Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Thank God for that

In terms of support, was tonight's match the most one sided ever? I'm not sure there were any neutrals who were on Portugal's side, and that is not surprising. They are a disgraceful side, not just for the incredibly defensive tactics but also for their constant cheating. Not one Portuguese footballer in that side is likeable at all.

David Villa's goal sealed a victory for attacking football. Yesterday I spoke about the rise of defensive football and I have no problem with that, but there are limits. Portugal have made no effort to win 3 of their 4 games at this tournament. Even at 1-0 down tonight they didn't even try to attack, which is a combination of utter stupidity and a bit of a disgrace. A side containing one of the best forward players in the world has completely wasted him, so much so that today I experienced a feeling I don't think I have ever experienced before, sympathy for Ronaldo. What was he supposed to do? Carlos Quieroz's tactics would be understandable if the plan was to play on the counter attack, but they didn't even try that. Ronaldo is a fantastic asset to have regardless of how you play, but he has shown both at Man Utd and at Real Madrid how devestating he can be when used in breakaways. Instead Portugal have used him either has a lone frontman or a isolated winger, with his only service being long balls forward, that was clearly a massive mistake.

The stats suggest a fairly decent goal return, 7 goals in their 4 games. When all 7 of them are in one game it suggests something completely different. The way they were set up, Portugal failed to score against any of their more difficult opposition (and Ivory Coast aren't even that good). A team like that does not deserve to qualify, and it's great for the competition that Spain eventually broke them down.

The European Champions still don't quite look to have hit their best yet, Fernando Torres clearly isn't fit, and I'd say similar about Andres Iniesta. Torres has probably been their worst player by some considerable distance so far, his movement is still good but in every other aspect he seems to have morphed into Emile Heskey. Terrible shooting, worse control. It's not a coincidence that as soon as the Liverpool man went off Spain started to play much better, Fernando Llorente gave the Portuguese defence something completely different to think about, and I think they need to keep this in mind for the quarter finals. Make no mistake, Paraguay will set themselves up in the same way as Portugal and Switzerland have, I don't think Spain can risk Torres again. David Silva or Jesus Navas needs to start to offer a different threat.

There is a history at World Cups of the teams that start slowly coming through to lift the trophy, very rarely do the sides who start with a bang continue that form throughout. So there is a lot of reasons for Spain to be positive, but they are going to have to really turn it on at some point in this tournament to win it. Will a potential semi final with Brazil be the moment?

Looking ahead, there's no football for two days now, and as soon as the rest days start you know there's not much of the World Cup left. That means a return to club football, and I'd like to pretend it doesn't exist for a little while yet. Today my team's manager finally completed his exit, enticed away by the delights of Hull City. That is definitely more depressing than a crushing defeat by Germany.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Substance over style?

Today we saw two teams who have traditionally been the most free flowing and exciting to watch at World Cups. Except, well, they aren't this time. Both Holland and Brazil are far more circumspect and have much more emphasis on defence. Why is that? Why the move away from their normal style?

To start with, Dunga's methods are extremely unpopular in Brazil, the inclusion of two defensive midfielders in Gilberto Silva and Filipe Melo is not the Samba way. Despite this, we've seen throughout qualifying, as well as in this tournament, how good their defence looks. Tonight against Chile they were hardly troubled by a side who has been one of the best so far in terms of creating chances. I said after Chile's game with Spain that they would have real trouble against Brazil on the counter attack, and so it proved. Once they were behind, there was very little chance of a recovery, this Brazillian side were never going to come out and continue attacking, which could have allowed the Chileans space. Even if they win the thing, this team will never be truly popular back home. I've read there are even some Brazillians supporting Argentina because they play football the 'proper way'. This has happened before, the team that won in 1994 are far less revered than the one who fell short in 1982. In fact that '82 side is regarded by some as the best side Brazil has ever had, and that is quite the accolade.

As for the Dutch, they look a far better side with Arjen Robben on the pitch. So far he's only played about 80 minutes of football, but managed to score and hit the post to set up Klaas Jan Huntelaar. It's not just his end product, but his mere presence on the pitch gives the defence something else to think about, creating space for his teammates. Despite his return, there seems to have been a shift away from 'Total Football' under Bert Van Marwijk. Two years ago Holland came through the Group of Death at Euro 2008 thanks to a couple of fantastic counter attacking performances against France and Italy. Memorable for two stunning goals against the Italians, and David Pleat shrieking 'wonderful goal, wonderful goal' in an extremely high pitched voice as Wesley Sneijder fired in their second. That sort of football has been replaced by a far slower paced style, and they are harder to beat now, but less entertaining.

Both of these changes in style are slightly disappointing, as they are two sides who define exciting attacking football. Holland brought the world Total Football, and Brazil has produced some of the most exciting players ever seen at the World Cup. It is quite possible that under a new manager they might return to their roots, but as it stands it's quite understandable that they want to be harder to break down. Jose Mourinho has shown the world how to beat the best attacking club side around (and perhaps of all time) and because of this other managers have become more afraid of an attack minded philosophy. The important thing to remember is that football seems to work in cycles, and there is constant innovation. Italia 90 is held up as the ultimate defensive World Cup, in the 52 games at that tournament there were 115 goals. Twenty years later we have another defensive World Cup, and as of yesterday there had been 52 games in which 116 goals had been scored. Uncanny.

Tactics evolve, and as defensive football seems to be slightly on top at the moment, people will work out new formations and new ways to break them down. As if to prove that point, USA 94 saw 141 goals scored in the 52 matches. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happens in four years time. Holland and Brazil have altered their style under present management, but the next World Cup is in Brazil, there is no way they'll be emphasising on defence by then.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

That was REALLY bad

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, towards the end of yesterday's blog I said:

"I really rate this German side and fear they might overwhelm us, especially given our rather simplistic formation."

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. I imagine the tabloids and the simplistic England fans will blame the linesman and referee for the defeat, but that is just a pathetic excuse. By the time Lampard 'equalised' we could have been 4-0 down, and come the end we were lucky to have only lost by 3.

There are so many problems it's difficult to know where to start. I've been banging on about the formation for days now, and all my fears were realised. The Germans' extra man in midfield was always Mesut Ozil, and sometimes Schweinsteiger as well, between them they tore England apart. Ozil is a fantastic player, and he is quick, giving Gareth Barry the job of man marking him on his own was ridiculous. Barry had no chance in a foot race, a point reinforced by the way the German left him for dead to set up the fourth goal.

In defence, why Michael Dawson played no part in any friendlies before the tournament is a disgrace. He is better than Upson and Carragher (I'm also better than Carragher to be honest), and surely is a better bet than King since he isn't permanently injured. John Terry is too slow, and sold Upson down the river for the first goal by running towards the half way line for no reason and leaving the West Ham man on his own. Terry should be the man to organise the defence as he is the senior centre back, either he didn't, or he was talking in Spanish, judging by the way the defence fell apart for Podolski's goal.

As we move forward, the Gerrard debate will be done to death, and while he clearly shouldn't be playing on the left, it doesn't excuse yet another absolutely appalling performance. It's quite an achievement to look unusually poor in that team today, but he was. Constantly trying long cross field balls that were never going to come off and shots from miles out, wasting possession. He must be incredibly frustrating to play with. Gerrard insists on trying to be the hero the whole time, and as a result hasn't had a good game for England since Munich, and even then that isn't exactly a glowing appraisal given how well the team as a whole played.

I feel sorry for Defoe and Rooney today, the service they were given was as bad as it is possible to be, and they could do nothing with the constantly overhit long balls. Rooney came into the game a bit in the second half and threatened to create some chances, but they never materialised. It's unbelievable that he is yet to score a World Cup goal.

The substitutions once again were a complete joke, first taking off the one winger in the team and replacing him with Joe Cole, who just did the same thing Gerrard was doing on the other side and left us with no width. He also managed to give the ball away to set up a German counterattack which led to goal number 4. After that bringing Heskey on for Defoe when England needed goals? I imagine the big man's gonna get slaughtered, but what could he do? No player is going to refuse to come on, and once again the blame lies squarely at Capello's door. Shaun Wright-Phillips coming on was just moronic, especially with Lennon on the bench, but it was too late by then.

