria even after going 2-1 up in the second half. Uruguay, however, must be considered favourites in what will be an intriguing second round tie.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
If New Zealand snatching a draw with Slovakia was a surprise, their fully deserved point against the defending champions was nothing short of a sensation. And once again, they could consider themselves the moral victors, since Italy's penalty was painfully soft; it was foolish of Tommy Smith to grab hold of Daniele de Rossi's shirt, but the Roma midfielder's reaction was ridiculously overstated.
Throughout the game, in fact, the Italians reverted to their traditional histrionics, and were given plenty of encouragement in that respect by the abysmal Guatemalan referee. It was particularly distasteful to see Giorgio Chiellini pretending to have been mortally wounded by a trivial foul in the first half, only to slyly elbow Winston Reid in the face in the second.
And Fabio Cannavaro...how the mighty have fallen. Not only was he largely responsible for the New Zealand goal, Shane Smeltz reacting with his characteristic sharpness to the veteran's error, but he allowed Chris Wood to spin past him with astonishing ease late in the second half, to create a very good chance for the Kiwis to snatch the points. In any event, it was a fantastic achievement by Ricki Herbert's side, who are now still in with a slim chance of progressing.
As for the Italians, they simply don't have enough quality in the front third to be a serious threat in this tournament, I feel. Mauro Camoranesi, who should have been on from the beginning, offered a bit of drive in the second half, but by then the Kiwis' confidence was already at its peak. The likes of Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito are not going to win you another World Cup.
In the group's other game, Slovakia were duly punished for adopting such a negative approach. Paraguay took the initiative from the start and never lost it, scoring two good goals and always appearing in control. This has been a marvellous tournament for South American teams so far, and Paraguay have been among the best of them, a very balanced team with enough quality up front to make up for the tragic absence of Salvador Cabanas.
So much for 1966. The contours of the Portugal v. North Korea game were actually quite interesting to follow; for the first half-hour, the Portuguese appeared almost as nervous and unambitious as in their opener, and Cristiano Ronaldo was not particularly incisive. It was lucky for Carlos Queiroz that Raul Meireles was: the Porto midfielder's inventive movement and well-timed runs from deep provided the spark that Portugal needed, and the gradual relaxing of the tension in Queiroz's side became more pronounced after the second goal went in.
Meanwhile, the Korean heads went down, and by the fourth goal it had become a comprehensive rout, with the Korean backline pushing high in a futile attempt to go on the offensive. The final three goals were down to elementary defensive errors which the Koreans would surely never have committed in the qualifying campaign.
This is not to detract from Portugal, however, who played some stunning football at times and made up for the mediocrity of their opening game. They will be full of confidence in their final encounter with a Brazil team now missing its key player.
And there lies another tale of abominable play-acting. Kader Keita deserves a fine and a lengthy suspension after those despicable theatrics that got Kaka dismissed; it was a lamentable comment on the refereeing that after a game in which the Ivorians had indulged in some increasingly violent play, it was a Brazilian who saw red.
Perhaps its was a case of what goes around comes around, given Rivaldo's infamous piece of chicanery at the 2002 tournament. Kaka, delicta maiorum immeritus lues.
Otherwise, Brazil played some lovely football against the Ivory Coast, their midfield stepping up a gear from the psychologically difficult game against the North Koreans. Sven-Goran Eriksson's decision to leave out Gervinho, easily the Ivorians' best player against Portugal, was quite inexplicable; as a result, the Africans started with three forwards but no real creator, and their play was consequently predictable, and countered without too much trouble by Brazil's experienced defence. Once Gervinho arrived, he made a significant difference, even managing to give the Ivorians their goal with an amazing box-to-box run.
The Portugal v. Brazil game is set up beautifully. Ronaldo is yet to hit anything like his top form, but his joyful back-of-the-head juggling in the lead-up to Portugal's sixth goal against the Koreans indicated that he, and his team, are beginning to enjoy themselves...always a good sign. Michel Bastos is a potential weak link on the left side of the Brazil defence, and I feel that Carlos Queiroz would be well-advised to favour that flank in attack.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
The Strength of Ten
After Harry Kewell's sendoff (for which the referee had no other option) and the subsequent penalty, escaping with a point would have been considered a godsend at the time. In fact, Australia went awfully close to taking the full three points against a Ghana side that went into complete psychological meltdown in the second period.
It was the second successive game in which the Ghanaians lost their heads after going eleven against ten, and although they scraped through with a penalty against the Serbs, they barely deserved it: Serbia should have opened the scoring by then, and the foul that gave away the penalty was inexplicably trivial.
The phenomenon of African sides panicking after going a man up is nothing new in the World Cup, in fact. Think of Italy v. Nigeria in 1994, or even more pertinently Germany v. Cameroon in 2002, a game in which the Germans looked much the poorer side...until Carsten Ramelow was sent off.
But back to the Socceroos.
