Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The Last Eight

And so we have the last eight, with four from South America, three from Europe and a sole African representative. Quite a change from 2006, at any rate.

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.

That "game" between Japan and Paraguay was one of the most tedious two hours of my existence. Neither team seemed able to keep possession for more than two passes. Horrible. I too sympathise with the Japanese dude who missed the penalty as he will take all the heat when every player on the team should commit hari kari.

You see different things to me Mike. (Would so love to discuss football over beer with you one day.) Maybe it was the contrast because I loved every minute of the Spain-Portugal game. Maybe I'm not seeing the puzzle-breaking aspect of the teams' games, but rather I'm still being enthralled just by the skill and wonderful, tricky passing as each team in turn keeps possession and has a go. You must admit it was a million percent on Japan-Paraguay.
Teams stringing a bunch of passes together don't really excite me unless they're trying to do something with it...a lot of the movement from Spain in that game was just lateral I thought, I can't remember a single chance worthy of the name that they created in the first half. But we all enjoy different things about this game...part of what makes it so special. ;-)

...(Would so love to discuss football over beer with you one day.)...

And the same!
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