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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

World Cup 2014 Wrap-Up

Yes, I know I'm running late with this. Had a couple of dates to go on between when the final aired and now, so this is actually the first chance I've had to sit down and think about the World Cup final, between Germany and Argentina.

So anyway: Germany wins, becomes first European team to win in Western Hemisphere, finally fulfills the promise of the last 8 years. Lots of newsworthy stuff in this one, eh?

OK, don't call me Statto anymore

If nothing else, this World Cup taught the transience of statistics. My initial guess, that Brazil would win the entire tournament, was based on the home region and home country advantage. This was because South American teams were the only ones who'd ever won in either North or South America. More to the point, I figured that Brazil would be hungrier to win it since the Maracanazo of 1950.

Problem is, as I believe they say in the army, skill beats will every time. Hunger to win is the decider when two teams are evenly matched - but as Germany proved in the semi-final, they were on a completely different planet than Brazil.

To give the guys from the Guardian their due, they did discuss this, and how there was strictly speaking no reason for European teams' inability to travel well. As I acknowledged, the stats were against Germany winning, because no European team had ever managed it. But now that it's happened, there's no reason to expect that it can't happen again, or that a South American team can't go on and win in Europe (again).

In this case, it's worth remembering the old adage from investing: past performance is no guarantee of future results. Stats on whoever has won or never won at a certain stage are only stats, and betting too heavily on them will probably leave you broke. This even holds true for the Dutch team, of course - there's no reason for them to constantly fail at the last hurdle, but they always do. And when they finally don't, that stat will be meaningless.

German engineering

In fact, the German win might give the Dutch a nice boost of confidence. Much was made during this World Cup of how Germany has reached the last two semi-finals (and the final before that), and of how close they came in the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. It was becoming something of a cliche how they would play amazing football, but never progress beyond the semi-final.

Clearly, whatever tinkering Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw have done since Klinsmann took over after Euro 2004 finally came to fruition this year. And it's important to note that Germany has been the most consistent team of the last ten years or so - Spain may have won three tournaments on the hop, including by beating the Germans, but Germany was always there, while the other semi-finalists frequently changed.

It's debatable whether or not Germany will go on to a streak like Spain's, though. They'll surely be favorites to win the Euros in 2016, as almost all of this team will still be playing, but (and I'm resorting to stats again, but bear with me) it's been extremely rare for World Cup winners to defend their title, especially in the last few years. The fact is, a lot can happen in four years - players can drop out, form can fail, and Löw's contract is currently only good until 2016. He could very well get an extension - or he could get fired or resign.

And Germany's rivals will likely find ways to play around them. It may not be as dramatic as Spain's collapse this year, but Germany will at some point go through another dark period. It is, after all, 24 years since they last won a World Cup.

Looking ahead

In any case, if it seems silly to guess what'll happen in four years, I'm still happy to do so. It's safe to say that CONMEBOL and UEFA will continue to dominate the tournament when it comes to Russia. The very best teams will have rebuilt by then, and the mid-tier teams can also expect to book their tickets (the US, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, South Korea). If Klinsmann is still coaching the US, they may break their streak of never winning a competitive game on European soil - or they might not.

Of course, the next World Cup might not even be held in Russia. This is probably a bit fanciful, given all the attention on Qatar's dodgy-in-the-extreme tournament, but if Russia embroils itself in another war, it might not be safe or stable enough to hold a tournament there.

That's extremely speculative, of course. And if I'm being cynical, I'll note that Russia would likely wait until after the tournament to start back in on its geopolitical shenanigans. But it's also true that the US is generally held as a reserve host when observers complain about lack of readiness at a host country (as they did with Brazil, and if memory serves, South Africa).

I hope the US gets it again, most likely in 2022, when it's stripped from Qatar. I'd like to be able to attend in person someday, and it might be when the team finally wins it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

World Cup 2014: Mineirazo

Football is a game of constant surprises, a sport where the scoreline can obscure what actually happened in the game. A 0-0 draw can be a dour affair, or it can be the most balletic display of athleticism ever seen (Germany vs Italy from 2006 is my prime example of this). At other times, however, like in today's match between Brazil and Germany, the scoreline can be a pretty accurate reflection of the game's ebb and flow.

As I've noted in previous posts, I fully expected Brazil to win this game. Sure, they'd been a bit dour in the previous rounds, but they'd always struggled through. Germany, meanwhile, had also been less than their usual swashbuckling selves, and had ground out a difficult 2-1 win against Algeria and a pretty unconvincing 1-0 against a France team that looked like they'd rather be anywhere else. With the weight of history and the support of 200 million citizens, surely we were in for another ground-out match that would be settled either in the earliest stages of the game, or the latest.

