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 Spain's fluid passing game appeared to have been replaced by disjointed passing and a team that couldn't get a proper stranglehold on the game.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.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Preview of Quarter-final 4: Spain v Paraguay

Neither Spain nor Paraguay have ever won the World Cup or ever really come close. For Spain this is very surprising considering the quality they have often had at their disposal. But for this generation there is the suggestion that these players have what it takes, particularly after finally breaking their major tournament duck by winning Euro 2008. If they do manage to get past Paraguay they will face a repeat of the Euro 2008 final against Germany. Paraguay have a worse world cup record than Spain having just reached the quarter-finals for the first time ever. They will be hoping that in this game they can write another wonderful chapter in their history. This Paraguay side are considered the best they have ever produced and progressing to the semi-finals would not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

The Spanish game is based on possession and lots of it. They pass the ball around beautifully, mesmerically and with sublime ease. There is not a team in the world better at keeping possession. They have a midfield to die for in Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets - a midfield that doesn't even have enough room for the brilliant Cesc Fabregas. They are very used to working together and they all have their own specific qualities that complement each other well. Villa up front is in top form having scored four out of Spain's five World Cup 2010 goals. Pique and Puyol are an experienced centre-back pairing and Ramos provides a good attacking option from right-back as well as being solid in defence. Capdevila is probably the weakest player in the team at left-back. Casillas is one of the world's best keepers. The man likely to partner Villa in attack is Torres but he has looked rusty all tournament. Llorente impressed in his cameo against Portugal but I don't expect him to start in this game.

Paraguay are a defensive unit. They have only conceded one goal all tournament (in the first game against Italy). Centre-back Alcarez looks particularly strong and he even scored a goal against Italy. They also play with deep central midfielders who break up the play effectively. Vera, Riveros and Caceras are more than just extra defenders however - Vera and Riveros both scored excellently finished goals against Slovakia. Paraguay have had some problems keeping possession so (especially given my comments re Spain) I would expect Spain to dominate this area of the game. But with Santa Cruz and Barrios up front Spain must still be wary. They may not be Cabanas but they are very capable. I expect Paraguay to adopt a defensive approach to this game though not as badly as Switzerland did against Spain. They would be more than happy with penalties I imagine.

It's hard to see Spain not progressing but a Paraguay win wouldn't be as big a shock as some would contend. They finished second in South American qualifying and I expect La Albirroja may not be as easy for La Roja to get past as it might appear on paper.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Preview of Quarter-final 3: Germany v Argentina

This is always one of the biggest games in world football given the past footballing history between the two countries. This is a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup final as well as the quarter-final in 2006. in 1986 Argentina won a classic 3-2, in 1990 Germany won 1-0 as a bad tempered Argentina had two men sent off. And in 2006 Germany won on penalties, with a fight or on-field brawl occurring straight afterwards.

There is a lot of bad blood between Germany and Argentina and there has been a lot of things said by both camps in the lead up to this match. Bastian Schweinsteiger (with some validity) has accused Argentina of a lack of respect in the way they harrass referees for decisions. To which Maradona responded: "Bastian, are you nervous?" Phillip Lahm has said that Argentina are bad losers. Tevez said that Argentina were more afraid of Mexico than Germany. Whatever happens tonight there will be no love lost between the two sides and don't be surprised (especially if Argentina lose) if there is another brawl. And also don't be surprised if there are a few aggressive fouls and maybe a few cards!

Both sides have been in great form this World Cup. Argentina have scored the most goals (10 in four games) and Germany are just one behind. Argentina have the irresistable attacking forces of the likes of Messi, Higuain and Tevez and Germany have the equally exciting Oezil and Mueller at the ready. Many questioned Maradona's managerial ability but the mercurial Argentinian seems to have decided on what he considers to be his best line-up and his close bonding with his players appears to be working. His tactics are also generally good. The German squad are the second youngest at the World Cup and are hungry, playing without fear.

Expectations: A fiesty match with a fair few goals is a good bet. Both teams have greater strengths in attack and the odd weakness in defence. There are 8 players going into the game on a yellow card but no-one is suspended for this game.

Quotes: "This is why I'm in coaching in the first place, for games like this, against teams like England and Argentina,'' Low said. ``I don't have to be overly emotional in my pep talk to my team because they are extremely motivated and absolutely hot to play this match. We can't wait to get out there.''

Maradona, asked what he would tell his team, replied: "I will tell them they've got to leave their life on the pitch. There is an entire country behind them, so excited, and they are depending on this team to get up in the morning with a smile on their faces.''

