Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 18 (R16 - 4)

The quarterfinals bracket is complete. Spain made it through (although more difficult that I thought, while Ronaldo disappointed his followers) and Paraguay has ended the Japanese dreams of moving on, after an insipid game that always seemed destined for penalty kicks.

One of the weakest games in the tournament paired Paraguay (who - to their credit - topped the group that included a sorry Italian team) and Japan (who outclassed Denmark in their group game). But the game itself was shadowed by that fear-of-losing (or being scored upon first) on both sides. In the end, it was nil-nil after 2 hours of play and the team better prepared to deal with the emotions of the penalty-kicks 'lottery' progressed.

Such a game makes one of the 'romantics' of the game [like me] think about ways to improve such performances and avoid PK shoot-outs. So here's a couple of solutions:
  • After 90 minutes, take out a player from each team. Then every 10 minutes take off another one...until eventually there is more space on the field and scoring opportunities are easier to come by. Chances are at least a goal will be scored before the 120th minute...
  • Assign a panel of 'judges' (like in gymnastics, or artistic skating) that would assign a score to each of the teams at the end of the 2 hour play period. The team with the higher score (more attacking, better stats, etc.) would progress [thus avoiding the possibility of exiting the competition after being the better team over the duration of the game]. I'm sure Yuichi Komano would have slept better and would not be haunted by that crossbar all his life had such a measure been in place...
Yeah, I know, this is just noiseless banter, but either alternative offers a fairer choice (in my opinion) for determining the winner based on what happens in the field, not during the split-second decision of a penalty kick. And although you may think this is all 'funny dreams' right now, things will eventually change as far as the antiquated laws of the game (and its management [read FIFA]) are concerned. More arguments to this on the bottom of this posting.

Yet, in a couple of firsts for the World Cup: this was the first PK-decided game where an European team was not involved... and the first time for Paraguay to make it so far! Chilavert would be proud.

The last game in the Round of 16 was particularly emotional for me, and although the scoreline was narrow, the better team [Spain] did go through. I only wish that as the competition progresses they get better at finishing off chances (with Argentina/Germany and then [potentially] Brazil waiting to take them on). Yes, I am assuming that they'll dispose of Paraguay a lot easier as they did of Portugal [who were a bit overrated, I think; the only team they scored against was a compassless North Korea].

Del Bosque should face the music and realize that Torres is just not 100% yet and should go with one of the many other talents on the team [Lorrente, Pedro, Silva]... and maybe even bring back Navas, who seems to give the team more width and pace on the right side. But here I go, making tactical recommendations when I'm naught but a simple spectator... I just hope he picks the best players for the team going forward.

One negative point from the game: Capdevilla faking an elbow to the face in order to get Ricardo Costa eliminated. I'll touch on some of the work that FIFA has to do around the game later, but what I would do, in the spirit of fairness [although I'm a Spain fan] is review the incident [post-game] and reverse the decision; suspend Capdevilla for the next game and erase Costa's red card. Maybe throw in a fine for good measure as well. Such actions should not be tolerated in any sports.

So as I'm going down that slippery slope, here's a couple of articles that may keep you preoccupied with additional reading over the next couple of days (since I'll be travelling and there's a pause in the competition anyway):

1. Blatter apologizing to England and Mexico and admitting that "something has to be done" by FIFA: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/world-cup/story/_/id/5338733/ce/us/sepp-blatter-says-fifa-reopen-file-replay?cc=5901&ver=us

2. More on the same subject (with another theft incident - this time at a FIFA office - buried towards the bottom of the article: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/world-cup/blog?entryID=5338695&name=worldcup2010blog&cc=5901&ver=us

Aside from that (and with potential "extra credit" for additional reading) here's a couple of interesting blogs from people that aren't quite friendly [to say the least] when analyzing the most popular sport in the world. What can I tell you, narrow minds who don't even begin to understand the intricacies of the sport... but I don't blame them; they're more or less a product of the sports society in the US. The fundamental difference is that sports in the US are classified as follows (depending on who you ask, of course, but I'm generalizing):
  1. American Football (gridiron)
  2. Baseball
  3. Basketball
  4. Hockey
  5. Tennis
  6. ...I don't know... beach volleyball
...while in Europe and/or South America (generalizing again) it looks like this:
  1. Football
  2. Football
  3. Football
  4. Football
  5. Football (the 'soccer' kind for all of the above)
  6. ....
  7. Beach Volleyball
Once Americans understand this, the 'light' will eventually come on!

The first one is quite appalling, and if you read through the comments, you'll realize that most people don't agree with that view (and quite hate the narrow, close-minded approach to it). But I'll let you be the judge of that... http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2010/06/13/look-out-futbol-here-comes-football-1/

The second one is not as bad (while it still attempts to explain why 'soccer' is not - and will not be - popular in the states). Although he makes some valid points, especially in reference to refereeing and replays (which we already 'talked' about) this type of attitude has no place in any US publication. In case you want to scroll through the responses, I like in particular the ones from dudester21 and mattfutball (you might have to scroll down or go the the next page to find them): http://content.usatoday.com/communities/thehuddle/post/2010/06/football-vs-futbol-why-the-world-cup-whets-our-nfl-appetite/1

So I'll leave you with these tidbits for now, while I'm getting ready for a quick trip to the motherland. From quarterfinals on, this blog will be brought to you from the Black Sea coast!

Bye for now...see you on Friday!

Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 17 (R16 - 3)

A 'quiet' day today in South Africa, meaning there were no surprises, no controversial calls, nothing out of the ordinary. As expected, Holland and Brazil have imposed themselves against Slovakia and Chile respectively, and as much the media was hyping up the minnows, it turns out that their much stronger counterparts were a thoroughly superior bunch.

Brazil were impressive again, in all departments, even though Chile were no pushover. I'm not sure how anyone will be able to take them apart, when they have so much depth in their squad.

The Dutch, although not as imposing, made light work of Slovakia (with relative luck on their side as well) and the 2-1 scoreline doesn't really reflect what went on... Mucha [the Slovakian keeper] was outstanding on several occasions. Yet, it seems like Oranje are drifting in an out of games at times (particularly in defense). They need more focus if they want to challenge further...

This sets up a great game between the Netherlands and Brazil, but the Dutch should really step up their game if they hope to have a prayer against the five-times world champion.

Today, I'm afraid, represented the 'quiet before the storm'. The storm that's Spain - Portugal. I'm partial to this match, of course, but I think it will live up to its billing. Both teams have something to prove after hit and miss performances so far, and I hope they'll do it in the spirit of attractive, free-flowing football. They both have the talent to do it.

Tomorrow's other game (Paraguay - Japan) pales by comparison, but it should be another good game against two evenly-matched teams. Artistry and flair against tenacity and speed. Should be a pleasure to watch.

* * *

Since this is a [relatively] shorter posting, I want to leave you with a few things that tie into what I mentioned in the Preamble regarding crime in South Africa (and the impact it could have on the World Cup). Granted, you won't find any of this reported on the FIFA official page (they want to ensure they paint a positive picture of the overall experience) but a quick Google search returns plenty of hits on the subject:

Portuguese photographer robbed at gunpoint in his hotel room: http://www.petapixel.com/2010/06/10/world-cup-photog-robbed-at-gunpoint-in-south-africa/

To the organizers' credit, looks like most of these occurred early on... more than likely they threw more police and security at the problem. Let's hope it doesn't escalate to anything more beyond this...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 16 (R16 - 2)

After today's massive game-changing refereeing blunders FIFA will have to do something in order to ensure that all teams participating in the greatest sporting event in the world get a fair sporting chance. Yes, there's been plenty of ink and air-time wasted on the subject, but really [and I mentioned this in my Preamble already] the world-governing body has to embrace the idea and bring the game into the 21st century.