And if you were truly cynical (moi?), you'd guess that even if the Germans played Brazil off the pitch, then at least the referee would make reprehensible calls in the hosts' favor - as they've been doing throughout most of the tournament.

So, uh. That 7-1 tonking, then. Who saw that coming?

It actually started pretty well for Brazil. They pressed high, had a few chances, and generally made nuisances of themselves. It looked like the last couple of games of really intense anthem-singing was going to pay off.

Frankly, even when Brazil went 2-0 down it didn't look hopeless. But it was that span of ten minutes, starting at about minute 20, that did it. In a continuation of a shameful trend, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar found himself constitutionally unable to hold onto a shot, and the three defenders in front of him may as well have been foosball men, for all that they were able to cope with the Germans' passing game.

I did say "three defenders", didn't I? Yes, while Brazil was nominally playing with four men at the back, wide shots of the screen typically showed no more than three hanging back by the keeper's box. Marcelo, over on the left, seemed to have gone walkabout, which was - ironically enough - the exact point of entry that the Germans seemed most able to exploit. Although the entire back 3-or-4 was hapless - witness my favorite picture of the game, as Müller puts in the first goal.

Marcelo, in that picture, looks like a cartoon character. He looks like a man having one of those nightmares where you show up to school and realize you've managed to get there wearing only underpants. To put it in SF terms, it's like his consciousness has been possessed by a talented footballer for the past several years, and the link broke down only in that moment, leaving a bewildered man facing Germany in the World Cup.

But let's look at the positives

On the other hand, I did get to see Miroslav Klose bag his sixteenth goal to move clear of Ronaldo (for whom this match must have been even more of a shitter than that awful final he had against France in 1998). I'd been a little apprehensive about Klose starting, as he'd been largely anonymous against France, but Löw's faith in him was rewarded when he pounced to slot him the rebound off Cesar's hands. I suppose that's why Joachim Löw coaches the German national team and I'm sitting here blogging about it.

It's possible he might even get a chance to add a seventeenth, since Germany's going on to the final now. That'll be important, because the record looks like it'll be broken again soon, by yet another German - Thomas Müller.

Müller, it turns out, is now on 10 World Cup goals in his career, spread across two tournaments, thanks to the five he's scored just in Brazil. And he's 24, so assuming he stays fit and keeps getting picked, he could have another three World Cups in him. It's fanciful to suggest he'll keep to that average of five goals per tournament (which would give him a nigh-unassailable 25 in total), but then again, he has one more game in Brazil to add to his tally, and could get even better by the time 2018 rolls around.

If he's still playing at the age of 32 or 36 (as Klose is doing), then he won't even need to start every game to challenge for the record. He'll just need to come on every once in a while to slot in a convenient goal.

Playing the odds

So who will Germany face in the final? My money is still on Argentina beating the Netherlands. This is based on a number of factors - the main one is the Dutch team's propensity to implode at key moments. The final in 2010 springs to mind as a good example, but so does Euro 2008, when they romped almost joyfully through Italy and France (incidentally, picking up the same goal difference as in today's game) before losing tamely to Russia in the first knockout round. There's no good reason to assume that it'll happen again this year - but then, there never is. If it doesn't happen against Argentina, the odds will be greater that it happens against Germany.

Another key point is the Netherlands' strength in depth. The Dutch attack boasts three of the finest players in the world - Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder - but the rest of the midfield and the defense may not be as incisive. We simply haven't seen them properly tested - Costa Rica hardly troubled the Dutch defense, and while Mexico scored, the Netherlands held them to just one, which was enough for the Dutch to score two late goals and progress to the next round.

Of course, you could say the same about Argentina. They boast some amazing attacking players - including a Lionel Messi who's finally living up to his potential - but the rest of the team is deeply suspect. I've generally gone for the South American teams over the European ones in this tournament, and think that even an unconvincing Argentina is stronger opposition than what the Netherlands has faced so far. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Dutch do manage to get to the final.

Although if today's display is anything to go by, I wouldn't fancy them against Germany, whose only blot on today's record is not the goal they conceded in the 90th minute, but the fact that they weren't able to get the entire team on the scoresheet. That said, it's good to remember the words of Yogi Berra: "That's why they play the games."

