30 June 2006

WC: Quarterfinal, Game Of The Year

So the Quarterfinals kick off today and what a day it will be. In the afternoon we have Italy vs. Ukraine. My fear is that this will become a boring, defensive stalemate, moving into extra time at 0-0. But Italy is a strong team, and I have hopes that they can break through the Ukranian defense fairly early. Either way, though, I can't see Ukraine winning... unless they can somehow hold out for penalties. A big ask.

But the early game, the one to watch, is Germany vs. Argentina. Ever since the first games, when Germany romped over Costa Rica and Argentina looked deadly in defeating the Ivory Coast, the buzz has been building around both teams. I'm not one for hype, but this is probably the premier match of the entire tournament. I'd say the odds are better than even that whoever wins here will win the whole thing.

And I don't have a real clue who will win here. Germany would be the safer bet. Their attack has been ruthless and clinical, which is not surprising for a German team. But it's also been creative, which is surprising. The home crowd advantage isn't to be sneered at either. So it's easy to imagine them winning the match.

On the other hand, Argentina have looked very, very dangerous as well, with an equally impressive assault on the opposing goal. But Argentina haven't exhibited the defensive weaknesses that Germany hasn't entirely hidden. And Argentina have a secret weapon: they had to grind out a tough win against a very dangerous Mexico team. That victory will give them a confidence and a resiliency that will serve them well today. Germany have been able to coast so far, and haven't yet needed to gut out a tough situation.

So I just don't know. Two evenly matched teams in the quarterfinals would typically result in a 0-0 match, decided by penalties. I desperately hope it doesn't come to that, and I don't think it will. We have here two very good attacking teams, and I suspect one or the other will break through early on. I hope so... because from that point forward, hold on to your seat. This could be the best match of 2006, and I can't wait.

28 June 2006

WC: Top Player Names

One of the great joys of soccer, and the World Cup especially, is that it provides a glimpse into other cultures. One of the simplest and most entertaining ways it does so is through the names of the players themselves. In addition to twisting the tongues of ESPN/ABC commentators, they're just darn fun to pronounce. So what are the most interesting and intriguing names at Germany 06? Here's my list:

Côte d'IvoireYapi Yapo
 Boubacar Barry
CroatiaDado Pršo
Czech RepublicTomáš Ujfaluši
FranceZinedine Zidane
GhanaOtto Addo
 Razak Pimpong
HollandJan Vennegoor of Hesselink
ParaguayAldo Bobadilla
SwitzerlandHakan Yakin
 Pascal Zuberbühler
TogoLudovic Assemoassa
UkraineRuslan Rotan
USAOguchi Onyewu

27 June 2006

WC: Second Round Update

Sorry for the gap in posts; I was out of town for a good friend's wedding. (A side note: I now have a lot of sympathy for all you west-coasters. The time zones don't help, do they?) What did I miss?

The second round has been fairly interesting so far. From six games so far, only one was decided by more than one goal. Germany is looking quite solid still, and is very arguably the current favorite to achieve glory.

Meanwhile, everything else has been very close and interesting. Portugal 1-0 Holland was a bit of a fiasco, thanks to Russian referee Valentin Ivanov. England lasted until 60' before they solved Ecuador; Italy fought into stoppage time with 10 men before beating Australia; Argentina needed a flukey goal in extra time to overcome Mexico, and Ukraine needed penalties to outlast Switzerland. The Argentina-Mexico game was clearly the best of the bunch, but all the others have had their share of interest.

I was saddened to see Switzerland go out last night. I've grown to enjoy watching them play; they don't have the most innovative attack, but they get forward and go after the game, while their defense is well-organized and doesn't panic. (And my friend who got married over the weekend grew up in Basel.) The first half of the match was exciting if unproductive, with Switzerland's building pressure matched by Ukraine's quick counterattack. But they all lost their way in the second half, with most of the pressure coming from Ukraine. By the end of regulation time, both teams looked drained, and penalties were inevitable. And it was perhaps the worst performance I've seen on penalties, with Ukraine winning by default at Switzerland's unwillingness to score. But a great deal of credit goes to Mexican referee Benito Archundia Tellez, who stood out by calling the game well and with restraint. It made for a much more entertaining contest than if, say, sixteen yellows were shown.

Today sees perhaps the best match of the octofinals. I'm not referring to Brazil vs. Ghana, though that might be interesting too. Brazil haven't looked on form, and Ghana will at the least work tirelessly and fight to the end. But without Michael Essien, they'll have a difficult task, and I expect that Brazil will progress with ease in the end.

No, of course I'm talking about Spain vs. France. These two teams have the potential to play a very exciting and competitive game. They match up well, with similar strengths and an ability to create breathtaking play. Of course, with so much at stake, it's likely to become a very cautious match; an early goal would do a lot to open up the game. I don't have a favorite: Arsenal connections are there for both teams, while either one is stylish and entertaining enough to be worthy of the quarterfinals. So here's hoping for a good game, with a few goals, and a result decided before penalties.

26 June 2006

WC: Culture of Losing

One of the wonderful things about the World Cup is that it's not only a celebration of soccer. It's also a celebration of cultural diversity, and different nations certainly react differently to getting dumped out of the cup.

Costa Rican fans were evidently upset the team lost all its games and didn't hide their disappointment. I can empathize with the Ticos' fans only to a certain extent. Realistically, how much can you expect from a team whose members nearly all play domestically? Costa Rica helped to set the tone for this World Cup with their brave, attacking style in the inaugural match. Take some pride in that Ticos.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Japanese supporters. While they harbored very real dreams of reaching the second round, the fans nevertheless gave the team a hero's welcome. And this is in spite of Japan's last minute capitulation to the overachieving (and overrated) Australians in their opening match. Seems it's possible to lose with honor, just don't smile about it.

22 June 2006

WC: Ghana 2-1 US

Ghana 2-1 US.

I'm crushed.

It's so, so bitter to see the US go out like this. We played so well through qualifications, but just didn't ever look very good in the World Cup. Lacking skill. Lacking effort. Lacking ideas. Always missing something. We were decent for maybe the first 15 minutes against Italy, and perhaps the first 20 against Ghana. and that's about it.

We did have some decent stuff at the beginning of the game. But as with Italy, we left ourselves open for a silly opportunity at the back. I'm not sure what happened with Reyna, he usually doesn't make errors like that. It's possible that his knee was damaged before the challenge came it. But in the event, he lost the ball, left Dramani alone... who took his chance nicely.

The US came back pretty hard, and in particular Damarcus Beasley finally stepped up. The goal was largely his creation. He lost posession in the attack, but cleverly read the pass, intercepted it, and sprinted goalward. His cross was inch-perfect, and Clint Dempsey's one-touch shot was rifled into the goal. 1-1 and game on.

But then, horror. The penalty call was just wrong, and Markus Merk is now on my sh*t list too. Sigh. The penalty was nicely taken, Kellar's not getting to that even if he dives the right way. And suddenly, our 1-1 at the half is 2-1 and the US has its back broken.

The US struggled to bring an attack in the second half, and spent long periods of time looking at a loss for ideas. They had a few good chances -- Donovan's shot over the bar, as well as McBride's header just onto the post. But they played too many long balls that had no hope of finding anyone. And spent much too much time in the back, trying to decide what to do. All in all, it was a shockingly passive display.

I'll post later, probably after the final, on what I think the US needs. But in short: time for Arena to move on. Thank you, Bruce, for some fantastic service. You've built the US into a legitimate threat and you deserve credit for it. But it's time for some new ideas. Anyone have Phil Scolari's number?

And it's also time for some of the "golden generation" to take a long, hard look at what they're going to do. In particular, we need to figure out the middle of the park. Reyna will retire from internationals before 2010 (and if he's still playing, we're in trouble). But Landon Donovan, I'm looking at you. After this World Cup, you can see why he turned tail and fled Germany for LA.

More later of course. But for now, it's just a sad, sad day. David and I did our best to support these guys through qualifications. I know others have done a lot more, but we saw several of the key games. Grenada. Costa Rica. Mexico. And Morocco too. All that has come to nothing now. And so we'll mourn for a while. For what might have been.

WC: Final Games -- Groups E and F

Possibly the most exciting day for all the group finals.