With 5 titles between them La Albiceleste and Die Nationalmannschaft could serve up a classic - we'll have to wait and see.

Preview of Quarter-final 2: Ghana v Uruguay

This is Africa versus South America in the first ever World Cup clash between these two nations. In fact I understand that they have never played each other before. The Black Stars against La Celeste. It's a quarter-final which, to be honest, practically nobody would have picked pre World Cup 2010. Uruguay of course are past world cup winners in 1930 and 1950. Since a semi-final appearance in 1970 this is the first time they have progressed beyond the second round. Ghana have already gone further than they ever have before, having reached the second round in their first appearance in 2006. They have joined the African nations Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) in having reached a world cup quarter-final and are hoping to become the first African team to reach the semis by beating Uruguay.

Coming into this game Uruguay have scored 6 goals in World Cup 2010 and conceded 1. Ghana have scored 4 and conceded 3. Uruguay have had 3 wins and a draw, Ghana have had 2 wins (one of them courtesy of extra-time), 1 draw and a loss. Having said all this Ghana did have a tough Group D to navigate. Uruguay's form is all the more impressive since they only finished 5th in South American qualifying and had to rely on beating Costa Rica in a playoff to get to South Africa.Both sides are strong defensively so this could be a tight game. Having said that it could well be the attacking players who decide the game. Uruguay have the potent Suarez and Forlan up front as well as the unheralded Cavani who has been playing well. Ghana operate with a lone striker in Gyan - and if Ghana are to win, they will very likely need at least one goal from him.

Team news: Uruguay's defender Godin has been ruled out meaning a start for Victorino. Fernandez will replace Pereira which appears to be a tactical switch. Ghana have had a couple of injury concerns in Gyan and Boateng but both appear to have won the race to be fit. Vorsah has recovered from injury and so he looks set to replace Jonathan Mensah. Ayew is suspended after picking up his second booking of the tournament against the USA (and his appeal to FIFA failed). This is a massive blow as Ayew has been one of the stars of World Cup 2010. Muntari who was almost sent home after a row with manager Milovan Rajevac has been picked in his place.

This will be an interesting clash of styles and a massive stage for the two teams to get acquainted. Ghana will have the whole of Africa behind them but the captivating prize of a spot in the last four will not be decided on popularity.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Preview of Quarter-final 1: Netherlands v Brazil

It's The Oranje versus Selecao. It's Europe versus South America. It's arguably the best team never to have won a World Cup against the country with the most under their belt. It's two footballing mad nations who both have fantastic teams and a lot of history.

Traditionally both teams are associated with flamboyant, flair football. For Holland this is embodied by the term 'total football' which describes the panache and excitement of teams of the past. It got them to two finals in the seventies but it never got them the World Cup crown. Brazil are synonymous with a samba style. A graceful attacking beautiful football. Unlike the Dutch this is an approach that has worked for them in the past.

Yet both Holland and Brazil have adopted a far more pragmatic style at this World Cup. They still have players who can show devastating skills and produce the spectacular but they are prevented total freedom of expression by the formations employed and the general approach of their managers. The Dutch like to play with a 4-2-3-1 that stifles opposition possession. With two very good defensive midfielders in De Jong and van Bommel it allows the front four (four of Robben, van Persie, Sneijder, Kuyt and van der Waart) to look for goals. The attack-minded players are also good at tracking back and doing defensive work, particularly Kuyt. Holland haven't really come to life or put their foot on the gas as yet. They have got the results without demonstrating the real ability of their front players. Robben who is just back from injury should add more impetus. The centre of defence is where their biggest worry lies. The Dutch haven't properly been tested yet, Brazil will be a stern test.

Brazil have an excellent defence. It is an unusual thing to focus on about Brazil but their manager Dunga, a defensive midfielder by trade, has really focused on getting the defence right as he sees it as the key to their success. They are hard to breakdown at the back and Juan has been very strong in the centre of their defence. He and Lucio have a formidable partenrship and we cannot forget their quality fullbacks Maicon and Bastos. Further up the field Brazil have a lot of pace and creativity. Kaka and Robinho are simply superb and Fabiano is a deadly goalscorer. They do have a couple of injury/suspension problems. Elano is out with injury and Ramires is suspended. Melo is coming back from injury and may not be ready. In which case both Alves and Josue may start. It will certainly be a blow to their midfield so their replacements will have to step up.

