Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Quarter-final 4: Spain 1-0 Paraguay

In readiness for a game in which both sides were bidding to go further than they had ever gone before Paraguay made a massive six changes, probably a record number of changes between a second-round match and a quarter-final. Most changes were made in the attacking third with Cruz, Benitez and Barrios being consigned to the bench.

Spain were not themselves in this game though this could be at least partially attributed to Paraguay forcing them to play poorly. Spain's fluid passing game appeared to have been replaced by disjointed passing and a team that couldn't get a proper stranglehold on the game. Not that Paraguay could either in what was a tense, difficult battle for both sides in which, if anything Paraguay were slightly better on the overall balance of play.

Paraguay were indeed unlucky not to be ahead at half-time after Valdez scored on the 40 minute mark, only for it to be ruled offside. The decision was touch and go. Valdez appeared to be just onside but Cardozo (who the ball drifted over on it's way to Valdez) appeared to be offside. The question of course is whether Cardozo was interfering with play, and with the lack of clarity of the law as it stands both interpretations are legitimate. Paraguay could so easily have been ahead.

The match had a bizarre turn of events during the second half. Pique wrestled Cardozo to the ground in the box, conceding a penalty. Cardozo's penalty was a reasonable effort but Casillas pulled off an excellent save, and he did very well to hold onto the ball in the process. Second's later it was Spain's turn to be awarded a penalty, Alcarez adjudged to have bundled Villa over in the box in what was an incredibly harsh decision. Alonso duly converted only for Batres to order a retake for encroachment. It was technically correct with one or two players feet a couple of inches into the box. It was almost as if Batres realised he had made the wrong call initially to award the penalty and was trying to prevent them from scoring it. Villar saved the penalty and scrambled the ball away to safety. In the process he made a clear trip on a Spaniard with his arms but no penalty was given.

The game was finally decided with around 7 minutes to go. It was a lovely move by Spain. Iniesta skilfully set up Pedro after a classic delightful Xavi flick. Pedro's excellent shot was thwarted by the post but Villa scored the rebound, albeit this also coming off the post. They deserved a goal for the move but they barely deserved the win. Paraguay had done a great job of preventing Spain from playing in the manner they are accustomed and for that deserve a lot of credit. It really could have gone either way. The Guatemalan ref left a fair bit to be desired also, it has to be said.

Quarter-final 3: Germany 4-0 Argentina

Argentina came into this game having scored 10 goals in four matches against Germany's 9 but it was Germany who were quick out of the blocks with a goal after only three minutes, Mueller applying the headed flick past an unconvincing Romero courtesy of a Schweinsteiger cross. It was the quickest goal of World Cup 2010 and Germany's 200th world cup goal. German fans need not have worried that Argentina had a whole 87 minutes to respond as instead it proved a catalyst for a rampant German side to destroy Argentina in a fantastic display of football. Argentina with high expectations of avenging their quarter-final loss four years previously against the same opposition, were instead blown away.

The likes of Messi and Tevez found it difficult to get into the game, showing just the odd flash of what they are capable of. Germany on the other hand were composed and creative. The slick passing and movement of their whole front six was something to behold and Schweinsteiger, despite not getting on the scoresheet had his best performance thus far in what was probably a man of the match display.

Germany should have had their second goal mid-way through the first half as Mueller sprinted away down the right, beautifully squared to Klose, but he was wasteful, blasting over. Argentina threatened sporadically but any decent looking opportunity was thwarted by Neuer and when they did get the ball over the line they threw their arms up in frustration that it was ruled out for offside. Replays showed four Argentines were very much offside.

It took until half-way through the second half for Germany to get their second goal. Klose opened his account with a tap in after a sweeping move that cast the Argentine defence adrift. The third came only six minutes after when Schweinsteiger embarked on a brilliant solo run, setting up Friedrich for an easy goal - only his first in 77 internationals. Germany completed the rout with a fourth seconds before the end, Oezil's measured cross nicely finished by Klose.

Argentina had been reduced to purely long range shooting in the second half, their defence throughout had been completely shown up in their first real test of the World Cup. Germany won their second consecutive game with four goals and were ultimately completely superior in this game. The only negative for them was a yellow card for Mueller ruling him out of the semi-final. Maradona cut a forlorn figure on the sidelines.