I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

World Cup 2014: No Surprises Left

If the group stages of this year's World Cup held a bunch of surprises (and goals), the knockout stages in Brazil have gone in an altogether more traditional direction. Only three matches in the round of 16 were settled in the regulation 90 minutes, with powerhouses like Germany having a lot of trouble against upstarts like Algerian. In the quarter-finals, two matches were settled extremely early on, and only one featured more than one goal. And, more tellingly, the upstarts have finally all fallen away.

Colombia, which had lit up the group stage with flowing, fun, attacking football, found themselves played off the pitch by a Brazil team that was nowhere near its best, but turned out to be still too good. France, meanwhile, disappeared without a whimper against Germany, while Belgium hardly gave Argentina cause for concern. In fact, the only game that looked up in the air at any point was the Netherlands' win against Costa Rica, and that only because it went to penalties.

So at this point we're left with four heavyweights of World Cup soccer - Brazil plays Germany on Tuesday, in a repeat of the 2002 World Cup final, while the following day Argentina plays the Netherlands in a repeat of the 1978 World Cup final. The deja vu doesn't end there, either - Germany and the Netherlands both made it to the semi-finals last time, and of the four remaining teams, only the Netherlands has never won the tournament. Brazil, Germany and Argentina are all multiple winners, to boot.

Pura vida, indeed

Last time I talked about various plans to increase the number of teams outside of the big two confederations - Costa Rica was the only team in the quarter-finals to come from outside of Europe or South America, but now there are none. If the Tikos had made it to the semi-final, it would have been the first time a CONCACAF team made it since 1930, when the bronze medal went to none other than the US (I know, wtf, right?).

They played a good game against the Dutch, although the gulf in quality was pretty apparent throughout - they may have stopped Robben, van Persie and co. from scoring, but Costa Rica never really looked like finding the net themselves, other than at the very end.

It's hard to see how they can repeat the feat, though. Of the 23 men named in the squad, only 7 will still be under 30 by the time the next World Cup comes around. That doesn't mean the rest will all have retired by then - Keylor Navas should expect to play next time, assuming his form holds up - but of course, some of the players will no longer be available, for whatever reason, and it's impossible to tell who will replace them.

Most of them play outside Costa Rica, as well, and none of these players is on the books for the very best clubs of Europe (said with apologies to Levante, PSV and Olympiacos, of course). It's impossible to tell what kind of youngsters the national team set-up in Costa Rica has to work with, which will be another question mark over the team making an impact next time.

And as a final comment - and not to detract from their achievement in any way - the Tikos were lucky to be placed in a group that turned out to be so abject, despite its "Group of Death" billing. The expectation before the tournament started was that Costa Rica would end up being the whipping boys. They may also have been lucky to have avoided Luis Suarez in their first match against Uruguay, and to have played a worn-out Italy and England for the next two.

All this is to say that while I hope this isn't the last we see of Costa Rica, my fear is that the odds are against them repeating this feat in four years. But I hope they do make it (although ideally not against Italy).

The great man theory

Of course, as I suggested above, the remaining teams are all groups that we can expect to see again (and again, and again...). I still believe that Brazil will get stronger as they progress, as they'll be even more determined to win after the Maracanazo of 1950, and as the fans get even louder in support of the home team.

The loss of Neymar will be a tough one, though probably not catastrophic. It's true that this year's Brazil team isn't the most amazing collection of players, but they're also a better team than, for instance, Argentina. If Messi were injured and out for the rest of the tournament, Argentina would be robbed of its most gifted playmaker - almost all of the goals the team has scored have involved him in some way.

(This makes Argentina, perversely, potentially the weakest remaining team. However, equally perversely, this works in their favor, because as the opposing teams all crowd around Messi to stop him playing, his team mates are freed up to do their own thing. Which is why I still believe Argentina will make it to the final.)

Pace my friend Dave, who insists that the team cohesion effect has been debunked, Brazil's great strength is their ability to play together. Goals, for example, have come from all over the team, with defenders like David Luiz and Thiago Silva getting on the scoresheet. Which is why, despite being weakened by Neymar's loss, they'll still be in better shape to score goals than Germany.

The Germans, remember, have only brought one "recognized" forward, Miroslav Klose - two if you count Lukas Podolski, but I seem to be the only one counting him (and anyway, he's been out injured too). Their goals have come from a variety of players too, but I think they've also been slightly weaker at the back when playing Philip Lahm out of position - and anyway, Manuel Neuer may be able to come haring out of the box and play sweeper against the likes of Algeria and France, but the Brazilians will make him pay for that.

