Monday, June 28, 2010

Netherlands v. Brazil

As many predicted, both of these supremely talented squads have not yet been challenged in the World Cup. It looks like the first tough match they both face will be against each other. That could make for a cagey opening 20 minutes or so. Both defenses will have to be on guard against an early goal, especially Holland, who have been a little shaky at the back.

Brazil knocked Holland out of the competition in 1994 and 1998. Most people will probably expect that to happen again. The idea being that the same teams always end up being the legitimate competitors for the trophy, and when the going gets tough, the Dutch will self-destruct, just because they always have. I don't believe that. In fact, I believe this July will see a new country lift the trophy at the World Cup for the first time since France in 1998.

For me, that new country will be one of the also-rans from years past, specifically Holland, Portugal, or Spain. It is unfortunate that the latter 2 are meeting so early in the tournament, but those are the breaks.

My predictions are that Spain will beat Portugal tomorrow in a very exciting match, and that Holland will knock Brazil out next week.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I Will Take Talent Over Experience Every Time.

And ask yourself, after this morning's match, was there a single player on the field for England that would have got into the starting XI for Germany.

Frank Lampard was the only one I could see, possibly replacing Lukas Podolski. But Podolski provides width, which Lampard doesn't. I guess you could move Mesut Ozil outside and put Lampard in the middle, but Germany wouldn't do that.

Anyway, my point is, England has the most popular, and in my opinion, best league in the world, the English Premier League. It is also the most watched league in the world, by far. Unfortunately for England, popularity of a domestic league does not equate to talent of domestic players. Players from Manchester United, such as Wayne Rooney, or from Chelsea, such as John Terry, or even from Aston Villa, like James Milner, are well-known, but that does not make them world class. The quality of players is just not there for England.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

USA v. Ghana

This game will come down to the defenders in the middle of the park. Which center-back pairing will hold up to the pressure created by the size and pace of the opposition?

Thing is, I don't know the answer. All of Africa is going to be behind Ghana, the stadium will be a madhouse. The Americans have encountered crowds like this before in places like the Azteca. Or maybe Landon Donovan has made us all believe that anything is possible.

USA 1, Ghana 1.

And on penalties...Ghana.

Uruguay v. South Korea

I really like both of these teams. They are fun to watch, hard-working, and have just enough talent to make things interesting. A lot of people will be picking Uruguay in this match, and with good reason. They have a rock solid defense, as they have yet to concede a goal in this tournament, and a talisman in Diego Forlan, who will be the most gifted footballer on the pitch in this match. I think that is important.

When all else fails, Argentina can turn to Messi, Holland can turn to Robben, the US can turn to Donovan, Spain can turn to Iniesta, and Uruguay can turn to Forlan. It doesn't always have to be a goal either. It can be a pass, a run to create space, even a defensive play. The point is, big time players win big time games.

This is the knockout stage of The World Cup. Every game is big time. Every game is the Super Bowl, Game 7 of the World Series, and Game 7 of the NBA Finals all rolled into one. We all know who can handle it, cause everyone else shit their pants, and are on a flight home to change their underwear.

However, there is a difference between handling it and owning it. Park Ji-sung can handle it. He has been in huge matches before, and he will perform admirably, I have little doubt of this. South Korea can win this match, and Park can lead them there. They are that good. But in the 115th minute, when everything is on the line, when it is do or die on the biggest stage in the world, who will provide that moment of absolute brilliance, that ball that only a few players in the world would dare attempt? For me, in this match, it is Diego Forlan.

Uruguay 2, South Korea 1.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

USA Win Group C, England Advance!

You will all have to excuse me if I am a little discombobulated, I have just got off a two hour roller coaster ride. Wow!

The disjointed, disinterested, disappointing English squad of the last two weeks was nowhere to be found today. Fabio Cappello made a couple changes, nothing too drastic. The English tabloids wanted Joe Cole, but he was the same place he has been for most of the competition, on the bench.

England scored early, and dominated possession for most of the match. Slovenia had a few decent moments, but looked nothing like the team the US played against a few days ago. This result was in little doubt.

That left the USA needing a victory over Algeria. This match was bit more even, although the US created loads of good chances. They even had a good goal ruled out for the second time in this tournament. They left it late. Boy, did they ever leave it late!

