Thursday, June 29, 2006

World Cup: Week 3

OK. Now it get's serious. 8 teams, 6 from Europe and 2 from South America. After the shocks of WC 2002, things really have returned to type as the old powerhouses have shown the stamina to see off the emerging sides from Asia and Africa. 6 of the 8 quarter-finalists are former winners.

The favourites

At this stage it's tough to call now. As I said at the start of the competition no one team looks totally secure. Brazil are hitting form but look awful in defence; Argentina struggled to breakdown Mexico; England are starting to play better, but still look low on ideas; etc etc etc.

The perennial under-achievers

Oh dear... Another World Cup, another disaster for Spain. If ever there was proof that starting strongly doesn't guarantee you'll do well, it was seeing a young exciting Spanish side crash out to the old timers from France. While France have never been a side I've liked, I was delighted to see them go through. They thoroughly deserved it and Spain can have no complaints. Henry has seriously gone down in my estimations though following his cheating antics in winning a free-kick. While I have no issue with the free-kick being given (it was a foul on Henry), the Arsenal strikers reaction was a disgrace.

Shocking refereeing

While we all love to have a go at the referees I do have considerable sympathy for them at this World Cup. Yet again, the rules have been changed to make it harsher on those committing fouls. The result? Lots of players diving to try to get opponents sent off; players conning referees to get penalties; and referees failing to either take control or going completely OTT in their interpretation of some ludicrous rules.

The Holland v Portugal game was a disaster. 16 yellow cards (equalling the WC record) and 4 yellow cards (a new WC record) handed out and yet there were only 20 fouls committed. That Figo can headbutt someone and get only a yellow card, while Deco can just throw the ball away and be sent off is a sure sign that FIFAs meddling with the rules has gone beyond a joke.

On the whole it isn't the referees fault, but the FIFA rule-makers who are increasingly turning the football at the WC into a non-contact sport. They need to get some perspective and just let us enjoy football.

It was sad to see Holland go out the way they did, but it was hard to say they deserved anything from a game in which almost everyone one of their players was guilty of diving. As for Portugal, they seemed to take note of what Holland were doing and by the end of the game were also cheating as much as possible just to get players sent off.

The last 8

OK. Refereeing problems aside, the quarter-finals offer up some fantastic matches and a chance for teams to renew some very old rivalries.

Germany v Argentina
A rematch of the 1986 and 1990 finals (although technically it was West Germany back then!), I honestly think the Germans could win this. They don't look good defensively, but I'm beginning to wonder if the Argentinians have peaked too soon. If Germany close down Argentina early on and use their massive home support I can see them booking a place in the semis. However, if the Germans let Messi, Tevez, Saviola et al play, then that ropey defence may fall apart.

Italy v Ukraine
I can't see Italy losing this one (although I also predicted Ecaudor to beat Germany!). The Ukraine are the poorest side in the last 8 I've seen for a while. They struggled into the second round and were the better of two awful teams against the Swiss. Italy, meanwhile, haven't been convincing. They'll make the semis, but I think that will be it.

England v Portugal
Tough one to call. I honestly believe that Portugal are a pretty weak team, but Scolari has turned them into a top-side. He instills a never give up mentality that in recent years has seen them overcome teams that I would have called superior (It's a shame that he won't be England manager!). England meanwhile have won 3 and drawn 1 while looking unimpressive. It's a grudge match after the 2004 game with the added spice of Scolari recently turning down the England job, along with the fact that this is the 3rd competition in a row that England have faced a Scolari side at the quarter-final stage. We lost the previous two, will it be third time lucky?

Let me put it this way. If we don't beat Portugal then Sven has truly blown the best chance an England side has had to win this thing in decades. England have a team of World class players, he just needs to get them to play like a World class team.

France v Brazil
While the other games all look exciting, this rematch of the 1998 final is the one I'm looking forward to the most. France looked awful at the start of the tournament, but seem now to be turning back the clock for one last hurrah. Brazil are hitting form and will be determined to get revenge for the embarrassment of losing the 98 final 3-0. I dunno, I just have a feeling about France. I guess only time will tell.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

World Cup: Week 2

A little later than planned, but week 2 of the World Cup saw the group stages finish and setup the round two clashes for the final 16 teams.

The Frontrunners

Brazil turned on the style in their final group game against Japan, running out 4-1 winners. However, they were very disappointing in their opening games and I still maintain that defensively they are weak (although that could be said of a number of the top teams).

For me, Argentina and Spain still look the strongest, although questions will be asked as to whether the two have peaked too soon.

The Disappointments

Again France remain the big disappointment of the teams that have made it through to the last 16. They struggled in their opening two games and were close to going out. They play Spain in the next round and I'll be very surprised if the 1998 World Champions don't crash out in style.

The Czech Republics failure to get through the group stages is probably the only real shock in the first round. Their opening game really made me feel that they could live up to their World ranking of 2nd. However, defeats to Italy and Ghana put paid to that!

The Underdogs

After the shocks of World Cup 2002 which saw Argentina and France crash out in round 1, and South Korea make a run to the semis at the expense of Spain and Italy, things seem to have returned to form this time out. Only Ghana have surprised people to make it through a very tough group. I felt sorry for Ivory Coast, who deserved more, but found themselves in a group with Holland and Argentina. Ecaudor (Englands 2nd round opponents) could be classed as the surprise package of group A, but their opponents (bar Germany) were poor.