The calls for Harry Redknapp to come in as England manager are terrifying, because he won't change anything. I'm also not sure he'd be able to survive without signing anyone for a few months. The failings have nothing to do with the manager not being English, they are just mistakes. If we insist on an English manager, it should be Roy Hodgson, especially as he has experience managing at international level.

To end, Germany deserve a lot of credit for the way they went about destroying England. Everyone in the country seemed to be underestimating them and were going about predicting an England win. The pundits on the BBC were questioning how many of their side would get in ours. Klose has more international goals than any England player ever, Podolski averages 1 in 2, Ozil is one of the best young talents in world football, Muller is an exciting young player as well, Schweinsteiger was brilliant again and Khedira looks like he could develop into a great box to box midfielder. Anyone think we wouldn't get a single Englishman in their team?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A blog for all Africa

"Bye bye big American sigh" Peter Drury screamed at us as the minutes ticked by in Rustenburg. Whilst the way he put it was incredibly cringeworthy, he wasn't wrong. The USA are going home. Perhaps they'll bump into the South Koreans at the airport, as they too are out of the World Cup.

Credit must go to Ghana (not Africa, who Drury seemed to believe were playing) for a fantastic performance, and one of incredible maturity for such a young side. They wobbled a bit in the second half as the Americans came at them, but after going ahead again were hardly troubled in extra time. We've seen a lot of teams sacrifice possession and defend deep if they're leading late in games, but Ghana did not do that, they kept the ball magnificently and were happy to let the US try the long ball over the top. They were happier to do this especially after Jozy Altidore was taken off and pace was no longer a threat.

The Ghanaians' last 8 opponents will be Uruguay, after their victory over South Korea. A win they made slightly more difficult for themselves than it probably should have been. It took a stunning strike from Luis Suarez to win it in the end, but had they not forgot to mark about half the South Korea team from a free kick they would have maintained their mean streak in defence. Once again, they didn't seem to get out of second gear, they are quite happy defending a lead and only really commit men forward when they have to. They will fancy their chances in the quarter final, and are most definitely not to be underestimated by any bigger sides.

Now, what do we think about tomorrow? It seems England are going to pick the same side, and I fear this is a mistake. The USA tonight demonstrated the problem with a 4-4-2 against a 4-5-1, a man short in midfield means that the opposition win that particular battle and will dominate possession. If we leave Frank Lampard to deal with Schweinsteiger and Khedira on his own then we are starting at a serious disadvantage. On top of that is the Gerrard issue, I keep bringing this up but it is still relevant, he will not stay on his wing, and this is going to be hopelessly exposed by Phillip Lahm unless our heroic skipper discovers some positional sense overnight.

The Germans' weak point is their defence, the left back Badstuber and centre back Friedrich in particular, they must be targetted if England are to have any chance. Going forward they are extremely talented and there have goals in them. I think we are going to have to score at least twice to win, so the emphasis must be on taking the game to Germany, something no one has done to them as yet. It might actually be better for us if we concede an early goal, as that would force us to attack them from the start. I'm not optimistic, I really rate this German side and fear they might overwhelm us, especially given our rather simplistic formation.

The winner of our game will face the winner of the other last 16 match tomorrow, Argentina vs Mexico. I've said on numerous occasions how much I like the Mexicans, but I have a real feeling that Maradona is going to win the whole thing again. Lionel Messi is long overdue a goal, and perhaps it's finally going to come tomorrow night. Mexico's best bet is to get Carlos Salcido, their left back, forward to try to take advantage of a slightly lopsided Argentine formation - there's no genuine right sided midfielder - and the laughable selection of Newcastle left winger Jonas at right back. Giovani Dos Santos will also be a threat, since he is extremely quick and tricky, and should look to run at the walking mistake Martin Demichelis. Despite their rather error prone defence, Argentina should come through this, but it will most definitely be their toughest test so far.

My Predictions:

England 1-3 Germany
Argentina 1-0 Mexico

Take hope from the fact I definitely do not have an 100% record so far.

Friday, 25 June 2010

It's a knockout!

The last 16 line up is complete, and what a line up it promises to be. Much of today was a bit of an anti-climax, but at least the Chile - Spain game was exciting for about an hour. Ultimately, the best teams have qualified. Chile would have been unlucky not to go through having played such exciting football, but they have just about made it.

For a while, it looked as if the miracle could have happened in Group G. Ivory Coast came flying out and started to take the North Koreans apart, they probably should have been 4 or 5 up by half time, which would have given Portugal the jitters. Unfortunately, they never really pressed home their domination, and as a result the Portuguese were able to keep it tight and didn't have to come out and attack. That made for rather dull viewing, but you can't blame them for not showing their hand as yet. I was more disappointed with they way both teams played when Portugal met Ivory Coast in the first game, particularly the Africans, as realistically they needed to get something out of that game, but made little effort to do so.

For that reason, Sven's men can have few complaints about their failure to qualify. Their short corner in the last minute of the first game is perhaps the stupidest moment of the tournament so far, and they left things out of their hands somewhat by relying on thrashing North Korea by more goals than Portugal did. Like I said yesterday with Cannavaro and friends, it's a shame this Ivorian side will break up without having ever really done anything to justify their billing. They have been extremely unfortunate with being drawn in the 'Group of Death' twice in a row, but there have been constant poor performances in the African Cup of Nations mixed in as well. Their failure to qualify leaves Ghana as Africa's sole representatives in the last 16.

Group G was far more exciting, at least until it became clear Switzerland were not going to beat Honduras. Chile started the game very well, but I feared for them on the break prior to the game, and those fears were realised by a couple of Spanish goals, thanks in no small part to the defence allowing them far too much space. It was in the build up to the second goal that Fernando Torres, who was woeful again, decided to throw himself to the floor and play dead for a few minutes to get Marco Estrada sent off. He succeeded. Whilst it was a terrible bit of cheating, Estrada was lucky to have lasted that long anyway, and Waldo Ponce should have gone about three times throughout the first half, so perhaps Chile got lucky in the end.

Tomorrow, we really get down to business. South Korea meet Uruguay to kick off the second round, and the USA meet Ghana in the evening. Both games should be intriguing affairs, and interestingly all 4 teams are from different federations (is that interesting?). What that means is we'll be seeing 4 teams who play different styles of football. South Korea live up to the stereotype of being 'hard working', but they are not short of quality either, they have put together some quick, incisive moves. Uruguay should not underestimate them, but they will start as favourites. Diego Forlan has been easily, and unsurprisingly, their best player, and they will be relying on him to create and score them some goals. However, we must not overlook their excellence at the other end, they are yet to concede a goal, and in truth have rarely looked like doing so. All 5 South American sides have looked very impressive so far, and the Uruguayans are no different. It will take something special for the Koreans to break them down, and I'm not sure they'll have enough about them to come through.

As for the other game, both the USA and Ghana have perhaps surprised a few people so far, and neither should be underestimated. The Africans have been solid at the back, only conceding twice (and one of them was a terrible piece of 'keeping), helped in no small part by Anthony Annan holding in front of the back 4. They are also capable of attacking with pace, something that may trouble an American team slightly on the slow side. As for the US themselves, they are also well organised and hard to break down, but have genuine class in places, something the Ghanaians perhaps lack without Michael Essien. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are excellent players, and are well supported by the impressive Michael Bradley in midfield. I think this one will be very close, but the United States will steal it.

My Predictions:

Uruguay 2-0 South Korea
Ghana 1-2 USA

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Arrivederci!

The worst defence of the World Cup ever? Must be close, real competition between this Italian side and the French one who crumbled at the group stage 8 years ago. At least Italy scored, and France don't get to win anything normally, so we'll give them this.

That is about as good as it gets for Marcello Lippi. He has paid the price for picking too many players who are too old and past their best, like Cannavaro, and too many very average players, like Pepe. Antonio Cassano should have been selected, he has the ability to create something out of nothing and can give the side a spark, but he and Lippi do not get on. Quagliarella and Di Natale should both have got far more game time than they got in the end, the Napoli man in particular made a difference when he came on today, and scored a fantastic goal. It's a shame that some great international careers have ended in the way they did, Fabio Cannavaro has already gone, Zambrotta and Gattuso won't be far behind, but in reality it was a tournament too far.

