Tag Archives: 2006

FIFA World Cup: Round Of Sixteen

Some random thoughts on the 2006 FIFA World Cup Round of Sixteen:
– Germany’s win against Sweden was less a function of what Germany did well and more a function of what Sweden didn’t do. Sweden didn’t close anybody down, they allowed Germany too much space, they didn’t man-mark, they had no semblance of defensive structure or organization, they allowed Germany too much possession, they couldn’t get forward with any consistency, they never got any service to anybody in attack, and as they got more and more frustrated they started making stupid mistakes and fouls (and it cost them with a Teddy Lucic sending off early). Stated simply, Sweden just didn’t come to play – AT ALL. I realize that Lukas Podolski did a lion’s share of the scoring, but the Man of the Match was Miroslav Klose, who’s runs into the box drew too much attention from Sweden and allowed him to find open attackers like Podolski for easy scores. Germany was all over the place, especially in attack, where every time they made forays into the Sweden penalty area (and that was a lot) it seemed that Sweden was just standing around, not closing anybody down and not going after anybody (keeper Andreas Isaksson was absolutely livid all match long, having to be the only person stopping the many bombs coming at him as a result of his defense doing nothing and having little success to show for it). When Henrik Larsson, one of the best penalty-kick takers in the world, misses a penalty kick, you know it just is not your day. This is not your father’s German side: This team is having fun; they’re flowing and fluid and just plain having a ball; I don’t know whether it is a function of being in Munich or not, but Germany’s attack just seems textbook mesmerizing when they play at Allianz Arena. The German backline, although still showing a few holes with minor mental lapses, kept their shape, marking Swede front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of existence. It keeps getting better and better for Germany with each passing game, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the field.
– How to deal with Argentina’s mesmerizing, flowing, attractive 3-3-1-3 attack that had taken apart everyone in group play? Mexico’s Ricardo LaVolpe, himself an Argentine, countered with a 3-4-3, with emphasis on putting numbers in midfield and limiting Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola, Argentina’s two main midfield playmakers, the space to create service into the box… It worked. This was the first game in this tournament in which Argentina had to spend more time in between the penalty areas than they were accustom to because Mexico was challenging them before they could make those beautiful one-touch passes going forward. Furthermore, with three front men (striker Jared Borgetti was back with help from two flankers), Argentina had to expend resources in their rear, further limiting the numbers they had normally sent forward. The Mexicans actually were able to show good attacking form, with Borgetti getting decent service in the box, making Argentine keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri have to work. The telling stat was that Mexico, not Argentina, had the majority of possession. It was truly surprising to witness Argentina have to slow their roll and build an attack from the back, a rather ironic switch in attacking approach. Mexican defender Rafa Marquez and Argentine defender Gabriele Heinze were critical in their respective rear guards, coming up big by closing down finishing chances. Given the solid tactical form of both teams it is appropriate that the three goals scored were on set pieces (Marquez, Hernan Crespo) and a long shot (Maxi Rodriquez). LaVolpe will take a lot of heat for leaving Omar Bravo, who had had a magnificent tournament on the right flank in support of the front men until now, on the bench, but give him credit for coming up with a tactic that made Argentina sweat this one out. It could have gone either way. As it is a tired Argentina (which escaped, let’s not kid ourselves) now has to play a hard charging Germany that is getting better with every match.
– Short on strikers due to the tournament-ending injury to Michael Owen, England look to work to their strength against Ecuador by employing a midfield-intensive 4-1-4-1, bringing in Michael Carrick to cover the middle of defense and freeing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard of a lot of their defensive responsibilities to send them forward. England had lackluster results in the first half. Wayne Rooney, not a goal poacher under the best of circumstances, was the lone striker up front. At the knockout stage of this big a tournament, it is not the time to go conservative and try to make it with just one out-and-out striker (if you are going to have five midfielders, then go with a three-man backline and keep playing with two strikers). Neither team looked to attack with any regularity in the first half, and neither team took any real chances on goal. It’s as if they both were hoping to just wait on the other to wilt under the hottest day of the year in Germany – and it was really boring to watch. Ecuador maintained their defensive shape in both the midfield and defense, not letting Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney get finishing chances (they had fewer in this game than they had on any one of their previous games when they used a 4-4-2; might as well switch back). In case anybody needs to be reminded that David Beckham is one of the best midfielders in the world, his curling set piece goal will set you straight (doesn’t Posh look good as a dirty blonde?). Sometimes all it takes for things to open up is a score; England did a better job of finding their attackers afterwards. Still, not the greatest performance by an England side that has yet to put a full game of quality football together but seems to get the result regardless. That’s just plain luck – you can’t play this conservatively for any length of time at knockout time.
– Two evenly matched teams in Portugal and the Netherlands. Both teams got their midfields involved early and often (Mark van Bommel finally started getting into the attack), with Portugal getting the better attacking play from its center midfield pair of Deco and Maniche, who found the range on his long shots. Slightly better counterattacking from Portugal, whereas the Dutch seem to be content with trying to get long passes onto Arjen Robben’s feet, with little success. Dirk Kuyt just doesn’t have the nose for goal on the international level that Ruud van Nistelrooy has, but nobody has shown any nose for the goal for the Dutch in this tournament. In the first half Holland had an almost 3-2 possession advantage, but that accentuates the point that the Portuguese backline kept its form and organization and didn’t let the Dutch attack into the box with any regularity.  A good game for Portugal – and then the fatal error by Costinha, which got him sent off, caused Portugal to have to play the rest of the way with ten men, and inexorably changed the complexion of the match (this is one of the few times when I actually agree that a player deserved his sending off). Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the cards; things got nasty after about the 60th minute, when both sides got ugly and started throwing extremities and bodies all over the place, particularly at each other. Neither side recognized any control, sportsmanship or decorum, and the official lost any semblance of control (gee, there’s a shock, although this time I can’t really blame the officiating; these two teams were going to go at each other’s throats even with the great Pierluigi Colina on the pitch). A very badly played game all around, with Portugal gaining a Pyrrhic victory, having to go into their quarterfinal match with England without Deco and Costinha.