The last time these two sides faced each other in a major finals was the semi-finals of World Cup '98. The match finished 1-1 thanks to a late Kluivert equaliser. Brazil ended up winning on penalties. What odds another penalty shoot-out in what is an epic quarter-final clash.

Round of 16. Match 3: Germany 4-1 England

This was an eagerly anticipated clash between two bitter enemies, or should I say football rivals. It has been pointed out to me that the rivalry is one-sided and that Germany don't consider it much of a rivalry. Whilst the Netherlands are their biggest rivals the Germans do also have a thing for the English - you only have to see how often Franz Beckenbauer is making disparaging comments about the England team to see that. It is a rivalry that, like any good rivalry, has developed through big, dramatic, controversial games throughout history. Some would suggest it's a match-up designed for later in the tournament - but thanks to England failing to win their group it was to be a second round match in 2010.

England never really got going in the early stages of the match despite the fact they had the odd chance to open the scoring. Germany were causing a few more problems but they weren't at their vintage best either - Oezil had a good chance in the opening minutes that James did well to turn away. The opening goal came after about 20 minutes and it was a very poor one for England to concede. Goalkeeper Neuer punted the ball long down the field. Both Terry and Upson failed to deal with it and as it eluded them it fell nicely for Klose to slide the ball home.

Germany very nearly got a second goal straight after. Fantastic interplay in the middle of the field led to Klose being denied by James. But the second goal wasn't long in coming. Germany again tore England apart and Mueller fed Podolski on the left who finished from a narrow angle. The defence was again very poor (especially the marking) and James should arguably have done better from such a tight angle.

England, against the run of play, pulled a goal back - a cross from Gerrard was headed in by Upson. Neuer came out and flailed towards the ball but Upson scored with a simple header. Then moments before half-time England looked like they had equalised. The ball sat up nicely for Lampard just outside the box and he chipped the keeper with an exquisite shot. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar, hit the ground over the line, and bounced out. Lampard was celebrating, as was Capello, as indeed was I. Remarkably the goal wasn't given. Replays show conclusively that the ball was significantly over the line and it was unbelievable that the referee's assistant missed it.

It was a crucial decision, it was a blatantly wrong decision, and it will again ignite calls for technology in football. Personally I think it would be a good idea to microchip the ball. It's an area of the game that can be proved definitively and it is something that can be introduced without interrupting the flow of the game. It should definitely be looked into. Instead of England going into half-time level and with their tails up, they were behind.

Early in the second half Lampard was again unlucky as he hit the crossbar from a free-kick. England were awarded another free-kick in a similar position not long after but this time Lampard hit the wall. Lampard put his arms in the air to appeal for handball, Barry lost possession on the edge of the German box and Germany broke at pace. A sweeping move ended in Mueller smashing in a goal. Barry was partially at fault for giving away possession but England had barely any players back in defence. Too busy searching for an equaliser they had committed too many men forward. Terry was conspicuous by his absence and James could possibly have done better - the ball was hit very hard but it was in an area in which James could have been expected to do better.

Moments later Germany killed the game off with a sucker punch. Germany cleared their lines and Oezil and Barry chased after it on the German left wing. Barry was left for dead, Oezil dribbled into the England penalty area and set up Mueller in acres of space for a simple finish. Again there were very few defenders back for England, and those that were might as well not have been.

Fact 1) Germany were by far the better side and deserved to win. Fact 2) England played poorly, particularly their defence. Fact 3) Lampard's goal that wasn't changed the complexion of the game. I'm not arguing that had he scored England would have won but I am arguing that they would have had a lot better chance. An equaliser at that point would have changed the course of the game. England would not have needed to attack attack attack if they were back on level terms. And it was the attacking, and thus leaving themselves exposed at the back, that led to the concession of the third and fourth goals.

It must be said that a team should also be judged on how it reacts to adversity. Did England use the disallowed goal as extra motivation or did they lose the plot? It was the latter. With over half an hour to go they were stupid enough to throw too many players forward in search of the equaliser. They must surely have known how devastating Germany can be on the counter-attack but instead of employing tactics to reflect this they pushed forward like headless chickens. Was an extra couple of defenders in attack going to make the difference in scoring? Probably not. Were they likely to get punished on the break? Probably yes. So what the hell were the defence thinking? They should have stuck to their job, they should have tracked back better and they should in essence have got the fundamentals right. They still had time to get an equaliser - they just had to be smarter about trying to achieve it. But they weren't. When leaders were needed on the pitch to be intelligent in what they were trying to achieve they were found wanting.