Luke Wilkshire was a miracle of perpetual motion, contributing substantially at both ends (although he bore some of the reponsibility for Ghana's goal), and it was a great pity that his late shot was saved; there could have been no more deserving scorer. Mark Bresciano's drive in midfield was a welcome addition to the side, and Brett Holman performed the lone ranger role with admirable selflessness, running himself ragged and never allowing Ghana's inexperienced defence too much rest. Lucas Neill and Craig Moore were back to their 2006-era best in central defence, and Scott Chipperfield's efforts as substitute suggest, once again, that he is often better employed in midfield (in short bursts, at least). Carl Valeri, too, had an excellent game, although his partner in the engine-room, Jason Culina, looked vulnerable.
Pim Verbeek's substitutions were, for once, perfectly timed and well-considered. The battling Bresciano and the tireless Holman patently needed breathers, and just at the point when the initiative was shifting irrevocably in Australia's favour, Josh Kennedy arrived to terrify young Messrs. Mensah and Addy.
Talking of Lee Addy, referee Roberto Rosetti's failure to dismiss the youngster for that horrible studs-up lunge on Bresciano was a disgrace, and Australia can certainly complain of being harshly-treated by the refereeing in this game.
A final thought: the superb save that Mark Schwarzer made from Kevin Prince-Boateng just before the break was an absolutely crucial moment, not only in terms of keeping the scores level, but of giving the team renewed confidence as well. It really is impossible to overstate Schwarzer's importance to the entire World Cup campaign, both in the qualifiers and now at the tournament itself.
And so to the Serbia game. The best hope of progressing is surely for Ghana to pull off an upset against the Germans, since three unanswered goals against Serbia would surely be beyond Verbeek's men. With Moore out, the best choice for Neill's partner would probably be Michael Beauchamp, who showed some form in the lead-up to the tourament and would probably be the best-suited of the reserve defenders to deal with the height of Nikola Zigic.
David Carney deserves to keep his spot at left-back, as does Bresciano on the left side of midfield. With plenty of goals required, a Kennedy-Cahill combination up front is indicated...with plenty of service on the right from Wilkshire and Brett Emerton.
Briefly, the other games:
Netherlands v. Japan
Takeshi Okada's men were punished for taking an unduly deferential approach to the game. Holland are a fine team, without doubt, but that was surely no reason to reduce the likes of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe to the status of static midfield water-carriers, while sticking young Keisuke Honda up front as an inadequate lone striker.
Nevertheless, they stifled the Dutch effectively until Wesley Sneijder's thumping goal, which was helped on its way by another piece of dire goalkeeping. From that point, the Japanese caused their opponents a fair few problems, not least the talented and incisive Yoshito Okubo, but it proved too hard to reverse the game's momentum.
Denmark v. Cameroon
A very entertaining but error-strewn game which has set up the Denmark v. Japan game very nicely. Morten Olsen had an attack of nostalgia, picking a midfield five who had all played prominent roles in Japan and Korea eight years ago. Initially this looked like a blunder, with Christian Poulsen's lazy pass gifting Cameroon their opener. But Dennis Rommedahl showed some of his old quality to make, then score, a good goal.
It was ironic that Benoit Assou-Ekotto, easily Cameroon's best player against Japan, was culpable on the occasion of both goals. For the first, he allowed Rommedahl to slip past him far too easily, and his insouciant jog back through the midfield in the lead-up to the second doomed his team, with Jean Makoun forced to cover for the out-of-position fullback, and being comprehensively beaten by Rommedahl.
Japan have the quality to beat Denmark, let alone get the draw they need, especially with the talented if mistake-prone Simon Kjaer suspended. But European sides often find an extra gear (or a measure of extra toughness) when the chips are down, and ruthlessness has not always been a quality associated with Japanese sides. I get the feeling that the Danes might squeak through, for all their mediocre play in the group stage thus far.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
In short, it was marvellously exciting throughout, and a great advertisement for the World Cup. Neat skills and impeccable organisation faced speed, physical power and an unbending spirit, and the two finished deservedly equal.
It's particularly enjoyable when two of the tournament's unheralded teams produce a spectacle like that, since one is left with the feeling that there might be even better to come. But both teams looked very much on song at different periods of the game, and both are now a reasonable bet to progress from Group C, which has been much tougher than expected.
Slovenia were totally in control for the first half-hour, dealing with the physical threat of Jozy Altidore and the speed of Robbie Findley almost contemptuously. Although the USA enjoyed a brief period of dominance after the half-hour, when an equaliser looked quite likely, Zlatan Ljubijankic's sucker-punch just before the break would have been decisive against most teams.
But Bojan Jokic's unfortunate slip let Landon Donovan through on the right early in the second period, and once the USA star had scored his remarkable goal, it was game on at both ends. Curiously, Donovan probably only elected to shoot rather than play a ball across goal due to the lack of support in the box...had a helpful attacker been running through the central channel in anticipation of a quick cut-back, the Americans might not have scored!
The final half-hour was absolutely thrilling, with plenty of chances at both ends and the momentum swaying between the two sides. Michael Bradley's equaliser was a much better finish than it looked; half-volleys are never easy to keep down, and to steer it between an advancing keeper and the crossbar would not have been easy.