– Australia and Italy came to play! Both teams employed direct attacking tactics and strategies. Italy took Francesco Totti out of the starting lineup, put Genarro Gattuso as a bull in front of the defense, and brought in Alessandro del Peiro on the left wing to service the front men, basically making Andrea Pirlo the focal point of the attack. Australia had a three-man backline, put Marc Bresciano on the left wing in a five-man midfield, and pushed midfielder Tim Cahill up front to link up with lone striker Mark Viduka. Neither team let roots grow beneath their feet, and the ball spent very little time in the middle third of the field. Counterattacking was the name of the game: both teams got the ball directly to their front men, and both teams took a large number of shots on goal – both team’s goalkeepers and backlines were under siege. It was fun to watch. Australia did not come into this match intimidated by their Italian counterparts with the pedigree at this level. Italy, thought, had the slightly better ball movement, especially in the box. As usual with this tournament, the refereeing changed the entire complexion of the match, with Marco Matarazzi being red-carded for a possible bookable offense but not an automatic red card. Italy, though, clogged up the middle of the pitch and held the Australian attack at bay the rest of the way. I don’t know if the 93 minute foul by Lucas Neill in their penalty area really was a foul that deserved a Totti penalty kick, which won it, but I’m certain that a match like this did not deserve to end like this; Australia, as well as they played, didn’t deserve to go out like this. The referees are really taking the joy out of this World Cup.
– Switzerland was the fourth team since 1986 – when the current group and knockout format was first instituted – that shut out all of their group opponents… Now the bad news: The other three (Brazil 1986, Argentina 1990 and Italy 1998) didn’t win the World Cup. In their knockout match against the Ukraine, the best defense in this tournament thus far started without their best defender, Philippe Senderos. Neither team will bowl you over with their fluidity and creative flow. The Swiss were much more tactically rigid in the back and midfield. As usual, the Ukraine looked to play a less organized, direct attacking football – in this case meaning directly to Andrei Shevchenko. Both teams did on occasion, though, get players into the box and at least attempt to get them some service. Both teams were at their attacking best when they switched play to the flanks instead of going down the center, so you would have thought they would have figured that out. A rather stultifying, mind-numbingly cautious affair with no real quality going forward for either team. Not that I have a problem with extra time matches, but it sure would have been nice if they had re-instituted the Golden Goal rule for this one. Is anyone surprised that it went to penalty kicks. I realize that after 120 minutes your legs are jelly, but penalty kicks is definitely something Switzerland should work on in the future, cuz the ones they took SUCKED THE BIG PONY! The Swiss get to go away from this tournament with the best defense, a distinction I’m sure they would rather not have if it meant advancing (they now have dubious “honor” of being the fourth team since 1986 to not give up a goal in group play and not win the world title). The Ukraine gets Italy next, so they had better get their shit together and come up with some better attacking Real Soon Now.
– Ghana didn’t have their midfield general, Michael Essien, and it mattered. The organization and coordination going forward just wasn’t there. Ghana’s offside trap wasn’t working; Ronaldo and Adriano timed their forward runs well, and it left Ghana flat-footed and embarrassed (on Adriano’s score he was offside, so for once the officiating – you know, that old chestnut – fell down on the job for a call they didn’t make). Early in the match Ghana played as if they were in awe of the Brazilians, showing none of the pace and verve we had become accustomed to seeing from them. Ghana then got of the shneid, showed creative energy and flair, and played their game. They found some one-touch flair in the middle of the Brazil defense to create some chances, finding holes, moving off the ball, and running into space, with Eric Addo, a decent replacement for Essien, the focal point. Juan. Lucia, Ze Roberto and Emerson just weren’t closing down the middle throughout, and Ghana was playing better attacking football than Brazil, but they just couldn’t finish their chances (Brazil doesn’t have the chutzpah to take people on physically; instead they rely defensively on anticipation and cutting off service, and at this level you have to get into people’s grill). Gotta give it up to Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Pareirra for sticking with Ronaldo, who played his way into form and finally looks like a very useful member of the side; they guy sure can take some chances on goal. Brazil may have upset many of their fans by not playing that hypnotic, entertaining samba that they are known for, but they got the job done and rather efficiently. What should scare whoever is left in the field is that Brazil is winning like they are and they aren’t even playing their best football. In the end, Ghana’s reliance on the offside trap proved fatal. That said, Madd Props to Ghana for playing some of the most energized football in this tournament and embarrassing the Americans and Czechs in what clearly was the toughest group in the tournament.
– The Spain-France border war was the best fixture of the second round (typical of this World Cup, the last game has tended to be the best one). Both teams came out employing direct attacking formations, although France’s 4-5-1 was more midfield intensive and predicated on breaking the Spain offside trap by prying somebody loose in counter. France had the slightly better combination attack, putting their experience at spot-on passing to good use against Spain’s four-man backline. Spain’s three-man frontline, though, was giving France’s backline fits, getting service quickly from the flanks; Spain didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the midfield when they had possession. In the second half France started to put their mark on the game, with Zidane finally applying his deft creative touch to the attack. Similarly, Joaquin’s and Xabi Alonso’s insertion into the Spain lineup energized their forward attack. Both sides showed electrifying pace and took turns showering each other’s goal with shots. For fans it was fun to watch. In the end, the old grizzled veterans for France, Zidane and Patrick Viera, were the difference, able to put together enough direct attacking and set-piece brilliance. And once again Spain underachieved, not having the heart or ruthlessness to go deep with a team that clearly had superior talent. On July 1st we all get the pleasure of seeing the last two world champions go at it in the quarterfinals — a rematch of the 1998 World Cup Final in Paris – while the people of Spain once again get to spend the next four years wondering what happened.