Still, it seems clear that as the teams get more evenly matched, we'll see more games like the previous ones - slightly dour, slightly rough, but the better team snatching it either super-early or super-late. It could even be nothing but penalties from here on in. It'd be a shame, but still in keeping with what we've seen so far.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

World Cup 2014: Two Hours Plus Pain

We're done with the round of sixteen in the World Cup now, capped by the US crashing out after an epic slog against Belgium. I was a little surprised to see how affected I was by the loss, even if it wasn't all that surprising (although I did say last weekend that the US would win, didn't I? Well, I'm not Nate Silver, after all).

Overall, most of the teams that have progressed to the quarterfinal now were the ones expected to do so - the only one that was maybe a surprise was Colombia, although as I said last time, there was the danger that taking Luis Suarez out would defang the team (#sorrynotsorry).

Quality Shows Through at the Very End

The interesting thing about the knockout round so far, which everyone else has commented on, is how most of the games have been settled in the last few minutes of play, or after extra time. In fact, the only match that wasn't decided by a last-minute flurry of goals was that same Colombia-Uruguay encounter, with James Rodriguez scoring in either half.

What's interesting is that the final results, being pretty much expected, obscure the effort that the winning teams put in to get to the next round. Anyone looking at match-ups like Argentina v Switzerland or Germany v Algeria would have assumed the more heralded teams would progress, but who would have expected both matches to be decided in extra time?

This may be because all of the teams are just a bit weaker than usual, and because the teams that experienced 4-0 or 5-1 drubbings in the group stage have already been eliminated. Sure, Germany looks great when they score 4 goals against a Portugal side that then fails to beat the US; but they then struggle against an Algerian team that led against Belgium for large parts of that first match, and that drubbed South Korea 4-2.

Argentina, in the meantime, was clearly the best team in its group, and better than Switzerland (who, let's remember, went down 5-2 to France), but that remains an unconvincing statement given how their wins against Bosnia and Iran involved own goals and/or last-minute brilliance from Messi.

It's kind of a shame that a tournament that began as the most exciting (goal-wise) in decades should turn into a knockout round full of goal-less draws, but it seems clear that teams are getting more cagey as the prospect of elimination becomes more immediate. It's clear, then, that the trick for weaker teams in the quarter-finals will be to kill off the game early. But the example of Mexico should be an important warning: killing it off means by more than one goal, because where the stronger teams are excelling is in marshalling their fitness against their opponents right at the end.

Team USA crashes out gloriously, again

That is, in fact, the most heart-breaking thing about the US's loss today. The game wasn't exactly dour in the first 90 minutes, but neither the US nor Belgium seemed particularly awake until de Bruyne scored. Then the US came back into the game, with Wondolowski missing what the British call a sitter. Super-sub Julian Green knocked one in with his first touch, but the game was beyond the US by then.

The problem was that the US, individually, still just wasn't good enough. Tim Howard may have broken a record for saves in a single game, but that's only because the four defenders in front of him weren't doing their job, and nor were the midfielders in front of them. The US did well to fall back, and strangle many of the Belgian attacks, but the defense still looked fragile. Remember that Cameron and Besler (and Bradley) were the ones whose errors let Portugal go in front and then equalize, at opposite ends of that match.

Up at the front, Dempsey was generally stranded on his own, because the midfield wasn't able to get up to support him. Bradley's last touch was pretty dreadful, as well. The only other bright spot I'd mention is DaMarcus Beasley, who seemed to be at both ends of the pitch at all times, and snuffed out a good few attacks on his own.

So the question now is where US Soccer goes from here. Frankly, it doesn't look great - the next World Cup will be in Europe, where the US has never won a competitive match; in three tournaments (1990, 1998 and 2006) the team has registered 8 defeats and one draw. This doesn't mean that the US can't get out of the group in 2018 - but it will depend on which group they're drawn in, and whether or not this travel-bug that still afflicts teams is real or not.

On the other hand, the US maybe could get the 2022 World Cup, if FIFA - grudgingly - takes it away from Qatar. If the tournament comes back here, and US Soccer's youth programs continue to pay dividends, then the US might even be in with a chance to win (although let's not get too excited, either...).