As for the match itself, it was a fantastic game. It's something of a mystery as to where Slovakia's performance came from, they were incredibly poor for most of the first two games, but today they were exceptional. All 3 goals were very well taken, but more impressive was the way they took the game to Italy. They sensed a weakness and a frailty about the Italians, and went for them. Perhaps if they'd showed that sort of initiative against New Zealand in particular, they could have won the group. Instead, a tough second round match with Holland awaits them.

The other decisive match today was also very enjoyable. Japan had been very defensive in both of their group games, but stunned Denmark with one of the performances of the tournament so far. Keisuke Honda was comfortably man of the match, but the whole side deserve a lot of credit for the way they played. Denmark had no answer, and although you can argue that Thomas Sorensen was at fault for the first free kick, they wouldn't have got anything out of the game regardless. It's interesting how well both the Japanese and South Koreans have done at this World Cup, previously they've only excelled in the tournament they co-hosted, but Asian sides appear to have developed far more than African sides have done. I most certainly wouldn't bet against having a winner from Asia before one from Africa.

On a more general point, what a fantastic World Cup we've had so far. After a slow start when sides were ensuring they didn't start with a defeat, it really has come to life. It's worth looking at that for a second, there were 10 teams who lost their first game and at least 9 (Spain are the 10th) will not qualify. You can understand the defensive tactics in those circumstances, it may not be great to watch, but it is a perfectly reasonable way to begin the tournament.

On paper, the biggest game of the group stage takes place tomorrow, but in reality there's not a lot riding on it. Brazil are already qualified, and barring a goal difference swing of miracle proportions, so are Portugal. In all likelihood Dunga will rest some players, and with Kaka suspended anyway we'll see some of Brazil's 'lesser' lights. There is a chance Portugal could win the group with a win, but because of how open Group H is, whether they really want to or not is impossible to tell. I'm really looking forward to the big game in that group, Spain - Chile. I've been bigging the Chileans up for a while now, and I really hope they can get something out of this game to progress. I think it's too much to hope for a Honduras victory which would send both of these teams through. Goals should be the order of the day, Chile are not going to sit back but Spain will relish a team trying to take them on. I foresee a lot of counter attacking, and hopefully, Chile to scrape through.

Four years ago, Italy beat France to win the World Cup. This time, both did worse than New Zealand. That must be depressing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Glory Glory...?

We got an unconvincing 1-0. It was a bit terrifying at times, but we made it. England are in the last 16, but contrary to the BBC's belief, it was not a good performance.

Let's focus on that match to start with. I find it very hard to watch the build up and post match analysis on England games, so much of it is cringeworthy and it's always way over the top. Either England are brilliant (as now, after a 1-0 win over mighty Slovenia) or terrible (after a 1-1 draw with a solid USA side). Anyhow, I'll look at the positives first; I am not Jermain Defoe's biggest fan, but he did his job very well today. When England don't dominate possession he can't get in the game, and that can be a real problem, but today that wasn't the case. He got in the right position to score, and had a couple of other opportunities as well.

James Milner was also excellent on the right hand side, putting some great crosses in. It seemed a bit strange that we drop Heskey and put in a player to put loads of balls into the box, but can't argue with an assist. I do think that both he and Defoe will drop back to the bench against Germany, but they had good games today.

In defence England looked fairly solid, but worryingly too much was 'last ditch'. Without Ferdinand we lack a defender who can read the game and make interceptions rather than have to dive into tackles at the last minute. Terry and Upson both made crucial interventions in the penalty area, but I can't help but feel we need to be stopping the attacks further away from our own goal. If one of the chances that fell to Slovenia today falls to Miroslav Klose on Sunday, we're a goal down.

There's still a number of problems in the side. Firstly, if the players underestimate the Germans in the same way that all the pundits have been, we are in deep trouble. The movement of their front 4 - Podolski, Ozil, Muller and Klose - is far superior to anything we have faced so far. They will target Carragher and they will look to get in behind England's defence. We lack pace throughout the whole team, but particularly through the middle, and that will be exploited. They have two very solid holding midfielders who are comfortable on the ball, and will look to build attacks from there. Our problems are that Gerrard will continue to not keep his position on the left wing, Rooney looks worryingly off the pace, and the aforementioned centre back pairing.

I'm going to be controversial. Gerrard should not play. We need someone on the left wing who will not constantly come into the centre, and who will help Ashley Cole out in defence. Not only is Thomas Muller a very hard working player on the right, but behind him will be Phillip Lahm, one of the best full backs in the world. We cannot afford to let them get 2 on 1 with Cole, however good he is. I'm going to put forward Mr Milner to fill that role. He's very disciplined, and will do what he's told to do, something that appears to be an alien concept to the Liverpool captain.

I'll do a better preview of the German side on Saturday, but for now we'll glance at a couple of other teams who qualified today. Ghana will play the USA at the weekend, in a rematch of a game four years ago. The Africans knocked the Americans out that day, but this time I think it's incredibly hard to call. I was delighted for both sides that they got through, Ghana are probably going to be Africa's only representative in the last 16, and they thoroughly deserve it. A lack of cutting edge could be their downfall, as it's been that which has stopped them from winning Group D. They have no problem creating chances, and in defence they look very good. Anthony Annan in particular has shone, and sometimes you forget they're missing Michael Essien in that position. To beat the US though they are going to have to score, and it'll concern them that both their goals in the group stage were penalties.

As for the Americans themselves, I've only seen highlights of their match today, but it looked like they should have absolutely crushed Algeria. Landon Donovan (Landycakes, if you prefer) is a quality player, and deserved to be the man who scored the crucial goal. Their problem is perhaps that they rely too heavily on him and Clint Dempsey, but they are a surprisingly good side. They play in a very English way, a couple of creative players combined with a powerful attack in front of a defence which will have no problem defending balls in the air. Ghana however play at pace, and will keep the ball on the floor. At the very least it'll be an interesting battle, and I am really looking forward to it.

A final thought, I'd like to think I'm not really biased towards England, and I say what I think about them. To that end; of the 8 teams in the last 16 so far, we look the worst of them all.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Good riddance to Greece

Just for a while, it looked like South Africa could do it. They could (and arguably should) have thrashed France today. Unfortunately they fell short, but South Korea did not, they managed to just about hold on to a draw. It's hard not to love the Koreans, not just for the way they play football but also for how much qualifying meant to them. If the England team cared half as much as they do, we wouldn't be disappearing up shit creek quite as quickly.

Laughing at the French can't fail to be a good starting point. They put every other crisis into perspective. A truly disastrous World Cup is over, but the repurcussions will continue for a while yet. The government has even got involved and ordered an investigation into what went on. I've slated Domenech many times, but not all of this can be put down to him. The players have disgraced themselves with their conduct, starting with Florent Malouda's bust up with the manager before the first game. It never really improved from there, I don't know what choice they had with Anelka, it's not acceptable to challenge Domenech's authority as he did. The way the rest of the squad reacted to that was pathetic, and I'm sure many of them have played their last game for France. Their greatest achievement at this tournament is how much entertainment they've given us. There's nothing like watching a team completely implode.

Credit to South Africa, they gave everything they had, and if they'd taken their chances then could well have pulled off the biggest shock ever at the World Cup. In the end though I'm pleased Mexico have made it, they are an exciting team to watch, and their match with Argentina is going to be a cracker. 4 years ago they put on a real spectacle at this stage, with any luck we'll have the same again. Despite the Mexican's pretty football and South Africa's fighting spirit, Uruguay have been the most impressive side of Group A. They have won the group without conceding a goal, and seemingly without playing anywhere near their best. Given they're in the weaker half of the draw, they must be looking at the quarter finals at least. Since that quarter final opponent could be England, a semi final is not completely out of the question. In fact, I wouldn't rule out an all South American last 4.

On to Group B, I was flicking between both games, and managed to miss all of the goals. Greece were a complete disgrace, the gameplan seemed to be 'hope Nigeria win'. It's one thing to play as Switzerland did against Spain, i.e. get men behind the ball, but when you get the ball in attacking areas commit some players forward and at least vaguely attempt to score. Greece were cynical, constantly fouled the Argentinians and timewasted from the start. Even after they knew that they would have to win (after South Korea had equalised) they made no effort to attack or get any players forward to support Samaras when he got on the end of an aimless hoof forward from the defence. They are not a loss to the competition.

