It's all in your World Cup

Thursday, July 06, 2006

An apology

Sorry folks, I have been out of the country (though obviously watching the games) so my QF and SF reviews are a little delayed...

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Day the seventeenth

England - Ecuador 1-0

The England jalopy clatters on into the quarter finals courtesy of a Beckham freekick, and a large slice of luck. I don't remember the Ecuadorian keeper being forced to make a save, and England struggled to create chances. The only possible positive to take from the game was the performance of Carrick, who actually played a couple of attacking passes of 10-15 yards, and along the ground! To anyone reading who watches and supports another team, that might seem like an odd thing to exclaim, but I can't remember the last time I saw the England midfield trying to thread the ball through along the turf from advanced positions. There was something constantly threatening about Carrick's decision making, and he showed nice range and creativity with a couple of reverse or disguised passes. In inverse proportion to Carrick's performance though was Lampard's. If anyone has a clue quite what has happened to the guy between leaving west London and arriving in Germany, feel free to comment, as I have no fucking idea how he's turned into such a donkey in front of goal.

Portugal - Holland 1-0

Can we all please take a moment to mourn the passing of the game of football. After tonight, I'm not really sure if my faith in the sport will recover. Rather than reviewing the proceedings of the match, I'll just pose a couple of questions.

1) What the fuck was the referee thinking?
2) What the fuck was van Basten thinking?
3) What can van Nistelrooy possibly have done to piss everyone off so much?
4) Have the FA made a pact with the devil?
5) Will we be able to buy t-shirts with photos of Ronaldo crying on them?

Day the sixteeth

Germany - Sweden 2-0

So it was the Sweden that played T&T and Paraguay that turned up for this game, rather than the one that was unlucky to have to share points with England. Ibrahimovic was utterly leaden, Larsson squandered his one chance, and a normally well drilled defence decided it was time to start tripling up on Klose on the edge of the area.

Now that the inadequacies of their opponents have been dealt with, we can linger a little on the romantic notion that Germany are actually gathering momentum, and might be in danger of putting on a good showing in this tournament. The hints were there from the first game, when they played with unexpected pace, and with devastating finishing from range. A mid-group stumble to victory against Poland had everyone wondering if they'd consigned the 'You can write off the Germans' headlines to the bins too soon. Brushing under-strength Ecuador aside doesn't really count as emphatic, but it seems to have allowed precious confidence to start flowing, particularly between Klose and Podolski, who are playing as well as either of them can have played so far in their careers. In particular, Klose's control and change of direction in setting up the first goal against Sweden was a move I would have never believed him capable of. It seems that instead of the Bierhoff-esque heading totem, he likes to play with the ball on the ground, a predilection the passing of Ballack is only too happy to accomodate.

The German rear-guard is still shaky when attacked centrally, and as flattering as it is to put Sweden in the group of top European teams, the Germans still haven't faced a truly stern attacking test. As mobile and determined as they have looked, they still don't appear to be as good a side as the Argentines, or Spanish, and so you couldn't make Germany your favorites on those terms. However, in knockout football, the inferior team often wins, if only through the actions of one special player. All it would take is three games of Ballack playing as well as he did against Sweden, and there's nothing in the world to suggest that they could not sneak all the way on to the podium.

Argentina - Mexico 2-1 aet

The breathless tv commentary had this one down as one of the best games they'd ever seen by the time it was over. That's a woeful overstatement, as the game never really ignited beyond the level of cautious fencing. Mexico did extremely well to score early, converting their moment of pressure against superior opposition brilliantly, when so many teams regularly fail. Argentina were quite subdued during this game, a state certainly contributed to by a dire performance from Saviola. He's a player who struggles from one performance to the next, alternatively sylph-like and floor-dwelling. This was definitely one of those games were he was incapable of holding on to the ball for longer than two strides, more often than not muscled out by a determined defender, occasionally just wasting possession with poor passing. After his performance against Holland, I would've liked to have seen Tevez given the starting place, as he has much greater power and strength to ally to a speed that's surely every yard the equal of Saviola's.

Riquelme never really found his range, and Messi seemed tentative in the face of sturdy Mexican tackling (though he did become more authoritative as extra time wore on). Sadly, one player that hasn't impressed me, for reasons that are entirely my fault, is Maxi Rodriguez. I honestly can't remember anything he's done other than score. That said, with 3 goals from 4 games, if you're going to be remembered for anything, it should be that. And what a goal it was.