Group E
Italy 1 1 0 3 1 +2 4
Czech Republic 1 0 1 3 2 +1 3
Ghana 1 0 1 2 2 +0 3
United States 0 1 0 1 4 -3 1

Italy vs. Czech Republic, Hamburg
Ghana vs. United States, Nuremberg

They're both the games to watch! I fully expect an exciting two hours, with many backs and forths on the status as scores change. Italy vs. Czech Republic is exciting in its own right, even without considering what's at stake. And US against Ghana has the potential to be a very tight match as well. The US has a lot of ground to make up in goal differential, so they really need Italy to win if they're to go through.


 US winsUS/Ghana drawGhana wins
Italy winsItaly, US advanceItaly, Ghana advanceItaly, Ghana advance
Italy/Czechs drawItaly advance. US or Czech Rep advance based on goal diff.Italy advance. Czech Rep or Ghana advance based on goal diff.Ghana and Italy advance.
Czech Rep winsCzech Rep advance; US or Italy advance based on goal diff.Czech Rep advance; Italy or Ghana advance based on goal diff.Czech Rep and Ghana advance.

Group F
Brazil 2 0 0 3 0 +3 6
Australia 1 0 1 3 3 +0 3
Croatia 0 1 1 0 1 -1 1
Japan 0 1 1 1 3 -2 1

Brazil vs. Japan, Dortmund
Australia vs. Croatia, Stuttgart (game to watch)

Group F is nearly as exciting as E. Brazil are already qualified, to be sure. So that takes the pressure off them... but that only makes things more interesting for Japan. Brazil will rest several key players, and that will give the Japanese hope. Now that may be a false hope, as Brazil's second-stringers will be eager to prove their worth. But still, it's better than facing the world's best. Meanwhile, Croatia vs. Australia has the potential to be highly entertaining. Croatia have shown flashes of excellence but haven't really broken out yet. And Australia are probably the least deserving team to have 3 points after two games; they've only looked good for about 15 minutes so far.

SCENARIOS: Brazil are through regardless, and would need to lose pretty big to miss first in the group. Japan need to win, need Australia to not win, and need to make up a couple goals on differential. Australia are through if they win and possibly if they draw (unless it's Japan). Croatia need to win and need to beat Japan on goal differential if Japan win.

It's gonna be a real barn-burner today. The Group E games start in an hour. COME ON YOU NATS!

WC: Argentina, Portugal Win Groups

Another day, and two more groups closed out.

Group C

Holland 0-0 Argentina: It's too bad that this was on the last day of the group. It could have been a fantastic game, but instead it was ho-hum. I don't think either team really cared whether they will play Mexico or Portugal, and while there was some effort, it wasn't focused. I could say more, but why bother? It was boring, end of story. With the win, Argentina win the group and face second-place Mexico, while Holland will match up with Portgual.

Ivory Coast 3-2 Serbia & Montenegro: This was the game to watch. I know I made a (tiny) joke yesterday about 'playing only for pride', but it was anything but a joke to these two teams. Serbia & Montenegro were eager to prove their worth to the home fans, and if anything, Ivory Coast were even more hungry.

The game itself was kind of a mess, though exciting. Seven yellow cards, two reds, and two penalties will put the referee front and center. But Ivory Coast combined a headlong attack with a rather casual defense to offer both threat and opportunity to S&M. I was glad to see Ivory Coast win, as they had played well against two excellent teams and deserved soemthing to show for it. Still, as exicting as the match was, it affects nothing really at this World Cup.

Group D

Portugal 2-1 Mexico: Mexico's fate wasn't certain, which made this game a bit more interesting. When Portugal went up 2-0, that put Mexico pretty close to elimination and brought some excitement to the proceedings. But then Mexico scored, which eased the pressure. As the Angola game progressed, it became clear that Mexico were safe, and so they took their foot off the gas.

It was another really snippy game, with 10 yellows and a red, when Luis Perez was carded a second time, for a dive. It probably was a dive... but compared to some of the histrionics observed, it certainly wasn't card-worthy. I'm sure the players are at sixes and sevens trying to figure out how they're supposed to comport themselves, with all the heavy-handed refereeing going on.

Anyway, Portugal win the group and face Holland, while Mexico are rewarded with Argentina. That's probably the most interesting matchup anyway, as Mexico are less likely to be impressed by their hemispheric rivals than the European side would be.

Angola 1-1 Iran: This was an incredibly exciting game for about 15 minutes, after Angola scored. But they waited too late, and built too little threat, so in the end it never looked likely for them to progress. Overall though, both Iran and Angola represented themselves well in the tournament. While they'll be disappointed to be going home, they can at least say that they gave a good effort in a tough group.

So the games could have been better -- particularly Holland-Argentina -- but they weren't bad either. Today could be even better; certainly there's more to play for. Hang on to your hats!

21 June 2006

WC: Final Games -- Group C and D

Another ho-hum group in C, but at least D has some interest. Things are starting to pick up as the week goes on.

Group C
Argentina 2 0 0 8 1 +7 6
Holland 2 0 0 3 1 +2 6
Ivory Coast 0 0 2 2 4 -2 0
Serbia & Montenegro 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0

Netherlands vs. Argentina, Frankfurt (game to watch)
Ivory Coast vs. Serbia & Montenegro, Munich

Again, a group with nothing to play for. Argentina and Holland will be playing for the top of the group. Since these are the later games, they will know who their opponents would be, probably either Mexico or Portugal. I would expect to see a few key players rested here. Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro play for... wait for it... pride only.

SCENARIO: Argentina win the group with a win or a draw (thanks to goal differential).

Group D
Portugal 2 0 0 3 0 +3 6
Mexico 1 1 0 3 1 +2 4
Angola 0 1 1 0 1 -1 1
Iran 0 0 2 1 5 -4 0

Portugal vs. Mexico, Gelsenkirchen (game to watch)
Iran vs. Angola, Lepizig

A bit more to play for here. The situation is similar to Group B yesterday, but Angola have much more hope than Trinidad & Tobago did, thanks to better goal differential and a more beatable opponent. Iran are certainly not bad, but they don't boast the oppressive defense of Paraguay. They need to make up a four-goal differential on Mexico, but that's not as big as it sounds. Since they need to win and to see Mexico lose, that means they would get two goals back right there.

Meanwhile, Mexico and Portugal could be a very interesting game. Mexico won't feel certain of qualification, so they will fight to at least get a draw. But both teams will prefer to finish atop the group, in order to avoid the potential Argentine juggernaut. So hopefully we'll see two close, hard-fought games.

SCENARIO: Portugal need only a draw to win the group. Mexico need a draw to advance, and a win would get them first in the group. Angola need to win, to have Mexico lose, and to make up an additional two goal besides (for instance, a 2-0 win for Angola plus a 0-2 loss for Mexico).

This could be decent, but tomorrow should be incredibly exicting as all the teams in groups E and F still have hopes of qualifying. Not to mention, the US is going to play. Hold on to your hats!

WC: Germany and England Win Groups

Despite showcasing two of the premier teams in the tournament, Tuesday's games weren't very interesting. The England-Sweden match was, however, calculated to put most England fans into a paroxysm of dread.

Sweden 2-2 England
Perhaps the biggest news was the injury to Michael Owen. Just 1' into the game, Owen tried to pass across his body, with nobody near, and his knee just gave out. It's clear he knew right away what had happened. I'm not a big fan of Owen, but still I felt horrible for him. He didn't scream or make faces, but the disappointment and resignation he revealed told everything. He is done for the tournament, and I hope his recovery goes well. But frankly, the England attack looked better without him, and I don't think England will miss him too much.

As for the game, it was a show, just not in a good way. Four goals, four huge defensive mistakes. Let's break it down, shall we?

Cole 34': On the corner, Sweden finally come up with a weak but forgiveable clearance. But when it falls to Cole, the Swedes are jogging up the field as if a goal kick has been called... including keeper Andreas Isaksson. With no defender within five yards of Cole, Isaksson was a good three yards from his line. The eventual lob was nicely taken, but completely saveable.

Allback 51': Probably the best goal of the four, but still much too easy. Sweden execute the set piece on the corner, with Markus Allback finding himself wide open to flick towards the far post. The play was fairly simple, with Allback gaining space by running to the corner of the six-yard box. But his marker, David Beckham, couldn't be bothered to stay within a couple yards.

Gerrard 85': Once again, poor marking allows a free header that Gerrard nicely puts on goal. Niclas Alexandersson should be marking him, but instead is caught ball-watching (and dithering about marking Peter Crouch).

But of course England save their best for last...

