Friday, June 25, 2010


Champions No More

Farewell to the champions. Italy join their fellow 2006 finalists in the first-round exit lounge...the first time since 1966 that the two finalists from the previous World Cup have failed to make the knockout phase. And the first time ever that both have finished on the bottom of their respective groups.

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...

Group C

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.

Great wrap up.
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