Argentina's style in this competition operates on extremely narrow margins. Against weaker teams who are not compensating with extra effort, they are able to exploit space and pass them to death. Mexico on the other hand showed that by working hard and closing down, the quick passing favoured by Riquelme becomes much more difficult to pull off. Argentina definitely have players capable of performing that kind of game even when the ball is under considerable pressure, but clearly it becomes a more error prone system, and Argentina don't look like they have a considered alternative to it. Make no mistake, they are possibly the most technically gifted squad in the competition, and they are still my favorites for the title, but against determined opposition with more to offer in attack than Mexico, Argentina will have to play to 100% of the potential their talent provides.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Day the fifteenth

Spain - Saudi Arabia 1-0 & Ukraine -Tunisia 1-0

Two absolute turds here. Spain had almost nothing to play for, and so almost nobody played, with the laudable exception of Joaquin, who always gives good value. Ukraine found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to put a 4-0 opening day spanking behind them by virtue of the fact that they were in a group with two very weak teams. The solipsistic nature of this blog means I'm fortunate that when I think there's nothing worth saying about a game, or games, I don't need to write anything. Nothing to see here.

France - Togo 2-0 & Switzerland - South Korea 2-0

Hands up. I didn't see either match. France are obviously still a good enough side that they can turn it on sufficiently to sweep aside 4th rate opposition when necessary. Who knew?

I'll freely admit to being hugely amused by the unceremonious dumping from the competition of South Korea by an unfancied Swiss side. The inept refereeing of 2002 that chauffeured South Korea to the semis still annoys me, as does the child's whistle pitched shrieking of their fans whenever they so much as pass the ball successfully. Glad to see the back of them.

Day the fourteenth

Italy - Czech Republic 2-0 & Ghana - USA 2-1

The inevitable capitulation of the post-Ghana Czechs continued as they never really mounted a threat in this game. Baros was unfit, and in an aging midfield, it was too much for Rosicky who looked increasingly lost as the burden of fashioning a miraculous escape fell to him. The likes of Plasil and Stajner confirmed suspicions that the golden generation of Czechs was a fairly thin crop, with almost no strength in reserve in the squad. It was an unfortunate and humbling exit from the tournament, and looks likely to signal a similar exit from the top table of international football for some time to come as Nedved, Koller, Poborsky and the majority of the defense shuffle off into retirement.

For Italy it was a routine affair. They looked boring going forward, and hovered between seeming invincibility in defense, and surprising disarray. Italy have a habit of just doing enough to get by during the early stages of the tournament. Only problem with that is, for me, when the questions start getting harder, Italy have no recent history of being able to rouse themselves from their petulant hubris and actually play. They'll grind past Australia, but after that, I don't like the look of this Italian squad.

Ghana were superb from what I saw of this game. As strong and inventive as in their previous games, even without the creativity of Gyan in attack. America were their usual dour flavour, all athleticism, but very little wit or verve. Plus, I just don't like the look of Bruce Arena, so I was pleased to see them get dumped out in this manner. Appiah on the other hand has a quite outlandishly cranial-looking head, which is a fine complement to his impressive game.

Brazil - Japan 4-1 & Australia - Croatia 2-2

Thankfully for my reputation as a pundit, when Brazil made changes to their XI and their formation, they were mostly the ones I've been arguing they should make. Gilberto Silva was a much more assured figure in the holding midfield role, mopping up the ball with fewer theatrics than Emerson, and distributing it with less of a chip on his shoulder about playing the simple ball. Juninho added his metronomic presence to the deeper position in the centre of the pitch, spreading play and ensuring that Ronaldinho and Kaka did not have to drop as deep as in previous games in their search for workable possession. Robinho bristled with pace and intent, and created space all across the front line, something that the lumpen pairing of Ronaldo and Adriano had failed in completely.

Ronaldinho still seems to be having a poor competition when judged against his high standards. He is being marked as tightly as you'd expect for a player with his reputation, but the problem seems more likely to lie in the paucity of movement from the rest of the team. For Barcelona, Ronaldinho can rely on constant quick movement from the rest of the midfield, so even if he is doubled up on, there is still the opportunity to pick a pass to the spare man and hurt the opposition that way. In this Brazil team, whether through ego or tactics, the other players don't seem to view it as their task to play off Ronaldinho, and so frequently he is left looking for space to play the ball into, and finds none.

Ronaldo is still a big tub o'lard, but when he's standing still, boy can he finish...