Video review should become part of the game (at least at the high levels) and it's a no-brainer, as TV cameras are "viewing" the game from every angle. One challenge per team in each half should do the trick. For those who maintain that such a measure would interrupt the flow of the game [FIFA primarily] I'll offer this: the time it took the Mexican team to argue with the referees was definitely much longer [and game-flow-interrupting] than a potential 20 second review of the goal.

There is no argument that today's games would have had a different outcome if such a rule was in effect. England was coming back after the second goal, and Mexico [Osorio in particular] would probably not have dropped psychologically and allow Argentina a relatively easy victory.

Regardless... today refereeing errors are an unfortunate part of the game and players at this level should be able to cope with whatever happens on the field (what I'm trying to say is that England and Mexico should look deeper than that in understanding why the lost today).

If you thought I was rash in the evaluation of the US performance yesterday, what do you want me to say about England? They were horrible again [par for the course in this competition]. Outclassed, outplayed, outmuscled by a very tenacious, highly energetic German team. They really did not start playing anything until they were two goals down already. Then, as they were turning the tide, the goal that was not given demoralized them. Fair or not, they should have continued to push forward, but the didn't. Germany fully deserved the victory, and England has a lot of reckoning to do... The [much] better team won on the day!

Positive accolades for the German team, particularly for Ozil, Mueller, Podolski and Klose, but really the entire team performed beautifully. Their next match against Argentina should be a pleasure to watch...

Yes, Argentina going through as well, but not without plenty of controversy there as well. Mexico started much better and could have been first on the scoreboard with a bit more luck... but then came the offside goal, the gift from Osorio, and the wheels came off for Mexico. Tevez's second goal was outstanding, though, so in the end, the better team progressed here as well. Messi was uncharacteristically 'quiet' today, but was closely marked by 2-3 Mexican players every time he had the ball. So maybe that's the [tactical] idea...

Overall, great day for soccer today, but shadowed by the aforementioned errors from the linesmen. I'm sure it won't be the last piece of refereeing controversy in the tournament...

Tomorrow, Holland [against Slovakia] and Brazil [against Chile] should progress, but I do hope that La Roja gives Brazil a run for their money.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 15 (R16 - 1)

In a match that could have gone either way, Uruguay edged past South Korea on a fantastic strike from Luis Suarez. Both teams were obviously afraid to push "all out", and whenever the Asians came closed, Muslera (one of my favorite keepers in the tournament so far) was "on".

The big negative in the game (although everyone expected Uruguay to play their typical defensive game...which they did, but not in a negative fashion [hard to explain that one, but I hope you get my gist]) was the actual pitch itself. Deplorable for a FIFA sponsored tournament at this level...

On the US game, I'll be [uncharacteristically] brief. If the US ever want to consider themselves 'able' to sit at the big table with the strong teams they need to:
  • Finish chances when they come along (I don't think Ghana had more than 3, but scored twice; US had at least 4-5 chances...)
  • Defend like their life depends on it (watch some tapes from the Uruguay game)
  • 'Leave it all' on the field... it just never 'felt' like they wanted it bad enough...or gave 100% percent [despite what the football-illiterate pundits will tell you]
So in the end, US still has a lot to learn when it comes to this competition. The 'come from behind story' can only work so many times... I know the media will make a big deal of their performance, but if you put things in perspective, the England tie was LUCKY, the game against Slovenia a good comeback, but the Algeria game was another example of poor finishing...

With Ghana, Bradley [inexplicably] went to Ricardo Clark AGAIN, although he was part of the reason why we went down 2 goals at halftime against Slovenia. WHY??? He duly lost the ball in midfield, contributing to the first goal from Ghana. Luckily, he recognized his error 31 minutes later... But that was only part of the problem... Like a good friend of mine says: 'it's all we can [d0] at this point in time'.

I partially agree with that statement... but I know the talent and capability is there... I've seen it before. It just never looked that they wanted it bad enough. Slow to react (most of the 50-50 balls went the Africans' way) and uninspired up front, while the defense was off their game.

Anyway...I should stop before doing any irreparable damage. My blog picture today is in accordance with my mood... I think I'll be better off drowning my sorrow in the beer-filled cooler on the porch outside...

I just hope Spain does not let me down like this...

PS - I should not take anything away from the Africans. But they were not that good today...it's just that the US were not better...

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 15

Funny sport, football. Nine days ago Spain played extraordinary football and lost to Switzerland. Today they were not at their best, but won against a team much better than the Swiss. They were helped along the way by an easy red card for Estrada and a huge goalkeeping error from the Chilean captain Claudio Bravo. But a win is a win, and first place in the group assures them of an Iberic derby against neighbors Portugal.

Chile were outstanding with 10 men against the "Passing Machine" and fully deserve qualification. The Swiss, on the other hand, have only themselves to blame for not advancing. All they had to do is beat Honduras. Honduras! (yes, excuse my lack of diplomacy, but...Honduras??). So, poetic justice was done in the end. The Swiss are going home with the only satisfaction that they beat Spain [although they still are not sure how it happened]

In the earlier games, the two Portuguese-speaking teams played a dull, yet at times hard-fought 0-0 tie, assuring they both progressed to the next stage [Ivory Coast was 6 goals short of the goal-difference required in case Portugal lost]. It took a half-time break to cool off the spirits, as Mexican referee Archundia dished off 7 yellows (none in the second half). What is it with Mexican referees and yellow cards? The one in the Spain-Chile game was handing them out quite freely as well...

So that's it. Group stage is over and we have the pairings for the Round of 16. Plenty of surprises, as mentioned before, but I'll spare you any mawkish soliloquies this evening...

OK, well, maybe a quick one: of all the eliminated teams, there isn't ONE that did not deserve to go home. Over the 3 group games the best two teams from each group managed to qualify. But if you recall, I mentioned in one of the earlier posts that FIFA should consider some ‘alternative point’ systems in order to make the games more exciting (especially in the early stages) and reward attacking football. Would never happen, I know, but humor me as I go through these “what if” scenarios.

Group A

Uruguay 7 (4-0)
Mexico 4 (3-2)
South Africa 4 (3-5)
France 1 (1-4)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings, only Uruguay only 6 points and France a big goose-egg!
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: identical standings, with Mexico still through on goals difference

Group B

Argentina 9 (7-1)
South Korea 4 (5-6)
Greece 3 (2-5)
Nigeria 1 (3-5)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings, only Argentina with 10 points
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: similar at the top of the group, only Nigeria last (with 2 goals scored)

Group C

USA 5 (4-3)
England 5 (2-1)
Slovenia 4 (3-3)
Algeria 1 (0-2)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings, only England on 4 points (still better goal difference) and Algeria 0 points
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: US still top, but Slovenia going through instead of England!

Group D

Germany 6 (5-1)
Ghana 4 (2-2)
Australia 4 (3-6)
Serbia 3 (2-3)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings, only Germany on 7 points
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: Germany still top, but Australia going through instead of Ghana!

Group E

Netherlands 9 (5-1)
Japan 6 (4-2)
Denmark 3 (3-6)
Cameroon 0 (2-5)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: still same standings!