The USA were certainly moral victors given the bizarre annulment of Maurice Edu's goal. If anything, there appeared to be more pushing and shirt-pulling from the Slovenians in the area, although plenty of the underhand fouling that goes on at set-pieces goes unpunished. But the attacking side never, ever, gets the benefit of the doubt in such situations.
Speaking of things that referees constantly refuse to do, just when are we going to see a goalkeeper actually punished for sneaking off his line at a penalty? Serbia's Vladimir Stojkovic was the latest culprit, and indeed Lukas Podolski's weak penalty was saved; it should have been retaken, as Stojkovic had clearly moved, as even the commentator, Gary Bloom, noticed.
Not that Germany really deserved to get back into a game they never quite got to grips with. The card-happy, officious Spanish referee tipped the scales a long way in Serbia's favour with the harsh dismissal of Miroslav Klose, but the Serbs already looked very comfortable. Keeping the sort of deep defensive line that the Socceroos should so obviously have employed, they limited the space available to the likes of Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, and made full use of the wide avenues in attack. This time, Milos Krasic was a torment on the right, and his mastery of Holger Badstuber was directly responsible for the only goal of the game.
The group is at an interesting stage. If Australia can get a result against Ghana tonight, things will be open wide for the final game. I still rate the Socceroos' chances of doing so as quite reasonable, despite the absence of Tim Cahill and the childish media spat surrounding Harry Kewell. The injury to Vince Grella is the ultimate blessing in disguise.
England? Very ordinary once again, with the midfield never linking properly with the front two, Wayne Rooney looking a long way off full throttle, and Steven Gerrard badly out of form. Fabio Capello must surely be thinking twice about the use of Emile Heskey as the point-man as well: he may be an aerial nuisance, but his first touch let him down regularly against the Algerians. The North African side looked more lively than against Slovenia, with Karim Ziani out-pointing any of the English midfielders throughout the game, Gerrard and Frank Lampard included. Given the imperturbable manner in which Slovenia have approached the tournament, England must be seriously concerned about their prospects of even making the last 16.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Argentina and Arsenal
Argentina certainly looked like the contenders they ought to be against South Korea, who fought well but couldn't match the albiceleste in this sort of form. Diego Maradona (or, more likely, one of his advisors) appears to have hit on an effective system, with Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, acting as twin three-quarter men, taking turns to drop deep in order to run at the defence. In such a setup, where considerable fluidity is required, Gonzalo Higuain is probably a better choice up front than the less mobile Diego Milito; at any rate, no-one could disagree with the use of Higuain after his three goals last night.
The fullback positions still look a little problematic for Argentina, with Gabriel Heinze not quite up to the quality of the rest of the side, and Jonas Gutierrez vulnerable to a canny winger. But it will take a very good team to beat Maradona's men.
For the first half-hour against Nigeria, Greece were almost as bad as in their opener against the Koreans. Nigeria bossed the game early on, and if not for the shocking ill-discipline of Sani Kaita, the trend may have continued. As it was, the sendoff was decisive; not only because Nigeria were playing with a man less, not only because Vasilios Torosidis now had the chance to get forward, but because the Greeks finally gained some self-belief. Giorgios Karagounis, for one, shook off his lethargy and began spreading the ball around and cleverly drawing fouls like the Karagounis of old.
Nigeria lacked a leader to rally them; Jay-Jay Okocha was never so dearly missed as in this game. Still, Vincent Enyeama thwarted attack after attack as he did against Argentina, and it was bitterly poignant that he ultimately spilled a relatively straightforward ball to give Torosidis the winner. Shades of poor Oliver Kahn in the 2002 final.
The group is interestingly poised. I somehow get the feeling that Greece, South Korea and Nigeria might all finish on three points (if the Koreans can lift themselves from the canvas to get a result against Nigeria, they fully deserve to make the Round of 16), in which case it would be a question of what sort of a defeat Argentina can inflict on Greece.
Among those watching France throw themselves vibrantly into attack against Mexico in Polokwane was Arsene Wenger, and one could have been forgiven for thinking that he was watching his own charges in action. The super-high-tempo passing game that the French adopted (a contrast to their rather more timid efforts against Uruguay) has been Arsenal's stock-in-trade almost since Wenger arrived at the club. When it works, it's exhilarating. When it doesn't, Arsenal can often find themselves beaten by lesser sides.
This is not to demean Mexico, who played extremely well and deserved their win. But it's worth considering just why the French, despite their often scintillating play, went under. For one thing, it represented something of a change of tack for them; perhaps they felt that a 100-mile-an-hour tempo would avoid the alert defensive stifling that blunted the mid-tempo possession game of Spain and Brazil. But Mexico adapted to the pace of the game, something that might have been beyond them 30 or even 20 years ago, but not now that the majority of their players have experienced European-style football rhythms.