Larsson 90': What can you say? Truly a masterpiece of goofy defending, something I would be disgusted with if I was involved with it in a rec game. The long throw comes in, and is completely misjudged by John Terry, who misses his attempted header by a yard. The ball bounces, and Sol Campbell does a nifty little dance as it loops completely over him, finishing with a laughably feeble attempt at an overhead kick. Finally, the ball finds the onrushing Larsson at the back post, who puts it away, mercifully ending the gradeschool show.

These were the first goals given in the tournament by either team, but with defending like that, you can bet that several more are likely to come. But regardless, England and Sweden both do enough to get through, where they will face Ecuador and Germany respectively.

Germany 3-0 Ecuador
Germany looked very, very good in this match. Miroslav Klose took two quality goals, while Ecuador were unable to create any threat to Jens Lehmann in Germany's goal. The German performance brought out the urgency in the Sweden-England match, as neither team wanted to face the on-form Germans in front of their home crowds.

But I wouldn't read too much into Ecuador's performance. They clearly were looking ahead to the knockout stage, resting about half their usual starting team. It's a quite canny move on the part of coach Luis Suárez. There was no way to know who the potential opponents would be, but he would probably see little to choose between Sweden and England anyway. And while those two teams had a hard-fought battle, Ecuador were able to rest their players ahead of Sunday's showdown.

And to digress for a moment... I know that Ecuador's knickname is "La Tri", but how cool would it be if they were the Vampire Finches? Answer: very cool.

In other news: Poland 2-1 Costa Rica, and Paraguay 2-0 Trinidad & Tobago. Ho-hum. I'm actually very disappointed that both Poland and Paraguay were able to win, because it will make their 2006 World Cup performance look less abject than it really was. Poland were overmatched in both of their games. And while Paraguay had two good defensive performance, that's balanced by their complete inability to mount a goalscoring threat. At least Costa Rica contributed to an entertaining opening match, while Trinidad & Tobago will feel that their tournament was successful, thanks to the draw with Sweden and a quality match against England.

So Germany take on Sweden on Saturday, while England will face Ecuador on Sunday. Sweden will need to score an early goal if they want to challenge Germany. England will need to stiffen up their defense if they want to handle Ecuador. That's certainly the most interesting of the two matchs, and I'm curious to see how Ecuador do with a full squad against a big-name side.

20 June 2006

WC: Final Games Begin -- Group A and B

The final group-stage matches are a real mixed bunch. If everything is still up for grabs, with four teams playing for everything, the simultaneous matches can be a real hair-raising, frenetic experience. But sometimes everything is decided, or nearly so, and the games are rather uninteresting.

Today is mostly the latter. The good news is that there are some intriguing matchups; the bad news is that there isn't quite so much at stake. So we'll see what transpires.

Group A
Ecuador 2 0 0 5 0 +5 6
Germany 2 0 0 5 2 +3 6
Poland 0 0 2 0 3 -3 0
Costa Rica 0 0 2 2 7 -5 0

Ecuador vs. Germany, Berlin (game to watch)
Costa Rica vs. Poland, Hanover

Nothing much to play for. Poland and Costa Rica are out, and playing solely for pride. Germany and Ecuador still have to determine who will win the group, but that's not a huge factor. The winner will face the #2 team from Group B, while the loser will face the #1 team. I would guess that either team would have a slight preference to face Sweden over England, but there's no guarantee that England will finish atop the group. So a win is important, but the top priority for both teams has to be staying healthy and getting ready for Saturday's octofinal games.

SCENARIO: Ecuador win the group with a win or a tie. Nobody is suspended for either team.

Group B
England 2 0 0 3 0 +3 6
Sweden 1 1 0 1 0 +1 4
Trinidad & Tobago 0 1 1 0 2 -2 1
Paraguay 0 0 2 0 2 -2 0

Sweden vs. England, Cologne (game to watch)
Paraguay vs. Trinidad & Tobago, Kaiserslautern

Group B is only slightly more interesting than Group A. Although Paraguay is eliminated, Trinidad & Tobago still have a small possibility of progressing. But the fight is mostly between England and Sweden for first place in the group. It's possible that both teams would prefer Ecuador to Germany, so things become interesting if Ecuador win Group A. It's unlikely that either team would play to lose, but they might not try so hard if Germany (and the home-team crowd) is the reward for first place.

SCENARIOS: A win or a draw for England nets them first place. Sweden get first if they win. Trinidad & Tobago need to beat Paraguay, need Sweden to lose, and need to make up at least 3 goals in differential. No players are suspended for any team.

17 June 2006

WC: Group E: US 1-1 Italy; Ghana 2-0 Czech Rep.

All I asked for today is a performance we could be proud of. And we were given that and more. Time and again, the US were knocked down, but we got up and got on with it.

Goal to Italy? Get up and get on with it.

Our scoring threat, dripping blood? Get up and get on with it.

The heart of our midfield, sent off for a silly challenge? Get up and get on with it.

Our experienced central defender, sent off for another challenge? Get up and get on with it.

The end result was a draw, one point to each team. And in some ways a stalemate was the fair result. But make no mistake, this was a moral victory for the US. Playing a man down for almost the entire half is not an easy prospect. But 9 on 10 is even worse than 10 on 11. There's so much more field to cover for every player. Yet the US looked more likely to score for much of the game, and nearly did until the interpretation of 'active position' did them in. Italy came storming back late, but this time the huge efforts of Kasey Kellar held Allesandrio del Piero at bay.

I'm not going to go on about the refereeing, because there's no point now. But suffice to say that Italy figured out the referee much earlier than the US. The Italians drove hard at the Americans, daring hard tackles, which is fine. They also spent a lot of time clutching ankles, rolling on the turf, and screeching like sick baby birds. Yeah, part of the game -- whatever. Let us know when you get your testicles back, ok? But the US had huevos to spare and dropped everything on the field. It was never going to be pretty, but it was most definitely inspiring. More than anything, I wanted to see a performance that we could be proud of. Thank you, Nats, for giving us that performance.

Ghana 2-0 Czech Republic
Meanwhile, the Black Stars did their part by disassembling the Czechs and throwing the group wide open. The first goal came at 68 seconds and it did to the Czechs what they did to the US on Monday. There were chances, to be sure, but as many went to Ghana. The penalty was a slightly bizarre sequence, with a slooooooow red card followed by an early penalty, yellow card, and a shot off the bar. They did get the final goal, to add to their goal differential tally.

And that could prove crucial as Group E is in a mess. Every team can go on or go home on Thursday. It could be a real zoo, with Italy and the Czechs facing off at the same time as US and Ghana. I fully expect that the situation will change multiple times during the games. But here's how it comes out:

US winsUS/Ghana drawGhana wins
Italy winsItaly, US advanceItaly, Ghana advanceItaly, Ghana advance
Italy/Czechs drawItaly advance. US or Czech Rep advance based on goal diff.Italy advance. Czech Rep or Ghana advance based on goal diff.Ghana and Italy advance.
Czech Rep winsCzech Rep advance; US or Italy advance based on goal diff.Czech Rep advance; Italy or Ghana advance based on goal diff.Czech Rep and Ghana advance.
So the US need to win, no question. The US is currently worst in goal difference at -3, so they would need to score a LOT if they want to make that up -- right now the difference is 4 with Czech Republic and 5 with Italy.

In short: Group E is the real "Group of Death". We will see how this plays out on Thursday. Until then: COME ON YOU YANKS!

WC: Group C and D Results

A real mix of games yesterday, wasn't it? A blowout, a tight one-goal win, and a dour scoreless draw. Something for everyone in the end.

Argentina 6-0 Serbia & Montenegro
A humiliation dished out by Argentina. Frankly, Serbia & Montenegro deserved it. They hung tight for the first 30 minutes, but after the second goal, they just gave up. They were respectable against Holland, but as it stands this World Cup has to be a huge disappointment for them and their fans. Not to get political about it, but at this stage you have to say that only Croatia look capable of reviving the excellent soccer legacy of Yugoslavia. Serbia won't lose too many players when Montenegro divests -- potentially goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevrić and striker Mirko Vučinić -- but otherwise they should keep most of the team.

But Argentina? The real question here is whether anyone else can equal them. Their performance on Friday really makes them into the favorites to take the trophy. And it's not the six goals either. Three of those came after S&M were down to ten men anyway. It was the precise, one-touch passing that will really frighten their potential future opponents. Everyone knows Argentina will have amazing skill with the ball; but it's their perternatural ability to forsee the runs of their teammates that drives their threat. The second goal in particular was a product of about 30 seconds of the best ball movement I've seen -- and I'm an Arsenal fan.