Group F

Paraguay 5 (3-1)
Slovakia 4 (4-5)
New Zealand 3 (2-2)
Italy 2 (4-5)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings, only Paraguay and New Zealand one point less each
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: Italy through instead of Paraguay! (there goes my argument)

Group G

Brazil 7 (5-2)
Portugal 5 (7-0)
Ivory Coast 4 (4-3)
North Korea 0 (1-12)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings (although Portugal and Ivory Coast equal on points)
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: same two qualified, but Portugal first.

Group H

Spain 6 (4-2)
Chile 6 (3-2)
Switzerland 4 (1-1)
Honduras 1 (0-3)

Alternative 1 - No points for 0-0 draw; extra point for more than 4 goals scored: same standings
Alternative 2 - One point per goal scored: still same standings!

So, what does all this tell us [aside from the obvious fact that I have way too much time on my hands and I'm undoubtedly a football junkie]?

Fundamentally, not a big difference in final standings, if you look at the way the tables line up [small exceptions here and there], but ...we’d see more goals, perhaps, as they carry more weight. We’d see teams not giving up and still trying to score even if they’re down 3-0 in the 80th minute. Every team would have a better chance even if they lost the first two games [as it was the case with Cameroon or North Korea, for example]. In the end, they should be “judged” on all 3 performances, regardless of how bad they performed in the first two…

But it’s all circumstantial. No matter the mechanics, the last round of group games will always be exciting and provide the drama that we’re all so used to, while the first round will continue to be clouded by the fear of not losing the first game… Then, 16 teams are left and the true competition begins. More drama, more surprises, more excitement, more heartache, more of what we love about this beautiful game!

Stay tuned [and glued to the TVs] for more drama as the Round of 16 kicks off!

In the early game, Uruguay will probably overcome the South Koreans, but it will not be easy; US is looking to avenge their 2-1 loss to Ghana 4 years ago in Germany. At least one [if not both] of these games could head for extra time, as all teams are evenly matched.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 14

I hate to keep pointing back to my early analysis (see Preamble - Part I) but my initial assessment of Gli Azzurri was spot on, as they're joining France on the early 'bus' back home. So, for another first in the history of the tournament, both finalists from the previous edition are heading home [France has lived through a similar experience in 2002 (after winning the 1998 edition) but for the Italians, this is a new low; yet I'm not one bit surprised]. Just go back and read the little snippet about Italy from the 6/6/10 post and you'll see why.

The 'surprise' is so mush more significant since the group was considered one of the easiest. But from there to finishing last, there's a long way... really no excuse. Yet, I'm not gonna dwell on this... I'll stay brief since I'm on a flight back to Atlanta and the Gogo In-flight internet connection is poor...

So, Italy out (totally 'deserved' based on the aggregate performance over the 3 group games) and Paraguay and Slovakia through. None have impressed too much, but when the bar was so low, not much was required in order to go through. I think they will both bow out to Holland and Japan respectively in the next stage.

Yes, Holland topped their group with a perfect score (only other team to do that so far is Argentina) without even stepping on the gas... Cameroon has really disappointed with 0 points in the tournament. Japan (securing the second spot) were impressive against the Danes with an emphatic 3-1 victory.

Day 14, therefore, continued in the same surprise-generating fashion we've been witnessing in the tournament so far. Plenty of firsts:
  • Italy bottom of their group (first time they failed to win a game in a tournament)
  • Paraguay topping their qualification group (USA doing the same yesterday)
  • Both finalists from previous version eliminated in the group stage
...and with all the negative results, the obligatory carousel of "fired" coaches started its spin already; victims so far: Carlos Alberto Parreira (South Africa), Pim Verbeek (Australia), Paul LeGuen (Cameroon) - who's rumored to replace Pim, in a classic [yet typical] musical chairs game, and Otto Rehhagel (Greece). Aside from these, others we already knew will be replaced once the World Cup was over: Raymond Domenech (France) and Marcello Lippi (Italy). I'm sure many more will follow, especially those "mercenaries" I referred to in my earlier ramblings, with Sven Eriksson (Ivory Coast), Lars Lagerback (Nigeria) and Radomir Antic (Serbia) primary candidates.

Back to what matters, however, looking forward to the last day of group games, Ivory Coast and North Korea is simply academic unless (notice that's a big 'unless'?) Portugal loses to Brazil and they beat the Elephants by a cumulative total 9 goals... Like I said... 'Academic'

Brazil and Portugal will fight to decide who will top the group, but the Lusitans will need a victory in order for that to happen; either one would like to avoid Spain in the next round, unfortunately, that 'information' will not be available until later in the afternoon.

So the outcome of afternoon games could potentially result in 3 teams on 6 points, with the decider being goal-difference. Spain - Chile is a must-win for La Furia Roja, but the South Americans' defense is yet to be penetrated [granted they have only scored 2 goals in two games, but they do have 6 points]. Hands full for Xavi, Iniesta & Co.

The Swiss have the relatively easier opponent, and although they need the 3 points and as many goals as possible, they only found the net once so far in the tournament. Yet, I would not be surprised if they find their rhythm tomorrow. The way I see it [and again, Spain is my favorite to go all the way] is Spain over Chile and Switzerland over Honduras, with Chile going home on goal difference. Too bad that one of the teams in this group will leave the competition (with 6 points potentially) as most of the ones that have already qualified did so with less... But that's another story for another day.

Talk about stories, however, here's a good one I found on ESPN. Very well written (especially the parallel between tennis judges and soccer referees) and although I don't agree with it 100%, I liked the writing style and approach. Hope you enjoy it:

Let's hope tomorrow this blog will come back on a happy note!

¡Viva España!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 13

I had my silly superstitious fears that 'Day 13' of this World Cup will turn out to be disastrous for the U.S. team, and although it sure looked like they were heading towards elimination (after a hard-fought battle with the Desert Foxes), the always-resilient Yanks proved one more time that "never say never" is in the Americans' DNA. What a spectacular way to end a game that they should have had 'in the bag' several times over during regular time!

Yes, no one in their right mind would have put money on USA topping the group, but although it wasn't easy (or pretty) they did it. Now, they have to get better at finishing off clear chances, and in all truthfulness, step up the tempo of their game in order to have a prayer in the elimination stages. They had several clear chances during the game, but whether it was Buddle, Altidore, Gomez or Dempsey they missed chance after chance to wrap up their qualification earlier [and with less emotion].

"All's well that ends well" 'ol Will [Shakespeare] said a while back, and that's how we should look at it. But there's definitely plenty to learn from the game against Algeria: need more speed, more courage, and more decisiveness in front of goal. It will not be easy against a young Ghana side (who won the Under-20 World Cup against Brazil last year).

Now, I don't want to take anything from the boys. They fought hard, never gave up, and simply deserve qualification in the next round, considering their performance to date. I truly hope they get far and revive "soccer" in the US!

England played better than in the previous two games, but still had plenty to worry against Slovenia. They should have won by a bigger margin, but I think victory itself (and implicitly the 3 points) were of more importance to them; it definitely lifted the team's (and fans') spirits. However, now that they know they're facing Germany in the next round, they probably rue their missed chances.

And although I didn't think they'd make it so far [and was not a fan of their 'game'], I feel bad for the Slovenians. As the England game was wrapping up, they thought they were qualified (second in the group, after England) but Donovan's goal took them from ecstasy to agony in a matter of seconds! Reverse emotional roller-coaster for the Americans, of course!