Monday, July 12, 2010

WORLD CUP FINAL Preview. Netherlands v Spain

This is it. The biggest game in World Football bar none. 32 teams started the tournament and now there are only two left to fight it out to the death. And it is being competed by two countries who have never won the World Cup. Whoever wins will be only the eighth winner of the trophy.

The Dutch have the most historical baggage to contend with. They are (in my opinion and the court of public opinion) the best side never to have won a world cup. They lost consecutive finals in '74 and '78 to Germany and Argentina. Their team might not be as good as the Neeskens inspired Dutch side of the seventies but they have the chance to go one better. Holland have regularly had brilliant players - the likes of van Basten, Gullit, Bergkamp, Kluivert etc. But they have always failed somewhere along the line at the World Cup. Whether it be through in-fighting, penalty shoot-out failure or something else, the Dutch have become synonymous with World Cup stuff ups.

Spain are the perennial underachievers of world football. Considering the talent they have had at their disposal in many world cups, it is shocking that this is the first World Cup for which they have made the semis. Thus whatever happens this Spanish side has gone further than any other. Spain are bidding to become only the third country to hold both the World Cup and European Championships simultaneously (West Germany were the first and France the second).

Strangely enough Spain and the Netherlands have never faced each other at a World Cup or European Championships. They were in the same qualifying group for Euro '84 and that is the sum total of their World Cup and European Championship history.

Two players go into this game in first equal place for the Golden Boot. Sneijder and Villa have five goals each (alongside Mueller and Forlan). Sneijder has already won the Coppa Italia, the Seria A and the Champions League this season. He has the opportunity to add the World Cup and/or the Golden Boot to these achievements. And if he did, he would surely be a shoe-in for the Ballon d'Or and the Golden Ball.

Both sides have well organised defensive shapes to complement some very exciting attack minded players. If Spain manage to dominate the possession like they did against Germany they will be very difficult to beat. This game has the potential to be quite open but with such a big prize at stake it also has the potential to be very cagey, tentative and tense.

No-one is suspended for this game. No-one it seems is injured either after Dutch keeper Stekelenburg appears to be fit. The Dutch have a fairly obvious starting eleven but there are still question marks over Spain: will Torres start or stay on the bench as he was for the semi? The midfield is one area in which Spain are burgeoning with talent. The four regular starters Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso and Busquets also have Pedro, Fabregas and Navas breathing down their necks.

There will be much talent on show from both sides in the final. Who will be the hero? Will it be the likes of a Robben or a van Persie, or will it be an Iniesta or Puyol, or will it be a super sub that no-one even expects to get on the pitch?

It's not long to go until we find out.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

3rd/4th playoff: Uruguay Germany preview

This is the match that nobody wants to play. It is essentially a meaningless game. Both sides have been knocked out of the tournament and cannot win the World Cup. Their big games were the semis so it could be difficult to get motivated for a match to determine which country finishes 3rd. In a sense it is reward for the fact they both got to the last four that they have the opportunity to play another game - to enhance their reputations, to be able to seek out the goals that individuals need to compete for the golden boot, and to solidify pride in their countries.

Uruguay and Germany have faced each other three times previously at World Cups. In 1986 they drew 1-1 in the Group stage, in 1966 Germany thrashed Uruguay 4-0 in the quarter-finals and in 1970 they played this very game - Germany won 1-0 to clinch third place. Thus Uruguay have never beaten Germany at a World Cup before. If they do tonight it will be their highest finish since they won the tournament in 1950.

There are four players in the game still with a chance of winning the Golden Boot. Suarez has three goals, Mueller, Klose and Forlan all have four - one behind both Villa and Sneijder in the race for the Golden Boot. Klose is struggling with a back injury but the chance to win the Golden Boot as well as the knowledge that he is only one goal behind Ronaldo in the list of all time world cup goalscorers will surely mean that he will start. Mueller and Suarez have both missed one game through suspension but are both back for this game. In fact no-one is suspended for this game and it is only injury that could count people out. Lugano still hasn't recovered from his knee injury and he may be the only absentee.

I am expecting an open game and potentially plenty of goals. Uruguay will take the attack to Germany and Germany will look to play with speed and incisiveness to allow their front five plenty of chances to get on the scoresheet. Perhaps with the knowledge that who wins this game is of lesser importance than any other game they've played in World Cup 2010 there will be more relaxed players showing off their skills.