I'm not completely willing to jump on the bandwagon yet. Almost any team can look godlike for one game, and Argentina were not nearly so amazing against a talented but inexperienced Ivory Coast team. The real questions will be asked when they face Holland next week. But if they can duplicate even a portion of yesterday's performance, it's difficult to pick another team that can stop them.

Holland 2-1 Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast will have to be disappointed. They've taken two goals but no points from two of the quality teams in the tournament. They've earned a lot of respect from the fans, but with nothing to show for it they'll be awfully hungry for 2010 in South America.

The game was a close affair. A short lapse of concentration saw two Holland goals in three minutes, and from there Ivory Coast had probably too much to do in chasing the game. A fine individual effort from Bakari Kone halved the deficit, but Ivory Coast were not able to pull back another, despite an unrelenting attack.

The biggest story from this game, for me, was the quality of the Dutch defense. Holding Serbia & Montenegro scoreless was nice but not shocking; absorbing more than a half of frantic Ivorian attack was a more substantial accomplishment. There will be much to prove for both teams when Holland meet Argentina. If the Dutch can keep the Argentines under control, that too will worry a lot of potential opponents.

The only disappointing part of all this is that Group C, one candidate as Group of Death, is now over and done, with very little fuss. Neither Ivory Coast nor Serbia & Montenegro could live up to the expectations and take points from the two powers. It may be that Argentina and Holland are just that good... but in any event the group had very little fireworks. They will probably fight fairly hard in the last game, prefering to avoid Portugal if possible, but they know they're advancing regardless.

Mexico 0-0 Angola
Group D, unlike C, is still alive and well following this susprising draw. Mexico can't follow up their good performance in the first game, and Angola demonstrate that they really have some potential. With Mexico facing Portugal in the final game, Angola have kept their hopes alive, though they will need to make up a 3-goal gap in goal differential to avoid elimination.

Mexico were disappointing in their inability to find the net. They really should have the capacity to finish against a team like Angola, but a tenacious if frantic defense were able to keep them from many solid chances. If Argentina face Mexico in the second round, as would appear likely, I fear for the reputation of CONCACAF.

Portugal 2-0 Iran
Meanwhile, Portugal continue to roll along in the group. The 2-0 win today over Iran was a bit dicey for a while, and Portugal were feeling the pressure. But the Deco goal at 63' returned them to the comfort zone, and despite some good attack there was no real sense that Iran would recover a point.

Portugal could quietly establish themselves as a dangerous opponent, particularly if they do some damage against Mexico. They will want to win the group, in order to avoid Argentina. So they could begin the knockout stage against a very beatable Group C team, giving them a clear road into the quarterfinals.

And I'll be rooting against them all the way. The Portugese team has a lot of qualities worth appreciating, but any team with Christiano Ronaldo is one to oppose. It's not overstating it to say that he represents all the worst qualities of soccer: style over substance, lots of flash but no grit, minimal ability to read the game, a propensity for cheap fouls coupled with the willingness to dive at the slightest hint of contact. It's even worse because he has an undeniable skill in both controling and striking the ball. There are many players who I can hate but respect. I have no respect for Christiano Ronaldo. He brings nothing to the game that I want to see.

Enough negativity. It's time to get ready for the Group E matches. I'm working myself up to be positive about the US chances, though it's difficult. Really at this point, the one thing we need to see is a solid, gritty, energetic performance from the Nats. Italy are a formidible obstacle. But on the positive side, a result today will give US a real badge of honor in world soccer.

16 June 2006

WC: Group A & B Results: Ecuador 3-0 Costa Rica, England 2-0 T&T, Sweden 1-0 Paraguay

Some good games yesterday, and now both Group A and B are mostly settled. Group A sees Germany and Ecuador go through, while Group B will probably send forth England and Sweden to do battle.

Ecuador 3-0 Costa Rica: La Tri are the real underdog surprise in the tournament, and they're becoming a very fun story. It's not like Ecuador is completely unheralded, but they certainly weren't picked to be a dominating force. Not only have they won, they've won handily, against two very different teams. They're just fun to watch, and that bodes well for the second round.

Costa Rica never looked like a serious threat to win the match. With Ecuador scoring their first at 8' the Ticos were on the back foot all day. Ecuador took their chances well and scored three classy goals. I particularly liked the second Ecuador goal, which resulted from a weaving interplay between Edison Mendez and Agustin Delgado, resulting in a venemous shot that beat Jose Porras to his near post.

So Ecuador are through. Their Tuesday match against Germany will prove interesting; it may be the first real test of the tournament for La Tri. Unfortunately there will be little to play for, as both teams are guaranteed to advance, while their second-round opponents won't be decided until later the same day.

England 2-0 Trinidad & Tobago: A frustrating but ultimately victorious game for England. England fans are frustrated at the lack of ideas and the wasted chances. But England have accomplished everything they needed, and are through to the knockout stage. Despite the loss, Trinidad & Tobago can hold their heads high. They played well above themselves for most of two games, and have earned the respect of world soccer.

The match held a few chances for T&T, but England held most of the posession and looked able to score at any point. Frustratingly, their chances were spolied by poor finishing, particularly from Peter Crouch and Frank Lampard. Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard were anonymous; Wayne Rooney was more involved for his 30 minutes but didn't find any clear chances.

All changed at 83' when Crouch finally, finally found the net on a wicked diagonal cross from much-maligned David Beckham. Gerrard got in on the action in stoppage time, in a futile bid to fool fans into thinking he had some say in the outcome. So you could say that the 2-0 result was unduly flattering to England. But they did hold a huge amount of posession and fashioned several good chances; converting two of them is probably as much as they deserve.

Sweden 1-0 Paraguay: TFor 89 minutes, this match looked completely like it would end a 0-0 draw. As with their first match, the Swedes were active and attacking but somewhat incoherent in their approach. Paraguay defended hard and rarely attacked, forging few chances for themselves but keeping Sweden at bay. After the 0-0 draw with Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden were obviously frustrated, and this match only made things worse.

So when Freddie Ljungberg scored at 89', three hours of pent-up frustration were released from the Swedish fans in an immense and formless shout, a giant "AAAARRRRRRGH!", a roar of relief rather than a celebration of victory. If the English fans think they have it bad, they just need to look across their group to see the fans who are really feeling the pressure.

Sweden could still miss the knockout stage. If Sweden loses to England, and Trinidad and Tobago wins over Paraguay, they will be even on points, and T&T would win out on goal differential. So the key question is how hard will England fight against Sweden? Much will depend on Germany vs. Ecuador, which will happen earlier the same day. I suspect that England will prefer Ecuador, as they've had poor results against Germany. So if Germany wins Group A, expect England to fight harder than if Ecuador take the prize. I fully expect Paraguay to fight hard against Trinidad & Tobago, in order to salvage their pride. So next Tuesday could be very interesting, with the overall situation changing minute by minute.

15 June 2006

What Is A Soca Warrior?

Well, Soca is a musical style: "Soca is a modern form of calypso with an up-tempo beat." Contrary to what Dave O'Brian says, it's not a soul-calypso fusion; rather it includes (east) Indian sounds with a calypso beat.

So a Soca Warrior? Sounds like a group that knows how to have a good time. We will see how today's game plays out. I generally root for England, but it's hard to ignore such a good underdog story. But Trinidad & Tobago are going to be stretched a lot more by England than they were by Sweden; I would imagine a 3-1 final.

But regardless, it should be entertaining. Fight on, you Soca Warriors!

Volz Blog

Maurice Volz, the Fulham defender and German native, is having one helluva time at the World Cup. Not that I'm jealous, mind you.

14 June 2006

WC: Top Ten Goals (thru first 16 matches)

Sixteen games in and goals aplenty, including eight in the first two games and eight in the last two. I haven't seen today's goals yet but here are the best ten from the others; I'll update later if we have any more worthy inlcusions.

10. Tim Cahill 89', Australia 2-1 Japan. Cahill fires through a forest of defenders to find both posts and put Australia in the lead.

9. Kader Mohamed 31', Togo 1-0 South Korea. Takes the ball off his knee and, in full stride, rifles a strike low onto the far post. But mostly worthwhile for a goal celebration that keeps us from talking about the Crouch robot.

8. Arjen Robben 18', Holland 1-0 Serbia & Montenegro. The great pass from Robin van Persie springs the offside trap, and Robben finishes clinically under the keeper. Why Serbia & Montenegro were defending so far up the pitch is beyond me.