In group D, all teams had a chance to go through and the final table was not settled until late in the day (84th minute, when Pantelic pulled one back for Serbia).

On paper, Serbia (on the back of their victory over Germany) were favorite to get 3 points and progress to the next stage. On the field, however, Australia proved to be the more incisive side and showed plenty of character and determination. At some point [up 2-0] they needed two more goals (scored between them and Germany) to secure the second spot. Boy, how they regretted that initial 4-0 loss to the Germans!

Serbia has disappointed (their only claim being that they beat Germany) and seeing how France has also left early, brings something painful into perspective: how much worse would Romania have been since they placed 5th in the same qualifying group... Yeah, I know... Sad, huh?!?

Germany secured a slim victory over Ghana (in stark contrast to their tremendous start out of the gates) and are now posed to face England in a classic and perennial derby. The Black Stars of Ghana started the day on top of the group (on 4 points) and needed at least a tie to maintain that position, but Gyan & Co. could not find the goal. In the end, both teams progressed, thanks to the result in the other game.

Interesting to note that the Boateng brothers appeared against each other in a day where "nationality" lines in "national" squads are getting more and more blurred [take Germany with Podolski (born in Poland), Khedira (Tunisian father), Ozil (Turkish descent), Cacau (naturalized Brazilian), Boateng (Ghanian father), Miroslav Klose (born in Poland), Mario Gomez (Spanish father), Marco Marin (born in Serbia)... should I keep going? You get my point...]

So once again, great accomplishment for the Yanks, but they are yet to find the optimal solution that would enable them to progress further in the tournament. I hope they prove me wrong!

Tomorrow, another set of tough deciders: if Holland will probably rest some players against already-eliminated Cameroon, Denmark - Japan will be the match to watch. Both teams are quick on the counter, but the Danes will have to push forward more, as a tie favors Japan. Given their performances so far, this could go either way (with a slight plus for Denmark, in my opinion).

Italy, another disappointing showing so far, should get their act together and defeat Slovakia (who have not shown much so far) but they simply can't find their rhythm (or someone to score goals). They should be happy with second place, but not as happy to face the red-hot Dutch in the next round. Paraguay [a pleasant surprise so far] should top the group with a win over the All Whites and prepare for a face-off against the Denmark - Japan winner.

Once more, thank you Brandon! Thank you Tim, and Carlos, and Michael, and Clint, and Jozy, and... Lady Luck!
Go U.S.A. !!!!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 12

We have our first pairing of Round-of-16 games courtesy of today's group A and B deciders: Argentina - Mexico and Uruguay - South Korea. And although the progression was equitable (based on overall team performance in the group stage) it was not without a fair share of drama that these teams went through.

Mexico needed a win against Uruguay to assure a first place in the group and avoid Argentina in the next round. 'La Celeste' defense, however, was impenetrable again (still with a clean sheet after 3 games) and even though Mexico came close on a couple of occasions, it was Luis Suarez's header that made the difference on the scoreboard.

France ended their miserable campaign with another loss, and my initial prediction of another "down" year for Les Bleus came true. Not only were they not able to get out of a relatively easy group, but they looked deplorable throughout [on and off the field]. Domenech's departure is not timely enough and I'm wondering how much 'permanent' damage was done... Too bad for a team that lost the final on penalties 4 years ago [yet, the writing was on the wall with an equally poor performance at Euro 2008]. Out with the old, in with the new, time to rebuild under Laurent Blanc.

With all this, Mexico sweated a bit during half time, when they were down by one and South Africa was up by two; another goal from the Africans or Uruguay and they would have dropped to the 3rd spot. Luckily for them, Malouda found the only French goal of the tournament and duly ended Bafana Bafana's hopes of securing the second spot. In another 'first' for the World Cup, the host nation failed to make it past the group stage...

In the other group, Maradona [as expected] rested some of his players, but even so, the Greeks failed to capture any points; the stats were overwhelmingly in favor of the South Americans yet - paradoxically - Messi has not found the net yet [with 7 goals scored by Argentina to date]. He still is the driving force behind the Albiceleste attacking prowess.

South Korea and Nigeria, displaying two entirely different approaches to the game, shared the spoils in a hard-fought encounter. As the scores evolved, each of the 3 other teams had a shot at securing the second spot (given another goal here and there) but in the end [and deservingly so] the Asians edged Greece by one point. Truth be told, with their negative, ultra-defensive tactics, the Greeks did not gain any fans at this edition of the World Cup. Their only victory in the tournament [2-1 against Nigeria] came after the Africans were reduced to 10 men (the Super Eagles really played themselves out of that game).

Bottom line, no real surprises in the third round of group games today [aside from France imploding and Nigeria disappointing again, but that was already established after the first two games].

Tomorrow, England is hoping not to share the fate of the French, but I'm sure Slovenia will not make it easy for them [they do have a history of falling to Eastern European opposition in the last game of the group (Euro 2000: 3-2 loss to Romania, for example)]. Still, I think they'll step it up and take the 3 points. US is hoping for 3 point as well - against Algeria - hoping for a first place position (!) in the group, and implicitly an "easier" opponent in the next round. But when that means Germany, Ghana or Serbia, it really doesn't make any difference. Of course, any ties would change the final distribution in the group, and even Algeria has a chance to progress [albeit, on paper only, but we've seen plenty already in this World Cup].

So, in group D, it's anybody's guess as to who will top the group. Serbia seems to have an easier shot at it (against a depleted Aussie side) while in the other match, Ghana (the only African side with real chances to progress to the next round) has a one point edge over Germany [thus would be happy with a tie] but the latter are still a force to be reckoned with [and would have probably been in a more comfortable position if Klose was not sent off in the game against the Serbs]. Experience may prove too much for the young Black Stars and I "see" Germany and Serbia as the ones going through.

But until then,
GO U.S.A.!!!

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 11

Today concluded the last set of games in the second round of group matches. Starting tomorrow, we’ll have to choose which games to follow ‘live’ as the group deciders are played concomitantly. For those of us who work for a living, that’s unfortunately an easy decision: can’t follow any of it on the telly (or even on one of the many online broadcasts).

Oh, well… Still able to catch the action thanks to the many replays available through ESPN or the Spanish-language networks…

In today’s action, Spain has quickly rebounded from the Swiss shock and regained their confidence with a smashing display of footballing artistry [granted, against lowly Honduras]; the only regret is that they did not score more [Villa had several chances – including the penalty – to get a hat-trick, but it was not to happen]. The Swiss’ luck ran out and duly lost to a very well organized Chilean team [in apparently one of the worst refereed games of the tournament – by Saudi Al Ghamdi. When will FIFA learn not to destroy games in this manner?]. Portugal scored freely against the North Koreans to set up a near-impossible-to-break goal-difference race against Ivory Coast for the second spot in the group.

Back to Chile – Switzerland for a second. If you look at the stats, the possession was 70-30 in favor of Chile (quite similar for the Swiss in what they ‘played’ against Spain, but this time they didn’t manage a single shot on goal!)… just wondering if they would have played better if Behrami was not sent off. Somehow, I doubt it. So based on today’s results, looks like we could have 3 teams in this group all equal on 6 points (if Spain beats Chile and Switzerland beats Honduras in the next round) with only goal difference deciding the order [and who will go home]. The Swiss would have the better odds (given the easier opponent) but I really hope they don’t make it; with their negative, defensive style of play they don’t deserve to go through…

Quick summary of the action so far shows a different approach from the first round of group games: more goals scored [2.43 per-game average against 1.56 in the first round], a less defensive approach (as teams got over the fears of not losing the first game, or in some cases lost and are now going for the win) but still plenty of surprises, on and off the field. Bottom line, it looks like there are no longer small teams out there… and if they don’t have the depth to progress far into the competition, they can still pull upsets and inspire with the type of attitude that has so far eluded the likes of France, England, or Italy.