FIFA World Cup: Last Group Fixtures

Some random thoughts on the last group fixtures of the 2006 FIFA World Cup:   

  – Germany looked their best yet in defeating Ecuador. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann employed a more tactically rigid 4-4-2 formation, which did a good job of cutting off Ecuador’s attacking options going forward; Ecuador was never able to link up with their forwards in the box. In attack the Germans still sent men forward but not as recklessly as in their past two fixtures – it still worked beautifully. Ecuador didn’t put a man on Michael Ballack, and it mattered; he had the time and space to find Miroslav Klose in the penalty area, and Klose made the Ecuadorians pay for that oversight. That said, a lot of the credit for Germany’s attack during the group stage has also got to go to Bastian Schweinsteiger and especially defensive midfielder Thorsten Frings, who is one of the two or three best holding midfielders going forward in the tournament so far. Germany needed to get Lukas Podolski off the scoring shneid – just so future knockout stage opponents recognized another scoring threat they would have to account for – and they did in a big way. Germany’s counter attacking score was a result of Ecuador sending too many players forward. Not clear why it is Klinsmann left Ballack, who was sitting on a yellow card coming in, in the game all match long; that was a huge risk, especially considering how card-happy these referees were this tournament. Ecuador coach Luis Suarez claimed that he wasn’t playing for a draw; you sure as hell couldn’t prove it by their performance. Germany has gotten steadily better with each passing fixture. That certainly doesn’t bode well for their opponents in the next stage. 


– Costa Rica and Poland had nothing to play for, and both teams played to form in this fixture: Poland lacked any real organization going forward and Costa Rica used their speed up front (i.e.: Paulo Wanchope) to break the Polish offside trap. Not any really good ball distribution from either side, though Costa Rica showed a little more direct attacking early. Poland showed some uncharacteristic disorganization on set pieces early, and it mattered on Costa Rica’s early goal. It turned out that set pieces were the key to the outcome of this match. I don’t know whether Poland deliberately tries to find players with size but for their last two appearances in this tournament they’ve had a decided height advantage over their opponents, and in this fixture it mattered. That the leading scorer for Poland was a defender — Bartosz Bosacki, who scored both of Poland’s goals – is a testament to Poland’s lack of service inside to their forwards. Costa Rica didn’t get a point out of this World Cup but they sure did what they could to at least make it entertaining for their fans, and Paulo Wanchope is still an effective striker on the international stage. Poland clearly has some talent but needs to find some organization in attack if they ever plan on making an impact internationally. 


– As Sweden found out the hard way, England’s midfielders are deadly accurate shooters from long distance. Throughout the entire group phase Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole have taken aim at the opposition goal from outside the penalty area with virtually precise accuracy, and David Beckham has reestablished himself as the best crosser and set piece taker there is (so precise is his service from long range). Cole’s goal caught Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson off guard and off his line, and for one Isaksson’s height mattered not a whit. Gerrard, who didn’t start, was Johnny-on-the-spot (and in this instance it was from a Cole cross). Wayne Rooney got the start and his energy just seems to lift the entire England squad. Once again Rooney was all over the place, going back and from flank to flank, creating space and linking up with everyone well (he really is more of a forward than a striker; that is really how good he is off the ball, with the ball and outside the box). Poor defense on the second half Sweden set piece led to the goals by Markus Allbeck (his inclusion in the lineup at the expense of regular starter Zlatan Ibrahimovic seems like a masterstroke) and Henrik Larsson. England had the better ball distribution, but Sweden didn’t lack for any direct attack; they just weren’t getting the ball into the box during the run of play. England played well going forward but let two leads get away from them, including one late. They had better show a lot more heart in closing out a match from here on. Unfortunately England lost Michael Owen to a torn ACL very early in this match (he will be gone for months). England is very thin on strikers, and that probably is going to matter (Eriksson should have brought one or two more strikers with a little more pedigree at a high level, instead of two teenagers, one without any high-level experience at all). 


– Even though they never scored a goal, Trinidad & Tobago should leave this tournament with their heads held high and their dignity intact. The team that came into this with no expectation of doing anything played their hearts out for 270+ minutes. T&T gained their lone point largely by frustrating Sweden and England by swarming their own goal and defending as if their lives depended on it. With a real chance at advancing (at least theoretically) T&T became a little more expansive and against Paraguay opened up their attack. This opened things up for Paraguay and their slick passing game – with predictable results. Paraguay had the talent and tactics to create direct attacking opportunities, and they had the majority of play going forward; the T&T goal was under siege from the jump. Even after the Brent Sancho own-goal gave Paraguay a goal lead, T&T kept on attacking and kept on trying, but to no avail. Sub Nelson Cuevas’s breakaway goal late ended the dream for T&T. Not even the all-over-the-pitch play of Dwight Yorke, who was more of a striker this time out and looked more to score than in the previous two fixtures, could stave off the inevitable. Paraguay finally put together some good creative attacking, finding the space that England and Sweden did not (more due to circumstance than anything else). Paraguay had the players to make more of an impact on the international scene than they do, they just lack attacking quality. T&T, the smallest nation to ever play in a World Cup, didn’t settle for just being happy to be here. MADD, MADD, MADD props to them for earning a little respect along the way. 