Platini and Blatter: Why Don't You Both Shut Up

Of course, if FIFA president Sepp Blatter gets his way, the US might have an even easier time winning. Blatter has suggested that UEFA's 13 spots should be given to the African and Asian teams, as well as those from CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. UEFA president Michel Platini countered by saying that the World Cup could be expanded to 40 teams (divided in 8 groups of 5), which makes room for more of the smaller teams while keeping Europe's contingent unchanged.

Both are pretty terrible ideas, frankly. Platini's is more obviously bad, because although it sounds exciting to have even more teams and games and whatnot, think about the teams that would be coming in additionally. Costa Rica may have been a revelation this year, but most of Central America isn't that great - the only teams that consistently qualify and progress from the group stage are the US and Mexico.

Asia and Africa's teams are even worse. I used to protest about Oceania having to win a playoff to send a team to the tournament, but that was when there were two decent teams playing in the region - now that Australia qualifies from Asia, a full spot would give New Zealand automatic entry. This makes a mockery of the entire qualification process. Sure, Brazil always qualifies, but that's usually because they really are good enough to do so - otherwise it's because they're hosting it.

Blatter's idea, meanwhile, seems fair, as it would give more teams a chance to win the World Cup. But if Europe's involvement were reduced to, say, five or six teams, a win by one of these African or Asian teams would potentially be devalued, because they would likely have played another weak African or Asian team to get to the final (either that, or the South American teams would just roll over everyone every year).

What they should do is run the tournament on a coefficient system, like UEFA does with the Champions and Europa Leagues. Confederations whose teams do well would be rewarded with additional places, while those whose teams stank up the tournament could see their participation diminished. Obviously each confederation would have a lower limit, so that no confederation could be completely sidelined, the way Oceania is.

Although even on that basis, it's hard to argue that the African or especially the Asian teams should get even one extra qualifying spot. Three of the five African teams failed to qualify from the group stage, and now there are none in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, all four Asian teams came last in their respective groups, none having earned more than a single point. Theoretically, under the system I'm suggesting, Costa Rica's run of success this year could lead to an extra CONCACAF spot, at the expense of UEFA, but that would mean more teams like Honduras getting in, and so in eight years we'd likely be back to the same allocation.

But it would be fairer than what Blatter and Platini are suggesting, while also keeping the big names in the tournament. Because, after all, even if Ronaldo and Rooney (and previously Messi) don't really do much at big tournaments, they're still the players that fans come out to see. And that's the important thing, in the end.

Friday, 27 June 2014

World Cup 2014: Stand By For Mordant Commentary

Just a quick warning before we proceed: I'm going to be working as many puns about biting as I can into this post. I don't know if any Uruguayan folks read this blog, but if you're out there, and you think Luisito has been railroaded by a joint Anglo-Italo-Iberian conspiracy, this next post might leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Now, without further ado, let's sink our teeth into the group stage, and then look forward to a taster for the first knockout stage.

(I did warn you).

FIFA takes a bite out of unsporting play

By way of clever segue, it seems only fair to discuss Suarez's early exit from the World Cup first off, and to chew over the implications for what could now be a toothless Uruguay squad. One thing to get out of the way: pace Diego Lugano and Uruguay's assorted other Diegos who have cast aspersions on Giorgio Chiellini and the entire fourth estate in Europe, it's pretty clear that Suarez bit Chiellini. One has only to look at the footage of Suarez's head dipping down on Chiellini's shoulder to see that.

The real question is why resort to such tactics. It seems clear that Suarez is fiendishly clever about the strategic foul or misdemeanor. His handball four years ago against Ghana, for instance, kept out a sure goal and led to Ghana being eliminated on penalties. It was shitty of him, but it also turned out to be a very effective tactic. One struggles to see what advantage he drew from biting Chiellini, though - beyond unnerving the other player, it seems to have backfired a bit. Not only will he not figure at this World Cup again, but he won't be allowed anywhere near Liverpool's facilities until well into the upcoming Premier League season.

It's also worth asking what will happen to Uruguay now. I can see two scenarios: in one, the team pulls together in the face of effectively worldwide opprobrium and wins the entire tournament. Italy, after all, won in 2006 against the backdrop of the Tangentopoli scandal, which appears to have helped the team's cohesiveness. And cohesiveness is, to be frank, the true deciding factor in international footballing success. Contrast the super-organized Spain from 2008-2012, which pretty much consisted of Barcelona, with the shambles of Cameroon and Ghana this year, or the Dutch in other years.

This scenario is appealing, from a Schadenfreude perspective, because it would see Brazil losing on home soil, again, to the team that beat them for title in 1950. It would also continue Brazil's tradition of never having won a World Cup in Brazil. It has to make you smile, this irony.