The other game in that group seems to have been a real thriller. I saw the last 15 minutes or so, and the Nigerians really should have won it in that time. Yakubu's miss was hilarious and shocking in equal measure, but he did well to recover himself and score a penalty a few minutes later. I did notice the commentator describe that pen as 'a super goal', which is quite confusing, it wasn't even that good a strike.

On to England. Rumour has it Defoe and Milner are replacing Heskey and Lennon. Oh dear. When has Rooney and Defoe ever worked? It's almost like Capello is being stubborn and deliberately not doing what everyone else can clearly see is the right thing to do. Gerrard is going to refuse to play on the left again and try to play in the middle, leaving a huge gap where he's supposed to be. Why this still hasn't been solved is beyond me. I'd love to know what Joe Cole has done to deserve being completely overlooked again. Regardless, I expect England to win, Slovenia are quite a good side going forward, but have considerable weaknesses at the back. I can't believe England will play as badly as they did against Algeria ever again, so even if it's an unconvincing 1-0 we'll get through.

How's that for positivity?

Monday, 21 June 2010

Cesc Fabregas has a beautiful beard

Today, Raymond Domenech described his own team as 'exceptionally stupid' in a cunning attempt to improve morale. Despite his best efforts, the only player to be sent home today was not a Frenchman. Sulley Muntari is constantly falling out with someone, and he's done it again. I don't think he's a big loss, but still that's hardly helping preparation for Ghana's crunch game with Germany this week.

On to the football; I think North Korea were unlucky but also their tactics seemed strange to me - It would have made more sense to play like they did against Brazil, try to get a draw and bank on beating Ivory Coast. They started really well, but their expansiveness cost them in the end and the space Portugal got late in the game was crazy. Despite the scoreline, I still don't think there's much to the Portuguese. Against tougher sides (and even against the Ivory Coast, who aren't particularly good) they rely far too heavily on Ronaldo, and the midfield is seriously lacking in creativity. Given that they could face Spain or Chile in the second round I'd be surprised if they get much further.

Talking of Chile, how did they not thrash the Swiss? Mark Gonzalez scored, but once again managed to miss an absolute hatful of chances. He will be as much to blame as anyone if they fail to qualify. A draw with Spain would be enough, and even a defeat if Switzerland don't beat Honduras. Really they should have qualified already, their goal difference could, and should, be at least 6 better than it is now. That would have given them such a big cushion that the final game would have been irrelevant. Instead they are the ones in the most perilous position despite being by far the most impressive side of Group G. Believe me, Chile will not sit back against the Spanish, they just don't do that. Instantly that gives them a problem as Spain will relish having a team attack them, and I'd be very surprised if the game isn't an absolute goalfest. Not only is their style of play probably going to make it difficult, they are also without a couple of players thanks to another terrible refereeing performance. I thought Valon Behrami was extremely unlucky to be sent off, it wasn't quite as bad a decision as last night's, but it wasn't far off. For a game where there wasn't any really poor challenges, 9 yellows and a red is ridiculous. I still have no idea what Mati Fernandez got booked for. FIFA has got to sort this out.

Now we're into the 'business end' of the group stage. Tomorrow is the start of the final round of matches, and for a number of teams it's win or bust. For France, it could be win and bust anyway. They must beat South Africa, hope the other match isn't a draw and that there's a 3 goal swing in goal difference. it would be quite funny if Mexico and Uruguay play out a draw to send the French out, but Mexico really need to try and win. A second round meeting with Argentina awaits them unless they beat the South Americans tomorrow. I hope they do, they've played some nice football so far and both their matches have been entertaining. They would fancy their chances against South Korea or Nigeria as well, so a quarter final place could beckon. They must win tomorrow first.

I left Greece out of that equation because they have to play Argentina, which they aren't going to win. It'll be interesting to see whether Maradona rests many players for that game, even if he does they have enough strength in depth, attacking wise at least, to ensure it doesn't make too much difference. The big game in Group B is between South Korea and Nigeria. Both teams have 3 points, but the Koreans have a worse goal difference. I fancy them to win it, they were unlucky to come up against the Argentians in the form they did, but against Greece they looked impressive. Much more so than Nigeria have in either game. No team that loses to the Greeks deserves to qualify.

It was good to see Fabio Capello put John Terry in his place today. Come on, it'd be funny if he dropped him, wouldn't it?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The French have lost the plot

Only a couple of days ago, we were all praising the quality of refereeing at this tournament. Not any more. Miroslav Klose's dismissal against Serbia, closely followed by a completely ridiculous disallowed USA goal and now one of the worst red card decisions I have ever seen.

Kaka's first yellow card was barely deserved, coming in a bit of handbags with Yaya Toure, for which the Ivorian mysteriously wasn't punished. As for the second, well, there were so many things wrong with it it's difficult to know where to start. Firstly, it was clearly an outrageous dive from Keita, but that doesn't excuse the decision. What I'm most interested in is who actually saw it and told Monsieur Lannoy to send Kaka off? We've already ascertained from the TV coverage that it couldn't have been him. Next to look at would be the linesmen, who in general have a tendency to want to give lots of decisions anyway, but one was the opposite side of the pitch so surely he's not guilty. The other was still a good 40 yards away, the same goes for the fourth official. So who was it? If it was any of those 4 people then someone has made a very, very bad decision without seeing it properly. The only alternative is that the referee himself sent Kaka off on the basis of Keita's reaction, which makes it even worse.

FIFA now have the opportunity to make a statement. They should rescind the red card and ban Keita for at least one game. The referee and all of his team should be sent home. It is not acceptable to be making errors like that. One of the world's best players is now suspended for a World Cup game because another player ran into him. Graham Poll went home for his 3 card trick in 2006, the same thing should happen here. There are 16 games in each round of matches at the World Cup, how is it that we can't find 16 referees in the whole world who are capable of refereeing a match without making a decision like that? The same thing applies to the man who disallowed Maurice Edu's goal against Slovenia. It was so late in the game that you can be as sure as you can ever be in football that the USA would have won that game, which means the referee's incompetence has cost them 2 points. What happens now if they miss out on qualification by a point? The same man will still be doing major international tournaments next time, there appears to be no punishment for making poor decisions. If a striker constantly misses chances, he gets dropped. In the Premier League there are referees who constantly make poor decisions (Stuart Atwell, Rob Styles, Mike Riley are good examples of this) and continue to do games at the top level.

Moving on, the funny thing in the end is that the Ivory Coast need Brazil to beat Portugal. So getting Kaka sent off and trying to cripple a couple of their players perhaps wasn't the best idea. Actually, that reminds me, I didn't even mention that the over the ball, studs up 'challenge' on Elano didn't even get Tiote a yellow card. Or that Luis Fabiano practically caught the ball and ran into the goal without punishment. Or that the referee then had a laugh and a joke with the Brazillian asking him if he'd handballed it. How a man refereeing in the World Cup, the pinnacle of the sport, can have as bad a game as that is a complete mystery to me.

It would be unfair to focus solely on the Brazil match, as other things have happened today. New Zealand pulled a brilliant performance out of the bag to hold the World Champions, who severly lack creativity. It's not completely inconceivable that the Kiwis could qualify from this group, sadly I don't think they've quite got enough to beat Paraguay. The Italians themselves must be worried now, but I expect them to still qualify. Slovakia are a fairly weak side and shouldn't pose too many problems. Mind you, we thought that about New Zealand.

Saving the best til last, France! No one does anger and going on strike quite like the French do. I'm still not quite sure why they stormed off and refused to train, they claim it's because of Anelka being sent home, but they only actually left training after Patrice Evra's argument with the fitness coach. If you haven't seen the video of that then it's worth looking for. I particularly like the coach marching off and hurling his accreditation across the field.

One other thing; Chile play tomorrow. They have become my second team, their formation is unique at the tournament and they play exciting football, what's not to love?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Josh Kennedy looks like Jesus

Harry Kewell lasting less than half an hour in a big game, who'd have thunk it? Fortunately for him that wasn't the only stereotype to reinforce itself today, as Richard Kingson did little to enhance African goalkeepers' reputations (never trust a keeper in tracksuit bottoms). Day 8 of the World Cup sees the Dutch become the first team through to the round of 16 and Cameroon are going home.