Should Germany win they will have finished third at consecutive World Cups, which would be a World Cup first for any country.

Both sides have impressed at this World Cup and both sides have quality players. It certainly has the potential to be a very good game.

My take on the Suarez Incident

1) What Suarez did was understandable. Many footballers would have done the same thing. Right at the death he prevented what would have been certain progression to the semis for Ghana. He kept his side in it. Every football player knows that a deliberate handball on the line is a red card and a penalty. But he knew that even if he were given these punishments Uruguay would still have a chance because Ghana would have to convert the penalty. A guaranteed goal would become a 70 or 80% chance of a goal. It was the most important match he had ever played and it was understandable that he would act in this way. This doesn't make it right - it was cheating no doubt about it, but you can see how it transpired.

2) The referee made the 100% correct decision of a red card and a penalty. The red card was no advantage for Ghana because it was right at the end of the match, but the penalty was. Ultimately Gyan only has himself to blame for missing the penalty that would have got them through and avoided a penaly shoot-out.

3) Because Ghana missed the penalty it is true to say that the underlying message is that cheats prosper. Suarez cheated by preventing a certain goal, he and Uruguay were punished, and yet they progressed to the semi. Some have called for football to introduce a penalty goal (for situations when a guaranteed goal is prevented by handling on the line) in a similar way that rugby has a penalty try. The problem with thisis that it puts too much pressure on the referees to get it right. It is also quite a radical change in football's rules that may not be necessary. I am open to the debate however.

4) The one match ban for Suarez is not enough punishment. He should be sent home in disgrace and banned for the remainder of the tournament (effectively two games). Due to the fact that denying a goal scoring opportunity is only deemed worthy of a one match ban FIFA decided not to extend the ban. I think this is a clear case in which discretion should be applied to ban him for the rest of the tournament. Compare it to Kewell's dismissal for handling on the line against Ghana. Not a decision I disagree with but my point is compare that one match ban with the one match ban for Suarez when Suarez's was so blatant and so deliberate. Why should Suarez get the opportunity to play in one more game (potentially a World Cup final) and try to win the Golden Boot? He has denied, by cheating, another team the chance to play any more games at the World Cup. Why should he get that chance? FIFA's Fair Play ethos states that there is no pleasure in cheating - well anyone who witnessed this incident would surely see that Suarez has derived much pleasure from it and will continue to do so.

5) For me - worse than the handball itself was Suarez's behaviour after the game. He made comments like "this was the save of the tournament", "mine is the real Hand of God" etc. He considers himself a hero. Uruguayan supporters no doubt consider him a hero. This is distasteful. So is him being paraded around the stadium as a hero. I don't disagree that it is fine for him to be pleased, to pump the fists in celebration as this is a natural instant reaction to a victory. But he took it to a complete another level. He showed zero humility when this was a situation crying out for some. If I had been him I would have wanted to say bad luck to the Ghanaians. I would have celebrated but I would have showed more respect, and appeared a litle sheepish rather than parading myself around in complete exaltation.

6) Those who say Suarez is not a cheat because he was punished by the ref, and that Maradona and Henry are, because the ref did not pick it up, miss the point. Whether the actions are caught or not by the ref is an irrelevance. Cheating is trying to gain an advantage by doing something illegal, regardless of whether or not it is caught or punished. For scale of offending I put Maradona as the worst followed by Suarez then Henry. The reason I have Maradona as number 1 is because his handball was to score a goal, something that was not a necessity at this point.

7) Those who say - if that is cheating does that make every time a player tries to con the officials into giving a throw-in to the wrong team a cheat? Does it make throwing the ball an extra couple of yards forward from where a free-kick is supposed to be taken cheating? The answer is yes, those players are cheating, but to a MUCH lesser extent.

8) I have read three other repeated opinions about how the incident is controversial. A] It should never have been a free-kick in the first place. I agree with that, it did not appear to be the correct decision to award the free-kick that led to the handball incident. B] Ghana were offside during the free-kick. I disagree. I have been through a replay of the incident frame by frame and I don't see any evidence of this so-called offside. C] The ball was over the line when Suarez handled. Again I believe this is wrong after studying the incident frame by frame.