Now I wish to make some minor criticisms of Capello. Let me make it clear that again this is not an excuse for the England players. Neither Capello or the goal that wasn't are excuses. England were dire. Only Lampard and Gerrard can come out with any credit from that game. No matter what other factors were at play there is no escaping that the English team were shocking.

The England team that was picked was 4-4-2. Why did Capello continue with this when it seemed obvious to most that 4-5-1 was in order. Against such a potent German attack packing the midfield with 5 players was a necessity. In this scenario Cole should have come in on the left wing with Defoe dropping to the bench. Upson was picked ahead of Carragher who was available again after suspension. There are questions to be asked if that was the right decision too. And when chasing the game is it not ridiculous that Heskey was brought on for Defoe? Heskey who is simply not a goalscorer. Peter Crouch anyone? Also Hart should have been starting in goal at the World Cup. I have been saying this for months.

A bad argument that I've heard as well is that Terry was apparently playing on the side of central defence he was not used to. I'm not sure how this would make him lose all the fundamentals of his game in an instant however.

The long and the short of is it that Germany marched on and that England had to catch an early flight home.

Round of 16. Match 2: Ghana 2-1 USA (a.e.t)

This match really got to life early on in the piece with Boateng scoring a goal on the five minute mark after powering forward and finishing with aplomb. Ghana then dominated proceedings with Ayew and Inkoom (playing his first game of the tournament) making inroads down the flanks. The USA did manage to have the best chances while they were looking for a way back into the game but Kingson was on song to save his team on numerous occasions. It was a quality performance from the Ghanaian goalkeeper.

Jonathan Mensah gave the USA a lifeline when he tripped Dempsey in the box and Donavon made no mistake from the spot. The complexion of the game thus changed with it becoming imperative for both teams to make the running. Both sides had chances - the USA again creating the better ones but Ghana looking more dangerous overall.

Extra-time started with a bang as Gyan put Ghana into the lead again, after only a couple of minutes, thrashing in a half-volley. Ghana hadn't scored from open play in the Group stage and hadn't scored more than one goal in a game for a long time...but in a game when it really mattered they had pulled out two goals of the highest quality. It was then a case of Ghana hanging on for the rest of the match - a task in which they succeeded.

Kingston, Boateng, Ayew and Gyan were the stand-outs for Ghana. Dempsey and Donavon were for the USA.

On a final note I just want to mention Altidore and how much I do not rate him. Every chance he has had at this World Cup I have expected him to miss - and he has. He is not a goalscorer, he can barely even score for Hull City. He also barges round the field like a right donkey...yes he is the Heskey of the USA, and I'm not sure why he is persisted with.

Round of 16. Match 1: Uruguay 2-1 South Korea

Two of the three goals in this game were a result of goalkeeping errors in my opinion. Uruguay opened the scoring on the eight minute mark when Forlan fired in a cross behind the static South Korean defence. Sung-Ryong Jung in goal moved out towards the ball but got nowhere near it leaving Suarez with an empty net to aim at (and from a tight angle he made it look easy). The second goalkeeping mistake came in the second half when Victorino partially cleared a free-kick, heading the ball high into the air, Muslera came out but was never going to get hold of the ball - instead presenting a routine header for Lee Chung-Yong to equalise.

There was nothing to be critical of with the winning goal however. Suarez created space for himself and sent in a stunning, curling shot that nestled in the top right hand corner. It was a goal worthy to win a World Cup knock-out match.

Another observation I would like to make is that when Uruguay were winning 1-0 they sat back on their lead and were content to defend it. In the first half South Korea did not create many opportunities but they came into it more in the second half. Uruguay looked comfortable but not particularly threatening. The equaliser was a statement to everybody as to why it is not the right strategy to sit back on your laurels when you have a one goal advantage. Ultimately it didn't harm Uruguay's progression but hopefully they have learnt their lesson on this one.

Suarez was the key man for the game and Uruguay were worthy winners. South Korea did however play some good stuff particularly in the second half - making. Park Chu-Young was South Korea's best player. That is no surprise as he has been their most impressive performer throughout the World Cup - only narrowly missing out on my "team of the group stages".

Team of the Group Stages

OK so who read my initial suggestion? I only picked ten players! Now after reading two other people's team of the Group stages and thinking about things I've made a couple of alterations. Maicon comes in for Ramos at right-back. I pick two centre-backs now - adding Pique into the mix. My missing defensive midfielder was the eleventh player I missed out - and it's hard to argue with having Marquez there. I've removed Mueller for my extra centre-back. He was brilliant against Aussie but he didn't live up to these standards against Serbia and Ghana.