If the US is to continue to perform well in this tournament, Landon Donavon will have to put the team on his back and carry them. He is their best player, their most talented player, their most experienced player, and now he needs to be their leader.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dour Predictions

I am afraid it is going to be a sad day in the states. England beat Slovenia, the US draw with Algeria, and the two European countries go through. I hope I am wrong, but the US team has just been too inconsistent to make me think they can breakdown an Algerian side that is very adept at holding the ball and slowing the game down.

Into the Knockout Stages

Today Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, and South Korea went into the final 16 of the tournament and found out who they will play.

Uruguay will face South Korea. The South Americans have more talent, particularly on the front line, and let's face it, that continent has dominated events thus far. However, the Koreans are well organized at the defensive end, and like to play on the counter attack, where they display their own formidable talent, as well as pace. I like the South Korean team, and I wrote in my predictions that they could possibly make a run deep into the tournament, but Uruguay is a tall order. Uruguay are so sound defensively (they have yet to concede a goal), and Korea has shown a tendency to let their opponents score, so it is hard to see anything but a Uruguay victory. I will say 2-1.

Mexico and Argentina played each other at this stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany as well. It was a very close, hard-fought match that went into extra time. The deciding goal was an amazing strike by Maxi Rodriguez, who took a ball down off his chest and volleyed in from about 25 yards out. It was a fabulous strike, and happened very late in the game, giving Mexico no chance to recover.

Both teams are more talented now than they were in 2006, so we should see another great match, with a rare brand of attacking football on display. I am afraid Argentina will be too much for Mexico, which is a shame, because I think that with a better match-up, Mexico could have made a deep run, maybe as far as the semi-finals. Unfortunately for El Tri, there will just be too much of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez for them to handle. I predict a match for the ages, and a 3-2 Argentine victory, behind a Tevez hat-trick.

So, South America should continue to dominate, with at least two teams into the quarter-finals.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Group C

This is the one that everybody in the US is playing special attention to. It was thought that English speaking countries would waltz through to the knockout stages, leaving the smaller countries of Slovenia and Algeria in the dust. Boy was that wrong.

I actually theorized on a way that these countries could cause some mischief in an earlier entry, but I still didn't give them enough credit. Slovenia are in the driver's seat. A draw against England puts them through. A victory puts them through as group winners. They could lose and still go through depending on what happens in the other match.

England are through if they win, but need a lot of help if they draw. This is not an ideal situation, but they do still control their own destiny.

Algeria need to win and hope that England don't win.

The US are in with a win. They need help if they draw, but likely go through ahead of England if both draw.

It will be an interesting Wednesday morning, to say the least.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Big Names

If we don't count South Africa, there were seven seeded teams that earned that position on merit. Let's look at those seven.

Brazil; Won their first 2 matches, already assured of advancement to the next round.
Spain; Lost their first match. But they can still go through quite easily if they win their last two matches. Honduras looks unlikely to put up too much of a fight. Of course, if Spain doesn't dispatch of them tomorrow, it may be time to panic.

Netherlands; Already advanced after winning their first two matches. The games were hard-fought, no doubt, but victory was never really in doubt.

Italy; The Azzuri have drawn twice, and looked bad doing it. What else is new. They control their own destiny though. Beat Slovakia and they are through. Has a boring 1-0 written all over it.

Germany; They won their first game and lost their second game, but they control their own destiny as well. Win and they advance. Draw and they need help.

Argentina; Diego Maradona and his charges are just about through. It would take a dramatic turn of events to keep them from winning the group.

England; For all the hand wringing going on in Blighty, England are actually in decent shape. If they win they advance. Draw and they need help.

So calm down everybody. All seven of the seeded countries are still very likely to go through.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup - Spain

Spain's biggest problem may be their embarrassment of riches as far as talent is concerned. When the team is playing well or gets an injury it is wonderful to have depth at every position, but when things go wrong, as they did against Switzerland last week, doubt creeps in, second guessing starts, factions begin to form within the squad, and the manager has a big mess on his hands (also see Cappello, Fabio).

Spain have lost twice in their last 45 matches (Switzerland last week, USA last summer), and they have had a set starting XI for basically that whole period of time. Yet after one bad (and it must be said, fluky) result against the Swiss, the people of Spain are calling for changes.

As for me, I picked Spain to win the tournament, and I am not changing that prediction. I expect them to obliterate Honduras on Monday, and be well on their way to the knockout stages.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup - Brazil

Everybody has been saying that the perennial favorites did not look their usual selves against North Korea, but I disagree. While the Koreans discovered new and (un)exciting ways to park the bus in front of the goal, Brazil basically played the way they have for the past 16 years, since they won the World Cup in 1994. They are pragmatists.