The other match in this group looked crappy, a fine free kick aside. In comparison to the number of piledrivers that have found a home in the top corner, it seems that fewer free kicks have been scored than in previous competitions. That's probably just wishful thinking though, as I remember bemoaning the lack of free kicks at the last World Cup too. Come back Stoitchkov...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Day the thirteenth

Portugal - Mexico 2-1 & Iran - Angola 1-1

Didn't really care about either of these fixtures. Might possible get my 'most tedious group' award. I liked Maniche's goal though.

Argentina - Holland 0-0 & Ivory Coast - Serbia & Montenegro 3-2

With nothing to play for, neither side was ever going to tear into this game with the classic-baiting vigour you'd expect from a knock-out stages contest. All in all, nice touches, and Argentina looked comfortably the better side, even with their reserve team out.

I was glad the Ivory Coast got the win, but fell asleep before the goals came on. Will update this when I get broadband back and can watch the highlights. There, you don't get that kind of naked honesty from the tradtional media, do you?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Day the twelfth

Germany - Ecuador 3-0

Surely resting 5 players against Germany was the height of impertinence. The Germans achieved what they were challenged with, in fairly emphatic style. Ballack was excellent, shooting and passing with great authority, while Klose and Podolski put in confidence building performances. England will no doubt be happy they avoided them. Ecuador on the other hand retain the position of unknown quantity - they have looked solid at the back, and inventive in the midfield, with fewer misfires in front of goal than their pre-tournament also-ran counterparts. England would be expected to sweep them aside in the next round, but England look ill-equipped to dominate anyone at the moment

Poland - Costa Rica 2-1

I'm sure this game mattered to someone. Not to me though.

Paraguay - Trinidad & Tobago 2-0

I'm sure this game mattered to someone. Not to me though.

England - Sweden 2-2

Is it late enough in the tournament to start criticising England, or are we still waiting for them to get started, safe in the knowledge that they are trying not to peak too early? At times in this game they played like idiots, no more so than during the catalogue of embarrassment that resulted in Sweden's second goal. Joe Cole's strike was excellent, easily a contender for individual goal of the tournament, but it did little to disguise the poverty of chances England created in the first half. For about 15 minutes they seemed to have remembered how to move off the ball, but it was just illusory, and they never settled into a pattern of anything other than static positioning and unimpressive passing. The second half was marked mostly by their typical gifting of the initiative to Sweden, who looked like scoring from every set piece, and who but for wasteful finishing from Mellberg and a Carragher handball, would have been 3-1 up within the first 20 minutes. They managed to pull back in front, taking advantage of Sweden launching forward in chase of the winner and the opportunity to dodge Germany, but they couldn't even hang on to that vindicating goal.

England can get better. Equally, they can get worse. There's no a priori conclusion, but any sober analysis of England's previous form in major competitions points at only one outcome.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Day the eleventh

Switzerland - Togo 2-0

Didn't see this one. Barnetta's finish was exact, so it looks like he added to an impressive performance against France. Two good goals, several shoddy refereeing decisions and another African team dumped out of the competition.

Ukraine - Saudi Arabia 4-0

Thrashing the weakest team in the tournament hardly announces a return to form, but you blah can only blah blah beat what's put blah blah blah in front of you blah blah blah blah. Was working during this one too.

Spain - Tunisia 3-1

All that brings us to Spain, my favorite team of the first round of matches. I fully expected them to take inspiration from the Argentine mauling of Serbia and Montengro and push on to become only the second team in the tournament to put two consistently good performances together. Instead they laboured to a flattering result, sending Aragones back to the play book in the process. After several tournaments of playing with two wingers, like De Pedro, Vicente, Joaquin, Etxeberria et al, Spain started this tournament with a packed midfield and a relatively liberated front three. Against Ukraine this worked brilliantly as their opponents gave space and time for Senna, Xavi and Alonso to find the front three and maintain control of the ball across the field. Tunisia on the other hand were far stronger opponents, and in Trabelsi had a player who seemed to have been possessed by the spirit of Cafu in his prime, who was to be found stretching the Spanish midfield repeatedly over the course of the first half. With Tunisia finding frequent space and long stretches of pitch to run into on the left hand side of the Spanish midfield, it was harder for Spain to maintain pressure, as Luis Garcia seemed unwilling to track back, and Alonso found himself fighting fires down Pernia's flank. Subsequently, while Tunisia managed to steal a goal after sloppy play by Puyol (something that happens more often than you might think, as anyone who watches Barcelona a lot can attest), Spain created very little of note in the first half.