For another, there was no real focal figure up front for Raymond Domenech's side, pace Nicolas Anelka. There's nothing wrong with this, of course (I should be the last one to decry such a policy), but when you're "missing the point" you need players able to run from deep straight into the area, whereas most of France's individual forays - from Franck Ribery, Florent Malouda et al. - actually took place in the wide channels. The whole game reminded me how much the French miss David Trezeguet, for all his occasional failings.
But thirdly, and most importantly, the French achieved absolutely nothing from set-pieces. Not once did they create a serious chance from a dead-ball situation, which was an indictment given how many fouls were committed by the Mexicans. And as the game wore on, the frantic tempo took its toll on one of the older members of the side, Eric Abidal...
Mexico, with an inferior goal difference, will undoubtedly go for the win against Uruguay (so as to avoid Argentina in the second round) and they could well get it. In any event, I can't see France or South Africa pipping either of these for a spot in the last 16 as the group currently stands. So much for my earlier prediction.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Picture this: a team knocking the ball around nicely, creating intricate patterns in midfield, holding onto possession with consummate ease, almost teasing their opposition. But said opposition is powerful in the air, so working the ball out wide for a cross isn't likely to work. Similarly, shuttling it through the middle with a series of one-twos is a low-percentage option, because the enemy has stacked that area. Shots from distance, then? The aerodynamic qualities of the Jabulani beachball will militate against them. What to do, then?
In Brazil's case, it took a fullback to hit the byline and actually shoot rather than cross or cut the ball back, but the goal was a freakish one. Alas for the Spaniards, Sergio Ramos couldn't do the same. The commitment to the short pass was total, and given the strength of the Swiss defence and the lack of height throughout the side, long balls would have been a waste anyway. Once or twice, Spain did force their way through the middle, but Diego Benaglio knew he would have to be quick off his line, and he was. One shot from distance, from Xabi Alonso, came down off the underside of the bar, but the others went into the now familiar Jabulani orbit.
By the end of the game, after their messy goal, it was the Swiss who were doing the teasing. Jesus Navas did make an impact, but it wasn't quite enough. And Fernando Torres appeared to be at only 50% of his full capacity, if that.
Spain could now be in real trouble: Chile looked menacingly effective against Honduras despite the low score, and the Swiss proved awfully hard to beat at the last tournament. I sincerely hope that Vicente del Bosque's team can pull themselves together and make it to the Round of 16; the tournament would be much the poorer for the absence of the European champions from the knockout stage.
The Spanish are not in quite as much trouble as the hosts, however. In a pleasingly open game (a marked contrast to Uruguay's opener), the South Americans always looked to have just a little more football nous than their opponents. Credit to Oscar Tabarez for fielding a more attacking line-up, including Edison Cavani, which allowed Diego Forlan and the talented Luis Suarez to see much more of the ball. Suarez could yet be one of the stars of the tournament; certainly, South Africa found his swift turns too much to cope with at times.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
And what a dreary specatcle it has been, on the whole. Commentators are running through their repertoire of polite terms for dull football: "cagey", "cautious", "a chess match", "patient", "probing", etc. In other words, dour, unambitious, grab-a-goal-at-a-set-piece football which is unworthy of the World Cup and an insult to the fans who have paid good money to see the games.
Not all of these strictures are applicable to all the games, of course, but there has been a fair bit of knocking the ball across the back four while both midfields are reluctant to go for more than the occasional brief stroll.
Two deadly dull games here, with Holland nicking the points against a Denmark side horribly short of ideas thanks to an own goal and a late tap-in. The Dutch look short of a genuine target-man up front, while the Danes simply look short of quality in midfield. The wing power of Gronkjaer, Jorgensen and Rommedahl might have been effective eight years ago in Japan and Korea, but it's hardly threatening now.
But if Denmark were poor, Cameroon were woeful. Even after they went behind against Japan, their attacks were languid at best and plain uninterested at worst. They were expected to be the poorest African team on show, and they certainly looked like it. Credit to the Japanese for gaining their first win away from home soil, but they have played much, much better than that in the qualifiers.
Good old Kiwis. Ricki Herbert's side, one might glibly say, did all the things right that Australia did wrong: a system that fits the personnel, a mix of caution and aggression, and ultimately a well-deserved point was the result. New Zealand were in fact the moral victors in a sense, given that Slovakia's goal was clearly offside. The Slovaks have a compact and competent team, with some bite on the wing provided by Vladimir Weiss (junior), but they must be considered underdogs in the group compared with Italy and Paraguay...who produced a very watchable game, Italy's greater fluency balanced by Paraguay's tightly organised defence. A pity that it took yet another goalkeeping error to give Italy their goal.
The first half of Ivory Coast v. Portugal was stupefyingly boring, but at least the game opened up in the second period. The Africans looked the more likely winners, troubling Portugal in the air, but 0-0 looked a likely scoreline from the outset. In the other game, North Korea did themselves proud: very strong in the air by Asian standards, and offering a little up front thanks to the speedy Jong Tae-se, they certainly made the Brazilians work. Maicon's goal was an absolute peach...Amarildo, eat your heart out.