Holland haven't exactly been scintillating, but they're missing Robben badly and credit must go to them for winning both games without him. They had a considerable amount of luck but did enough to come through and now they don't have to rush their star man back. Hopefully Bert Van Marwijk will rotate some players and we might get a look at Elia from the start. Without Robben he's the only player they have who's prepared to run at players and take them on. They play Cameroon in the final game, which isn't going to mean anything to the Africans either. The Indomitable Lions should have beaten Denmark, they had so many chances. Samuel Eto'o is going to be extremely angry at his teammates, he had two chances in the game; scored one and hit the post. The rest of his team had about 30 and missed them all. Pierre Webo being the chief culprit, his misses included skying one into the top tier from inside the penalty area. The other game in this group will be a playoff for second, but Japan only need a draw to progress thanks to a better goal difference. I imagine they'll play for a draw and look to frustrate the Danes, which I think they should be able to do if they defend deep. The main threat is Rommedahl's pace, and there isn't a lot of creativity from other areas. Stop Rommedahl and you stifle Denmark.

The other game today was another exciting one, Australia turned in a great performance after having Kewell sent off. Pim Verbeek got his tactics massively wrong against Germany, but this time he got it right. Particularly bringing on Josh Kennedy in the second half and taking the game to Ghana. Both teams had chances but Australia should have won it, Luke Wilkshere missed a great chance late on. Unfortunately for them they're probably out now, they need to win, Germany to win and a 5 goal swing in goal difference. Very unlikely. At least if/when they do go out, they can be proud of this performance and it goes some way to making up for their capitulation against the Germans. Ghana missed a big opportunity to virtually put themselves through, maybe it was down to inexperience - they're missing Essien and are a very young side - but they wilted in the face of Australia's counter attack in the last 20 minutes. They weren't expecting it and never took control of the game properly after half time.

I don't want to talk about England too much here, but there are a couple of points I want to make. Firstly, this incident with the fan getting into the England dressing room. Whilst it's slightly worrying how easy it was, I'm slightly confused as to what made him think that was the best outlet for his anger. On top of that, apparently Princes William and Harry had just left. What were they doing there straight after a game? Surely it should have been a time to clear the air somewhat between players and manager and the atmosphere would have been tense, it seems crazy to me to let them in at that point. Secondly, Andy Townsend on ITV seemed to be suggesting that it was all Capello's fault. That is a completely ridiculous thing to say, I am a big believer in formations, tactics, and the influence of the manager, but you cannot excuse the pathetic lack of effort there was last night.

A quick look forward at tomorrow, Paraguay - Slovakia should be interesting as the Europeans in particular have got to win that game, but should Paraguay win then they are almost certainly going through. New Zealand didn't disgrace themselves at all in the first game, but Italy are a very different and much more difficult challenge. It'll give us another look at what the world champions have got going forward as the pressure will be on them to break New Zealand down. I'm not sure they've got a lot, they didn't look very creative against Paraguay and the Kiwis are not going to give them any room to work with. As an aside, the last time these two teams met - in the Confederations cup last year - New Zealand led 3 times before finally losing 4-3. We'll take that again. The last game tomorrow sees Brazil take on the Ivory Coast, in a game the Ivorians probably have to win now after not even trying to beat Portugal. I can't see it, the Brazillians are very solid and will be happier against teams who try to attack them. They could win comfortably, particularly if they score an early goal, they can then sit back and break fast when they have the chance. I fancy 3-0 Brazil.

To finish, it hasn't escaped my attention that the French camp has once again descended into chaos. Seems a bit silly to me to send Anelka home now when they could wait a couple of days and all go back together.

And we thought France were bad

Oh dear.

The worst England performance since Steve McClaren let Terry Venables have his wicked way with the formation in Croatia.

I said a couple of days ago that all I wanted was a good performance, and that is really all I, and most people, want from England. If we lose in the quarter final having given our best and lost to a better side, then that's fine. What I do have a problem with are performances like yesterday. Against the USA we were unlucky, we would have won that game without a freak mistake, but last night was just appalling. When I was talking about France's defeat to Mexico, I criticised Raymond Domenech for his team selection and his substitutions. It's only fair to do the same to Capello.

I am genuinely surprised he dropped Robert Green, if he was his best keeper a week ago, then has he suddenly become rubbish? He presumably wouldn't drop Wayne Rooney if he missed an open goal, so why get rid of Green? In any case, if we start dropping players for one mistake we'll need a whole new squad after last night. As for the subs, we still seem to have this unwritten rule that says Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard have to play all game every game. Lampard and Rooney in particular were terrible last night, there's nothing wrong with deciding after 70 minutes that we need to try something different. I would have liked to see a midfield of Cole - Gerrard - Barry - Lennon behind Crouch and Defoe by the end. We need to get out of this ridiculous mentality that big players can't be substituted. On top of that, as much as the media might want us to think otherwise, we have no genuine world class players (except probably at left back). We do not have a Messi or Ronaldo who can win games on their own, Rooney is not anywhere near that standard. I'm not saying he's not very good or anything ridiculous like that, he's still England's best player (excluding, again, Ashley Cole) but he's not good enough to warrant being kept on if he's had a bad game and there are different options on the bench. We've learnt that Defoe and Rooney can't play together, but Defoe can play with Peter Crouch, so try it out if we need a goal! Capello decided to do it far too late last night, and then inexplicably kept Rooney on and played him on the left wing.

After slagging off the whole team, I would still only make a couple of changes for the Slovenia game. Joe Cole ahead of Heskey and a change to 4-2-3-1, then Dawson for the suspended Carragher at the back. It wasn't really the starting 11 that was the problem. Obviously to an extent we didn't win because most of the team played extremely badly, but the substitutions didn't change anything. As an example to back up how important they can be if used well; two Mexican subs scored against France, and the third won a penalty.

Dragging myself away from England for a second, a couple of other games took place yesterday. I imagine both the Germans and the Americans are also very angry this morning. Miroslav Klose was sent off for very, very little whilst Maurice Edu had a goal disallowed seemingly for the offence of 'all his teammates being fouled'. Really it was some careless defending in the first half that cost the USA the win, but they still deserved victory in the end. As for Germany, it's been 36 years since they last missed a penalty in regulation play, so pencil in the next one for the 2046 World Cup. This little blip probably won't cost them because they should beat Ghana and their hammering of Australia might well win them the group. I can't see Ghana taking the Socceroos apart in quite the same way today, so if it comes down to goal difference - which it probably will - Germany qualify.

Finally, Fabio Capello did an interview on Five Live today, and used an interpreter. The Daily Mail is gonna have a field day with that.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

All hail the little pea

A week ago, Argentina and France looked quite similar. Raymond Domenech and Diego Maradona were both seen as joke managers, who had stumbled their way into the tournament and had left a couple of big players out of their final 23. Tonight, Maradona looks like he's been on a two year long wind up. But Domenech seems to have left the one part of his brain still functioning back home in Paris.

I'm still at a loss as to how Raymond has held onto his job for so long. He's been unpopular in France for almost as long as he's been in charge and his one success, the 2006 final, was really down to the fact they had Zidane. Tonight the team was wrong, the subs were wrong and I'm not sure they even bothered with tactics. Anelka and Govou should not have started, Ribery in the middle was a mistake and Eric Abidal at centre back was an accident waiting to happen. As for the substitutions, if he doesn't think Henry is good enough to come on then why is he in the squad? Valbuena was just a strange one, France needed experience by that point, which he was never going to bring. Finally, the steadfast refusal to make the 3rd change was completely inexplicable. It was almost like he was trying to make a point, that the best team was on and it was all the players' fault, which would've been fine if the the best team was on and it was all the players' fault.

The hammering France get in the press tomorrow will take away from Mexico's performance, which is unfair. In truth they were hardly troubled defensively, but going forward they were excellent again and this time managed to take some chances. Javier Hernandez has now played about an hour combined in the two games so far, and without wanting to judge too early, he looks some player. On top of that, 'El Chicarito' or 'the little pea' is a great nickname. I hope they don't settle for a draw with Uruguay in the final game, because winning the group means avoiding Argentina (who they lost to last time).

