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.

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