There is now a proper defensive side to this team so we can scratch the caveat and potential criticisms on that score.

Tulio is perhaps my most controversial selection. What about Grichting? Lugano? Nelsen? Subotic? Onyewu? I have been very impressed by Tulio, am I wrong to select him?

                                         Benaglio (SWI)
Maicon (BRA)           Tulio (JAP)         Pique (SPA)          Salcido (MEX)
                                        Marquez (MEX)
               Honda (JAP)                                   Oezil (GER)
                                        Messi (ARG)
                      Villa (ESP)                      Forlan (URU)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Preview of Round of 16. Match 8: Spain v Portugal

This is La Furia Roja versus Selecção das Quinas. It's the clash of the Iberian neighbours - one of the biggest rivalries in world football. This is two teams who can play sumptuous football, love to attack and have a number of household names in their teams.

The most recent chapter of their rivalry was Euro 2004 in which they were drawn together in the Group stage. Going into the final game against Portugal Spain were level with Greece on top of the group, on four points and needed just a draw against Portugal to progress. Instead they lost 1-0 and Portugal ultimately made the final.

Spain came into World Cup 2010 as favourites but are yet to really live up to their billing. They were stunned 1-0 by Switzerland in the opening group game in which despite looking good lacked the penetration to break them down. They have since bounced back from this to defeat Honduras 2-0 and Chile 2-1 to take top spot in Group H.

Portugal have also yet to really light up the tournament but they are a side who are very hard to break down. They are yet to concede a goal at World Cup 2010 having recorded two 0-0 draws with Ivory Coast and Brazil, either side of a 7-0 drubbing of North Korea. They have a very good recent defensive record but they rely too much on their midfield to score goals as they don't really have any notable strikers.

Neither side have players suspended and the only injury of note is that Alonso is struggling to be fit for Spain. If he doesn't make it then Martinez should start. Deco is back from injury for Portugal but with the form Tiago is in it will be surprising if he starts.

Key players


Villa has scored three of Spain's four goals thus far and is looking in the mood.

Iniesta is one of the best midfielders in the world.

Casillas is captain and one of the best goalkeepers around.


Ronaldo has finally broken his international goalscoring duck of around 18 months. Perhaps this will be the impetus he needs to break the shackles. He always looks dangerous and is incredibly skilful. Maybe this is the day he lights up World Cup 2010

Tiago has been in fantastic form in midfield.

Coentrao is a brilliant left-back who performs at a consistently high level.

Expectations: This is a mouth-watering clash that people will hope lives up to expectations. Spain should have more of the possession and more of the early attacks on goal. Portugal will look to keep it tight and counter-attack with pace, poise and penetration. If there is an early goal this match could end up being a classic but the longer it stays 0-0 the more likely people are to be disappointed. Both sides will be hungry to reach the quarter-final - especially as they will both back themselves to beat Paraguay when they get there.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Preview of Round of 16. Match 7: Paraguay v Japan

This is La Albirroja versus the Blue Samarai. This is South America versus Asia's final representative, made all the more interesting by virtue of the fact that an Asian side has never beaten a South American side at a World Cup. These are two teams that have never got past the Round of 16. Paraguay have been in this position four times, Japan only once (and that in their own continent). But for one of them - this is about to change! I should also add that neither of them has even scored a goal in the second round!

Both come into the knock-out range with confidence. Paraguay believe this is their best ever team, they finished only one point behind Brazil in qualifying and they finished unbeated top of Group F. Japan's manager Takeshi Okada stated before the World Cup that they would make the semi-finals and they've certainly looked the best Asian team at the tournament. For both teams however it is hard to know whether they looked good because they really were that good or because their opposition didn't perform to potential at the tournament.

Paraguay looked very assured and skilful against Italy, completely dominated Slovakia and did enough against New Zealand to score the requisite point. Japan narrowly defeated Cameroon in a poor game, suffered a narrow loss against Netherlands before playing an excellent game against Denmark, defeating them 3-1.

Head-to-head: They have played each other on six occasions - Paraguay winning twice, Japan and there have been three draws. Paraguay's wins have been in the 2004 Olympic Games and the 1999 Copa America.

Suspensions: Caceres is unfortunately suspended for Paraguay. Vera and Santa Cruz (Paraguay) are one booking short of a suspension as are Abe, Endo, Nagatomo (Japan).