All the teams from this side of the Atlantic (North, Central and South America) have performed admirably so far and have serious chances to progress to the last 16 [only Honduras are out of the competition, but nobody expected them to do well]. The African teams, however, have disappointed so far, and while Nigeria and Cameroon are already out [really poor showing on both counts] Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Angola [all with one point each after 2 games] are hanging by a thread. Only Ghana is positioned better, but instead of having 6 points already and assured of an elimination-round spot [disappointed to drop two points against 10-men Australia] now have to fight off Germany for a place in the next round.

The Europeans have been hit and miss [mostly miss so far, rather]. The ‘big powers’ have disappointed and are in some cases in danger of not progressing. It’s still early though, and as long as there are mathematical chances, we really shouldn’t write off anyone. By Friday the dust will settle on the group games action and then the real competition will begin. Looking forward to an exciting week ahead!

Tomorrow, France will have to score as many as they can against South Africa then hope that Uruguay and Mexico don’t tie. And the only reason these two teams don’t go for a tie (which would be the easy way out and eliminate France in the same time) is that the second placed team in group A will meet Argentina in the next round. Yeah…enough said!

In group B, Argentina may rest some of the players, but I doubt Greece has the means to take anything out of that game. South Korea has destiny in their own hands against an already eliminated Nigeria, and should progress to the next round, where they’ll meet the winner of group A.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 10

I mentioned in the 'Preamble' that certain European teams should not be here. Slovakia supported my stance today with an inspirited display against Paraguay. I don't mean to take anything away from the South Americans, who played a solid game and could have scored more than 2, but Slovakia only registered 1 (one) shot on goal [and that came in the 2nd minute of added time]. Really, with that kind of "firepower" they can't hope to accomplish much in this World Cup.

In the other game of the group, another huge surprise: Italy - New Zealand: 1-1! I knew there would be such results, just didn't think there'd be so many. Yes, the Kiwis were stern in defense, with a very inspired Paston in goal, but Italy were all bark and no bite. Slow on the buildup, static, no leadership in midfield [they miss Pirlo tremendously] and really lacking up front, they needed a dubious penalty call to tie the game [yes, De Rossi was pulled, but made most of it with a theatrical display]. In the end, great result for the All Whites, while Italy are yet to find their rhythm.

Paraguay is now on 4 points and have the best chance of topping the group [playing New Zealand next]. Italy and Slovakia will duke it out for second place, but Slovakia has to go for victory. So as poor as Italy have been so far, they will make it into the round of 16...

Brazil outclassed Ivory Coast in the last game of the day and the Elephants [and all African countries in general] should really start paying attention to discipline in defense. All goals were due to serious lapses at the back [yes, L. Fabiano used his hand to bring the ball down on the second goal, but he also got passed 3 defenders in the process]. Slack defending or not, Brazil look to be in a class of their own. Only Argentina has matched them so far in consistency and team performance. They are a little vulnerable at the back, but when they can score freely as they've done so far, that failing can be forgiven...

Ivory Coast could have posed more problems to the Brazilian defense had they pushed forward earlier, but they waited until Keita shamefully got Kaka sent off before venturing forward in numbers... Too little too late!

Tomorrow, last set of games in the second round of group matches. Have Spain recovered from the Swiss defeat? I sure hope so. Don't need them to join the ranks of England, Italy and France...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 9

This morning it's definitely been a "want my money back" day for World Cup viewers. Then came Denmark - Cameroon to provide some entertainment!

Holland and Japan did not show much. The Nippons displayed their typical hard-running do-or-die attitude, but got nothing to show for it in the end. Holland showed glimpses of what they're capable of, but had few chances and only capitalized on one of them. With 6 points already, they'll make it to the second round, but not so sure about their defense once serious questions will be asked of them [already looked a bit shaky against Japan on several occasions]

Ghana and Australia played one of the weakest games to day. With Ghana so promising after the victory against the Serbs, everyone expected a comfortable wig against the Socceroos (more so, since Kewell was ejected early on). But the duel between the oldest squad [Australia with no players under 24] and the youngest [Ghana had only 2 players older than 24 on the field] found no winner at the end of the 90 minutes. The young Black Stars had several chances to get all three points, but their passing, crossing and overall control play was really poor. The Aussies, on the other hand, had a big chance to go ahead, but Kinson in goal made amends for the earlier blunder on Australia's goal.

So now Ghana and Germany should provide a good game to decide who will advance, while Serbia should have no problem with Australia [who have not shown much so far] in the other game remaining in the group.

The last game of the day provided something more open (which has been the exception, rather than the rule so far). Both defenses were appalling (which is how Eto'o scored first; and could have had another one if not for the upright), the forwards missed chance after chance and both goalies had an inspired day [less Sorensen's mistake on the first goal] but I have appreciated the all-out attitude from two teams that lost their first game (and were now in dire need for points). In the end, the Danes got all 3, making Cameroon the first casualty of this World Cup [not even a mathematical chance any longer]. One would argue that other teams are "there" already (with South Africa having to play France next, or Australia to play Serbia) but at least they still have a chance on paper. Cameroon does not even have that any longer! Nor do I think they deserved to advance, either. They really did not show much...

One week into the competition, Cameroon is already out, and we've had more than a fair share of surprises, while the overall quality of the competition is relatively low. Hopefully things will pick up as group games become more of a do-or-die event. And as much we'd like to argue that the bigger teams take longer to warm up, the likes of England, France, Italy and even Spain, better step up quick, or avoid a very short tournament.

Before wrapping up, let me take another stab at Adidas and their controversial new ball. Do you really think all the players at this level are so poor that 70% of the crosses go astray? Or most of the shots sail over the crossbar? Or the goalies are so incapable that they can't hold on to the damn thing? No, I didn't think so either. But when FIFA is making a boat-load of money from the sponsorship deal with Adidas (actual figures not disclosed, but estimated at $350M) they feel obligated to turn the other cheek...

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 8

At last [it was inevitable, given past history] unacceptable refereeing has returned to the World Cup. The Spaniard in charge of the Germany – Serbia game [Undiano] did everything in his powers to steal the limelight [8 yellows and a red], while Coulibaly (from Mali) robbed the US of a well deserved victory.

One would argue that the referees have been very good up to now, but really, at this level, there’s no room for mediocrity. FIFA should really consider their selection when it comes to the match officials. I realize the “global” nature of this event (and the need to have representation from all continents) but I’m sure that there are other officials far more qualified and more experienced at the big stage, than this guy from Mali…

So, Germany’s wings were clipped a bit as they faced much stronger opposition than Australia. Granted, the referee messed up the intensity of the game by throwing ‘yellows’ left and right (and reducing the Germans to 10 men way too easily) but these types of results are becoming the standard in this competition. A tie would have been a more equitable result, but Stojkovic denied Podolski from the spot after another Sebian hand ball in the box (Vidic this time). What is with the Serbian defense and hand balls? Didn’t they learn from last week’s experience where they gifted Ghana the 3 points from a similar scenario?

Overall, Germany played better, even with 10 men. They would have won if any other referee was in charge. Serbia should be thankful!