So who has looked the most impressive in their opening hit-out? I'm tempted to say Germany (for obvious reasons), and Brazil would not be far behind. Spain are yet to take the field...let's hope they can provide a spectacle that the tournament has been lacking as yet.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Well, it's pretty hard to find any. But we'll try.
Luke Wilkshire did well with his crossing and delivery from set-pieces again, although, as always, he was far more effective in the middle and final thirds than in defence. Mark Schwarzer kept the score moderately respectable with some good usage of his massive frame, showing that he has improved his command of the area over the years. And at least Pim Verbeek did make an unexpected tactical change, even if an untried system is not really ideal for a World Cup opener against the group favourites.
To paraphrase Suetonius, so much for the Socceroo positives. Now for the Socceroo horrors.
The re-jigged midfield was, to put it bluntly, completely overrun. The strategy of keeping the defensive and midfield lines closely linked failed to prevent the subtle Mesut Ozil from finding space in between, and the idea of reinforcing the left with the presence of Jason Culina, to limit Philipp Lahm's jaunts upfield, was successful...for about five minutes.
It's easy to say that things might have been different had that early Tim Cahill header (and Richard Garcia's subsequent shot on the turn) found the net. Yes, the game might have taken on a different complexion. But it's hard to imagine the Germans not taking the initiative at some point.
And the defence has never, ever looked older. Scott Chipperfield pathetically diving in on Thomas Muller on the occasion of the third goal was a true head-in-hands moment, as was the nonexistent marking that allowed Miroslav Klose all the space in the world to pick a header for the Germans' second. The truth is that Chipperfield was overworked in the course of the game, being expected to contribute to attack (thanks to Australia's typical lack of width on the left without Harry Kewell) yet having to cope with a double thrust in defence from Lahm and Muller constantly.
The red card for Tim Cahill was somewhat harsh, but in fairness it must be noted that Carl Valeri was quite lucky not to receive a second yellow for a clumsy foul on Bastian Schweinsteiger soon after Cahill was dismissed. And the penalty claim? Per Mertesacker did handle, but plenty of referees would consider, as the Mexican official did, that it was ball-to-hand.
To use one of my favourite phrases, all is not lost. Not least because neither Serbia nor Ghana were particularly impressive in the other Group D game (see below), and because the Socceroos will be all the more keen to make up for what was, in anyone's language, an absolutely disastrous start to the event.
Kewell's fitness is quickly becoming a mystery that Dan Brown would have a field day with, but if fit, he should probably start on the left in the next game. If not, perhaps even the use of Chipperfield along with David Carney on the left side, Chipperfield probably moving into midfield, would be a better option than the system used against Germany.
Josh Kennedy must surely come into the line-up, and Verbeek may (stranger things have happened) finally decide to ditch the twin midfield screen in the interests of actually scoring goals, with Brett Holman or Nikita Rukavytsya joining Kennedy up front. Brett Emerton showed signs of the class that Australia have been lacking on the right recently, and although still very ring-rusty, he should definitely be in the starting 11 once more.
Briefly, the other games:
Slovenia v. Algeria
A match which barely got out of third gear, both sides not risking anything beyond a brisk canter. Although neither side really deserved to win, full marks to the Slovenes for pushing on and grabbing the points after Abdelkader Ghezzal had so foolishly gotten himself dismissed. As so often happens, it was the best player in green, Robert Koren, who scored the winner...aided by another forgettable piece of goalkeeping (rather unfortunate for Faouzi Chaouchi, who did fairly well otherwise).
Slovenia are tough and organised (as Shane Davis remarked, they are the most settled team in the tournament), and Algeria at least play with a little individual flair. But I don't think that either side has the power or intensity to match the two favourites in Group C.
Serbia v. Ghana
Another game which did not reflect particularly well on either side. Ghana looked the more fluent side on the whole, and Serbia's celebrated wingers made much less impact than expected. The blond Milos Krasic, in particular, found it hard to get hold of the ball, and was not particularly constructive in his use of it.
Once the Serbs had gone down to ten, however, Ghana lost the plot. They were not particularly shrewd in the final third at any point, but their attacks were very listless once they went 11 against 10. The Serbs, in fact, had three excellent chances at the other end before the second silly handball of the day gifted Ghana a rather hollow win.
Ghana's attackers appear gifted but a little callow: Prince Tagoe has plenty of pace, but seemed to lose his composure once he got near the 18-yard area. It might seem frivolous to say this, given Australia's collapse against the Germans and the loss of their key player, but both Serbia and Ghana are potentially beatable.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Day (Two Thousand and) Two
I'm referring, of course, to some first-up matches at the 2002 World Cup.
The parallels are very close. Poland went into the 2002 tournament as potential dark horses but fared very poorly; Argentina played much thoughtful, incisive football against the Nigerians in Ibaraki but were thwarted constantly by the obscure keeper Ike Shorunmu, who played out of his skin that day. Oh, and England went into the lead early against Sweden but a silly giveaway by Danny Mills allowed Niclas Alexandersson to score a fine left-footed goal.