7. Didier Drogba 82', Ivory Coast 1-2 Argentina. This is what Drogba does so well. It's a killer pass, cut back from the touch line, but still the ball is behind Drogba. Watch how quickly he moves to reach behind and fire at goal.

6. Andrea Pirlo 40', Italy 1-0 Ghana. The ball moves outside, then BACK inside, and finds the far post. Beautiful.

5. Torsten Frings 87', Germany 4-2 Costa Rica. Frings strikes from 35 yards with power, movement, and placement. I think the ball swerves four or five yards. Loses a few points only because he's all by himself.

4. Tomas Rosicky 76', Czech Republic 3-0 United States. Completely different from his first goal. Rosicky is sprung near midfield with a precise pass from Pavel Nedved. And then he's gone, leaving Eddie Pope in the dust. Kasey Keller does all he can, staying wide and high, but Rosicky hits a precise strike over the keeper.

3. Zinha Naelson 79', Mexico 3-1 Iran. Zinha starts the move from the midfield, making a dangerous run at goal before cutting the ball wide. Mario Mendez fires back a perfect cross, which Zinha heads cleanly into goal. Great run, great teamwork and understanding, and an unstoppable goal.

2. Tomas Rosicky 36', Czech Republic 2-0 United States. Simply a fabulous strike. Results from a bit of a poor clearance, but still Rosicky doesn't appear to be in a dangerous position, 30 yards from goal and with two defenders in the way. But he cracks a frightening shot, curling it into the side netting just out of Keller's reach.

1. Phillip Lahm 6', Germany 1-0 Costa Rica. Simply a wonderful strike, taken from the corner of the area, and placed right into the corner of the goal, at the far post. Don't forget, Lahm is a defender. Made even better because it really kicked off the World Cup in style.

WC: First Matches Complete

As of 8PM in Germany (2PM here in Indiana), everyone's played once. The World Cup is well and truly underway. So how are we doing so far?

In a word, wow. The initial round of matches have, for the most part, been exciting and close contests, with few of the cagey draws we've come to expect in previous World Cups. We began with the six-goal festival in Munich, and finished today with Spain 4-0 Ukraine and Tunisia 2-2 Saudi Arabia. We've had 39 goals in 16 games, averaging over 2.4 per game. (That's a lot.) The only downside is that there haven't been any huge upsets, but most of the underdog teams have represented themselves well even when they haven't won.

Leading Contenders: Germany and Brazil maintain their positions atop this list, though the poor German defense and narrow Brazilian win will raise questions. Spain, Argentina and Italy started very well, while England and Holland did just enough. All seven teams remain leading candidates to progress to the finals. Mexico and the Czech Republic have worked their way onto this list with their 3-goal performances.

Pleasant Surprises: Ecuador is probably the top team on this list. Not only did they look solid in their win over Poland, they played an attractive match as well. Trinidad and Tobago looked good and gutty in their draw with Sweden, so they also are a story to watch. Australia weren't a huge upset to win over Japan, but they'll be brimming with confidence now. I also was impressed with Switzerland, who came very close to winning against France.

Several teams impressed despite losing: Ivory Coast, Iran, Ghana, Croatia, and Togo all had credible performances and will remain threats in their groups. In particular, Croatia looks well-positioned to advance, while Ivory Coast could be a real threat in a challenging group.

Major Disappointments: For me, the United States have to head this list. There's certainly no shame in losing to a very good Czech side, but the ineffectual American performance did no credit to our aspirations. Poland is a close second, as they looked quite poor against unheralded Ecuador. Ukraine were quite poor against Spain. Sweden also should have done much better, though they seemed to have a very unlucky day. France's draw will leave their fans despondent, though at least they took a point and can easily recover. Paraguay were easily the most negative team, with hardly any chances or attack despite being behind for the whole match. And Japan have to be gutted, losing after leading most of the game.

Best Matches:
5. South Korea 2-1 Togo: Togo take the early lead, but have a man sent off and give up a goal to the Koreans.
4. Tunisia 2-2 Saudi Arabia: Only suffers because neither team is expected to succeed. But this match could loom huge if Ukraine continues to falter.
3. Australia 3-1 Japan: Japan took the early lead and did their best to hang on. They made it until 86' but Australia exploded to eviscerate the Japanese hopes.
2. Germany 4-2 Costa Rica: Really kicked the World Cup off in style. A back-and-forth match that Costa Rica refused to relinquish.
1. Trinidad & Tobago 0-0 Sweden: Yes, a 0-0 draw was the most exciting match. But the storyline made up for the scoring, and Sweden had several good chances to take over the match. Down to 10 men for an entire half, Trinidad & Tobago fought tooth and nail, holding off Sweden by the thinnest of margins.

Germany now face Poland to begin the second set of games. Let's hope that things stay as exciting as they've been to this point!

WC: Group F, G, H Overview

OK... I'm getting behind so I'll finish these in one orgy of overview.

Group F

Group F is Brazil, and three other teams with hopes of reaching the knockout stage. The fight for second place here could be very tight indeed.

In their second-ever trip to the WC Finals, Australia will be looking first to establish themseleves as a legitimate participant. But with a roster heavy in EPL standouts, they have hopes of doing more than that.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Reached the WC Finals in 1974, finishing fourth in Group 1 with a record of 0-1-2.
2002: Failed to qualify, losing the COMNEBOL/Oceania playoffs to Uruguay.

They've already retired one trophy and given it to Brazil. When will it be time for the second one?

Success: Winning the championship again.
Disappointment: Anything else.
Previous Best: Five-time champions: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002.
2002: Won it all, defeating Germany 2-0 in the final.

Croatia get a lot of stick for their eye-breaking kit, but they're a stylish side in the ways that matter, playing an attractive and effective style of soccer. Their fans will expect much, after the fine run to the semifinals in 1998.

Success: Reaching the quarterfinals.
Disappointment: Missing the knockout stage.
Previous Best: Third place in 1998.
2002: Finished third in Group G, behind Mexico and Italy, on a 1-0-2 record.

The overachieving co-hosts of 2002 will be eager to prove their success was no fluke, but that will be difficult in this group.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Round of 16 in 2002.
2002: Lost 1-0 to Turkey.

Group G

This is a group that wil present some intriguing matchups. The biggest team is France, of course, but their abysmal performance in 2002 won't intimidate the other three teams. Anyone could advance from Group G.

Are they the champions of 1998? Or the goats of 2002? They'll need to score some goals if they want to reclaim their reputation.

Success: Reaching the semifinals
Disappointment: Missing the quarterfinals.
Previous Best: Champions in 1998.
2002: Finished last in Group A, behind Denmark, Senegal, and Uruguay, with a record of 0-1-2.

South Korea
As with Japan, they want to prove their 2002 run was no home-field fluke. Their boundless energy makes them a challenging opponent for anyone.

Success: Reaching the quarterfinals.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the knockout stage.
Previous Best: Semifinals in 2002.
2002: Finished fourth, losing 1-0 to Germany in the semifinals and 3-2 to Turkey in the third-place match.

A young, disciplined side who will be another tough opponent for other teams. Emotion could play a huge role due to their inexperience. Only qualified by the thinnest of margins.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Quarterfinals in 1934, 1938, and 1954.
2002: Failed to qualify, finishing fourth in UEFA Group 1.

Another of the four African debutants. Togo have created all sorts of challenges for themselves, most notably with a coach who quit just three days before their first match.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: First-time qualifiers.
2002: Failed to qualify, finishng fourth in CAF Group 1.

Group H

Similar to Group G, in that the top team faces question marks. But Spain look more solid than France, while there's more of a spread in capabilities among the other three teams. Fortunately Ukraine and Spain face each other to begin, or this would appear a boring group.

Saudi Arabia
Seem to show up in quite a few World Cups, generally going home early. Their main problem is a wealthy but weak domestic league; their players receive little overseas experience.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Round of sixteen in 1994.
2002: Last in Group E with a record of 0-0-3. Scored 0 goals and gave up 12, including a 0-8 humiliation from Germany.

The other leading candidate (with Holland) for the best team never to win the World Cup. Once again they have a very strong team, and should easily reach the knockout stage.

Success: Reaching the semifinals.
Disappointment: Missing the quarterfinals.
Previous Best: 4th place in 1950.
2002: Lost on penalties to South Korea in the semifinals, after a 0-0 draw.