Even more controversy shrouded the US game an hour or so later. Yes, they had a poor first half [really looked like there was no cohesion at all] but Slovenia was not much better. They just capitalized on a couple of chances and took a strong lead to half time. But the Americans made some inspiring changes and were back in the game shortly after the restart. They looked like a different team, really. Slovenia was so unconvincing that I started wondering how they even scored twice already.

Then, right after the equalizer, came the controversy which robbed the US of the 3 points. There was nothing there anyone could see but Mr. Coulibaly. Replay after replay showed nothing. This makes a perfect case for that video replay I was talking about in the ‘Preamble’ last week [just like in gridiron football, give each team one or two chances to challenge the referee’s decisions, especially at this level]. And even if he spotted an infringement in the box as the kick was being taken, then he should have allowed the free kick to be taken again. Anyway…plenty of ink and air time will be wasted over that decision, I’m sure. In the end, the result stands and the US still have a good chance to make it through. The way I see it, if they beat Algeria in the last game (which they should) and England beat Slovenia (that should also happen, for two reasons: the Brits have something to prove [they have not impressed yet] and they want to qualify first from the group in order to avoid stronger opposition in the round of 16) then USA will grab the second place in group C. Hell, even first, depending on goal difference…

In the other game of the group, dismal performance from England. Credit to Algeria, for a very disciplined performance, but England were abysmal. Not one Albion player stood out; none looked like they wanted to play. The tabloids in Great Britain will have a field day! And on Capello’s birthday, no present from his players; instead, he looked like he aged 5 years in 90 minutes!

This leaves group C wide open for the last round of games. Unless England wakes up, they’ll take an early flight back out of Cape Town…

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 7

My, oh my…How the ‘mighty’ have fallen…again! Au revoir, messieurs! Muy bueno, El Tri!

This time, however, I am not one bit surprised. The writing was on the wall for Les Bleus, and my initial prediction for another “down” year for them was spot on. Uruguay and Mexico now look like the unlikely teams to progress from group A…yet, as long as there’s still a mathematical chance, the French are still in the running. They’d just have to beat South Africa by more than 3 goals and Uruguay to beat Mexico by at least 2 (or something along those lines…5 goals difference). But how many goals has France scored to date? Yes…exactly [zero]. On the other hand, both Latin American countries would qualify in the event of a tie… which is what they should do, just to knock off the French… but the second-placed team will face off Argentina in the next round… so I’m pretty sure Mexico will push for a win [Uruguay will be first, in case of a tie, if you’re wondering].

But back to the French. They’ve been nothing short of pathetic so far and do not deserve to make it through. I really hope South Africa beats them in the ‘consolation’ game.

In the earlier games, Argentina took a commanding lead of group B with an opportunistic Higuain recording the first hat-trick of the tournament. Too bad Messi did not get one if his own (he sure came close once or twice). We’ll just have to see how well the defense performs against serious competition in the next round, but the attacking third is just outstanding so far!

In the other game of the morning, Nigeria have no one but themselves [especially Sani Kaita, eliminated in the 33rd minute] to blame for the loss. Up one nothing (granted, on a free kick that was let in fairly easily by the Greek defense), they managed to play almost one hour with 10 men [discipline is typically not a strong suit among African teams]. Greece found it easier to come back, and although Vincent Enyeama was excellent in goal gain for Nigeria [he is partially to blame for the second goal, a ball he could not hold on to after an initial Tziolis shot], the final result was justified. More so since Obasi missed a chance to put Nigeria ahead from 6 yards in front of an empty goal [you can’t do that and still expect to be considered good enough to stay in the competition].

Nigeria is not officially out [can still qualify if they beat S. Korea by two goals and Argentina beats Greece by 2] but it’s South Korea and Greece disputing the second spot. They are both on 3 points, same goal difference, yet South Korea has the edge on goals scored. With Greece having to play Argentina, however, their future does not look too good…But as long as there are chances on paper, none of them will give up the fight…

Overall though, the competition is opening up. England should beat Algeria easily tomorrow, but Germany – Serbia and Slovenia – USA [potential decider for the second spot in the group] should be entertaining.

Disclaimer: travel day for me, so I only saw the first half of the Argentina game ‘live’. Then caught highlights of the other games in the MSP airport (and of course, read all I could do about the games on line in the plane, thanks to Gogo Inflight)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 6

Well, well, well…What a day to wrap up the first round of group games! And a harsh reminder to my earlier comment, that I should not write off any team [read Switzerland] without allowing them to prove themselves on the field…Yet, sustainable proof that anything can happen at a World Cup and past statistics only enforce that “rules” are there to be broken. Let’s just hope that the one rule that says no team that lost the first game ever went on to win the World Cup will be broken also. Looks doubtful though, as Spain (if they’ll make it out of the group) they’ll likely meet Brazil in the round of 16 [incidentally, I had these two meet in the final, during my pre-tournament ‘analysis’]. But enough of that…Here’s the story as it unfolded:

Chile managed an easy win over Honduras, which was more comfortable than the 1-0 scoreline. It could have been better if they capitalized on their chances…still, they were happy to record another World Cup victory after 48 years!

Spain’s loss, on the other hand, was a complete paradox. The game stats were overwhelmingly in favor of the Spaniards: 63% possession, 24-8 shots (8-3 on goal), 12-3 corners…Even the historical numbers were pointing to a Spanish victory: they had not lost to European opposition in their last 37 games and never lost to Switzerland in any of their previous 19 encounters. To their credit, the Swiss have now gone 484 minutes without conceding a goal at the World Cup [only Italy – 550 and England – 501, can boast a better record] and have equaled Italy’s record of 5 consecutive clean sheets (even though they have not kept a single clean sheet in any of their 22 previous World Cup games prior to this run). In the end though, a bit of luck and plenty of resilient defending is what contributed to the most important statistic [and biggest upset of the competition so far]: the 1-0 scoreline.

Without taking anything away from the Swiss, La Furia Roja had only themselves [and lady luck] to blame for heading into the halftime without a goal. That’s been the theme so far: if you fail to score early, it gets increasingly more difficult as the game progresses. And even if the goal was a combination of lucky bounces and fortunate deflections, the Spanish defense (Casillas primarily) should have done better.

It’s all academic now. Surely a game they’ll want to forget. Heads up and better luck going forward!

So, after the first round of group games, some interesting statistics to take note of:

  • 24 games / 24 different goalscorers. Another first for the World Cup!
  • 1.5 goals per game on average. Lowest (in the overall tournament) to date have been 2.2 (Italy ’90) and 2.3 (Germany ’06). This number should definitely increase as teams get over the fear of losing the first game and employ a more attack-minded approach in order to qualify out of the groups. But this is clearly something that FIFA should look at if they want to get back to the higher averages recorded during the competition’s early years [yes, the game is not the same, but the approach and mentalities of the teams have also changed].
  • The South American contingent have the best points-per-game average (2.2), with Asia at 1.5, Europe at 1.38 and Africa (.83) at the opposite end

* * *

Round 2 of Group Games

In line with what I just mentioned, the teams now feel unshackled by the fear of losing the first game and start showing what they’re really capable of (good or bad). Uruguay proved that the tie with France was not just happenstance, with an emphatic victory over Bafana Bafana. Forlan scored a splendid ‘Jabulani’ goal to become the first player to score 2 so far [did you see that ball swerve and drop?!?]. South Africa, on the other hand, might make some history of their own [unless they beat France in the next game] by becoming the first host country not to make it past the group stage. They really were poor, showing that their ‘performance’ of not qualifying for the African Cup this year was justified. Mexico should really feel bad for not taking all 3 points from their encounter last Friday.