Maradona's men turned in another brilliant performance. It's unbelievable that Lionel Messi is yet to score a goal in either game, with a bit of luck he could have won the Golden Boot already. As it is, he's just winning it for Gonzalo Higuain instead. In defence there is still a worry, particularly if Walter Samuel is out of the tournament. Martin Demichelis is terrifying to watch at centre back and has managed to give a goal away without coming under much sustained pressure as yet. The first 'big' team they face could be England, which would be interesting.

Or a complete humiliation.

A quick glance at the other game in Group B; Greece have scored their first ever World Cup goal and at the same time registered the luckiest win in tournament history. They were absolutely shocking again until Sani Kaita got himself sent off, then the first goal took an enormous deflection and the second was thanks to a terrible goalkeeping mistake. Despite having three points, I'm going to confidently say they will not qualify.

Looking ahead, Germany and England get a second chance to state their credentials tomorrow night. Serbia will be far tougher to break down than Australia but they really need a win, so will be forced to attack at some point. When they do that they could be in trouble. Algeria aren't going to cause England too many problems but we could do with a big win, not least because goal difference is likely to decide the group winner. All I want is a good performance. Well, I also want Carragher and Shaun Wright Phillips to be exiled from the squad, but I won't hold my breath.

The most important thing to remember tonight, however pessimistic an England fan you are, is that at least we aren't French.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Go back to the museum!

Finally! Maybe, just maybe, we have liftoff. The headlines will undoubtably go to Switzerland for their shock victory, but we shouldn't forget Chile or Uruguay's part in the day either. Oh, and Maradona has done something mental again.

It's only fair to give the Swiss top billing. The side that went out last time without conceding a goal have maintained their mean streak, and in doing so started this campaign with a fantastic win. From a Spanish perspective, it's slightly worrying how easily they were kept out. Whilst they dominated possession and had a fair few opportunities, they never created a really clear cut chance. They were far too narrow and easy to keep out until Navas came on, and even then his crossing was so Walcott-esque that it limited his impact. I would've liked to see them bring on Fernando Llorente ahead of Torres. Firstly because Torres clearly wasn't fit, and secondly because he offers a different threat. Given that with Navas on there seemed to be more of an effort to get the ball in the box, Llorente is far better in the air than Torres and could have been their 'Plan B'.

As it is, Group H is now wide open. Chile began their campaign with a 1-0 victory that should have been far more comfortable. On another day Alexis Sanchez could have scored about 4 himself, and Waldo Ponce lived up to his name by somehow managing to miss an open goal from a yard. I gave Chile a bit of a build up yesterday so thankfully they went some way to living up to that. They might look even better against sides who attack them more than Honduras did, as they are exceptionally quick on the break. It's almost a shame they can't meet England until the final because Sanchez v Carragher would be worth seeing. The earth spins on its axis quicker than Jamie does the 100 metres. I say 'almost a shame', because England would probably lose.

I think my second place prediction for South Africa might have to be altered. They simply weren't good enough tonight, and Uruguay didn't even get close to their best. Barring a (potentially hilarious) miracle against France, the hosts are going home. Metaphorically, obviously. In saying all that, I did think they were a bit unlucky with the penalty. Luis Suarez had clearly been watching Ronaldo yesterday and was throwing himself all over the place throughout the whole game. He was looking for it, and the way he went down given the minimal contact from Kuhne was ridiculous. I also think he might've been offside. From the inital attempt from Forlan, he was on, but the shot seemed to hit another Uruguayan player before it got through to Suarez. We never got a look at the right angle to see. They probably would have lost regardless, but it's hard not to feel sorry for the goalkeeper given that he is unlikely to play at a World Cup ever again.

You'll all be pleased to know that Maradona's back tomorrow. In his press conference today he not only sung happy birthday to a journalist (presumably not one of the ones he told to 'suck it', amongst other things, in October) but also told Pele and Platini to 'go back to the museum'. Which, as insults go, is not the best. It also makes absolutely no sense, but it wouldn't be Maradona if he didn't talk in bizarre made up riddles all the time. As for his team, they face their toughest test of the group stage against South Korea, but you would expect them to come through it. Nonetheless, we'll have a much better idea of their credentials in 24 hours time. Even I can't talk up Greece vs Nigeria, other than to say that the Greeks are completely terrible and anything other than a hammering will probably be a success. I wish I could say the same for France, but as I've said before I think the Mexicans' lack of firepower is going to cost them. The French will use all their experience to scrape a 1-0 win.

Why do I get the feeling Diego's gonna win this thing?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

North Korea would beat England

The two lowest ranked teams in the tournament, both playing in their second World Cup, are the stories of day five. A last gasp equaliser gave New Zealand their first ever point at the finals, and for a while there was a genuine possibility North Korea could hold Brazil and in doing so cause one of the greatest upsets ever seen at the World Cup. If we just pretend the game in the middle never happened it's been a pretty good day.

Slovakia will be very disappointed not to have started with a win, but they have only themselves to blame. Quite why they decided to try to hold their 1-0 lead instead of really going for broke is anyone's guess. As for the Kiwis, I'm going to take some of the credit for their goal since I had already started doing my little write up on the game whilst it was still going on, and I was writing it as if they had lost. I also had money on Slovakia, so I think I might have tempted fate with that one. Full credit to the Kiwi’s though, they knew their limitations and kept things tight, whilst playing to their strengths going forward. In particular, their pressing game was key in preventing Slovakia from building attacks for long periods of the game. Compared to Australia's pathetic tactics against Germany (obviously Germany are a better side than Slovakia, but still) they were excellent. To put that performance into context, 3 of the side have played non league football in England and 2 of them are currently without a club. If football was played on paper they would have no chance in any game at this tournament. Thankfully, it isn’t.

The same goes for North Korea, who also played exceptionally well despite their eventual loss. Their late goal is probably the moment of the tournament so far after the South African opener on Friday. The ridiculously patronising commentary from the ITV team was a constant annoyance (I spose ITV in general is a constant annoyance) but Korea deserve all the praise they will get over the next few days. Another thing their performance does is make Ivory Coast and Portugal look exceptionally stupid, as they appeared to be happy with a point. It seems they settled for a draw on the basis that they'd be able to thrash North Korea and qualify on goal difference. That does not look as simple any more. To be honest I hope neither team gets through now because of they way they made no effort to win the game. Come on Korea!

The tournament still hasn't spluttered into life yet, so I'm going to try a different approach; Pessimism!

Not really.

I just can't look at tomorrow and not hope for a couple of storming attacking performances. Chile should be worth seeing just because they probably play the most exciting formation of anyone in the tournament. Their 3-4-3/3-3-1-3 contains the much hyped Alexis Sanchez, as well as a personal favourite of mine, Sporting's Matias Fernandez. I'm not sure Honduras will be good enough defensively to cope with the way the Chileans attack. On top of that, the favourites finally make their first appearance tomorrow afternoon, and surely they won't be settling for a draw. The Swiss will probably look to kill the game as much as possible, but the Spanish can be overwhelming going forward at times. What we've been lacking so far is early goals, many of the games would have been much better if one team had been forced out of it's shell early. If Spain buck the trend then Switzerland could get a hammering.

We'll end with a quick glance in the hosts' direction, as they kick off the second round of group games in the evening. I've said before how I hope they do well and I still feel the same way. Uruguay weren't very impressive in the first game, but they might have to come out and attack a bit more this time out, so with any luck we'll have a decent game on our hands. I fancy South Africa to nick it 2-1.


North Korea - South Korea final anyone?

This is getting silly now

I think I'd like a break from low scoring, defensive, tactical battles now. Aren't we due a thriller? Day four of the World Cup and still only one game has seen more than two goals. We need some excitement!