Tunisia are the most experienced team in the WC Finals, but their lack of success makes that experience no comfort. This team will have reasonable hopes of advancing to the knockout stage, given a relatively weak group and a favorable first match.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Failing to win a game.
Previous Best: Three trips to the WC Finals, but have never advanced to the knockout stage.
2002: Finished fourth in Group H, behind Japan, Belgium, and Russia.

Part of the Soviet Union until 1991, the Ukraine has never before qualified for the WC Finals. However, they're a strong team, featuring the world-class striker Andriy Shevchenko, and are the clear #2 team in the group.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: First-time qualifiers.
2002: Finished second in UEFA Group 5, but lost to Germany in the playoff match.

13 June 2006

WC: USA 0-3 Czech Republic, Additional Thoughts

This was a very, very discouraging start for the U.S. Not just for the fact that they lost to a more skillful and better organized team. More worrisome was their lack of energy and ideas. Reyna calls it out when he describes the U.S. team as "hesitant". As much of an icon as he is, you have to throw some of the blame at Bruce. Arena's game plan was soundly defeated along with the U.S. team. For a team that thrives on crosses, the U.S. flank play was pathetically inadequate. Time for a rethink and some reorganization, before the now, must-win matchup against Italy. There is still a chance to salvage some pride at this World Cup for the U.S. but they must play with more conviction and intensity. Look for Eddie Johnson and Dempsey to get more minutes.

WC: USA 0-3 Czech Republic

What a disappoinment for the US. It's a given that the Czechs would be more talented. It's perhaps not surprising that they were better organized and more creative. What's so disappointing was that the US were so static and unenergetic.

The signs were bad from the start, with Koller's goal coming at 5'. Even some threat on goal would have brought the Americans back into the game, but they created very little opportunity, until after Tomas Rosicky had scored again at 36'. From there the rout was on. If Claudio Reyna's fine shot goes in, then perhaps some US pride would surface and they would fight on. But it didn't. The US failed to mount any sustained pressure until later, and after the third goal it was all for pride anyway.

The Czechs had a defensive, counterattacking game plan that was supremely frustrating to the Americans, with aggressive tackling and a no-fly midfield. That left the US at a loss for how to slice into the last third, without the precision passing they needed to move the ball the way they intended. After the early goal, the Czechs could afford patience and an opportunistic attack that the US generally was able to handle... except fot the two times it didn't.

I don't want to be too negative about it, but there wasn't much to applaud among the US players. Despite the ABC hype, Landon Donovan was missing for most of the match and was probably the biggest disappointment. I will single out Eddie Johnson as the brightest light for the Nats, with some good opportunities and some useful runs. He's still a bit raw but it's probably time to work him into the starting lineup. Maybe his speed will give the Italians some trouble.

So a tough road ahead for the US. With the Italy victory over Ghana, they'll need to win on Saturday if they want to have a chance to advance. Even a draw is little help, though it would at least salvage some self-respect. And that frankly would be a good step at this point.

WC: Group E Overview

Two games gone already. But this one, I'd already thought out beforehand. This is arguably the Group of Death. It's a close race with Group C; the ultimate answer depends a lot on how the US and Ghana play. Some of these questions have been answered already... but I'll write as if they haven't.

Czech Republic
The Czechs have a team loaded with talent; the questions center around their health and their team play. This is a team that could go quite far, or they could prove a disappointment.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing bottom of the group.
Previous Best: Runners-up in 1934 and 1962 (as Czechoslovakia).
2002: Failed to qualify, losing to Belgium in the UEFA playoffs.

Ghana are an intriguing team. They have one world-reknowed player, Michael Essien, but several others who play around the globe. Their players come from a surprisingly diverse group of twelve leagues, including England, Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Like the other newcomer African teams, they are not to be taken lightly.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: First time in the WC finals.
2002: Failed to qualify, finishing fourth in CAF Group 2 behind Nigeria, Liberia, and Sudan.

Italy are a perennial favorite and are one of the stronger European favorites for 2006. They have supplied some dominating performances in the last year and could easily go all the way. Questions mainly center around the overall chaos within Serie A, as scandal and potential harsh penalites are playing out at home.

Success: Winning it all.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the Semi-finals.
Previous Best: Champions in 1934, 1938, and 1982.
2002: Lost in the round of 16, to South Korea, 2-1 AET.

United States
Working desperately to establish themselves on the international scene, the US team enjoyed a very successful qualifying campaign, winning CONCACAF handily. However the US have not had much success playing in Europe, and the difficulty of this group will be a real challenge.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Semifinal in 1930; Quarterfinal in 2002.
2002: Lost in the quarterfinals, 1-0 to Germany.

12 June 2006

WC: Sunday Action Summary

Yesterday kept up the run of good games and close matches, but provided no upsets.

Serbia & Montenegro 0-1 Holland
It was expected to be a close game and it was. It wasn't however expected that Arjen Robben would have a free run on goal at 18', and right after he was barely ruled offsides too. S&M tightened up the defense after that, though the Dutch had several more chances. But the defensive approach of S&M wasn't able to pose a serious threat to Edwin Van der Sar's goal, and Holland cruised to full time with a solid win.

Holland have to be happy about their performance, while Serbia & Montenegro will be desperate to build a better goalscoring threat. But, as tight as this group is, both teams could find surprising results in their second games.

Mexico 3-1 Iran
The scoreline here flatters Mexico a bit. They certainly deserved all three goals, and worked them rather well. But Iran mounted more of a threat than they were expected to. The Iranian attack was surprisingly effective, and only a late outburst from the Mexican subs stole the draw. Mexico are well on their way to the knockout stage, while Iran will need point from Portugal to keep hopes alive.

Angola 0-1 Portugal
Angola did a credible job against their former colonial masters, but they're probably a bit lucky to only give up a single goal. They did threaten the Portugese goal at times, and could prove to be a surprising team for Mexico in the second round. But Portugal were probably a bit unlucky not to get another goal, particularly as the Angoaln keeper João Ricardo looked out of his depth at times.

11 June 2006

WC: Group D Overview

Gropu D is an interesting mix. Anyone could come out of the group, but there's a good chance we will see a dominating performance from one team or another. Mexico and Portugal have to be considered the favorites, but either Iran or Angola could do some damage.

Angola are another team new to the World Cup finals. They are perhaps the least heralded African team, and may be happy just to be in Germany.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Losing all three games.
Previous Best: First time in finals.
2002: Failed to qualify, finishing second in African Group 1 qualification behind Cameroon.

Iran is a team that's had rare appearances in the World Cup. Their lone victory over the US in 1998 was more of a moral victory than anything. Much like Angola, they face an uphill battle to make an impact in the tournament, particularly since the two minnows don't face each other until the last group match, when they may already be eliminated.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: 1998, finished 3rd in Group F with a 1-0-2 record.
2002: Failed to qualify, losing a playoff with Ireland 2-1 agg. in the UEFA-AFC playoff.

Mexico are one of the better teams to never win the World Cup. Their long domination of CONCACAF has recently been challenged by the US, but they retain a dangerous form and should be expected to reach the knockout stage in a fairly weak group.

Success: Reaching the semifinals.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the quarterfinals.
Previous Best: Quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986.
2002: Reached the knockout stage, losing 2-0 to the US.

Portugal are a team knocking at the door of Europe's elite, following their trip to the finals of Euro 2004. The team boasts some quality talent, a mix of veterans and fresh faces, and a reasonable group. They should expect success and a trip deep into the tournament.

Success: Reaching the semi-finals.
Disappointment: Missing the quarterfinals.
Previous Best: 3rd place in 1966.
2002: 3rd in Group D, winning 4-0 over Poland, and losing 2-3 to the US and 0-1 to South Korea.

WC: Group B and C results

Three matches yesterday and three more today. I'll never see every game, and I'm losing my battle to catch significant moments of them all. But there were some very interesting matches yesterday, and today has started well. So far it's been an engaging World Cup, with some very watchable matches.

England 1-0 Paraguay
The British press is amazing, isn't it? England gets a win in its first group match, in a very tricky match against a dogged Paraguayan side, and yet the press coverage is all about the tactical mistakes made by Eriksson.

The fact is, England took three important points. The early goal could easily have been multiplied, but Paraguay didn't offer many clean chances, and England wisely chose to defend the lead and rest Michael Owen. Peter Crouch was a bit stupid to pick up a yellow card, though he certainly had reason to be frustrated with the referee.