We all (myself included) love the idea of the 1970 or 1982 Brazil teams just trying to outscore everybody with the most talented offensive players in the world, but Brazil is not that team anymore. Joga Bonito is the stuff of myth and legend, not fact.

Don't get me wrong, Brazil is still a very talented squad, with several players who can really turn on the flare when necessary. But they play a very practical formation with two holding midfielders and an emphasis on defensive positioning and a lot of running.

Brazil are an excellent squad, and Dunga is certainly one of the best managers at this tournament, but don't expect an 6-5 matches from this team. In fact, I would get used to 2-1, we may see it from them another five or six times.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who has been most impressive so far?

Germany won 4-0, but that scoreline is misleading, the Germans scored two late goals after Australia had their leader sent off with a very questionable red card.

South Korea and Holland both won 2-0 and looked good doing it.

Ghana and Japan played fairly well in 1-0 wins.

Argentina and Nigeria both looked good going forward and questionable at the back, and the South Americans managed to edge it.

For me, Ghana may have been the most impressive team overall. They looked good going forward, despite some questionable finishing, and very solid at the back. I still think Serbia will have some say in that group, and Germany are more than likely to go through. Australia will be without Tim Cahill for one match. It has to be said that at this point Ghana are in a very good position.

World Cup - Portugal

Portugal is a country of wingers. So is Holland, but they usually manage to convert some of their guys into forwards. Portugal is just a country of wingers. So they finally imported a striker. Brazilian born Liedson has just recently qualified for Portugese citizenship, and I am fairly certain his application did not go to the bottom of the pile when it was received. But he is exactly what they need. He is not particularly big, but he is pretty good at holding the ball up. Most important, he is a poacher.

Wingers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao, along with central midfielders such as Miguel Veloso, Tiago, Pedro Mendes, and Deco, are going to let fly from all over the field, and that means there will be a lot balls bouncing around in the box. If Portugal manage to get to the quarterfinals or beyond, Liedson could be a surprise competitor for the Golden Boot. Of course, to get that far Portugal will have to beat Brazil and Ivory Coast in their group, and possibly Spain in the round of 16.

This is an extremely talented squad front to back, with a few older players, especially in defense, but no glaring weaknesses. That said, I think it will all come down to Cristiano Ronaldo. If he is in top form, he could really carry Portugal for a solid month, and score a lot of goals in the process. Most people would probably say that Messi is the best player in the world, and it is hard to argue given the season he has had at Barcelona, but Ronaldo is not far off. A big tournament for him could take that crown away from the diminutive Argentine.

I think Portugal will get out of their group, but not without some tense moments. It is an unfortunate quirk of the draw that the second place team from this group will probably have to play Spain in the round of 16. That is a match better suited for the semi-finals given the talent on display.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup - Ivory Coast

As I mentioned earlier, this could be Didier Drogba's World Cup. In many ways, he should own it. And it looks like he is going to try, broken arm dragging behind him.

Now don't get me wrong, The Ivory Coast have a very talented squad top-to-bottom, but Drogba is their heart and soul, and in addition to being their most talented player, he plays the position where they have the least depth. Salomon Kalou and Gervinho are both good players, and will be very dangerous on the wings either side of Drogba, but neither is well-suited to lead the line. If Drogba cannot play, that task will fall to Aruna Dindane, who has previously scored in the World Cup, and is coming off a solid season with Portsmouth of the English Premier League. But he is 5 feet 9 inches tall, not exactly the towering figure you want battling the likes of Lucio and Carvalho.

Sven Goran Erickson has recently taken charge of the Ivory Coast, and he will have his work cut out for him. His group of big name stars at major European clubs have disappointed in several tournaments. If Sven can get them out of a very difficult group, especially without Drogba being fit, he will go a long way towards rehabilitating his reputation.

Everything else aside, this team should be entertaining to watch. I fear they will once again underperform, putting a big scare into Portugal and Brazil before eventually heading home, their golden generation well on its way to retirement with no notable achievements to show for their trouble.

USA vs. England

After a brilliant first day of the 2010 World Cup, we are ready for the clash most of the English speaking world has been looking forward to for 6 months.

I was quietly confident, and had been predicting a draw for the past several months, but I have been losing this confidence in the last couple days. I fear the talent gulf may just be too great.