* * *

I pick up the USA Today newspaper every morning to see what ink has been wasted over the World Cup by totally inept [so-called] ‘reporters’. It makes me cringe every time. Here’s a couple of snippets:

  • A certain State Department spokesman called North Korea “a criminal state” because they’re “trying to steal South Korean TV signal of World Cup matches”

1. Why/how is this newsworthy?

2. Why does the US State Dept care? Is this what our taxes pay for?

3. I’m not defending the communists, but it’s not about the country. This is about soccer fans for whom that would be the only option to watch their beloved game. I know…I’ve been there countless times watching games via the Bulgarian TV. Just wondering what the US fans would do if the games were not broadcast domestically…

  • On a story about the Jabulani ball, a certain ‘journalist’ [Joan Murphy] notes that the current ball construction “makes the ball rounder”!!! Wow…imagine that…the game has been played so far with a less rounder ball…

* * *

In an unrelated bit of trivia, an USA Today poll asking if Americans would favor ‘sin taxes’ on sodas and junk food, 56% said “no” (only 33% approve of such a measure). Not surprising, but sad…

World Cup 2010 - Day 5

Lessons to be learned:

For me: don't underestimate (or write off) a team before they got a chance to prove themselves on the field.

For Slovakia (or other teams in their shoes): if you don't take your chances, you will eventually pay for it [or better be prepared to defend until the last second].

For Ivory Coast / Portugal: you'll never score if you don't push more than 3 players forward at a time (especially when the other team has 6-7 in defense).

For Brazil: there's a fine line between being lucky and being shamed.

Yes. Another strange day in South Africa. Slovakia, although they looked better, they did not create enough chances and simply counted their chickens before they hatched. The proverbial fat lady [a mostly amateur New Zealand team] then had the last laugh. It was poetic justice in some sense, as Vittek's goal came from a controversial offside position. Yet, great display from a very spirited All Whites side!

The "cracker" I had predicted between Portugal and Ivory Coast can simply be described in one word: FEAR. Fear of not losing that is...which was clearly visible from what went on: neither of the teams ventured forward; neither took chances...and as they say, "no guts, no glory". I'm afraid that the 2nd team in the group will be decided by how bad they beat North Korea (although seeing how poorly Brazil played - especially in the first half - that may not necessarily be the case).

North Korea proved to be a tough nut to crack for Brazil (and showed the other teams in the group how to defend against them). And if the keeper was more alert on the first goal, the Brazilians would have found themselves in the same position as Slovakia. Yes, you could argue that they had created a lot more chances, but last time I checked, the score is based on how many times the ball went into the net.

Once again, some of these over-cautious displays we witnessed again today come to support my earlier argument that FIFA should really provide serious incentives for a more attacking approach. If not giving any points for a 0-0 tie, or awarding extra points for extra goals [see my comments from day 3] then an easier option would be to award one point for every goal scored! That would really open things up, and - at least on paper - give a fighting chance to every team in the group! [I promise to come back to this with 'alternative' final standing for each of the groups based on these premises; should be an eye-opening experience].

But until then, action in the final group scheduled tomorrow: Spain are clear favorites over the Swiss (especially with Behrami and Frei) and Chile should overcome Honduras (although a tie would not surprise anyone any longer). Then the hosts take on Uruguay to initiate the second round of group games. The winner would be more than assured a spot in the round of 16, although I predict another tie.

¡¡ Vamos España !!

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 4

On the road again, as I mentioned, but I can't let my 'fans' down...up to 4 now...and growing!!! Yooohoooo!!! So, here we go: short and sweet daily wrap-up:

The Dutch emphatically put Denmark away, and although I did not see the game (only the highlights) the match stats clearly show what happened on the pitch. And the difference on the scoreboard could have been bigger, with Van der Vaart (agile save from Sorensen) and Sneijder (against the crossbar) coming close to superb goals...Just think about how much better they'll be once Robben is fit again. I just hope they'll continue to be consistent (something that has plagued them in the past).

The second game of the day provided somewhat of a surprise result, with Cameroon dropping all 3 points to a very resilient and hard-defending Japan. Yes, the stats were favorable to the Indomitable Lions, but they didn't really press hard enough until the last 10-15 minutes or so. Mbia could have tied it with 5 minutes to go (with what could have been a top-10 goal), unfortunately his powerful shot from 25-30 yards out was a couple of inches high and rattled the crossbar. The Africans' chances of advancing from the group are slim now, with Denmark and Holland to play next.

In the Cape Town downpour, the World Champions could not get past Paraguay, and with a bit more luck (or concentration from goalkeeper Villar) we could have witnessed the first major upset of the tournament. Yet, I'm not entirely surprised by the result (I picked "X" for this encounter). I've said it before and I'll say it again: Italy have a very poor squad and they should get out of the group because the opposition is poor, but I will not be surprised if Slovakia will play a number on the Azzurri (especially with Buffon now apparently injured). The Italians don't look like they have much fire-power up front, and defensively they're pretty shaky...

Tomorrow, New Zeeland should join neighbors Australia in the race for the 32nd place, and Brazil should top Germany on goals scored, but Ivory Coast - Portugal should be a real cracker (with the winner potentially deciding the second team to qualify from group G)! I hope Drogba will play (fractured arm less than a week ago) and I will definitely root for the Africans.

World Cup 2010 - Day 3

Day 3 had started on a really bad note, with a very poor encounter between Algeria and Slovenia, but it got much better an hour or so later as Ghana and Serbia put together a very entertaining game (best so far, in my opinion) and ended with a cat-and-mouse play between Germany and Australia, where the 4-0 score line only tells half the story…

Hard to stay awake during the first game of the day where Slovenia and Algeria [both surprise qualifiers, and if you read my ‘Preamble’ neither of them should be here] did not show anything. Nada. The game (lowest quality to date in this tournament) was heading towards a nil-nil draw, but Chaouchi decided to make the headlines with another goalkeeping blunder (not as bad as Green’s though) and let in a speculative shot from Koren. From what I saw on the pitch, England and the US should have no problems qualifying from this group…

The Black Stars, in the second game, put together a very strong performance against an equally strong Serbia, and took the 3 points thanks to an idiotic hand ball in the box from Kuzmanovic. Yet, the Serbs only had themselves to blame, as several times they came close to scoring earlier on…Reduced to 10 men in the second half, they had a mountain to climb after going down 1-0, and never pulled it through. Ghana, with a strong Kinson in goal (celebrating his 32nd birthday) looked confident and will surely progress if they continue the energetic, high-tempo style of play they showed against Serbia. The victory – great reason for celebration for all of Africa – was bittersweet for Milovan Rajevac (one of those ‘mercenaries’ I mentioned a few days back) who saw his home country defeated by the team he coaches…I’m only wondering what the Serbian papers are writing about him (or if his family and friends are safe back home)…

The Germans, although favorites in the 3rd game of the day, never thought they’d have it so easy against Australia. I mentioned in my pre-tournament analysis that most of their key players are past their prime (30+) and it showed, as the young German team ran circles around the Socceroos. The scoreline could have been much higher if the Germans did not waste several good chances, and to add insult to injury, Tim Cahill will likely miss the rest of the World Cup after being shown a red card in the 56th minute. Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez was trigger-happy with the cards, and with Cahill’s elimination practically ended any hopes for the Aussies in the tournament. [It seems like there’s always a Mexican referee that wants to be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Officiating standards – pretty high overall so far – were shadowed by his performance. If he had some dubious calls during the game, the red card was given way too easily and later on another “cheap” card was given to Cacau for ‘diving’ (most referees don’t give that even in the penalty area; he did it for such a display on the midfield line…)]