9) Gyan showed great courage to step up and score the first penalty of the penalty shoot-out. After the miss that hit the crossbar he was visibly shaking and finding it hard to compose himself. After losing the penalty shoot-out Gyan was inconsolable. He had scored two great penalties in the group stage to help Ghana to the second round and he had scored one in the penalty shoot-out. But for the most important penalty in his life he was the one that effectively ended Ghana's dream.

10] Uruguay making the semi is an injustice. Suarez denied Ghana this opportunity by handling on the line. Also, Ghana were the better team overall. But it is only a small injustice because the referee picked it up and made the 100% correct decisions of red card and penalty. Real injustices are ones which the referee has not spotted. Mexico's first goal against Argentina and Lampard's goal that wasn't were injustices. The Maradona Hand of God and the Hand of Henry are massive injustices. This is different although there is still some injustice to it.

Quarter-final 2: Ghana 1-1 Uruguay, Uruguay win on penalties.

This was a quality match between two well balanced teams. Uruguay produced the better openings during much of the first half, Ghana having their impressive goalkeeper Kingson to thank on a number of occasions, including one that simply smacked straight off his forehead. But as the half wore on Ghana were the ones forcing the pace - the best of which saw Boateng go off on a mazy run, ending with a nice inside pass to Gyan, who should have done better with the shot. Well, either that or Vorsah's header from a corner, which was powered just wide.

As the match drifted to half-time the game suddenly sparked into life. Muntari received the ball in space, a long way from goal. Uruguay, seemingly unaware of the danger and probably thinking about the half-time break themselves, switched off for a moment and Muntari unleashed a venomous swerving drive that put them a goal to the good, with what proved to be the last kick of the half. Muntari had almost been sent home for being a disruptive influence but had been drafted into the side due to the absence of the suspended Ayew. And how he had rewarded Rajevac.

The lead wasn't to last long however. Not long after the start of the second half Uruguay were awarded a free-kick after Pantsil had scythed down a rampaging Fucile. Forlan converted a quality free-kick that (as the Jabulani ball is wont to do) deceived Kingson in the air. Questions should be asked of Kingson's positioning but ultimately the scores were level.

The second half involved much to-ing and fro-ing. Chances were created and spurned on both sides and it was an engaging game that could easily have gone either way. Appiah's experience was introduced in place of Inkoom and Muntari gave way for the exciting young striker Adiyiah. For Uruguay Abreu (whose goal had qualified them for the World Cup) was given a run in place of Cavani. Both sides pressed for the advantage that would negate the need for extra-time but it wasn't to be.

Extra-time involved a number of mistakes as both sets of players were clearly fatigued, indeed for Ghana it was their second game in a row that went to extra-time. But try as both sets of players might any reasonable chances were fluffed and a penalty shoot-out seemed likely.

Then in injury-time in extra-time Ghana were awarded a free kick. The ball was floated in and two shots were sent goalwards, Appiah's first was legitimately blocked on the line, then the follow up header was going in only for Suarez to save it with his hands. The referee had no option but to give him a red card and award a penalty. With the last kick of the game Gyan had the opportunity to send Ghana into the semi-finals and make the whole of Africa happy. He had scored two from the spot in the group stages but this time, with all the pressure on him, he crashed the ball into the crossbar and Uruguay had a life-line.

Uruguay were to be the first team to take penalty kicks - Forlan putting the first one in with ease. Next up was Gyan, whose heart must have been racing after his penalty miss at the end of extra-time. He showed great courage and determination and smashed it into the top right hand corner, as he hoped against hope that his side could win the shoot-out and avenge his miss. Both countries slotted their second penalty. Then Uruguay converted their 3rd and Mensah with a terrible penalty missed for Ghana. Uruguay gave them an opportunity to get back in it as Pereira blasted over but Adiyiah also had his penalty saved. Abreu could send Uruguay into the semis if he scored his penalty - and he did. It was a cheeky dink straight down the middle to send Uruguay into their first semi-final since 1970, and a semi-final spot still eluded the African nations. The only sour note for Uruguay was that Suarez and Fucile would be suspended for the semi, and Lugano would likely not be fit.

Gyan was inconsolable. He was sobbing and sobbing and sobbing in what were heartbreaking pictures.

Quarter-final 1: Netherlands 2-1 Brazil

The quarter-finals kicked off with a clash to relish, a repeat of the '98 semi-final (which was decided on penalties). And if ever there was one in this World Cup, it was (as an old cliche goes) a 'game of two halves'.