What I have also been saying is that the USA needs to come out aggressive if they want to have a chance. Put out a positive, attacking team and take it right to England and their questionable defense, while keeping Wayne Rooney and co. away from the USA's own dodgy defense. But there have been several reports in the last few days that Bob Bradley is going to put out a defensive team and basically play for 0-0. I don't know why so many soccer coaches still think this tactic works, because it never does. Every time there is a big upset and the revisionist narrative becomes accepted in the media, people never actually look at the game itself.

So here is my conclusion. If Bradley plays some ridiculously conservative 4-5-1 formation with a Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Michael Bradley midfield, then the US will lose 4-0. If Jose Torres and/or Stuart Holden feature in a more attacking midfield set-up with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan pushing ahead in a front three, I predict a 1-1 draw.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

World Cup - Italy

Where are the goals coming from?

Buffon is one of the best keepers in the world, and the back line anchored by Giorgio Chiellini, Fabio Cannavaro, and Gianluca Zambrotta will certainly keep them in any game. But where are the goals coming from?

Daniele de Rossi is a box to box midfielder capable of hard tackles as well as aggressive attacks. But he is not going to score goals. Andrea Pirlo looks like he will feature at some point, and maybe he will score from a free kick at some point, but that could be too late. I just don't see any goals.

It is a pretty easy group, and Italy will probably go through with a couple 1-0 wins and a 0-0 draw. But I just can't see them doing any damage in the knockout stages. At some point you have to score some goals. They will face the second place team from Holland's group in the round of 16, and it is probable a 1-0 win will get Italy past the likes of Japan, Denmark, or Cameroon.

But that will be it for Italy, because in the quarterfinals they will be facing someone from the Spain, Brazil, Portugal trio. And they will not be able to keep those teams from scoring.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

World Cup - Netherlands

The babysitter, uh, excuse me, manager of the Dutch team is Bert van Marwijk. The talent he has at his disposal is as good as any team in the tournament, and he honestly does not need to do much tactically. What he needs to do is control the, let's call it eccentric, personalities of his superstars.

Many think the Oranje are weak defensively, and that may be true, but I think there is just enough at the back to keep them advancing through the later rounds. The goalkeeper is shaky, two of the defenders are "veterans," to put it kindly, and Johnny Heitinga is probably the most reliable guy in the back 4.

The real defense will need to be played in midfield. Luckily for Holland, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel are both outstanding at this. De Jong might be the best holding midfielder in the world.

The attacking ability of this team is just ridiculous, even with Arjen Robben nursing an injury. Young left winger Eljero Elia may actually keep Robben on the bench when he does return. The lightning quick 23 year old scored 5 goals from the wing and created another 7 in only 20 appearances for Hamburg in the Bundesliga. Ibrahim Afellay, Ryan Babel, Klass-Jan Huntelaar and their big reputations will start most matches from the subs bench.

Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool will do all the running and hard work up front, even though his strike partner, Robin van Persie, believes Kuyt is not good enough to be in the Dutch team. Van Persie himself has a good chance to be the leading scorer in the tournament. And those opportunities will be created by Wesley Snejder. He just led Inter Milan to a league, cup, and Champion's League winning season, and he will pull the strings in the center of Holland's midfield. That is, if he and Robben have sorted out their feud.

So, to summarize, it all comes down to the manages ability to control the egos of the squad. If he can maintain harmony in the Dutch camp, they just may get all the way to the final, facing an opportunity to finally exorcize the ghosts of 1974 and 1978.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

World Cup - Germany

You can almost pencil the Germans in for the semi-finals, if not the finals, of every tournament they play in. In the last 20 years they have appeared in three European Championship finals, winning one, and two World Cup finals, winning one. They have also appeared in a World Cup semi-final and two quarter-finals. That is a hell of a record.

Unfortunately, for Germany anyway, the 2010 squad is lacking the talent of previous iterations. Captain Michael Ballack is injured and will not participate in the competition. Joachim Low is one of the best managers at the World Cup, and his job is really spelled out for him. He has to take a mixture of veterans past their prime and youngsters not yet in their's through the "Group of Death" and into at least the quarter-finals.

Miroslav Klose has scored ten goals int he last two World Cups, but he has played little for Bayern Munich this season, and been in poor form when he has played. Mario Gomez has always shown a lot of promise, but has never really looked the part of a goal scoring threat at major tournaments. And Lukas Podolski has only scored three goals all season. It is unlikely that Low will be able to count on these players to score.