Greece really were awful in the first half against South Korea last night, and only came to life after the hour, when they were already 2-0 down. Overall, they made the Koreans look a lot better than they were; during that concluding period of the game, when the Koreans were being outmuscled with worrying ease by the Greeks in their own half, their efforts on the breakaway were stilted and ineffective.
Otto Rehhagel clearly believed that hoisting the ball into the area was enough to get a result against an Asian side, and although one might say that this is an outdated attitude...the final thirty minutes might have given him the impression that he was right.
After a fluent and exciting opening ten minutes, Argentina simply didn't quite click. Messi posed danger, as expected, but he found Vincent Enyeama in fine form. As in 2002, a certain Juan Sebastian Veron was at the heart of the midfield, and as in 2002, he didn't have the best of games. Nor did Angel di Maria, who could well be replaced for the South Korea game.
There were a few troublesome moments in defence for Argentina as well, with Jonas Gutierrez looking ill-suited to the right-back role and Sergio Romero having some difficulties in goal. For the Nigerians, there was plenty of power in the forward line but not much in the way of direction; they should really have equalised twice. South Korea v. Nigeria will be a fascinating game, probably the group decider.
The England goalkeeping problem continues. No-one of real international class has emerged to replace David Seaman (Paul Robinson was not really up to it in 2006), and it will be hard for Robert Green to pick himself up for the rest of the tournament after that shocking blunder. Otherwise, it was much the same as the England of 2002. Nine years on from the glory of Munich, the obsession with Emile Heskey's head continues: although he remains laudably unselfish and a constant problem for opposition defences, he is hardly a terror in front of goal.
The lack of pace in central defence, which was exposed badly by Jozy Altidore in the second period, must be a worry for Fabio Capello. The USA looked a well-organised, competitive side in the main, just as they did against Australia. Without wishing to demean Slovenia or Algeria, whose debut we will get to see tonight, the Americans must still be favoured to get out of the group along with England.
Beyond the quarter-finals for Capello's men this time? On this morning's form, they will be lucky to make it past the last 16. But there's a way to go yet.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
In truth, the Mexicans should have killed the game off before half-time. They looked far superior in the first period, their flexible system working superbly well. Rafa Marquez drifted adroitly between defence and midfield, while the nominal fullbacks spent most of their time in the South African half, allowing the three strikers to play off each other in the middle. But poor finishing, Mexico's eternal World Cup problem, reared its head again.
Those who wrote South Africa off before the tournament may yet have to eat their words. After a nervous and unambitious beginning, they moved the ball around sweetly in midfield at times. The ability of Tshabalala and Teko Modise to switch the play rapidly meant occasional danger for the Mexicans, with their fullbacks so far upfield and the wide defensive areas potentially weak (Franck Ribery, take note). The pace of Katlego Mphela looks likely to trouble the other teams in the group as well.
Mexico will need their match-shy young duo of Carlos Vela and Giovanni dos Santos to find their range in the next two games; although dos Santos forced one brilliant save from Itumeleng Khune, there were a fair few efforts that missed by some distance. Potentially, this is one of the finest attacking arrays that the Mexicans have ever had, but they will need to find some consistency in front of goal. At the other end, the eccentric veteran Oscar Perez looks just as much of a liability as he did in Japan in 2002.
The second match was a much duller affair, although at least the French made some attempts to attack in numbers. The first half was a grim reminder of the template that dominated the knockout stage at Germany 2006: packed midfields, isolated strikers, and zero commitment to attack. Uruguay seemed to be relying solely on the striking power of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, since none of their other players showed any aggressive intent whatsoever.
Franck Ribery struggled with his delivery, and France's other main creative outlet, Yoann Gourcuff, had a very poor game. It's not quite clear what is happening up front, either; Nicolas Anelka is not really suited to the pivot role, but neither does he appear an ideal partner for Thierry Henry.
I'm still happy with my pre-tournament prediction that France and South Africa will advance from Group A. The French will surely improve as the tournament progresses (as they did in 2006), and although Mexico showed signs of class, home support could do wonders for South Africa, particularly against a defensive Uruguay.
A final word about the Jabulani ball: there were some more worrying signs. Plenty of passes were overhit (this was particularly noticeable when the Mexicans attempted to switch the play to Paul Aguilar on the right), and shots from distance sailed into the upper atmosphere even more readily than in 2002. Expect some strange things in the coming weeks.
Friday, June 11, 2010
The World Cup
Work and family demands have meant that I haven't been able to devote as much blogging time to the preparations as I would have liked, but don't for a moment get the impression that I'm not excited! Answers to my last quiz can be found here, by the way.
I would dearly have liked to get to South Africa, but it wasn't to be this time. Herewith, though, a series of verbal snapshots from the last tournament, which I did manage to get to, as an introduction to the current one.
The army of drunken yet mostly friendly English fans in Frankfurt and Nuremberg, so many of them the supporters of obscure third- or fourth-division clubs. I learnt very soon that, perhaps uniquely, the most passionate England fans tend not to be the followers of the big clubs.