The first half saw Brazil take a deserved 1-0 lead into half-time. After thinking they had taken an 8th minute lead courtesy of a Robinho finish only to have it correctly ruled out for offside they had it in the net legitimately only two minutes later. On this occasion the 35 year old Ooijer, currently without a club and playing as a replacement for Mathijsen who had injured his knee in the build-up, failed to implement the offside trap alongside his team-mates and so allowed Robinho to collect a quality through ball from Melo for a well finished opening goal.

Brazil continued to create chances. Juan shot just over the bar after a good cross from Alves. Then Robinho had a brilliant run down the left flank gliding past challenges as if they weren't there before losing his balance, but still managing to square the ball to Fabiano, who back flicked it on to Kaka, who attempted a very good curling shot from just outside the area - forcing Stekelenburg into an excellent save. Just before the half finished Maicon hit a powerful shot after a strong run, only for it to crash into the side netting. It wasn't as if the Netherlands had had zero chances in the first half, but they really were nothing to write home about.

Early in the second half Brazil would rue their profligacy as the Netherlands drew level. Sneijder picked up the ball deep on the right flank and crossed in a quality ball with his left foot - only for it to glance off Melo's head and into the back of the net. It was possibly more Cesar's fault than Melo's though as he came out to claim the ball and missed it. However you interpret it, it was ugly stuff at the back by Brazil. Sneijder has been credited with the goal, no doubt as the ball was on target before it brushed Melo's head anyway.

This was the tonic the Dutch needed and suddenly it was them in the ascendancy. It was an ascendancy they would not relinquish for the rest of the game. Although having said that the next good chance did fall to Brazil after Ooijer's deflected clearance found Kaka on the edge of the box. He attempted to place the ball majestically into the top right hand corner but instead it drifted harmlessly wide.

Then the Dutch took the lead in a way I would describe as beautiful simplicity. Robben sent in a good corner kick, Kuyt flicked it on with his head and Sneijder scored with a simple but effective header. The flick on was crucial but there must be questions asked of the Brazilian defence.

It soon went from bad to worse for Brazil as they lost the plot. A few reckless challenges were flying in and it suddenly seemed like a distinct possibility that they would end up with a man sent off. And sure enough they did only minutes after Holland's second goal.

Robben was having an excellent game twisting and turning on the wing. Bastos had been having a torrid time with him and after picking up a yellow card early on was lucky to remain on the pitch as he tripped Robben repeatedly and on occasion it was quite blatant. Robben forced Dunga's hand to replace him with Gilberto. And it was Robben who was the victim when Melo was sent off. After he made an innocuous foul on Robben he stupidly stamped on his calf to earn a deserved red card. For a long time I have considered Robben as a bit of a diver and a faker but in my opinion, in this game, he didn't behave in this way. Every time he went down it was a foul, sure he might have exaggerated a couple just slightly but it wasn't anything like some of the antics I've seen him display.

Brazil proved they are distinctly average under pressure. In the remaining twenty minutes or so they did not create much. They did almost score when Kuyt had to expertly clear off the line but that moment was definitely the exception rather than the norm. And then on the break Sneijder should have completed his hat-trick after being set up by Robin van Persie, but his shot wasn't good enough and it was thus saved by Cesar.

Not that it mattered to the result. The Dutch had a famous win over Brazil, and what's more, on the balance of play, I believe they deserved it. The only sour note for them was the yellow cards for van der Wiel and De Jong which ruled them out of the semi-final.

Round of 16. Match 8: Spain 1-0 Portugal

This match was a mouth watering prospect that didn't quite live up to the hype. That's not to say it wasn't a good game - it was. It just wasn't a brilliant game, which with the players on offer it really could have been.

Torres and Villa both tested Eduardo in the early stages and Eduardo started as he meant to go on. In other words throughout the game his quality shone through. He made some excellent saves and underlined his reputation as one of the goalkeepers of the tournament. Casillas on the other hand appeared shaky, punching weakly and behind him from Tiago's shot, although doing very well to recover under pressure from Almeida. Casillas also spilled a free kick from Ronaldo but he spilled it with enough force that it still managed to escape from danger.

Portugal had a few other chances throughout the game. Simao sent in a couple of good balls that no-one managed to get properly on the end of and Puyol almost diverted an Almeida pass into his own goal. But in truth they lacked incisiveness and only threatened sporadically. Ronaldo for one had a very disappointing game.