– A highly entertaining win by Portugal, although Mexico certainly were as entertaining in attack. What did Mexico in was the uncharacteristic mistakes on their backline by Rafa Marquez, who handball in the box was the fatal error that got Portugal the game-winner. Nonetheless, Portugal played some wonderful flowing ball even though Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Pauleta were on the bench. Helder Postiga spelled Pauleta as the striker but was magical on the left flank, becoming more of a provider that Mexico clearly wasn’t prepared for, and Portugal clearly didn’t lose anything with Maniche filling in for Deco as he provided fantastic direct attacking through the middle. Two mistakes early in the second half did away with any chance Mexico had – a badly missed penalty by Omar Bravo and a dive by Luis Perez that got him sent off – but they get Madd Props for continuing to keep the attacking pressure up even with only ten men. Portugal may have won this game and this group but they certainly knew they had been in a game, and for the first time this tournament had to work hard for it. Of course, it seems to really not matter who took first or second in this group, because it’s a function of pick your poison in the second round: The Netherlands or Argentina? 


– Iran I’m sure is not happy with the 1-1 tie they got from an Angola side that still had something to play for. Iran had much the better attacking quality throughout the first 60+ minutes of this fixture, and couldn’t come away with a goal – which speaks volumes about how Iran performed throughout this tournament. They showed good energy, found space to create chances, and had good movement off the ball, and they attacked Angola relentlessly; they should have had a comfortable lead, so dominant was their attack. Angola kept their defensive discipline, however, and in the process kept sending ill-advised long-range shots on Iran, not getting forward in numbers, not maintaining any semblance of possession, and still relying almost solely on Akwa to do most of the attacking – which also speaks volumes about how they performed here. I find it instructive to note that once Akwa was replaced – by Amando Flavio – they finally broke through. As I’ve been saying all along, Akwa clearly has the talent but not the maturity to play at this level. Still, a relatively decent attacking game, with both sides not letting the ball spend too much time in the middle third of the pitch. Kudos to Angola, though, for making it interesting even if it was for only two games. I’m not high on their chances in the future, though: As long as they continue to cow-tow to one player – Akwa – they aren’t going to be much of a team. 


(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m getting tired of hearing about how Iranian striker Ali Daea is the most prolific scorer in international history. He got an overwhelming majority of his international goals against supremely weak Asian opponents that couldn’t come within a sniff of getting a ticket to watch a World Cup, much less play in one [Kazakhstan? Pakistan? India? Afghanistan? Bahrain? Qatar? Kuwait? Syria? Jordan? The United Arab Emirates? PUH-LEEZE! Oh, yeah, Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Holland really have a tough time with those heavyweights, now don’t they?]. In three World Cup appearances by Iran [’94, ’98, and 2006] he has not scored one single goal – NOT A ONE! So until he scores with any regularity against some of the mainstays from Europe and South America, he doesn’t even rate as a solid international striker, much less a real scoring threat of any kind. Sorry.) 


– The Argentina-Netherlands matchup was the fixture everybody was waiting for, even though both teams had already locked up places in the knockout round. Massive replacements on both sides due to yellow card danger. Argentina showed most of the free-flowing attacking quality, like they had in their first two fixtures; lots of midfield linkup with their front men and running into open spaces with creative flair. Not that the Netherlands lacked for any attacking quality; theirs was more direct, and they finally got their three-man midfield a lot more involved, something that had been missing in their first two fixtures (I guess in a matchup like this against this good an opponent they couldn’t afford to not get their midfield involved). I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine why it is that Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi are not ordinarily starters, but that is just a testament to how deep Argentina is (probably the deepest team in the tournament, Brazil notwithstanding). The Dutch just didn’t seem to link up as well in the final third as in past fixtures, but that may have been a result of how well organized the Argentine defense was. Ruud van Nistelrooy was looking to distinguish himself – he hasn’t done it so far, displaying hardly any finishing quality whatsoever and being replaced in every game as a result. Both teams kept their defensive discipline and form and that actually bodes well going forward. 


– The team with the best defense during qualifying, Serbia & Montenegro, had by far the worst defense in this tournament. S&B gave up ten goals in the group stage to embarrassingly crash out. They lost key central defender Nemanja Vidic just before the World Cup began, but I can’t believe they lost all semblance of defensive form because of it. Even a team as lacking in attacking creativity as the Ivory Coast put a three-spot on them – and this after taking an early two-goal lead. Aruna Dindane had a wonderful match in the box, finally getting on the ball and scoring two goals. The Ivory Coast, with nothing to lose, used a more attack-minded 4-3-3 formation for the first time, showed unrelenting direct attacking, sending players in waves, possessing the ball by an unheard-of 2-1 advantage, and raining shot after shot on a Serb goal that just couldn’t stop anybody, anywhere, at any time; Serb goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevric was under siege (not even Holland and Argentina rained as many shots on S&B). Why Serb coach Ilija Petkovic decided to play this game with a more defensive-minded 4-5-1 when the Ivory Coast was nearly as impotent in front of goal as they were is just bewildering. That they scored two goals against the Ivory Coast’s inconsistent defense should have motivated them to finish them off. That a team with this much talent didn’t finish them says that S&B needs to start from scratch, scrap whatever they did to begin with, and find some players with some backbone and heart. The Ivory Coast can be proud of their finish – they clearly have a future on the world stage. Serbia & Montenegro can go home with their tails between their legs, crawl under a rock and hope nobody notices. 