On the other hand, Suarez's exit may have pulled the teeth from Uruguay's attack completely. You have only to contrast the team that played against Costa Rica and lost 3-1 with the team that won 2-0 against England. Colombia was in pretty good form, and could reasonably eat the Uruguayans alive now that la Garra Charrua is without its most incisive forward. And even if Uruguay gets past them, they'll have to face either a Brazil team on home soil, or a Chile team that was good enough to beat Brazil on home soil. Progress is not guaranteed.

The Tao of travel

Speaking of guaranteed progress, it's kind of exciting that the US made it to the knockout stages again, eh? Well, it is for me, at any rate. I did figure the US would get past Portugal again, in part because of that previous win in 2002, and in part because of the relative strengths and weaknesses of certain teams when playing on certain continents.

One of the guys on the Guardian football podcast was pooh-poohing the notion that travel is still any sort of factor in the World Cup, but I don't think you can really discount it, even with the relative ease of long-haul travel. One of the reasons a European team didn't win the first World Cup in Uruguay was that most didn't bother to make the trip; but it's also true that they still haven't won in the Americas or in Asia, whereas Brazil's won on almost every continent (except Africa) and even Argentina won a World Cup outside of its home region (Mexico 1986).

For better or worse, travel across time zones continues to play a factor in most teams' form. In fact, the only exceptions were when Brazil was built around players of such scintillating form that they couldn't help but win: Sweden in 1958, featuring Pele, and Japan/South Korea in 2002 featuring Ronaldo. In 2002 at least, Germany did well to get to the final, but they did so by playing in a style that Greece used to win the European Championships two years later: dourly eking out a succession of 1-0 wins.

A sabermetrician (or whatever the word is for soccer stattos) could probably go back through all the tournaments and find a common thread to explain why this should be. From my perspective, there's no reason why a European team shouldn't win in Brazil this year, but the fact remains that the stats are against them, because no European team has done so up until now.

So who the hell will win, wise guy?

I'm glad I asked. My money is still on Brazil, as it has been since before the tournament started. While they haven't been enormously convincing, they have managed to eke out the necessary results, and I suspect that home support will become more effective as they progress through each round. I also believe that the South American teams they'll face on the way (Chile, and then either Colombia or, more likely, Uruguay) will not have enough quality to beat Brazil, though I'd put my money on them against most of the other teams still in the tournament.

Argentina, on the other hand, I believe will make it to the final, but will do so by eking out results against Switzerland, the US and the Netherlands. Argentina hasn't been very convincing, particularly against Iran, which was easily the worst team of the tournament for me, but I don't think they'll be found out until the final. I think Argentina's too good for Switzerland, too organized for the US, and the Dutch will implode internally before the semi-final.

To clarify, as well: I believe the US will beat Belgium, too, and get to the quarterfinal. I haven't seen Belgium play, but everything I've read about their games so far suggests there isn't much going on there. If the US was able to hold Portugal, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, to a 2-2 draw, I believe they can get past Belgium, whether on penalties or in normal time.

Of course, that's the beauty of predictions: I could get the next round 100% wrong. I stand ready for a barrage of abuse should that happen. See you on the other side of the round of 16!

Friday, 20 June 2014

World Cup 2014: More Scalps Are Collected

Gosh, that's a lot of big names out of the tournament already, eh?

Since I last posted, Spain became the first team to be knocked out, followed by England today. In the "expected exits" category, Cameroon, Australia and Honduras have also been eliminated, while Groups F, G and H have yet to play their second games. They'll be crucial deciders for each of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Portugal and Algeria, but if any of these teams squeaks through to the next round, my money will be on Portugal (despite my prediction that they'll lose to the US, I can't deny they have the quality to make it out of the group).

But let's get back to those big name exits for a moment, shall we?

Spain's ignominious defeat marks the second consecutive time that the reigning champion crashes out at the group stage, and the third time it's happened since the turn of the century. In 2002 France crashed and burned without scoring a single goal; they only managed a point because of a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Meanwhile, Italy in 2010 was so bad that it couldn't even defeat New Zealand, a team of part-time players who'd taken vacations from their jobs in banks and schools to participate.

Which is actually kind of heart-warming, seen from the distance of four years and through the lens of other champions' misfortunes. But I'm not here to rail against the influence of money on the sport (maybe some other time). My concern is more around what exactly is happening in the biggest national teams that they can be so good one year (or in Spain's case, for about six years straight), and then collapse so spectacularly.

