Friday, June 18, 2010


Argentina and Arsenal

Another splendid day's action at the World Cup, suggesting that the negativity that characterised many of the initial matches was merely opening-night nerves. Let's hope so.

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.

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