Spain dominated proceedings through their typical domination of possession as they played pretty passing football around the edge of the box as they patiently sought the breakthrough. Llorente came on for Torres and almost opened the scoring - his header was very well saved by Eduardo at point blank range.

Villa was a constant menace, and it was he who scored the winning goal around the hour mark. Xavi, who had made a good run, lightly flicked on a ball from the mesmerising Iniesta into the path of Villa who scored at the second attempt. It was a well worked goal and fitting that it was Villa who scored it.

I do have to point out that the goal was offside. I did a frame by frame analysis and although Villa was clearly onside when Iniesta played the ball, at the moment when Xavi flicked the ball on he was offside. Not by much granted, but a few inches is still offside. It would have been hard for the assistant referee to pick up that Xavi had flicked the ball on, let alone that it was definitely offside even if he had. So I will forgive the decision. And Spain did deserve to win. Indeed instead of Portugal almost coming back into it both Ramos and Villa had opportunities to extend the lead.

Right at the death Costa was sent off for elbowing Capdevilla. This was a poor decision and showed Capdevilla off in a bad light. Yes there was a hint of an elbow, but that went into his side and nowhere near his face which he went down clutching.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Round of 16. Match 7: Paraguay 0-0 Japan - Paraguay win on penalties

This was a tightly fought match memorable for its intensity if not its action, which in truth produced very few chances or particularly noteworthy action. Paraguay looked more likely to score but found it difficult to breach a watertight Japanese defence. The centre-back pairing of Tulio and Nakazawa thwarted anything that Paraguay threw at them, which was nowhere near enough considering the talent they have at their disposal. Paraguay appeared comfortable on defence as Japan looked devoid of any real ideas to penetrate the Paraguay goal.

There were periods of nice play from both sides but true creativity was hard to come by. Many parts of the game were highly tactical that few neutrals would be excited by. Naturally there were some opportunities: Matsui, Japan's most impressive attacking player on the day, hit the crossbar from distance, Barrios (who along with Riveros were the best Paraguayans going forward) made a sublime turn only to see his shot saved.

Extra-time continued in the same vein as the match drifted to its inexorable conclusion: World Cup 2010's first penalty shoot-out. Komano was the only player to miss (hitting the crossbar) to see Paraguay reach the quarter-final for the first time in their history.

Round of 16. Match 6: Brazil 3-0 Chile

Brazil faced an exciting Chile side but in the end won quite comfortably. Chile did threaten at times through - mainly through Beausejour and Suazo's valiant efforts to create opportunities/force a goal. But some of their more exciting players were nullified by Brazil's dominance - so much so that Sanchez was reduced to relative anonymity. Chile's brightest play came in the first quarter of an hour and when Brazil took a 2-0 lead late in the first half there was never going to be a way back.

After the break Chile to their credit made a couple of changes to try and change the face of the game. Tello came on for Contreras and Valdivia replaced Gonzales. It made little difference as Brazil were still the side forcing the issue. Valdivia did have a couple of good moments and Suazo came closest to a goal with two shots from distance - one forcing a top save from Cesar, the second crashing into the crossbar. Ultimately though Brazil secured a 3-0 win in a fairly straightforward fashion. Most impressive were Juan who was exceptional at centre-back and Ramires who made many quality surging runs.

Brazil's goals: 1) On 34 minutes Juan powered in a bullet header from a Maicon corner. 2) On 37 minutes Fabiano rounded the keeper to score after some nice work by Robinho and Kaka. 3) Brazil took the advantage of the gaps that appeared as a consequence of Chile trying to get back into the game. Ramires made a good run before setting Robinho up for a brilliant curling finish.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Preview of semi-final 2: Spain v Germany

This is a repeat of the Euro 2008 final which Spain won 1-0. The Germans will no doubt be wanting revenge for this on an arguably bigger stage! From my calculations these two countries have only faced each other seven times in either World Cup or European Championship history. The 3 world cup clashes have resulted in two German wins and a draw, the four European Championships have seen two wins each. Germany have won the World Cup 3 times which is the third best record of all countries - they hope to win this one and join Italy on four titles. Spain have never even made the semi-finals. They did finish fourth once (in 1950) but that was the World Cup that was decided by a final group stage.