After all, Italy's implosion in 2010 could be traced to their lackluster Euro 2008, and the subsequent rehiring of Marcello Lippi (France's collapse in 2002 is harder to explain, however, given that they won Euro 2000). Sure, Spain found itself dismantled by Brazil at the Confederations Cup last year, but that doesn't mean anything - they also lost to the US in the semi-final of the 2009 Confed Cup, and still went on to win the following year's World Cup.

And in some ways, I suppose I come back to that quote from last week, about national team coaches picking players for their reputation, rather than how well they play as a team. It's simplistic to say this is the same Spain team that won the last three consecutive tournaments - ignoring the mystifying omissions (like Llorente), and the retirement of the entire defense, Iker Casillas in particular was a shadow of his former self. Which we perhaps should have expected, since he doesn't appear to have played much for Real Madrid this season.

Spain does have one more chance to avoid the wooden spoon, both in its group and in the tournament as a whole. It still faces Australia who, while playing with a lot of heart and passion, are probably still not good enough to beat an already-beaten Spain. But I think it would be a shame if Spain did beat them - Australia came into the tournament with little expectation of progressing, and yet they didn't roll over for either Chile or the Netherlands. Indeed, they almost equalized against Chile and briefly led against the Dutch. If a lot of teams are effectively there to make up the numbers (*cough* Iran and Nigeria *cough*), Australia at least had the decency to make it look difficult.

As for England...

Well, it's hard to be too critical. Sure, they looked woeful against Uruguay, but they were more dynamic against Italy, who managed to lose against Costa Rica - the team that pretty much everyone (including me) had written off before the tournament started. Their case is probably similar to that of Spain (and Australia): too many players who've been in the national team set up for too long.

Steven Gerrard has come in for a lot of criticism, as has Wayne Rooney (but that's nothing new). Although it's fair to say that the newer players haven't been great either, especially at the back. And that's the real problem - in contrast to club coaches, a national team coach selects the players he has, not the ones he wants to buy. There have been no credible replacements for Gerrard in England's midfield, and so Roy Hodgson had little choice but to bring him along - much as Fabio Capello did and Sven-Göran Eriksson before him.

There was one positive for Rooney in the Uruguay game, though, in the form of his first World Cup goal. While it must be great for him to finally have that particular monkey off his back, I have to confess to a certain amount of disappointment that he's broken his scoreless streak at the tournament. Before yesterday, Rooney stood as a sort of monument to disappointment - the man who had never scored a goal at the tournament, despite being widely hailed as one of the best in the world. Now, with his solitary goal, he's just another underachiever - if he'd gone his entire career never scoring at the World Cup, he could have held a record (albeit not a very satisfying one). Now he's denied himself even that scant recognition. It seems kind of a shame.

By contrast, I'm hoping German poacher extraordinaire Miroslav Klose gets a run-out at some point this tournament, so that he can equal or even surpass Brazil's Ronaldo in the all-time scoring tables. Klose's the anti-Rooney in some ways - despite an undistinguished club career, he's now Germany's all-time top scorer. Sure, he's played around twice as many games as Gerd Müller, the previous record holder. But it's refreshing to see someone play better for his country than his club, and this makes him stand in sharp contrast to the likes of Rooney and Messi (who has only scored two goals at World Cups, let's remember).

Somebody has to score the goals for teams to win, after all. If the big-name players can't or won't do that, then it might as well be the ones who, for whatever reason, actually can get themselves into scoring positions.

Monday, 16 June 2014

World Cup 2014: End of a Trend

The problem with traveling during the World Cup is that everything moves so quickly - you get on the plane for ten hours, and when you get off again the footballing world has been turned on its head.

Or not. But it is true that I'm now three days behind, and haven't had the chance to regale you with my thoughts on England v Italy, or any of the other matches that have taken place since then.

That said, part of the flight was spent productively, listening to the Guardian's Football Daily podcast, hosted by James Richardson and chums. I may have mentioned it before (it's usually weekly, but goes daily for the big tournaments), but it's a great collection of footballing insight and terrible puns. The timing of the matches means that they have to stay up really late to record it, and some games go missing (like Ivory Coast v Japan). However, I was happy that at least I caught the one where they talked about England v Italy, and that amazing Netherlands v Spain match.

In any case, while listening to the episode about yesterday's matches, one of the gang made an interesting observation, namely that we hadn't had any draws so far. I had, in fact, noticed this too, so I was intrigued when they said it was probably the longest stretch since 1990 that a World Cup has gone without a draw.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so it proved today when Iran met Nigeria.