And so to the 2nd best team in the World (according to the World Cup seedings). Well they've still failed to impress. I felt that the performance against Sweden was certainly better than in previous matches, but the defending was truly woeful. The loss of Owen is a major blow. He's the kind of player that may do nothing for 80 minutes but will then win a match for you.

Second Round matches

Germany v Sweden
Argentina v Mexico
England v Ecuador
Portugal v Holland
Italy v Australia
Switzerland v Ukraine
Brazil v Ghana
Spain v France

At the time of writing Germany, Argentina and England had booked their places in the quarter-finals.

Friday, June 16, 2006

World Cup: Week 1

Well the first week of the greatest sporting event in the World is over and it's more than lived up to expectations. As always, many of the favourite teams have started sluggishly meaning that the unfancied sides have had a chance to show us what they can do.


The favourites started poorly against Croatia but still got the result they wanted. It was a pretty typical start for a team that often have too much to live up to. Unlike the sycophantic BBC commentary, I have no issue criticising the heavily over-rated Brazilian team. Don't get me wrong, on paper they are the best team in the World, but by no means does this mean they are gonna win it. Croatia illustrated quite clearly how weak their defence is and a better strikeforce would surely fancy their chances of scoring. Plus, with Ronaldo looking extremely poor atm, I don't think this World Cup is a clear cut as many people think.

The best so far

For me, four teams have looked to have hit the ground running. Argentina started it on Saturday with a good 2-1 victory over Ivory Coast. They struggled in the latter periods, but for 60 minutes they looked every bit the finished article. Meanwhile Italy were fantastic against a very exciting Ghana side. In the same group the Czech Republic proved that the USA really don't deserve a World ranking of 5th with a stunning 3-0 win. However, we had to wait until the final group kicked off to see the performance of the tournament. Spains 4-0 demolition of a highly rated Ukraine side has sent a warning out to the other 31 teams that Spain may finally be ready to shake off the mantle of perennial under-achievers.

The worst so far

There really can be only one team here. France. The World Champtions 8 years ago are living on borrowed time. Their team is old and laboured and you almost feel sorry for those once great players struggling to keep pace with the game. If they go out in the first round it wouldn't surprise me. They were awful against Switzerland and deserved to lose. I'm guessing they'll take the 0-0 and hope to build on it.

The hosts

Germany have been in transition ever since Jurgen Klinsmann took over. I really respect his efforts to change the philosophy of the German game. Unfortunately, it is a long road and so far they have failed to impress. The opening game was a great match for neutrals, but too often did Germany look like they could concede goal after goal. With Ecuador playing so well, there could still be a shock in store that may result in England having to face Germany in the second round.

The others

The African nations have failed to impress despite some spirited performances. Ivory Coast look good, but are in such a difficult group that I can't really see them progressing. Holland and Portugal may be amongst the favourites, but I question whether Holland can actually play well as a team, while Portugal seem very average (although I wouldn't discount the tactical brilliance of their manager, Big Phil Scolari).

Australia were magnificent to come back against Japan, but I find it hard to imagine them getting out of a group that also contains Brazil and Croatia.

And finally, to England

England have been poor so far, yet have played 2, won 2 and are already into the second round. I'd have taken that at the start of the tournament. England haven't started so well at the World Cup in my own living memory. However, serious doubts remain. Despite having a team that is probably second only to Brazil (on paper), England have failed to perform well since the last World Cup and the abysmal defeat by Brazil.

Englands problems have nothing to do with Wayne Rooneys absence (we play poorly with him in the team too!). The problem is tactical. Eriksson learnt his trade in Italy and as such has spent the last few years trying to get England to play like Italy. This is a moronic move. England have always played better when they are playing with a sense of urgency. We do not defend well in numbers, it is not a part of our game. This was the problem against Brazil in the last World Cup. It was the same problem in Euro 2004 and it was the same problem in the second half against Paraguay last week.

Despite this, I firmly believe England can win the World Cup. Why?

  1. We have, for the first time in 36 years, a World class team with World class players across the field.

  2. We are playing poorly but still winning. This is the hallmark of World Champions.

  3. All of the other top teams have got similar problems.

However, I do think that to win the World Cup Sven will need to improve his tactical substitutions. Yesterday, we finally played well when Sven made an inspired substitution. No, I'm not talking about bringing Rooney on for Owen (a move I still feel was a mistake). It was the introduction of Aaron Lennon that changed the game. He scared the life out of the T&T defence and hauled Beckham into the game.

Anyway, it's been a fun week. I can't wait for the Holland v Argentina game next week. While Germany v Ecuador could yet provide the first big upset.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Haditha troops out of control

Maybe it's my complete lack of faith in the US occupation of Iraq or the fact that I recently watched Buffalo Soldiers, but the news that the troops involved in the Haditha massacre may have been hooked to cocktails of drugs and drink is not entirely surprising.

In the first Gulf War US combat pilots were fed amphetamines to keep them awake for the increasing number of night sorties. So this kind of thing isn't exactly new.

Regardless, this event is truly sickening and will, I would assume, only lead to even more de-stabilisation in the area. The sooner that Bush, Blair and co realise that they may have won the battle (ie taking Iraq), but they are fast losing the war (holding Iraq), the better. Alas, they are now so utterly convinced of their own righteousness on this issue that even in old age and senile dementia, the two men will convince themselves they 'did the right thing'.