In this edition of the FIFA World Cup both Germany and Spain had two wins and one loss in the Group stage. However both teams opening games couldn't have been more different. Germany opened with a scintillating 4-0 win over Australia, Spain suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of Switzerland. Germany's defeat came at the hands of Serbia in their second game. Interestingly both sides who beat Germany and Spain did not manage to take the second qualifying spot in their group.

In the second round and the quarter-final Germany prospered with two big wins: 4-1 over England and 4-0 over Argentina. They produced some breathtaking football. Spain on the other hand had a narrow 1-0 victory over Spain in a tight affair, and spluttered 1-0 past a Paraguay side who were not only hard to break down but were unlucky not to be ahead at half-time. Spain shouldn't be worried by the differences in their wins though. Past results count for nothing and no-one will be taking anything for granted for tomorrow morning's game.

Both countries have exceptional sides. Spain, the pre-tournament favourite boast an excellent goalkeeper in Casillas, a very good defence (particularly Ramos and Pique) and a mesmerising midfield with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso and Busquets. The brilliant Fabregas may get a chance to start ahead of Torres who has been looking rusty on his injury comeback trail. Villa has five World Cup goals this tournament and will be looking to add to his tally as the race for the Golden Boot hots up. Spain have scored 6 this tournament and Villa has 5 of them - which shows how important he is for the side. They have conceded two.

Germany's strength comes particularly from their young guns in midfield/attack. Bastian Schweinsteiger has had a superb tournament in the defensive midfield role, Özil has been a revelation, Khedira has looked quality and Müller has complemented an all-round game with a few goals. Klose has profited from the midfield service to score some good goals. In contrast to Spain they have scored 13 (seven more) and conceded two. The thirteen goals have been spread nicely around: Klose and Müller have four, Podolski has two, Cacau 1, Özil 1 and Friedrich 1. Klose has 14 World Cup goals in total, he is tied on second equal with German great Gerd Müller. He needs just one more to draw level with Ronaldo (ex Brazilian superstar) and two more to have the record for himself. With two games to achieve this milestone it is a distinct possibility.

Müller is the only player in the match who is suspended after picking up two yellow cards. There is no doubt he will be missed but Germany certainly have enough quality to cope without him.

I expect this to be a close game. I can't see Germany over-running Spain as they did England and Argentina. England and Argentina were weak both in personnel and tactically, Spain shouldn't make the same mistake. Spain will need to impose their passing game as they have done so well on many occasions. They didn't manage to do so against Paraguay which is a cause of concern for them. Germany will have studied this game and with an excellent tactician like Löw in charge will surely have a good game plan sussed.

There is a real possibility of an epic on the cards!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Preview of semi-final 1: Netherlands v Uruguay

Uruguay holds the hopes of South America on their shoulders. That is if their South American neighbours are not like Scotland for example, who mostly support anyone but England. But still, after South America to some degree dominated the Group Stage (I don't fully buy the argument as most of these South American sides did not have overly difficult opposition to qualifying for the knock-out stages) and for the first time ever had 4 quarter-finalists (with the possibility of achieving all South American semi-finals) after four wins in the second round (although admittedly none against European sides) - they would have to be disappointed to only have one representative in the semis.

And that one side almost did not make it either. Conceding what could have been a tournament ending penalty against Ghana they were lucky to somehow come out the other end. And in the process lost a lot of respect from a number of neutrals after Suarez decided he would momentarily become goalkeeper - saving a certain goal with his hands and leading to the aforementioned penalty. Although some neutrals loved their whatever it takes approach it was fair to say that it left a bad taste in most people's mouths.

Uruguay are a good side but they have been assisted in this tournament firstly by a terrible French team finishing last in their group and allowing Uruguay the opportunity to top it. This meant an easier draw for them coming up against South Korea in the second round and an epic quarter-final clash with Ghana in what was generally considered the weakest quadrant.

Uruguay will be missing Fucile and Suarez through suspension and potentially Lugano through injury. Lodeiro is also out through injury but he is more an option off the subs bench than a starter. These absences will affect their defence considerably as well as weaken their attack. Yet they still have the dangerous Diego Forlan in their midst and have shown throughout the tournament how hard they can be to breakdown.