– A 4-5-1 formation from the outset doesn’t exactly say you plan on attacking and creating scoring chances. That’s the formation Bruce Arena put out on the field for the USA. Way too conservative a lineup in a must-win situation – and it mattered. The USA showed no consistent attack against Ghana – or in any of their three group fixtures – and for a team that couldn’t get any real attack up top when they had two strikers, with one they were just downright impotent. Ghana relied on their speed and workrate to counterattack, and had the Americans on their heels all match long. Whether the USA had one man in the back or ten Ghana was going to counterattack, so Arena may as well have just come out with an attacking formation from jump city and just sent men forward; why he waited until the second half to get a second striker on (and they did much more direct attacking afterwards, although no more effective) is beyond me and leaves Arena’s future as the USA coach in question (I’m surprise that a coach as good as Arena didn’t have the USA better prepared for this tournament, so it may be time for him to go). For most of this tournament, Landon Donovon, DeMarcus Beasley and Brian McBride just didn’t come to play. Not so Clint Dempsey, who showed good attacking quality the few times he took the pitch this tournament. Madd Props to Ghana, though, for showing good direct counterattacking quality from their second group fixture on; even with their starting two forwards suspended they attacked with confidence. Like I’ve said before, Michael Essien is a quality midfielder who gets his side into consistent and quality direct attacking – there clearly is a reason why he is the most expensive African footballer to date. Both Ghana goals you can probably chalk up to really bad officiating (Haminu Draman clearly knocked down Claudio Reyna, and Oguchi Onyewu certainly didn’t do any more than what is normally expected from a defender marking a striker), but that is no excuse for the USA playing as badly as they throughout this entire tournament. Ghana took advantage of an improbable Czech Republic choke and salvaged the reputation of African football by winning their last two fixtures and earning a second round date with Brazil. Despite how strong this group was it was winnable for the USA; they didn’t show up to play. 


(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m not just saying this because of what happened to the USA in this last fixture, but the refereeing in this World Cup is really atrocious all around. These are supposedly the best officials in the world, and yet they can’t exert any semblance of control other than to just throw yellow and red cards left and right early and often. In a lot of instances, once an infraction has been committed, talking to the players and captains and telling them that there could be repercussions if their behavior continued would have been much more effective, would have kept a lot of teams at even strength throughout their fixtures, would have kept the flow of the matches going, and most importantly would have kept them, the referees, out of the proceedings. As it is, more than a few fixtures thus far have been inextricably altered because the guys in yellow don’t know how to exert any control and keep a game moving beyond meting out punitive discipline. There are at least two referees – and maybe even more than that if you were to ask other football spectators – who need to be sent home for ruining games. As I pointed out before: Players win games, coaches lose games, and referees ruin games.) 


– Probably the greatest single collapse in I-don’t-know-how-long is by the Czech Republic. After their shellacking of the USA in their first group fixture they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament. That they crashed out the way they did, and in monumentally spectacular fashion, has got to be some kind of record. The Czechs had control of this group from Day One – and then just fucked it all to shit! The only player who had any kind of heart for the Czechs was Paval Nedved, who went forward early and often and tried his damdest to get on the scoreboard; it seemed as if he was the only one on the side who was trying (how it is a midfield that showed the kind of world-class quality they did against the Americans just died on the vine is bewildering at best and angering the very least). Once Jan Koller was lost to them the Czechs just couldn’t get any quality in front of goal. For the first time this tournament, Francesco Totti showed up, showing the creative and attacking flair we’ve come to expect from him. Italy is getting better with each passing match — which is the right time to be getting better – but they still could show some better finishing up front, where at the moment they are on the inconsistent side (Filippo Inzaghi came on late and guess what? He found the net. I realize he doesn’t have much in the way of ball skills, he is somewhat selfish and not much of a team player, but Inzaghi finishes his chances. That has got to count for something). They certainly are glad they get to avoid Brazil – for now. 


– A rather uneven and chaotic Australia-Croatia fixture. Croatia gets the better of the play from the jump, gets an early Darijo Srna goal, then drops back in numbers and lets the Socceroos have the majority of play and possession. Then when the Aussies get the equalizer – a Craig Moore penalty due to an untimely Stjepan Tomas handball — they in turn lose their offensive form and drop back in numbers, letting the Croats have the majority of play and possession. No sooner do the Croats get the lead back – on an obscenely badly played Niko Kovac shot by Zjelko Kalac — than the offensive momentum switches back to the Aussies, who get the Harry Kewell equalizer late and, lo and behold, drop back in their own end in numbers and let the Croats come at them from all sides and all angles. From a fans standpoint this is entertaining as hell. From a tactical and technical standpoint this is sloppy and unorganized, like watching a bunch of six-year-olds play. Referee Graham Poll managed to maintain control early without whipping out a lot of cards, but it got so sloppy late that he had no choice after about the 80th minute. Then the match devolved into an ugly slugfest in stoppage time, so Poll just ended it (I’ll bet without all of stoppage time being played). However sloppy they were, Australia came to play in all three of their group fixtures, expecting to make it through to the next round, showing good direct attacking form – however unimaginative it may have been – by getting people into the box and continually getting them the ball there. A clear tactic Croatia should have used. Instead the Croats never got their front people into their matches because (1) they never got them any real service, and (2) their front people (Dado Prso, Ivan Klasnic, Ivica Olic) just plain sucked. I made this observation before: When Croatia’s front people are scoring goals at this level Croatia wins (third place at France ’98); when they don’t they crash out early (Korea/Japan 2002 and now). Australia saw an opportunity to get to the next round and took it. Croatia let a clear opportunity to take the last group place into the next round – much like the USA — and didn’t finish Australia off. That is why Australia has a date with Italy and Croatia is going home. 