The magnificent Korean fans in Frankfurt. Whatever the claims of the Dutch, the Brazilians et al., I still consider these to have been the most impressive group of fans at the tournament. The sound of A-ri-rang echoing around the Waldstadion will stay with me forever.
A wonderfully kind young family in Munich who offered my friend Shane Davis and me accommodation for the night following the Australia v. Brazil game, once we realised that we weren't going to make the last train back to our hotel just outside of Frankfurt. They now have my Australia shirt.
A generous Croatian fan who patted me on the back when I croaked "bad luck" in broken German following the seething melodrama of Stuttgart. Not the reaction I was expecting, and all the more welcome for that.
A Thai journalist who was clearly just as much of a World Cup nut as I was, joyfully recalling past milestones from an event his country had never qualified for while helping the venerable Brian Glanville with his luggage before another game in Frankfurt.
The enthusiastic surge of the Dutch fans through a cobblestoned street as they warmed up for their first round clash with Argentina. The ancient walkway was turned orange in a matter of minutes.
Two tongue-tied Argentina fans, on the same day, being interviewed by a TV reporter (in English) about the evening's game. They were polite but monosyllabic until the reporter asked them "what they were going to shout" that evening. Then, it was a sneaky conspiratorial grin, and the two ripped into "Esta noche vamos a ganar!" at top volume.
Seeing Franz Beckenbauer...absolutely everywhere.
Welcome to the World Cup. May it be a memorable and amicable one.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Now, to clear some ground first. Alert readers of this blog may recall that I've had some harsh words to say about Craig Foster in the past. Strangely, though, I still have mixed feelings towards SBS's chief football analyst; although so much of what he says and writes is either naive, condescending or wretchedly pretentious, a genuinely articulate former Socceroo who is a cogent real-time game analyst is in some ways a rare commodity. Further complicating my attitude is that fact that in person, I found him immensely likeable.
So I felt obliged to give his book a go, even if football friends had warned me that it was, well, more of the same.
To a large extent, it is. Those who've followed his column in the Sun-Herald, and his various tirades from the soapbox on SBS, will find little new in the 300-page collection of opinions and advice contained in the book. There is the same Barcelona fetish, the same haughty denigration of Australian football, the same patronising tone. But there are some redeeming features.
The early part of the book, which is essentially an overview of the game as Foster sees it, is awash with quotes; at times, Foster appears more anthologist than author. By far the most interesting chapter in this "first half", which contains plenty of sociological ruminations of dubious value, is the ninth chapter, "Football is Space". Here, Foster gets into specifics a little, and his description of a Socceroo training session under Terry Venables is actually fascinating.
This, in fact, leads us to one of the strange little dichotomies in the Foster world-view; he has always paid generous tribute to the coaching acumen of Venables, who took Australian football "twenty years into the future" (Foster's own words, from a 2008 interview). How does he reconcile such admiration with his well-known distaste for all things English? As Foster says in the previous chapter:
I often wonder how [Venables] acquired his knowledge, because it was conspicuous by its rarity in an English coach...once I had seen the system of play under Venables I could confidently say that I learnt more in a short time with him than in all my previous years as a player...
It is truly remarkable that Foster does not examine his anti-English slant in more detail in light of this, or adopt a more nuanced attitude towards the difference between British and continental coaches. In fairness, however, I should add that his Anglophobia is rarely expressed openly in the book; if anything, it is implied by omission, since whenever a list of great players, coaches or systems is offered (and there are many in the course of the book), anyone or anything from the British Isles tends to be excluded.
Another worthwhile chapter in the first part of the book is Chapter 16, "The Football 'Matrix'", in which Foster gives an interesting list of Socratic questions that inform his half-time and full-time commentary on live games (UEFA Champions League ties, in the main). Worth a read for any aspiring pundit.
The second half of the book, in which Foster deals with football in Australia, is far more familiar. Here we find the cliches, the empty generalisations, and the crass scapegoating that often makes Foster's articles so open to ridicule. Chapter 21, "Footballholics Anonymous", is a truly nauseating outpouring which takes cultural cringe to the level of utter self-abasement.
The only section of real interest after half-time in the book is Chapter 24, "Adopt and Adapt", which deals largely with the implementation of a new curriculum for Australian football. Foster can't quite seem to make up his mind about the new Dutch template (for which I don't blame him in the least), and he does bring a pertinent point to light:
Sadly, in the absence of a National Technical Committee to oversee the work of imported Dutch coaches on a regular basis, these decisions are being made without adequate oversight, and the ramifications will only be reflected in ten years' time. This is why it is critical that more football expertise is utilised at FFA...
Round of applause. I couldn't have put it better. But, bizarrely, Foster essentially contradicts himself in the very next paragraph:
Nevertheless...the methods being implemented are an outstanding start, and no revision or additions should take place until Australia has adopted the curriculum, and understands it very well. This will take a decade...
As is usual with such books, there are a few typos, misspellings and factual mistakes here and there. In an early chapter, the tragic tale of Colombia's Andres Escobar is given an unintentional comic tinge when he is decribed as having scored "an unfortunate owl goal" against the USA. Perhaps the crowd was hooting at him. I shall move on.