Bliss, followed by ennui

The day started rather promisingly. Germany, whom several of James Richardson's cohorts had written off, due to injury problems and the lack of strikers, decided to roll over a strangely quiescent Portugal. Although Portugal did manage to get Pepe sent off, for hitting and then (lightly) head-butting Thomas Müller, so they weren't that quiescent, I suppose.

I don't have a burning hatred of the Portuguese team, so the result didn't give me the warm glow of satisfaction I got when seeing Spain get humbled. It may be because Portugal never wins anything. But it was satisfying to see such a complete demolition of one team by another (and seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, whom I do loathe, made unhappy also helped).

I'll admit I didn't have amazingly high hopes for Iran v Nigeria, but it didn't take me long to realize that neither team actually knew what it was doing. Both were so cagey that they couldn't seem to get more than one man forward at a time, although that made no difference, because they also couldn't string together two passes to save their lives.

Now, I've become concerned lately with the question of all the teams that come to the World Cup but don't win anything. Realistically, in any given World Cup there are maybe four or five teams that can win it, and they always come from Europe or South America. It's great that teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania now participate regularly, but it's hard to come up with any scenario that involves one of them winning. Iran v Nigeria was a masterclass in why that should be.

On the other hand, Ivory Coast v Japan was more lively, and featured goals - I just didn't get to see it because it was on so late. My understanding, though, is that as soon as Didier Drogba came on for the Ivory Coast, Japan fell apart, which hints at a vast gulf between the respective footballing philosophies of both continents. It would just have been nice if the teams that played today had shown any kind of philosophy, or interest in tactics. Hell, it would even have been interesting if they'd had the balls to at least kick each other a few times.

USA! USA! USA!

Luckily, we were straight back to winning ways with USA v Ghana, although that game was also not without its problems. The US did well to score early - I missed the goal, so I don't know how they built up to it, but there can't have been much build-up because it came in the first 30 seconds or so of the match. But that just meant Ghana were chasing the entire time, and an equalizer was inevitable.

Ghana had 62% of the possession, and took 21 shots compared with the US's 8. At one point, Univision showed the difference in passes completed, which was also illuminating: Ghana had managed around 280, while the US was at 180. Seeing that stat, and the fact that Team USA couldn't string together multiple passes, made me wonder what exactly Jürgen Klinsmann is doing as their coach - surely he and the players understand that the passing game is king? This is why Spain has won three tournaments in a row, and England hasn't won anything since 1966.

It was clear, watching both the US and Ghana, that neither team was particularly good tactically. If the US was let down by poor passing and ball control, Ghana suffered from an inability to finish - according to the BBC, despite their enormous number of shots they managed fewer on goal than the US did. Given how rampant Germany was earlier this morning, I find myself a little worried for both the US and Ghana about how they'll cope - I don't think I'd like to see either of them ship more than two or three goals.

On the other hand, they should be fine against Portugal...

Great Expectations

Speaking of which, I said above that Portugal was quiescent, and none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. This is just continuing proof of the fact that he and the other big names of the moment still have yet to make much impact in key tournaments. Lionel Messi is one example, given that his first World Cup goal came 8 years ago, and his second was yesterday. I don't want to take anything away from the achievement, of course (even if one of the guys from the Guardian suggested, perhaps with a touch too much glee, that it might be taken away from him and listed as an own goal), but given the expectations that always surround Messi, based on his performances for Barcelona, you'd think he could create magical goals out of nothing a bit more often, no?

Wayne Rooney, of course, is even worse - in three World Cups he's scored not a single goal. Part of that may be the bizarre insistence of three separate England managers on playing him out of position; but it's likely also related to the lack of players in key positions. One thing that no one seems to remember is that, back in 2008, before England had failed to qualify for the Euros, then-manager Steve McLaren paired Rooney up front with Emile Heskey, and the team all of a sudden looked fluid and dangerous again.

I'm not such a fool as to suggest that Heskey was an amazing player, but it is true that since 1998 England's game hasn't been that exciting. Someone else on the Football Daily podcast said something about managers choosing the best individual players rather than those who fit together best as a team, and attributed the generally low quality of World Cup football to that tendency. It sounds like a good explanation as well for why the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Rooney have failed to live up to their own reputations (to say nothing of people like Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, who probably fails because his entire team doesn't like him and refuses to pass to him).