– Japan had one shot on goal all match long against Brazil – and they finished it (how’s that for efficiency?). What happened when Japan took that early lead? They woke up a sleeping giant. Brazil then proceeded to pick them apart. It was Shakespearian in its execution: Brazil was basically disinterested until this upstart Japan had the unmitigated gall to score on them, then Brazil spent the rest of the match mercilessly treating Japan like a prison bitch, to the point of degradation. Brazil had practically unencumbered access to the Japan penalty area from the jump anyway; they just hadn’t put the ball in the net. The Keiji Tamada goal in the 33rd minute changed all that. Midfielders Ronaldinho, Kaka and Juninho Pernambucanu became bloodily efficient in their service after that, and Ronaldo, who had played like crap for two and a half games, all of a sudden became ruthlessly accurate with his shots (he still isn’t moving around a lot, but he’s found space for himself nonetheless, actually had quality strikes at the goal the few times he’s taken them, and finally gotten off the scoring shneid, so we’ll cut him some slack for now). This was the wakeup call Brazil needed; they had played like they were bored and just mailing it in until now. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the field the rest of the way, because Brazil is hitting their stride at just the right time. That said, defensive midfielders Emerson and Ze Roberto and central defenders Juan and Lucio have actually had a good tournament staying home, keeping their defensive form and turning away opposition attacks. So it will be interesting to see how they fare against Ghana, a team that loves to counterattack with zeal. 


– Ukraine-Tunisia was one of the least interesting matches of the tournament, but unlike a lot of the last group fixtures both teams still had a spot to play for in the next round, so it was an important game. Both teams looked to get the ball quickly up field. But whereas Tunisia looked to dispossess and make a long pass to Jaziri, who was practically their only attacker going forward, the Ukraine actually had a few players in the box other than Andrei Shevchenko and looked to service them. That said, Tunisia finally got Hatem Trabelsi forward along the right sideline (about time), and that gave them a more coordinated attack. The refs distinguished themselves once again (sarcasm intended) by sending Zaid Jaziri off due to a nonsense foul call, thereby taking away what at the time appeared to be Tunisia’s only real scoring threat. But because Tunisia relies on a more tactically disciplined approach, plays in the center of the field more than on the flanks, and doesn’t attack in numbers even at full strength, the loss of a man didn’t impact them as much as most. And it showed; until the Shevchenko penalty shot Tunisia actually had more shots on goal in the second half. Central defender Rahdi Jaidi played way below his capabilities for most of the match, basically making a strategic mistake in chesting a back pass down without knowledge of Shevchenko’s presence, which led to the penalty. That has been Tunisia’s problem all tournament long; flashes of tactical consistency with a smattering of critical errors that mattered. Tunisia has a way of making their opponents play out-of-sync, which was what was happening to the Ukraine, but the Ukrainians understood that the name of the game is to play for a result. That’s what mattered in the end. An unexceptional yet functional performance by a Ukraine side that too often looked predictable and over-reliant on their captain, Shevchenko, and they seem unlikely to progress past the next round. 


– To give you an idea of how group winners Spain approached their last group fixture against Saudi Arabia, they started eleven new players. Yet they still managed to play that attractive attacking football for at least a half, with three midfielders and three front men, and they were deadly on set pieces (lone scorer Juanito can attest to that). Then in the second half, Spain looked to just mail it in; thinking that this was a lesser opponent and that they had done enough, Spain played lackluster football, and as a result Saudi Arabia dictated play the last half, showing lots of energy and heart, finding space to make plays going forward, showing a real propensity to get into the box and make things happen, and basically putting Spain back on their heels. In the second half, in fact, the Saudis spent more time in the Spanish penalty area than the other way around. Spain just shut down tactically and offensively – they took the half off and didn’t play hard — and that let the Saudis back into the match. It really doesn’t say anything about Spain because clearly they can play world-class football (they are so deep that they can afford to put this many reserves on the pitch at once just to see what they’ve got in a situation where they already had wrapped up a place in the next round), but given their enigmatic history in this tournament, that they did this is not a very good omen. Saudi Arabia only got a point this time out and finished in last in this group, but they clearly showed something by playing at lot better than I thought they would (and a really strong performance by netminder Mabrouk Zaid, who stopped shot after shot throughout). They clearly have the players and the quality to build on for the future. 


(EDITOR’S NOTE: Neither the Ukraine nor Spain was pretty to watch, but they got the job done, and that’s what it’s all about. Clearly a lesson the USA, the Czech Republic and Croatia could learn.) 


– France finally started with David Trezeguet in front (about damn time, better late than never, I guess) in their final group match against Togo. He immediately started making an impact. Without Zinedine Zidane, suspended due to yellow cards, Thierry Henry found Trezeguet in the box early and often. Even though Togo kept numbers back (basically counterattacking with Emmanuel Adebayor almost exclusively), France got the better of the direct attacking, finding space to service Trezeguet and Henry on numerous occasions. Togo probably could have gotten France to commit more people in the back if they had shown any kind of attacking quality, but they hadn’t before – why should now have been any different? Good man-marking and dispossessing from the French backline, which didn’t have to work too hard because Togo wasn’t sending too many attackers into the box. Togo did show some unexpected physicality, though, an idiosyncrasy I’m sure the French weren’t expecting. . It isn’t that France played an especially strong game – they did – it’s that Togo played on their heels all game long, giving France way too much possession and way too many opportunities in the penalty area. France deserves the second-place finish they got, because they deserve to get an in-form Spain in the next round. 