Key players

Paraguay: Alcarez has impressed in defence, Vera has been one of the most enterprising players in South Africa and scored a delightful goal against Slovakia. Santa Cruz will need to start showing why he is considered the star of the team.

Japan: Honda is their inspirational captain and in fine form. Endo is another one with a big talent. Often employed as a defensive midfielder he has a brilliant creative pass. Tulio is an imposing and effective 6 foot tall centre-back.

Expectations: Paraguay have a stellar defence who have conceded only once in South Africa and had the second best defensive record in South American qualifying. But it is also true to say that Japan are quite miserly having conceded twice in South Africa and with a good defensive record in qualifying. Perhaps then it will be a low scoring match? I certainly expect them to spend a while feeling each other out. Paraguay do love to attack but the likes of Santa Cruz, Barrios and Cardozo have not really demonstrated much of this in South Africa. Perhaps tonight is the night that they really let their South American flair go wild. Japan will be neat and quick in possession and potentially lethal from free-kicks. It should be a fascinating contest. Paraguay are favourites, and rightfully so, but this could easily go either way...

Group H final set of games

Spain 2-1 Chile

Spain went into the match knowing only a win would guarantee qualification. Chile knew they only needed to draw.

The opening exchanges were lively. Torres had a couple of early chances and a lovely move by Chile resulted in Beausejour setting up Gonzalez which he sent wide. Chile started to dominate proceedings and Sanchez attempted an exquisite cheeky lob that Casillas managed to flap away. Then, disaster struck for Chile. Goalkeeper Bravo rushed out of his area to clear Alonso's through ball and take it away from Torres. He won the ball (as he needed to) and cleared it away - but instead of to the sideline it went further up the pitch...and straight to Villa who sensationally kept the ball on target from 30 yards out with a first-time shot. 1-0 Spain.

A second goal for Spain wasn't long in coming. As Chile pressed for an equaliser gaps were appearing - Iniesta won the ball in Chile's half and a few crisp and incisive passes later he was clinically despatching a quality strike. In the process Estrada was given a second yellow card for a trip on Torres and was therefore sent off. Estrada deserved his first yellow but the second yellow was harsh. He barely caught Torres and it appeared accidental. However moments earlier he had not been booked for a cynical foul when he perhaps should have, so overall maybe the decision was inadvertently correct.

In the second half Chile showed what a courageous side they are. With ten men they scored a goal right at the start of the half and didn't concede again. Medel and Ponce were both tigers in defence but both picked up yellow cards and are suspended for the Brazil game - both would surely be missed. Chile's goal was a touch fortuitous: second half substitute Millar had his shot deflected off Pique's knee and it was diverted into the net.

Both teams played an almost farcical last ten minutes of possession football - not interested in tackling or setting up goals. Both knew they had done enough to qualify should the game being played simultaneously (Switzerland v Honduras) remain at 0-0.

Switzerland 0-0 Honduras

Honduras knew only a win could give them even a small chance of qualifying. Switzerland knew a draw or a win may or may not be enough - depending on the result in the Spain v Chile game.

Despite the scoreline this was actually a fairly entertaining game. Honduras showed far more attacking intent than they could muster in their first two games and came very close to scoring on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for them, they didn't, and they would be eliminated without a goal to their name.

Both sides created a number of chances but neither team could trouble the goalscorers. Frei was disappointing for the Swiss as he barely mustered a shot and Nkufo had a couple of glaring misses. The Swiss showed their desire for goals by bringing Hakin Yakin on at half-time but he was unable to conjure up the victory they so desperately sought. Honduras were also guilty of glaring misses but were also denied by some quality keeping from Benaglio.

On the balance of play Honduras would have warranted 3 points, but it was not to be. And both sides were sent packing.

Preview of Round of 16. Match 6: Brazil v Chile

It's the Selecao versus la Roja. It's the 5 time world champion up against 3rd place finishers in 1962. It's a South American derby between two countries who were only separated by one point at the end of the qualifying campaign - during which Brazil only lost twice and conceded only 11 times in 18 games. Chile may have won one more game but this is a very impressive record for the Brazilians.

Brazil come into this game off the back of a group in which they showed good form but never really came alive. They defeated North Korea by a single goal - with the breakthrough taking a long time in coming. They eased to an impressive 3-1 victory over the Ivory Coast. And they did enough to manage a goal-less draw against Portugal. Manager Dunga has emphasised defence since he took over the managerial reigns in 2006 - hence the current Brazilian team have the potential to excite with the zest with which we associate Brazil, but this does not come to the fore as often as it might due to the sensible and pragmatic approach of Dunga.