Thomas Muller burst onto the scene for Bayern Munich, playing a big part in their run to the Champions League final and scoring 19 goals in all competitions. But he is only 20 years old, and to rely on him this heavily is dangerous, as he may just not be mature enough to handle carrying his team through the World Cup yet.

That leaves one man. If Germany are to be a serious threat in this tournament, Bastian Schweinsteiger must show the form of his life. Luckily, he is coming off the best season of his career. Ballack's creative midfield responsibilities must fall to him.

Germany look as vulnerable as they have since Euro 2000, when they didn't advance out of the group stages. Serbia could win this group if things fall right for them. However, if Germany do get to the knockout stages, they will be organized, direct, and unlikely to lose in a penalty shootout. It would be a huge upset if they didn't get to the quarterfinals, and a mild surprise if they didn't get to the semi-finals.

Injuries (or) Why I hate Andrea Pirlo and Love Didier Drogba

It is always unfortunate when somebody gets hurt, and it can be rough for a player, his team, and his supporters when he misses a big match. But to miss the World Cup?? That is absolutely heartbreaking.

Rio Ferdinand was named captain of his Country, and was preparing for his fourth World Cup, then he got hurt in training. Michael Ballack, Germany's captain, will miss what would have been his final chance at lifting the trophy. Now Arjen Robben, whose spectacular form this season led Bayern Munich to the Champion's League Final and put him amongst the top 10 players in the world, has hurt his hamstring and looks doubtful.

Andrea Pirlo is also hurt, although Italy are still hopeful he will feature in later matches of the tournament. I'll be honest, I can't stand Pirlo, and I hate watching the Italians, I hate the way they play, the playacting every time a defender breathes on them, the sense of entitlement at International tournaments, the accepted bribery and match fixing in Serie A, I despise all of it. I hope they lose every match 10-0, and that Pirlo has to sit and watch from the sidelines. In fact, I hope he gets bitten by a rare spider while watching from the sidelines and all of his hair falls out.

All of that aside, the real heartbreak is for the African players who have seen their dreams of representing their countries on their own continent shattered. Michael Essien is an outstanding player, and he will be sorely missed by Ghana, but the entire Black Stars midfield is looking extremely delicate. Sulley Muntari is nursing an injury, and Stephen Appiah has only played 2 matches all season. It was this outstanding midfield that got Ghana into the last 16 in 2006, and they had high hopes for this summer.

We all know the big one though. Didier Drogba, probably the world's best striker, the supreme ambassador of African football, the captain of Ivory Coast's "Golden Generation", has broken his arm. It is hard to understand for a lot of people how much Drogba means to African football. Most people know he helped to stop a civil war, but hearing these words does not really convey their meaning. Drogba has spoken out about issues such as AIDS and poverty that most professional athletes wouldn't go within a mile of. The video of Didier Drogba moving around during the World Cup following by tens of thousands of adoring supporters from all corners of the continent would have been a sight to behold, and might have given the rest of the world just a tinge of what he means to the nations of Africa.

Friday, June 4, 2010

World Cup - Australia

The Socceroos made the dubious move of switching federations after the last World Cup, so they could have an easier road to qualification courtesy of the Asian Federation's rather ridiculous four spots at the tournament. Given this sort of cherry-picking, I was quite happy to see Australia end up in what is probably the infamous "Group of Death," Group D.

The Aussies play a 4-2-3-1, and they do so in a very defensive manner. They won't be winning any beauty contests, but that was obvious from looking at the squad. The central defense features Lucas Neill and Craig Moore, two tough-guys whose best days are behind them. They can be beat with pace and will not be shrinking violets when it comes to making tackles, meaning potential penalties and free kicks in dangerous positions. The plan is to protect them with two holding midfielders, Vince Grella and Jason Culina. Grella is the destroyer, while Culina is a bit more cultured.

Tim Cahill is the most important player on this squad. If he doesn't score goals and wreak havoc on opposing defenses, it will be 3 and out for the Aussies. And he cannot just be good, he will have to be spectacular. Otherwise, the only nation that takes up an entire continent will be relying on a mediocre Brett Emerton and injury-probe Harry Kewell to carry them through.

Australia have a tough defense, but I can't see them getting out of this group. Ghana, Germany, and Serbia certainly have their problems, but they all have much more talent and depth than Australia.