On the whole, the book is probably worth perusing if you are new to the peculiarities of Planet Foster. If you are not, then there is frankly little to learn.
Monday, June 07, 2010
We Could Be Heroes - update #8
Sunday, June 06, 2010
The Dress Rehearsal
In other words, it's not too bad to have a wake-up call just prior to the big performance, and one could say the same about last night's Socceroo hitout against the USA. Although the Americans created a worrying number of chances and should probably have scored more than three (or rather four), at least Pim Verbeek knows where the problems lie. At least, we hope so.
There were a couple of positives. Given Australia's lack of drive from the centre of midfield, the fullbacks are clearly going to play an important role going forward, and Luke Wilkshire and Scott Chipperfield both look to be in decent form. Not that Wilkshire will remember Edson Buddle's second goal all that fondly, of course.
It seemed at times as if Verbeek was testing out a more attacking approach, with the defensive line pushing a little higher than usual (and getting breached now and then). It resulted in rather more chances for the Socceroos, but the patent lack of pace at the back - Craig Moore came under fire once more - makes such a strategy decidedly risky.
And: Vince Grella.
Verbeek seems to be living on the hope that the Blackburn man will lift for the big occasion as he did in Germany four years ago, when he managed to curb his over-aggressive tendencies and play a pivotal role in the Socceroos' run to the last 16. But to describe his form in the lead-up friendlies as worrying would be an understatement; right now, he looks a serious liability in more than one respect.
The decision to keep Harry Kewell under wraps will no doubt excite more wringing of hands, and Verbeek can hardly blame the media for focusing on the issue. For a team so palpably short of ideas, the readiness or otherwise of Australia's most gifted player is clearly going to provoke comment. And for Kewell to be going into the tournament without any game time in the lead-up is obviously far from ideal.
The Americans? Tough, good on the break, but with some defensive problems that mirror Australia's. They should make it past the first round in what is one of the easier groups, but a place in the last eight might just be beyond them.
Friday, June 04, 2010
World Cup Quiz, Part 10
Last but not least:
1. Which World Cup final featured two opening goals that were almost perfect mirror-images of each other?
2. How many Belgian players did Saudi Arabia's Saeed Al-Owairan dribble past on his way to scoring his famous goal at the 1994 tournament?
3. How many passes were completed before Argentina scored their memorable team goal against Serbia-Montenegro in 2006?
4. There have been plenty of own goals at the World Cup, but one was particularly unusual. A defender slammed the ball straight into a team-mate, after which the ball fizzed into the goal. It occurred in 1966; who were the two teams?
5. Which West German player, on the way to the 1974 world title, scored a goal in which the ball rebounded off both goalposts before going in?
6. "Toto" Schillaci topped the goalscoring charts in 1990 with six goals at the tournament, but it should have been seven. Why?
7. At the 1998 World Cup, a player scored a goal (a very good one too) literally only a few seconds after coming on as a substitute. Which player, in which game?
8. One of the most narrow-angled goals in World Cup history was scored in the 1962 final. Who was the scorer?
9. The Brazilian team of 1978 once scored after hitting the woodwork twice in the seconds preceding the goal. Who were their opponents?
10. Who scored the first-ever penalty goal at the World Cup?
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Beachballs and Danes
But the main issue to arise from the game was surely the flight path of the much-discussed Jabulani ball. The vast majority of long passes were badly overhit during the game, and although the altitude probably didn't help, the beachball-like trajectory is a concern. Plenty of teams are sure to keep the lines stringently tight (as both sides did at times last night) in order to force their opposition to go long...straight into the arms of the keeper, or harmlessly over the byline.
Mark Bresciano needed little inducement to offer some criticism, and other players probably feel the same. The 2002 World Cup featured a similarly eccentric "space-age" ball, which, as Gordon Strachan remarked at the time, belonged in outer space...where no-one could use it.
Back to the Socceroos. As against New Zealand, the team offered much more in an attacking sense once Jason Culina moved to the right, displacing the willing but essentially mediocre Richard Garcia, and linking well with the frontmen. If Brett Emerton cannot work his way back to full fitness before the opening game against Germany, it would surely be optimal for Pim Verbeek to start Carl Valeri in the middle with Culina on the right rather than in his usual immobile anchor role. Vince Grella, sadly, is bound to start, whatever his propensity for thuggery (there were a few more crude fouls from Grella in the Denmark game, with some petulant gesticulation the inevitable sequel).
The Danes were surprisingly short of ideas. In the first half, once they found that "getting in behind" with lofted balls was going to be difficult, the sole strategy seemed to be working the ball across to the right for Thomas Enevoldsen and the overlapping Lars Jacobsen. Although a couple of useful crosses came in from that flank, Verbeek's men rarely looked troubled. The much-hyped Ajax youngster Christian Eriksen made no impact whatsoever.
One warm-up game to go, then, with the Socceroos looking depressingly predictable, but hard to break down nonetheless.