Holland and Japan will be delighted with their starts, but neither game was anything to write home about and both sides profited from a considerable amount of luck. In their defence, the Dutch were quite clearly missing Arjen Robben. Rafael Van Der Vaart insisted on drifting inside and constantly getting in Wesley Sneijder's way, which eventually caused Sneijder to be moved wide just to give the team some shape. Liverpool have a similar problem with Kuyt on the right if they don't have a genuine left winger on the other side as an outlet. Once Elia came on, and gave Holland something different - i.e. a player who would run at the Danish defence - they looked much better. Kuyt is excellent at what he does but he will never be a 'touchline' winger like Robben is, which makes the side very narrow if the player on the opposite side likes to drift into a more central position as well.

What's been frustrating about the tournament so far is that the so called 'bigger' sides have been well contained by their less fancied opponents. It's not surprising that teams like Denmark, Japan and Paraguay have played defensively, because they know that starting the tournament with a draw is much more preferable to getting slaughtered in the first game as Australia were. The real blame must fall to the sides they have been playing. I have no idea what Paul Le Guen's been smoking, but Cameroon's team selection was bizarre, and until Japan scored they showed no ambition at all. They, like Algeria, Greece and France seemed happy with a 0-0 from the start. It's probably worked out well that these sides (France excepted) ended up losing their games because in the second round of matches they have no choice but to attack. Another defeat means certain elimination, and even a draw leaves them in deep, deep trouble.

As for Italy, they did at least try to get forward, even after De Rossi had equalised. They were simply not good enough to break Paraguay down. Marcelo Lippi appears to be trying to rebuild the 2006 side with anyone left from that success and new players who aren't quite as good. Up front they look toothless, they haven't replaced the bite of Gattuso or the creativity of Pirlo (though he will be back) in midfield and at the back Cannavaro and Zambrotta look like this is one tournament too far. I imagine they'll get away with it because Group F is not a strong one, but you never know. And come on, we'd all love it if New Zealand stuck a few past them.

Looking ahead, everyone's favourite Military Dictatorship is in action tomorrow and we can assume that whatever happens here, in North Korea they'll be showing images of a glorious victory at Soccer City on July 11th. My knowledge of how they play is limited to Youtube and a couple of screamers they scored against Greece in a friendly. Other than that all we know is that they are an incredibly organised side (funnily enough) and that they are unlikely to come out all guns blazing. Well, not the football team anyway. That match will be worth watching not only for them, but also as it gives us a first look at the Brazilians. I doubt we'll get to see much of this tomorrow but they are scarily good on the counter attack, so look out for that in their group games over the next week or so.

Finally, let's hope Didier Drogba is fit to play, and that Carlos Quieroz hasn't been sacked by tomorrow afternoon. That should give the Ivory Coast a chance of getting something out of Portugal. I don't think I'm alone in hoping an African team goes a long way this year, and only Ghana have looked genuinely impressive so far. In addition, the 'Golden Generation' (I hate that phrase) of Ivorians has yet to really justify that tag, and this probably represents their last chance of doing so.

I feel like a broken record, but surely tomorrow will finally see the tournament explode into life. New Zealand go for their first ever World Cup win, North Korea taking on the might of Brazil, and the biggest match of the group stage all on one day. That has got to give us something.

Hasn't it?

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Germans are coming!

A marker has been set, and kneejerkers all around the land are throwing themselves on board the German bandwagon.

Perhaps tonight was the night that the World Cup finally came alive. Whilst it has by no means been a poor tournament, it needed something to really kick start it into action. This match might well be the moment, especially as it leads into a week in which Holland, Italy, Brazil, Portugal and Spain all take to the stage.

Before Germany destroyed Australia, it was a day of two mental handballs and another absolutely shocking goalkeeping mistake. Algeria and Slovenia showed nothing to worry either of the other teams in the group, although the North Africans do have a habit of going all out to cripple the opposition when they start losing, so perhaps England should play them in full body armour. There's not a lot more to say about that game, other than to give a lot of credit to Slovenia for even getting this far. A country with only 13,000 registered footballers getting to, and winning a game at, the World Cup is a fantastic achievement.

Ghana were much better than I expected, Anthony Annan had such an excellent game they hardly missed Essien in midfield, and they probably just about deserved their win. Marcel Desailly's celebrations, in his naturally bonkers way, showed just how much that will mean back home. Given how Australia played, Ghana must now be favourites to take second as beating the Socceroos will almost certainly be enough. It's not inconcievable that they could meet the US in the second round, a side they beat in Germany 4 years ago. A win there, onto the quarter finals and who knows...

...Maybe I'm getting carried away.

Talking of which, let's go massively over the top about Germany's performance. No? They did play well, their front 4 in particular looks very fluid and Mesut Ozil had an excellent game (as predicted, I might add!). It's important not to go too far though, Australia were rubbish and gave Ozil far too much space in front of their defence. From there he could pick them apart, which he did with alarming regularity. Cahill's sending off was harsh but they would have lost regardless, the most important repurcussion of it is that their one real goal threat is suspended. Germany's defence is still the weak point and it wasn't ever properly tested tonight, apart from a corner early on which caused chaos in the box. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up under more sustained attack. Saying that, they clearly have ability going forward, and the capability of playing possession football to relieve pressure. Something England really need to learn to do, and fast.

Looking ahead, tomorrow should be a fascinating day. Italy face Paraguay in the evening, a game which is probably going to be fairly cautious but should give us an insight as to whether this Italian team is really too old or if they've been prematurely written off again. They always seem to be discarded as contenders because of the age of their squad, but they know how to win World Cups. I just don't think they're very good, regardless of age. I'm not sure their experience will see them through games against better sides like it has before, the gulf has become too big.

The Samuel Eto'o show also rolls into town, and could well keep rolling over the edge of a cliff. Anything could happen there, but his mind seems to be all over the place and the rest of his team is so far behind in terms of ability. Rigobert Song of Liverpool 'fame' still gets in the team, that does not bode well. Prior to that comes the side I'm most looking forward to seeing, is this year finally the year the Dutch come to the party? How they fare against a half decent Danish side should give us a clue, but it's important to remember they won't have Arjen Robben available, and when he gets fit they have a player who can change games on his own.

After 3 rather underwhelming days, we're really off this time!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

I told you it'd be a draw

It wouldn’t be England without an absolute shambles of a match to start the tournament.

To be fair, they didn’t play too badly this time, the win over Paraguay 4 years ago was a worse performance. Obviously much of the focus will go on Robert Green, and there will be lots of people calling for him to be dropped, disciplined or executed. Personally I don’t see the benefit in dropping him now, Joe Hart would have been my choice, but Capello has made his and should stick to it. Some of the suggestions on TV that he should have been substituted at half time were utterly ridiculous.

For me, Shaun Wright-Phillips had a far worse game. As usual he failed to control the ball on numerous occasions and constantly gave the ball away through having no touch as well as absolutely no ability when it comes to passing a football. On top of that, he had a great chance to win the game towards the end and his shot was absolutely pathetic. He should not have been in the squad to start with, and he certainly should not have got anywhere near the pitch. The idea behind bringing him was presumably to stop the US full back getting forward, which did work to an extent, but there was the slight drawback of him being so bad England would have been better off playing with 8 men.

The positives were that Emile Heskey won everything in the air and was involved with every attack, including setting up Steven Gerrard for the goal. He did slightly let me down with his shooting, which was less than brilliant. That could be a problem later on in the tournament if England’s one good chance of the game falls to him. Gerrard himself played well in the centre, but his complete lack of positional discipline did mean that Frank Lampard had to be the holding player, limiting his effectiveness considerably. England will probably need his goals if they are going to get anywhere and he won’t score many having to sit back in midfield.

The other two games today were quite enjoyable, South Korea were impressive, very hard working but looked tidy in possession and put together some nice moves. Greece will be lucky to score never mind win a game, and Nigeria didn’t look particularly good either. The Korean right back, Cha Du-Ri, had an excellent game, probably the best of the tournament so far. Overlapped very well on that flank and may well cause problems for better sides as the competition progresses.

Argentina started with a win, though they should have won more comfortably. After 15 minutes there was a slight worry that the World Cup record score could have been smashed, but the Nigerians just about clung on thanks to an extremely poor finishing display from Gonzalo Higuain. By the end they had the odd chance themselves to equalise, which would have been incredibly undeserved. Without wanting to shoehorn Emile Heskey into every paragraph, maybe we should have a Heskey award for the worst shooting performance in the tournament - a sort of anti-Golden Boot. Already Higuain and Franco are battling it out with the big man for this illustrious title.