So yes, the games seem to be improving in quality (and tempo) but there have been (and likely to be) some ‘snoozers’, especially as the group standings take shape and teams that are already qualified (or have no longer a chance to qualify) will either rest players and or take the foot off the pedal... For argument’s sake, let’s take a look on how FIFA can improve that aspect of it, and change the mentality from “I can’t afford to lose the first game” to “I have to go all out and win the first game” (or all the group games, for that matter):

· Do not award any points to either of the teams for a 0-0 draw [critics would say that the first two games, although entirely opposite from a quality perspective, were both heading towards a blank draw, but the fact is, that both Ghana and Serbia showed that they were going for the win, while Algeria and Slovenia were content with “not losing”]

· Award an extra point for the team that scores 4 or more goals per game. In that case, Argentina would have not stopped and be content with a slim 1-0 lead.

I know, the over-conservative FIFA would never go for anything like that, but could you imagine how much better [open] the games would be? How many more goals would be scored? And how much more interesting the mathematical permutations on group standings would be?

Anyway…back on Earth, more exciting World Cup action coming up over the next couple of days…unfortunately, work gets in the way and I won’t be able to experience the action “live” again until Friday…This blog will surely suffer as a result, and my fans (all three of them!) will be disappointed…Apologies in advance, and I’ll try my best to keep up with the action in the evenings!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 2

A couple of days ago I mentioned that there were a few teams from Europe that should not be here; Greece were hard at work to prove me right! Appalling performance from the Greeks, without taking away anything from South Korean team that did everything right and could have won by an even bigger margin.

In the second game, Argentina showed glimpses of what they can do, but although the scored early (and I was expecting an avalanche of goals after that), they obviously took the foot off the pedal, particularly in the second half. That mentality almost left Nigeria back in, but overall, Messi & Co. controlled the proceeding and only their lack of finishing focus and a very inspired Vincent Enyeama [man of the match] preserved the narrow lead. It just didn't look like Argentina's midfield would be able to control the game against a stronger opponent...so it'll be interesting to see how they improve on that as the tournament progresses.

And last, but not least, the only game really worth watching in this tournament so far: England - USA. No, not just because the "home" team played (having then the obvious emotional perspective) but it was the quality of the game: high tempo, plenty of chances on either end (slight edge to England here) and good stretches of time where it looked like none of the players were saving themselves for the next game(s).

The US was surprisingly strong, with a solid team performance throughout. They had full control of the game for good portions of time, especially in midfield, where Lampard and Gerrard were "absent" for good stretches of time [there wasn't much mention of Lampard until late in the first half; he had a pretty low key game, given his usually high standards]. The defense did well also, limiting Rooney's options and keeping him far from goal. And Tim Howard was outstanding!

On the other end, England never seemed to find their rhythm (obviously difficult to do with all that US pressure) and Green gifted Dempsey with a goal that's sure to make the "bloopers" real of this edition of the World Cup [take that, Calamity James!*]. He made amends later on when Altidore got through on the left side only to see his close-range shot deflected against the post!

Overall, a slow start to this World Cup so far. Seems like all the teams are focused on two things in this first round: preserve energy for the games ahead and don't lose the first game [yes, the focus is not on winning the game, but not losing it; so don't expect much in terms of spectacle under those auspices].

More of the same should be expected today, with Slovenia - Algeria squaring off in the other group C game, and both group D games under way [Serbia - Ghana should be close, but Germany - Australia, just a matter of "how many", I'm afraid...]

Enjoy another football-filled day!

* for those of you not familiar, "Calamity James" is the nickname given to David James (the other choice for England keeper) well known for similar bloopers and blunders (here's one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuZm-53v96k&feature=related but I'm sure you can find plenty more on You Tube if you're so inclined).

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Day 1

Well, the much anticipated event got under way today, and although the preceding ceremonies (and concert) were vibrant, full of color, and highly energetic, the games that followed (particularly the second one) were at the other end of the spectrum...

Mexico and South Africa should both consider themselves happy with the result; if Mexico (with a bit more focus in the third half) could have put it away early, they were lucky not to concede all 3 points, especially with an uninspired Oscar Perez in goal. Mphela's shot off the post would have been the icing on the cake for Bafana Bafana...Yet Mexico had more chances, and whenever they did not waste them on their own, Khune was there for some big saves. But there's a well known unwritten law in football: you don't capitalize on the early chances, you'll regret it later...

The highlight of the match (and the day for that matter): a superb left-footed goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala (such a nice ring to it!) running at full speed. It will definitely feature in the video footage of top goals scored at this World Cup.

In the other game of the day, the French were nothing but PATHETIC, in line with their recent performances. Yes, the Uruguayans - in typical fashion - defended stoically, in a relatively clean [aside for the double-yellow / red card] yet effective manner. But Domenech should have known that already, he should have been well aware of their style [yes, yes, I know... I'm giving him too much credit]. Aside from a Gourgouff free kick that Muslera saved brilliantly, and a close miss by Govou in the opening minutes, I don't recall any clear chances. Not much on the other end either, aside from a couple of shots from Forlan (the one towards the end of the second half, from inside the area, came quite close).

With a bit more courage, Uruguay could have potentially stolen the 3 points from an uninspired Les Bleus team (and equally uninspired coach, whose second half subs made everyone scratch their heads). Gorcouff (despite the Zidane references) is nowhere near that level... Ribery was in and out of the game (more "out" than "in"), and as I said in the Preamble (Part 1) the likes of Anelka and Govou will be isolated without any serious support from the midfield. But what support should one expect when the team employs two defensive midfielder [Toulalan and Diaby] with not a dram of creativity between them...France has relied for so long on a midfield marshal of Zizou's statute, that they're just lost right now...

Yes, people will tell you that France warms up slowly, but personally, I just don't see any potential this time around.

On a positive note, the "men in black" [or red, as there was the case today] were "spot-on"! Yes, even the offside call on the Mexican goal was 100% legit, despite what some uninformed commentators would have you believe. The Laws of the Game clearly state that a player is in an offside position if he is in his opponents' half of the field and is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the next to last opponent. Note that it says "opponent" not goalkeeper. Yes, goalies are usually the last, but that's not always the case, and it does not mean it's not offside...So bravo for the referees! I know they'll stir up some controversy, eventually, but so far they've been on top of it!

Enough for today. Argentina - Nigeria should be a good early one tomorrow, then of course, the much anticipated England - USA [as much I want the US to do well, I think England with come out on top] (with Korea - Greece squeezed in there too).

One thing I hope - regardless of outcomes - is that we see some quality football. So far (with some exceptions in the tournament opener) I haven't been too impressed [of course, I'm hard to please, yes]...Yet, it's early...with 62 games to go...most are bound to be good!

For now, go U.S.A. !!!!!

PS - Are those vuvuzelas just annoying to you as they are to me? I can imagine how the players would feel... At some point they wanted to ban the darn things, but they didn't, citing African culture, spirit, etc. From what I know, Africa - when it comes to rhythm - is known for drums, good "beats", nice percussion...not this flat, ear-piercing buzzing annoyance that provides the background "noise"... Eeegghh!