– South Korea, despite leading their group, decided that they weren’t going to stand on their laurels, and they started with an attack-minded 3-4-3, looking to put points on the board early. Switzerland looked to counterattack with a midfield-intensive 4-5-1, looking to clog up the middle and slow down the world-class pace of the Koreans – it worked early. I give all the credit to the Koreans for coming out and playing aggressively, but with a three-man backline they just didn’t transition from offense to defense and vise-a-verse well, and as a result spent more time on their heels defending Swiss counterattacks than I’m sure they had planned to. The one area that is the Korean Achilles Heel – weak in the air – Switzerland took advantage of on the Philippe Senderos set piece header for a score. Swiss striker Alexandre Frei had several good looks at the Korean goal; he just shanked some really good scoring opportunities. Needless to say, the worst officiating decision so far was in this game. When the side judge put his flag up signaling an offside on a Swiss attack, the Koreans rightly stopped play, but Frei was allowed to continue by the referee to score, ending South Korea’s chances at advancement. It was baldly unfair, and all I can say is I hope both of those two officials never do international competitions again. No World Cup match should ever have to come down to obscenely bad officiating; that virtually every fixture so far has been affected in some way or another by atrocious officiating is nothing short of criminal. This set of officials have literally gone out of their way to stamp their imprimatur on this tournament, making sure we all know they were integral factors in what transpired. In the process they’ve ruined this tournament for everybody involved: players and fans alike. I’ll say it ‘til I’m blue in the face: Officials ruin games. 


– As a side note to the knockout phase, no team that has lost a group fixture has ever won the World Cup. That bodes well for Germany, England, Sweden, Argentina, Holland, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, France, and Spain. That is not a good omen for Ecuador, Mexico, Ghana, Australia and the Ukraine. 