Chile have brought much flair and excitement to the tournament - partly because of the attack minded tactics of their manager Bielsa. Some of their play has really lit up the tournament but they have struggled to reflect this in goals scored. In the group stage they beat both Honduras and Switzerland with convincing 1-0 wins before succumbing to spain 2-1. They will come into this game, no doubt playing 3-1-3-3 again, and will certainly be looking to attack.

Key players


Robinho is the key to providing Brazil's attacking impetus. If and when Brazil score goals it would be a fair assumption to make that Robinho has had a big hand in it

Lucio is a central defender who will keep it tight at the back. Maicon will be dangerous with his marauding runs from right-back.

Fabiano is a clinical goalscorer so Brazil will be looking to him to finish the moves off with aplomb, the way they are accustomed to him doing


Sanchez is an exciting winger and a real creative outlet for the Chileans.

Vidal is a quality full-back and will look to attack when he has the opportunity

Suazo is still on the comeback trail from injury but he might just start today. He scored plenty of goals in qualifying and will look to add to his tally against Brazil

Suspensions will be very costly for Chile. Defence is their biggest weakness and they are to go in against Brazil with a couple of second stringers after Ponce and Medel picked up second bookings of the tournament against Spain. Thus Chile's task has just got harder. Estrada is also suspended but his absence will be less keenly felt as he only starts games on occasions. They will be pleased to welcome back key players Carmona and M Fernandez to the fold after they were suspended for the Spanish match.

Expectations: To begin with Chile will likely attack and Brazil will likely contain. There is a distinct possibility that Brazil will catch them on the counter-attack, and if Chile do fall behind it will be a massive mountain for them to climb to get back in the game. Chile will need to convert any chances they do get - instead of being wasteful as they have been shown to be in their earlier games.

South America versus South America is usually something special at the World Cup and Chile will be hoping not to suffer a repeat of their second round game against Brazil back in 1998 when they lost 4-1. Chile have only beaten Brazil seven times in their last 66 games and are very much second favourites coming into this one. But they have a very talented team and a never say die attitude. They can also be ill-disciplined, something else that may be their down fall.

This could be a very entertaining game.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Preview of Round of 16. Match 5: Netherlands v Slovakia

This is Oranje versus Repre. It's two different forms of history on the line. For the Dutch they have been in two consecutive finals in the 70's and a fourth place finish in 98 and are widely considered to have a rich football tradition that often highlights beautiful football over the art of winning. For Slovakia they are in their first world cup as an independent country so have already kicked off history by making the round of 16. They are descended from a great lineage however of Czechoslovakian football.

The Dutch have been in the round of 16 seven times and failed to progress on 3 of those occasions. They are very much the favourites in this match. Partly due to some of the irresistable players they have and partly because they cruised through the group stages at second gear but still won all three games. Slovakia were terrible against Paraguay and brilliant against Italy. It depends which one turns up as to how much of a chance they will have.

Key players

For the Dutch it's their exciting quartet of players who can win any game when they are on song: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and van der Waart. They also have good solid midfield players in Nigel de Jong and Giovanni Mark van Bommel. If anything their defence is the weakest area but looking at it man for man it is still pretty darn good.

For Slovakia it will be Robert Vittek that needs to be in the goals, Marek Hamsik will cause problems and Skrtel is a big bruising defender. The manager dropped two of their bigger names in Vladimir Weiss and Stanislav Sestak in their last game and it paid dividends - it's hard to know what he will do tonight. One things for sure they have some quality throughout their squad as they demonstrated against the defending champions.

Expectations: It's hard to predict. Logic would suggest Slovakia will sit back and look to counter-attack with the Dutch making the play, but it's really hard to know for sure. It will be a shock if the Netherlands lose but they've shown time and time again you can't write off a Dutch implosion. At least this time there doesn't seem to be fights within the squad. We shall see when the game kicks off at 2am NZ time!

Group G final group games

Brazil 0-0 Portugal

When you see a Brazil v Portugal game on the fixture list it's enough to make one salivate in anticipation. However with Brazil only needing a draw to qualify top and Portugal only needing a draw to make absolutely certain of qualification it quickly became apparent that this would be a damp squib of a game. And so it turned out to be...for ninety minutes. I had thought that with both sides having pretty much progressed this would be an open fun game to match the festive atmosphere that accompanied it. I was wrong. I was also wrong that I didn't think the tackles would be flying in quite so hard. They were and as a result there were a few bookings.