The Dutch started the tournament slowly and are still to hit their straps. They have won five games out of five and are yet to face extra-time. Each win has been effective without being thrilling. It is almost like they have become the Germans of world football while the Germans have taken on their mantle. Some would say the world has gone upside down! They quietly went about their business in the groups with a 2-0 win over Denmark, 1-0 over Japan and 2-1 over Cameroon before a 2-1 win over Slovakia in the second round and a come from behind 2-1 win over Brazil in the quarters. The quarter-final was impressive for how they responded to being 1-0 down at half-time and still managed to grind out victory.

The Dutch are on a 24 game unbeaten streak and they have a solid defence ably assisted by the two defensive midfielders in front of them (De Jong and van Bommel). This gives their flair players - Robben, Sneijder and van Persie the chance to express themselves up front. Robben is a constant thorn down the wing and Sneijder has been one of the players of the tournament so far. They do have van der Wiel and De Jong suspended for the game however so changes will need to be made.

This match could be a war of attrition between two desperate sides. The Netherlands have never won the World Cup and Uruguay haven't taken the title for 60 years. I am not expecting a wonderful spectacle but the game may be won through a moment of brilliance. I thing it will be a tight game, if any side blows out to a comfortable victory it will be the Netherlands but I can't see anything more than a two goal margin, and probably one. The Dutch hate penalties and have a very poor success rate, so they will want to win it before it gets to that point.

Round of 16. Match 5: Netherlands 2-1 Slovakia

As most people including myself had commented - this match would depend on whether the Slovakia who played Italy would turn up or whether it would be the average one who played against Paraguay. The answer was that it was something in the middle. Or perhaps it was the one that would have played like they did against Italy, if it wasn't for the fact that the Netherlands had their tactics sussed and were able to impose their own game far more than Italy did.

The Netherlands created the best opportunities. Sneijder was in great form and Robben was everywhere with his jinking runs and crosses. Robben also scored a fantastic opening goal as he received a pass from Sneijder, advanced to the corner of the box and powered in a beautiful, low left foot shot. The Dutch defence for the most part stood firm, ably assisted by defensive midfielders De Jong and van Bommel.

It was no way a vintage performance from the Dutch and they never appeared to hit top gear. There was always the impression that the Dutch still hadn't hit great form yet. But they were effective in their win. The second goal after a goalkeeping blooper sealed the victory but there was still time in the dying seconds for Stekelenburg to upend Jakubko, and Vittek to slot home the resulting penalty. It was a moment of poor judgement for the keeper who had earlier made two quality stops from Stoch and Vittek.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Round of 16. Match 4: Argentina 3-1 Mexico

For me, this match was spoiled by one key wrong decision. On 26 minutes Argentina took the lead through Tevez who was clearly in an offside position. It wasn't the most obvious decision for the assistant referee due to the speed with which it all happened, but it was definitely one he should have got right. Up until that point Mexico had looked the most threatening of the two sides: Salcido had attempted his luck with a very good powerful shot from distance which forced Romero into a save, Guardado fired just wide after good build up play from Dos Santos and Hernandez also spurned a decent opportunity. However from the first goal on Argentina always appeared on course to win.

The Mexicans complained bitterly to the referee about the goal, surrounding him as he talked to the assistant referee. The Argentinians also came in to have their say and it appeared the match was at boiling point. I later found out that what was at issue was the goal had been given but then the replay of the goal was shown on the big screen. The Mexicans obviously saw it and were up in arms. The ref and his officials would have seen it too but couldn't change the decision otherwise they would be in hot water with FIFA for making a decision based on a video replay. A video replay wasn't even supposed to have been played but there had somehow been an oversight.

Due to the whole incident Mexico lost the plot and six minutes later they went 2-0 behind. This was due to some dreadful defending from Osorio who dallied/took his eye off the ball which Higuain took off him with devastating consequences. I believe this was a hangover from the earlier decision. Mexico had started to look a distinctly average side compared with the one that had started so brightly. It was clearly due to the nature of the first goal that the wind had been taken out of their sails and they couldn't cope.

The third goal in the second half was even more of a killer blow than the second. At least this one was a moment of beauty. Tevez seemed to be in a fairly innocuous position 25 yards from goal, but he unleashed one of the goals of the tournament, powering it into the top corner. It was harsh on Mexico who no way deserved to be 3 goals down.

Mexico did manage a consolation as Hernandez worked his magic, scoring a delightful goal. But the goal was academic to the result, and Argentina marched on to a quarter-final with Germany.