The reorganisation of the second half, with the introduction of Fabregas and Raul strung the midfield out a little more solidly across the centre of the pitch. However, while this strengthened the Spanish effort, and allowed Fabregas and Xavi limited opportunities to attack through the centre, it wasn't until the introduction of Joaquin that Spain began to stretch Tunisia and change the game. Suddenly Tunisia could no longer afford to pack the centre of the penalty area and rely on making it hard for Fabregas to pass holes in their formation, as they found themselves double-teaming the very direct and very quick winger. Tunisia became disjointed, crowding Joaquin for the first goal, and caught playing a high defensive line for the second, seemingly unaware that Torres is just as quick as his team-mate.

Spain arguably have one of the three strongest squads at the tournament, with the likes of Iniesta and Reyes yet to get a game, even though the former revitalised Barcelona during the Champions' League final, and the latter put in seveal excellent performances during Arsenal's European run last season. Arguably thought the thing that sets Spain aside from either Argentina or Brazil is that they have the personnel to play two very different systems. With Joaquin and Reyes they have two of the best wingers at the world cup, alongside a more measured and cunning midfield complement of Xavi, Fabregas, and Iniesta, finally supported by the solidity of Alonso and Senna. From those seven players it's possible to constitute a very flexible midfield, with a couple of players on the bench able to either drive forward through the middle or down the wings to stretch the game, or shore it up should the need arise. Spain are clearly capable of playing excellent football, and have finishers capable of taking a good proportion of the chances on offer, so with a squad as strong as this, it seems more important to focus on the manner of their escape, rather than the first half stutter that put them in need of rescue.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Day the tenth

Croatia - Japan 0-0

Occasionally I feel guilty for not writing much about 0-0 games. Japan played pretty well, and might have deserved a victory for the nimbleness of Nakamura alone, but in keeping with the grand tradition of second tier teams, neither side had anyone of genuine finishing ability. Still, this was just the appetiser, with the main course not appearing on the table until 5pm, right...

Brazil - Australia 2-0

Underwhelming Brazil, valiant Australia, blah blah blah. The truth of the matter is that this was a crappy game, marked more than anything by wasted possession, sloppy finishing, and the sight of Ronaldo looking like a barrel made out of pork. Adriano and Ronaldo are such a static forward line that they conspire to made Ronaldinho look ineffective and drive Kaka to try and do it all by himself. With neither of their strikers making runs and creating space, there's no pass to be picked, and no gaps to be run into, so Ronaldinho ends up clipping hopeful balls over the top that Ronaldo doesn't even think about chasing, or switching the play ineffectively from wing to wing. The introduction of Robinho made Brazil more threatening instantly, he has pace, control and hunger, all of which Ronaldo seems to have misplaced, or eaten.

I'm still not convinced that simply swapping out Ronaldo for another player is the answer to Brazil's problems. They famously lack width, even with Cafu and Roberto Carlos attacking from defense, and so get caught playing a fairly narrow game, unable to spread the ball unless either full back has made the run. Against well organised opposition, they seem to be caught trying to thread passes through an area about the width of the penalty area, with little overlapping, and so time after time, through-balls were cut out, and scooped passes blasted back downfield. Compare them with Argentina, who have started out this competition using space across the entire pitch and look by far the most threatening team because of it, and you have some idea of the measure of the task of reinvention facing Brazil.

I would still like to see Juninho brought into the side in place of Ze Roberto. He can sit deeper, and dictate play alongside Gilberto Silva, who should replace the hapless Emerson, who seemed incapable of completing a pass or making a tackle today. Robinho should replace Ronaldo, but be stationed wide to give more options on the ball and create more space for Kaka to burst through in support of Adriano. It's clearly far too early to write this team off, as they have incredible attacking strength, but at the moment they are a long way from playing as a team, and unless they do, it will be difficult for them to harness the thrilling talent they possess.

France - South Korea 1-1

For about 20 minutes France looked like righting four years and one game's worth of wrongs. Henry scored, Zidane was at the centre of most French attacks, and they had pace, width and a seeming passion to dominate this game. However, they then spent the next hour or so preening around the middle of the pitch until they were mugged by the South Koreans in quite hilarious fashion. Barthez's despairing flip at the ball as it spun over his head will go down as one of my most treasured moments of this stage of the tournament: he's always struck me as teeth-grindingly arrogant for a man so blunder-prone.

There's a case to be made to say that France were denied a game-sealing 2-0 scoreline when Vieira's header was flung back from behind the line, but the purist in me sees some justice in that decision. Vieira had easily one of the worst games I've ever seen him play, misplacing passes, towering shots into the stands and generally looking like his Arsenal performances were unlikely myths, rather than the truth of just 18 months ago. His one decent contribution was that header, and it was a contribution he didn't deserve to make.