As expected both sides had also made a few changes to their starting line-up and it was in these fringe players best interests to put on a show to force themselves into the managers plans for the round of 16. But even they couldn't really liven up proceedings. Juan could have been given a red card for a deliberate hand ball but the referee took a lenient approach.

The best chances were when a close-range Nilmar shot was parried onto the post by Eduardo and when the ball broke loose for Meireles in the box but was unable to convert.

Ivory Coast 3-0 North Korea

The Ivory Coast new that they needed a massive victory coupled with a Brazil win to have any chance of qualifying for the next stage.

The Ivory Coast could not match the 7-0 Portugal mustered against North Korea but they did create chances and were well worth their 3-0 victory. At least Ivory Coast could go out and enjoy themselves in a game, knowing these were their last minutes at World Cup 2010 they might as well!

The Ivory Coast were particularly dominant in the first half as Yaya Toure and Romaric both scored good goals. Despite their dominance and chances they were unable to produce more. They were unable to create as much during the second half and only a Kalou effort added to the two goals for a simple 3-0 victory that signalled the end of both sides involvement in the tournament.

It was a disheartening tournament for The Elephants and they will rue their conservatism in the first game against Portugal.

Group F final group games

New Zealand 0-0 Paraguay

Paraguay knew a draw was enough to qualify. New Zealand knew they needed a win. This was a dour match as Paraguay seemed content to play out a 0-0 draw and the New Zealanders, whilst wanting to win, just lacked the quality and creativity to make it possible. For a neutral this would have been a boring game, but for us in New Zealand every moment was tense as we dreaded conceding and hoped like hell for a winner.

For New Zealand Paston did well with a couple of good saves. Nelsen was the Kiwis best player as always and Reid and Smith did everything they needed to at the back. Bertos showed a little more moving forwards than he has done previously and Elliott continued to do well. Having bagged Elliott before the tournament I was pleased to see he has done well. Up front Killen and Fallon again showed nothing of note and Smeltz always looked dangerous.

My criticism of the New Zealand approach is focused on Herbert and his tactics in the last half hour of the game. New Zealand were in a situation where they knew one goal would probably be enough to take them through to the second round for the first time ever. They knew they may never be in such a position again. This was the time to take the bull by the horns and just go for it - leave no regrets. This was the situation where Herbert needed to throw on Chris Wood much earlier. He needed to get Tim Brown on for Vicelich for a while. Brown is a natural centre-mid who can make good darting runs into the box as well as breaking up the play nicely. What was the point of him returning to fitness from his shoulder injury if he wasn't going to get considered for a run. We could also have looked at changing the tactics. Perhaps switching formation to a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 to try something different. If we'd lost going down fighting it would have felt much better than the tepid way the match drifted to its inexorable conclusion.

Having said that I am very proud of the All Whites for the immense achievement of 3 World Cup draws. They became the fourth team in history (after Belgium, Scotland and Cameroon) to be eliminated after being undefeated. We finished a point ahead of Italy on the rankings and we showed ourselves as a proud nation able to compete on the world stage.

Slovakia 3-2 Italy

Italy needed a win to guarantee qualification and Slovakia knew that even that might not be good enough.

This was an enthralling contest. Slovakia led 1-0 at half-time after De Rossi's pass lost possession near the edge of the box and the ball was fed to Vittek who finished clinically. For the remainder of the half Slovakia were mostly in control of the contest and Marchetti did well to save on a couple of occasions.

Both sides had chances in the second half with Slovakia counter-attacking at every opportunity when Italian pressure broke down. With 17 minutes remaining it looked all over for Italy when Vittek stole in to score at the near post - this not long after Quagliarella had a volley blocked on the goal-line by Skrtel. Di Nitale pulled one back with nine minutes remaining however as he steered into an open goal after Mucha had blocked a shot.

Italy looked for an all important equaliser and thought they had found one. Di Nitale had the ball in the back of the net again but he was correctly adjudged to be offside, even though it was a tight one. A super smart throw in from Slovakia ensured it was actually they who skored again. Substitute Kopenek deftly lifted it over Marchetti's head. The goal of the match came moments later when Quagliarella lobbed in a delightful long-range shot. It was perhaps even the goal of the tournament but it was to no avail as Italy ultimately lost.