Germany enter the World Cup tomorrow, and you’d expect them to sail through without too much trouble. It’s not a vintage side but there are some exciting young players in their ranks, not least playmaker Mesut Ozil, who might well be a star of the tournament. Their main weaknesses are at centre back and up front. Miroslav Klose needs 5 goals become the leading scorer of all time at the World Cup, but only scored 3 for Bayern this season. Whereas at the back, Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich are not really great players, solid enough but could be exploited by small, mobile strikers.

As for the rest of the group, Serbia are a decent bet for second, and a potential round of 16 match with England. A side built on a solid defence with considerable experience all over the park, and the giant Nikola Zigic bound to cause trouble up front. Both Ghana and Australia cannot be completely ruled out. The Ghanaians managed to get to the Cup of Nations final in the winter, but are still without Michael Essien, a huge blow to their chances of qualification. Beating Serbia will be the only way to qualify as they are unlikely to pose too many problems for Germany. The same goes for Australia. Goals will be their problem, Tim Cahill aside there is a worrying lack of potency and the two teams they need to beat – Serbia and Ghana – are both solid defensively. If they can scrape 4 points they might just make it, but they just aren’t going to score enough to qualify.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how the Germans play, they should comfortably win Group D and I expect Serbia to take second.

Friday, 11 June 2010

And we're off...

One day into the World Cup, and we’ve already had a wonder goal, a red card and Raymond Domenech has managed to fight one of his own players. On top of that, our eardrums might never recover. An entertaining first game followed by a fairly terrible second one, memorable for an absolutely atrocious performance by France’s front three and Nicolas Lodeiro’s red card.

We’ll start in Johannesburg, and the naturally crazy opening ceremony. The highlight of which was the giant beetle stating his claim for a starting spot in the South African side. It couldn’t have played much worse than anyone else did in the first 10 minutes of the tournament. Thankfully they came into the game and showed us that they are not to be underestimated in this competition, particularly on the counter attack as they have considerable pace throughout the team.

Mind you, had Guillermo Franco not been doing a fantastic Emile Heskey impression in the first half, Mexico could have won the game comfortably. Two poor headers under minimal pressure really should have been buried, and it reinforces the point that if they had someone who could score goals consistently they would be a really quality side. They also showed their vulnerability from set pieces again, as they did at Wembley. Better sides than South Africa will exploit them. In fact, the ‘Bafana Bafana’ did not cover themselves in glory with some of their defending either, particularly for the equaliser. Not only Rafael Marquez, but 2 other players were unmarked at the back post when the cross came in. They aren’t going anywhere with defending like that.

Mexico shaded the first half, Giovani Dos Santos repeatedly troubled the defence, and if he didn’t take one extra touch too often he’d have created many more chances for his teammates. They were helped a lot by some very poor passing by the South Africans, perhaps the occasion got to them slightly, a number of times some really lazy play in midfield gave Mexico the run on goal. They were much improved in the second half, a 45 minutes capped by a truly brilliant goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala. It wasn’t just a wonderful finish, but the speed of the build up was exceptional. What we learned about South Africa is that on the counter attack they look dangerous, and on a number of occasions inexperience let them down when they had men over in space. They of course only missed out on winning the game by the width of the post in the last minute - a chance born out of utilising the pace of Katlego Mphela, a tactic they perhaps should have tried using earlier.

A thoroughly entertaining first game was followed by an extremely poor second one. Much of the blame for this must be laid at France’s door, they were the bigger side and should have taken the game to Uruguay. As it was, Sidney Govou missed a sitter early on and then decided to participate in Nicolas Anelka’s ‘Who can have the worst game in World Cup history’ competition. Let’s call it a draw. How they lasted beyond half time, never mind until 15 minutes from the end is unbelievable. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if Malouda had hadn’t been restrained from lamping Domenech in their team meeting last night.

Nothing in that game persuaded me to change my opinion about the French, a first round exit still beckons unless they completely sort themselves out before their match with Mexico in 6 days time.

As for England, Group C is just about as good as they can have hoped for. Algeria and Slovenia should pose very little threat. I also think it’s probably better for England that they play the US first, as there has been a tendency for them to completely underestimate the opposition and either fail to win or just about scrape through. The USA themselves are not a bad side, if a little tactically na├»ve. They are no longer a joke and I wouldn’t be surprised if they drew with England. The Algerians are unlikely to cause too many problems, they showed in the Cup of Nations semi final how ill-disciplined they can be - ending the game with 8 men having completely lost their heads once the game was lost. Slovenia beat Russia to get here, so should not be ruled out completely but in reality their team is quite limited. Despite this, they are well organised and it’s important that both England and the US are patient when trying to break them down. If England panic and start smashing long balls at Crouch’s head after an hour then they could have a problem.

Can’t see any surprises in this group, England should win the group and the USA come through in second.

Tomorrow is unlikely to be dull, Maradona will see to that, but let’s just hope England haven’t been taking tips from France.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Preview

The countdown is almost over. The World Cup is 24 hours away. Here is my first preview - starting, surprisingly, with Groups A and B. There'll be a preview of England's match with the USA and Group C as a whole tomorrow night as well as a review of the first two games of the tournament.

Group A is probably the most difficult group to predict, any of the 4 teams have a realistic shot at not just qualifying, but winning the group. On paper France are the best side, but they are hampered by having a slightly dodgy manager and by the fact that their senior players are past their best. It's a cliche, but there is normally a shock in the group stages, and I fear for France. South Africa are not anything special, considerable pressure is on Steven Pienaar to deliver. If he doesn't have a good tournament they'll really be in trouble but home advantage may well help them to scrape second place in the group. As Mexico showed at Wembley, they are technically excellent and play good football. However, they're going to have to bring their shooting boots to get anywhere in the competition and not repeat some fairly shocking marking at corners which was their downfall against England. Uruguay have two of the most in form strikers in the world up front together. Diego Forlan, who fired Atletico to Europa League victory and Luis Suarez, who finished the season with a quite phenomenal goalscoring record at Ajax - 48 in 49 games.

Ultimately I think this group might be very, very close. Mexico have been slightly unlucky with the draw, as South Africa in the first game will be incredibly fired up, and I expect the home support to be fanatical and intimidating. There isn't a great deal of big game experience in the Mexican side and I think they'll struggle. There's also the possibility that the vuvuzela's might have driven them to suicide by the end of the game. Uruguay and South Africa to just about shade it, and France to crash out at the first hurdle.

In Group B it's hard to see past Argentina to qualify at a canter. Despite the criticism of Maradona, in reality they actually have a more settled line up than England. The team who'll start the first game against Nigeria on Saturday is pretty much set in stone. Of course, there is always a worry/probability that El Diego might pick himself or do something equally mental at some point, but if he keeps his head they are genuine contenders. Despite the sheer quantity of brilliant attacking players in the squad it seems they are going to play a fairly controlled style of football, not as expansive as they could. The creative burden will fall on Lionel Messi and the inexperienced (at international level) Angel Di Maria. The second place team is a bit of a lottery. Greece still play in a similar way to the side that won Euro 2004, but not as well. It's unlikely they'll be able to surprise and frustrate opposition in the same way they did 6 years ago. It would be a shock if they got out of the group or even if they avoid bottom spot. South Korea are workmanlike but lacking in genuine talent. Again, they are unlikely to reproduce their performance of 2002 on home soil, but they may well just have enough about them to reach the round of 16 - assuming they don't benefit from 'questionable' refereeing this time. Nigeria are strong in attack, Yakubu and Obafemi Martins are powerful strikers but the supply to them will be the key if they are to do anything in South Africa. John Obi Mikel is out of the tournament and that will be a big blow, they need all the experience they can get. It leaves the ever so slightly worrying prospect of the midfield being built around Dickson Etuhu. The key match will be the final group game in Durban against South Korea, probably a playoff for second place.

I think South Korea will scrape a victory, and join Argentina in the second round.

These results would give us second round matches of Uruguay vs South Korea and Argentina vs South Africa. From an English point of view, it really blows their side of the draw wide open - and could give them a relatively simple path to the semi final. I'll talk about whether they will be good enough to take advantage of that tomorrow.