Paraguay meanwhile will take heart that they didn't concede after the fluky early goal. But frankly they look more like spoilers than a team with legitimate aspirations. They will need to uncover a more positive game if they want to mount a serious challenge to advance.

Sweden 0-0 Trinidad & Tobago
I was surprised that ABC chose to televise this match on network TV, but their gamble payed off nicely. Casual fans who tuned in were treated to a gutty performance from the ten-man Soca Warriors, and it was easy to feel the excitement generated by their frantic (but not panicked) defense.

Trinidad & Tobago can be rightly proud of their draw here. They threatened at times, especially in the first half. I still think they'll be lucky to take any further points, but at the least they will have given England and Paraguay food for thought. If Shaka Hislop continues his fine form... they will have cause to worry.

However Sweden were a bit of a disappointment. They faced a keeper on his best game, to be sure. But still they had every chance to score. They just needed something else -- a bit more on a run, a slightly better first touch, one more shot on goal. But it wasn't to be found, and the players didn't react well under the pressure. Freddie Ljungberg is perhaps the only Swede who can hold his head high, but it wasn't enough. They now face the challenge of scoring on a dogged Paraguayan team; that match could prove to be snippy.

Argentina 2-1 Ivory Coast
I'm of two minds about this match. On one hand: Argentina started with a solid win, and looked pretty good doing it. Ivory Coast had a valiant effort but just couldn't threaten enough, and were sliced apart by the Argentine attack. On the other hand: Argentina let Ivory Coast attack much more than they should, and came pretty close to dropping points to a dangerous team.

So how to read it? In the end, Argentina have the three points, so they're well on their way. And that's the important thing. The team looked very good at times, and if all continues to gel, they could quickly become a favorite to win everything.

Ivory Coast though can take a lot of hope from the match. They did get the late goal, which could make a big difference in a tight group. They got better in the second half, especially defensively. If that effort continues, they could play themselves back into the tournament... but they will need a win over Holland to make it happen.

Serbia & Montenegro 0-1 Netherlands
I have seen very little of this match, though I was able to see the Robben goal. What I did see -- and what I've read -- says good things about the Dutch. S&M are a tough defensive side, so taking a single goal from them is no disappointment. Robben and van Persie bring some wicked pace up front, and will be deadly for any team that tries to hold a high line against them.

The only disappointment? If both Argentina and Holland continue to play this well, we may see them face off in the final group match with very little to play for.

WC: Group C Overview

Falling... behind... must... update... overview! Again this happens after the first games, but I don't suspect that it has a major effect on what I'd write anyway.

This is one of several candidates for the "Group of Death". It definitely has the biggest set of unknowns, as Holland and Argentina in particular have the potential to either exhilirate or disappoint. But all four teams were disappointing in 2002, so there are questions around them too. But there will probably be two strong teams to emerge from this group.

Argentina are a perennial favorite in the World Cup, despite a lackluster performance in 2002. This year's team has an excellent mix of talent and could be a true contender for the title.

Success: Winning the championship.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the semifinals.
Previous Best: WC Champions in 1978 and 1986
2002: Finished 3rd in Group F, winning over Nigeria, losing to England, and drawing with Sweden.

Ivory Coast (aka Cote d'Ivoire)
One of the newcomers to the Finals, Ivory Coast are a favorite of mine, due in large part to the Arsenal pair of Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue. As newcomers, the hopes should probably be low, but a high number of established stars (starting with Chelsea frontman Didier Drogba) makes this team an easy dark horse to pick.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: First time in WC Finals.
2002: Failed to qualify, finishing second in African Group 4 qualification behind Tunisia.

Netherlands (aka Holland)
Despite failing to qualify in 2002, Holland are a team that have the potential to go deep into the tournament. If they can establish a consistent scoring threat behind Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, they can challenge anyone. Perhaps the most successful team that's never won a World Cup.

Success: Reaching the finals.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the quarterfinals.
Previous Best: Second place in 1974 and 1978.
2002: Finished third in UEFA Group 2 qualification, behind Portugal and Ireland.

Serbia and Montenegro
The last remnant of the Yugoslavian teams, and in fact Serbia and Montenegro are officially separate countries as of 5 June 2006. So these are two separate countries, competing as one.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous Best: Semi-finals in 1930 (as Yugoslavia)
2002: Finished third (as Yugoslavia) in UEFA Group 1 qualification, behind Russia and Slovenia.

10 June 2006

Group B Action: England - Paraguay

I've been watching the match as I've been working on the previous post. It's now halftime, with a 1-0 lead to England. It hasn't lived up to the Germany - Costa Rica game, but it's had some good moments too.

The early England goal will probably go down as an o.g. to Carlos Gamarra but it was due to a beautifully dangerous Beckham free kick. This crazy Adidas ball may prove to be a godsend for Mr. Posh. England didn't have anything else as threatening, but they brought a good amount of pressure all half, while Paraguay built little threat. Instead, they decided to hack at the England players, while hamming up any imagined contact going the other direction. Based on their first half performance, I would be happy to see Paraguay make a quick exit; let's hope they put together something more constructive in the second half. They did have a late shot from Nelson Valdez that came very close, and that will give them hope.

England have looked pretty good, producing several good ideas but not yet finding that final touch after the early goal. Michael Owen and Joe Cole could stand to get more involved, but Beckham, Crouch, Lampard and Gerrard have all had their moments. I would like to see Gerrard and Lampard to shoot from distance; Gerrard put a couple well high, but he will get on target soon enough. Defensively they've not been too bad, though I'm always suspicious of Rio Ferdinand who produced one difficult back-pass.

The second half is getting underway; I'll update as events warrant. But one last comment. The stadium, Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, just looks horrid on TV. There are shadows all over the pitch and ABC seems to have all kinds of trouble with the contrast. I don't know what the giant suspended structure is for -- video screens I assume -- but it ruins the stadium for TV.

UPDATE: Michael Owen is subbed off at 55' for Stewart Downing. This is a bit defensive; it may be due to the Owen injury history but I suspect Sven Goran-Eriksson is concerned about Paraguay's improved posession in the early minutes of the second half.

UPDATE: Now Paul Robinson punts into the video screen. It wasn't a great punt, but still -- it's unforgiveable that that thing is in the field of play.

I'm incredibly frustrated with the broadcast direction. I'm not sure whether ABC controls this directly, or if they're consuming a general feed. But whoever's responsible, it's a common mistake from those who don't understand soccer -- showing too many closeups and cutting awy from the wide view too much. The action moves around so fast, that more often than not the ball is gone by the time the camera finds the player. It makes following the match quite painful.

Dave O'Brien is probably about as bad as I would expect. At least he's trying to focus on the match -- he's not making a spectacle of himself, like Tommy Smyth does -- but it's obvious that he doesn't know soccer well, and he's taking Marcello Balboa down with him. The endless references to "Bend It Like Beckham" are just embarassing. I know ABC is trying to pull in soccer neophytes. But talking down to them is the wrong idea, and menawhile O'Brien is alienating the true fans.

UPDATE: 73', and Lampard has a great shot, forcing substitute keeper Aldo Bobadilla into a good save. That 20-yard shot is exactly what England needs.

UPDATE: FT, England 1-0 Paraguay. One last difficult bounce that nearly beat Paul Robinson, but ultimately Paraguay had far too little threat. England would like to see a better effort from themselves, but the early win is the most important thing.

WC: Group B Overview

Group B will get more attention than any other -- due to the presence of England, which comes with a media frenzy due to the batshit insane British press.

England of course are never good enough for their country, but this year they may have a chance. They've looked very good in the warmup friendlies. No team is under more pressure, and that may limit their chances to advance deep into the knockout stages.

Success: Realistically? Making the semi-finals. But the England fans will complain if they don't win it all.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the quarterfinals.
Previous best: Champions in 1966.
2002: Lost in the quarterfinals, 2-1 to eventual champs Brazil.

Paraguay are slowly working to establish themselves among the quality of South America, and have now qualified for three WC finals running. They're being challenged by Ecuador as the #3 team in the region but Paraguay have the better history. Their performance may go a long way to determining how competitive Group B is.

Success: Reaching the quarterfinals to better their last two runs.
Disappointment: Missing the knockout stage.
Previous best: Reached knockout stage in 1998 and 2002.
2002: Lost 1-0 to Germany in the round of 16.

Sweden are a team with a lot of quality, and they have the capability to make a rn deep into the tournament. But many of their top stars are aging, and this may be the last hurrah before a changing of the guard. It's definitely the last World Cup for Henrik Larsson, while Freddie Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg are probably on the tail of their careers.

Success: Reaching the quarterfinals.
Disappointment: Missing the knockout stage.
Previous best: Second place in 1958.
2002: Lost in the round of 16, 2-1 to Senegal in extra time.

Trinidad and Tobago
This is T&T's first trip to the World Cup, and they got there by a thin margin. They were the fourth-place team in CONCACAF, and had to beat Bahrain in a playoff. (Now that's a culture clash!) They are a brittle team and have given up plenty of goals, but they can score too.

Success: Winning a game.
Disappointment: Failing to take any points.
Previous best: First time in the WC finals.
2002: Finished 6th in CONCACAF, bottom in the regional finals.

WC Group A: Ecuador 2-0 Poland

Another wide-open game in Group A. Ecuador have now positioned themselves as the other favorites to go through to the knockout stage, while Poland have some serious questions to answer, and will be a serious disappointment unless things change in a hurry.

Ecuador looked pretty good. They were very patient in the attack, working few opportunities but getting quality out of their chances. They defended very deeply -- sometimes allowing Poland access up to the six-yard box -- but they maintained their organization all along and never made any serious errors. And those qualities (if they can be maintained) are all very good harbingers of success in the World Cup.

Poland, frankly, looked bad. They had some moments of pressure, particularly in the last 15 minutes. And they did hit the post twice. But they went long periods with no threat. The defense was equally poor: brittle, passive, and prone to mistakes. I can only hope that they pull it together for the next two games, or they could end with three losses. That would be disappointing as they have more quality than that.

So Ecuador joins Germany atop Group A, while Poland and Costa Rica will have to scramble to resurrect their chances. Poland are facing Germany next, so things are only going to get worse. Germany have shown a real ability to score, particularly from distance, and that's not something Poland are going to want to see right now. Poland will be desperate for a win; Germany will be careful, but a win would seal their progress to the knockout stage, so they'll be looking for chances. Unless Poland get themselves figured out, the next match could look like September 1939.

Costa Rica has a better chance to resurrect their campaign. Ecuador did look vulnerable at times, and they don't have the long-range threat that Germany used to open up Costa Rica. But Ecuador will be looking for a tie, playing cautiously and holding posession. Ecuador is unlikely to hold the same high defensive line that the Ticos exploited against Germany, so they'll have to find their attack from somewhere else.

So, two very exciting games on Matchday One. Based on today's games, I think we can expect to hear a lot more about the new Adidas ball. The "Teamgeist" already appears to have a lot of motion and a slippery surface. We've seen some wicked long-range shots, as well as vicious free-kicks. But I also noticed some really tricky bouncing shots; none of the keepers have seemed comfortable with short-hop balls, and I wonder if that's due to the slick surface of the ball. We'll see if it holds up but I suspect this will become an ongoing topic for conversation.

09 June 2006

WC: Group A Overview

I'm cheating a bit -- doing this after the first game. Oh well!

The host nation, they can rely on the support of every crowd they play to. It's a powerful team, with an excellent blend of experience and youth. Their attack has already been spectacular, but the defense is rather suspect.

Success: Winning it all.
Disappointment: Missing the semis.
Previous best: Won in 1954, 1974, and 1990.
2002: Lost in the finals to Brazil.

Poland are a fairly anonyous team. Their best known player is probably keeper Jerzy Dudek, but he's not even in the squad. They've shown an ability to score -- they were not shut out in any of their qualifiers -- so it's their defense that will be under the microscope.

Success: Reaching the quarterfinals.
Disappointment: Failing to reach the knockout stage.
Previous best: 3rd place in 1974 and 1982.
2002: Bottom of Group D, losing to South Korea and Portugal before winning over the US in a meaningless game.

Ecuador are trying to establish themselves as the #3 team in South American soccer, behind Brazil and Argentina. They do well in qualifications, as teams don't like to play at altitude in Quito, but they've had difficulties translating that into success away from home.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous best: Reaching the WC Finals in 2002.
2002: Finished 4th in Group G, losing to Italy and Mexico, and winning over Croatia.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica are the #3 team in CONCACAF due to the emergence of the US as a consistent leader. The Ticos seem to run hot and cold, beginning their qualification run with several bad performances, before making a strong run to the finals. Unfortunately, their performance in the opening match doesn't bode well for their campaign.

Success: Reaching the knockout stage.
Disappointment: Finishing last in the group.
Previous best: Knockout stage in 1990.
2002: 3rd in Group C, winning over China, drawing 1-1 with Turkey, and losing 2-5 to Brazil.

World Cup Underway!

Hi folks. We could have posted all kinds of World Cup previews and so forth... but work and life intruded. Frankly though, I think that's for the best. The World Cup is truly amazing and exciting, but the lead-in hype is completely crazy. And frankly I don't think we need to add to it.

But right now, that's all over. I have the day off, waiting on my sofa for the first match to start. Germany and Costa Rica are about to kick off the month-long soccer celebration. Aaaaand... HERE WE GO!

We'll see how things play out, but it would be no surprise to begin with a very cagey and cautious match. So I'll offer up a few initial thoughts as I'm watching the game. Germany are playing without Michael Ballack, which is going to make their job more difficult. Frankly I don't know the Bundesliga too well, so I'm not familiar with the players as much as I'd like.

And... SHOT! A nice effort by Torsten Frings is just over the bar. If Germany keeps this up, they could prove my prediction of a cagey match to be wrong.

Costa Rica are the clear #3 team out of CONCACAF. They're a big rival and I'm not interested in seeing them perform well. However I don't know that I'll have much to worry about. They've seemed a bit overmatched in the warmup matches, and it's possible that they will be one of the disappointments of the tournament.

GOAL FOR GERMANY! More pressure, but before the suspense can build, Philipp Lahm comes forward from his fullback position, cuts inside to the corner of the area, and fires an absolute rocket into the far corner, "where the spiders build their webs." It's only 6' and Germany lead, 1-0. The crowd is ecstatic and it's easy to see why -- Germany have started their World Cup in fine form.

So what about the group? Group A consists of Germany, Costa Rica, Poland, and Ecuador. Germany would be the clear favorites to win the group in any event, but as the host nation, anything else will be a huge disappointment. Any of the other three teams could go through as well, with Poland the most likely, followed by Ecuador and Costa Rica in that order. But all three have a reasonable chance to advance.

OMFG! GOAL for Costa Rica! Paolo Wanchope gets in behind the defense, played onside by the right back Per Mertesacker, and juuuust barely beats Jens Lehmann's right toe for the goal. 11' and it's 1-1. Holy cow! This match has really been end-to-end, not at all what I would expect. Costa Rica have had far fewer chances, but the German defense appears hugely suspect. This could be an amazing match. Germany now look to be nervous and tentative, with a much more conservative attack.

I'll keep up with the match, and post updates as events warrant. Tomorrow I'll take a look at the Group B teams and matches. For now... it's time to just sit back and watch.

UPDATE: 17' -- GOAL! Bastian Schweinsteiger cuts into the box, looks to shoot but instead puts a beautiful ball onto Miroslav Klose's boot for a clean shot on goal. Germany 2-1 Costa Rica. Wow, just... wow!

UPDATE: 60' -- GOAL! Germany continues to hold most of the posession, and it tells again. Lahm's cross is tipped, and (unlucky for the Ticos) it falls onto Klose's head. His near-post shot is saved by Porros, but he can only parry it straight out, and Klose follows it to punch home. It's now over for Costa Rica, unless the German defense falls completely asleep. Germany 3-1 Costa Rica.

UPDATE: 73' -- GOAL! Once again Germany gets burned by the offside trap, though this time it looks like the call was wrong. Germany's trap has been dangerous all day and once again Wanchope gets through, and calmly chips over Lehmann's legs to score again, bringing the Ticos to within a goal. Germany 3-2 Costa Rica.

UPDATE: 87' -- GOAL! Germany plays a free kick to Torsten Frings, central at almost 40 yards, and he fires an absolute howler, curving wickedly into the net. Porros can't get to it and Germany seal the game. Germany 4-2 Costa Rica.

And now the match ends, 4-2 to Germany. It's an exciting match, not at all what you expect from the World Cup. Germany should not get too excited about this, particularly as their defense has been suspect all day. Their offside trap was hideous. However, their attack looks very good, particularly from distance. Costa Rica have shown a solid threat, particularly through Wanchope, but their defensive effort has been abject, and unless something major changes they have no chance to advance.

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