FIFA World Cup: Second Group Fixtures

Some random thoughts on the second group fixtures of 2006 FIFA World Cup:
– The hosts are the first side to qualify for the knockout round. A hard fought game against a motivated Poland, who will crash out without scoring a goal so far. Germany was far different this time than their previous fixture versus Costa Rica: They played much more solidly in the back while exerting a lot of energy trying to score. Michael Ballack returned for this fixture but was so-so. Poland maintained a very tight, organized back line and marked well throughout. Jurgen Klinsmann brought on David Odonkor and Oliver Neuville as second half substitutes, switching formations from a 4-4-2 to a direct 3-5-2, and it mattered; both were integral in getting the win for the Germans. Germany still showed some good direct attacking flair throughout but managed only the one goal. Artur Boruc was fantastic in goal for Poland, stopping at least five golden scoring opportunities by Germany; the lone goal allowed was more of a defensive breakdown in stoppage time, so it is a shame that Boruc doesn’t have a clean sheet to show for just how really integral he was. Poland has yet to maintain any kind of coordinated attack going forward: Now it is too late.
– Surprise team so far: Ecuador. They have thoroughly slashed both of their opponents so far in group play to become the second team to qualify for the second round – and in fact they are now ahead of Germany in Group A by goal differential. A magnificent performance against Costa Rica; Ecuador played a much more thorough game against them than Germany. Ecuador attacked with abandon; crisp passing, running into space, and imaginative creating on the attacking end. Augustin Delgado and Edison Mendes were creative geniuses, finding attacking possibilities every time they had the ball on their feet, and Delgado and Carlos Tenorio took advantage of the service they were getting by finishing their chances. Even late substitute Ivan Kaviades got into the act with an incredible breakaway after pinpoint service from Mendes (who was my Man of the Match). Ivan Hurtado and Ulises de la Cruz held down a tight, organized backline, sealing up the center and not letting Costa Rica’s Paulo Wanchope or anybody else get behind them, let alone any real chances in the box. A clearly well-rounded team that is doing everything well right now, Ecuador has a very good chance at pipping Germany in their final group fixture.
– For about 60 minutes England looked lethargic and uninspired against Trinidad & Tobago. Even though the match was played mostly in the T&T end of the field because of the lack of any attacking quality by T&T, England just couldn’t get the ball through to their strikers – and quite frankly looked like they didn’t want to. Michael Owen couldn’t get onto the ball to save his life, and Peter Crouch shot like a stork stuck in the mud. Crouch and Owen didn’t link up well together for more than a match and a half, and the midfielders (Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, and David Beckham) took more of the shots. As a matter of fact, the few best scoring opportunities in those first 60 minutes were taken by T&T.
   Then Wayne Rooney finally took to the pitch (as well as Aaron Lennon on the right), coach Sven Goran Eriksson switch to a more attacking 3-5-2 formation, and some much-needed energy finally got into the English side. Crouch still looked like a stork stuck in the mud but at least he played a much better coordinated attack with Rooney, who linked up offensively better with everybody around him – and it mattered. I credit the goal scored by Crouch to T&T getting tired and to a sublime cross from Becks than to any scoring quality by Crouch, and clearly the late goal scored by Gerrard was because T&T ran out of gas from defending practically all match long. By matches end the lion’s share of the scoring chances was still taken by the midfield, although Rooney clearly provided some much-needed link-up and energy. That said, Madd Props to T&T, who hung around to make Group B much more interesting than any of us had any right to expect. And Kudos to T&T’s Dwight Yorke, who was everywhere and did everything for them; he has acquitted himself well this tournament.
   If England has any real designs on going deep into the tournament they are going to have to play much better than they have been. As it is right now future superior opponents that displays even a modicum of attacking quality would cut them no slack. Let’s not kid ourselves: A group draw this favorable that even incoherent performances have not prevented qualification for the second round.
– The Sweden-Paraguay match looked more like a youth league match. You know the kind: A bunch of six-year-olds just knocking the ball back and forth with no real organization – that was this matchup. Neither team showed any semblance of midfield control; the ball was just going east-to-west with reckless abandon with virtually no coordination from either side. Sweden had more chances in the box but Ibrahimovic, Larsson and the Allbeck just weren’t finishing their chances – for a team that scored amongst the highest during qualification they sure are struggling to score goals. Freddie Ljundberg finally got into the attack and it mattered; he is the main linkup to the front men. A ragged match that prevented England from winning the group – for now.
– The most complete team right now is Argentina. There clinical, thorough and powerfully complete dismantling of a Serbia & Montenegro side that had given up the fewest goals of any side during qualification was nothing short of scary and served noticed to everybody else left in the tournament that, in all likelihood, an appearance in the July 9th final will probably go through them. Argentina did absolutely everything right against S&M; attacking, defending, ball control, passing, creativity on an absurdly sublime level, organization, anticipation, workrate, pace – EVERYTHING! And the icing on the cake: All three substitutes scored (which is a testament to how deep the Argentines are; Lionel Messi, at 18, is probably the most magical creator they have, yet he can’t even get on the pitch until the last twenty minutes of the second group fixture, where he scores one goal and assists on another). That said, S&M were a colossal disappointment. I expected a helluva lot more out of side that up until now had been the epitome of organization and tactical discipline. They clearly need to go back to the drawing board and start over again.
– The Netherlands were finally tested by the Ivory Coast, who, even though they got two goals down early, never gave up and put on constant direct attacking pressure up until the final whistle. Good direct attacking from Holland, who got some fantastic creative flair from Robin van Persie on the right forward flank. As good as he was in Holland’s first group fixture, Arjen Robben doesn’t really get his teammates involved in attack; he is more of a put-his-head-down-and-go-forward-with-the-ball kind of forward flanker who will break down a defense on his own and create his own shot. Ivory Coast actually did a decent job of cutting off Holland’s service to Robben – which is why Holland went to van Persie instead. Still, Holland’s direct play, which is emphasizing getting the ball quickly to their front men, does have it’s detriments: The midfield (Wesley Sneijder, Mark van Bommel and Philip Cocu) are virtually non-existent. Now that Holland has qualified for the knockout stage, that is going to have to change. The lone Ivorian goal notwithstanding, Holland is still playing tight, organized defense: the goal they allowed was from long distance; so far the Dutch defense has yet to allow any opposition strikers any really decent service in the box. That is going to be very important in their final fixture versus Argentina. Even though the Ivorians crashed out after two group fixtures they acquitted themselves well; they were in every game and put both of their opponents back on their heels until the very end, which is more than I can say for Serbia & Montenegro.
– Mexico got the better of the service in attack against Angola but just couldn’t come up with the score that would have gotten them full points. Angola’s defense was susceptible to Mexico’s attack finding space in the box but they never let them score. In contrast, Angola kept taking off-target long-range shots because Mexico’s three-man backline never let them get any real service to their lone striker, Akwa, who continues to show very bad judgment when he does get on the ball. Rafa Marquez is one of the best defenders in this tournament (along with Argentina’s Gabriel Heinze and Switzerland’s Phillip Senderos), having not allowed space to any opposing striker in the box. Right now Mexico’s biggest concern is that, while their forward wingers taking the bulk of the scoring chances, the lone striker is not doing anything, whether it’s Jared Borgetti or anybody else. From here it gets more difficult, with Portugal and possibly an opponent in the knockout round waiting for them, so somebody had better step up to the plate in the box and start linking up with their flankers and finishing some chances Real Soon Now.
– Portugal put on a much more solid performance in their win against Iran than they did in their first group fixture against Angola. They had an almost 2-to-1 advantage in possession, which normally translates into more scoring chances – which is exactly what Portugal had. Iran actually played solid defense, though, not giving Portugal too many chances in the box. Portugal did, however, have some very good shots on goal from long range. Deco finally was the effective linkup with the front men he was slated to be, and Cristiano Ronaldo was an effective sharpshooter from the flank; it isn’t surprising that both of them scored. Portugal’s backline is not as organized as other more effective backlines in this tournament but they sure do man-mark well, and their full-backs are making their presence felt going forward. Pauleta didn’t have too many opportunities for quality shots so the midfield was very effective and it needed to be. Even though Iran has been eliminated they showed much better poise and tactical organization than I thought they would; they certainly didn’t embarrass themselves. With this win Portugal leads the group going into their final group fixture versus Mexico, so it gets much tougher for Portugal from here on out.
– Finally an upset! After the thorough demolition of the USA in their previous fixture, nobody expected the Czech Republic to do anything short of pick Ghana apart – we were wrong! Ghana got a quick goal from the outset and the Czechs quickly went back on their heels. In this World Cup, the first team that scores has had a decided edge in controlling tempo, and this game was no different. Even though the Czechs still showed good combination play going forward, they had lost their edge and Ghana took advantage of it, showing even better direct attacking play and forcing the Czechs to keep their defensive shape more. Stephan Appiah and Michael Essien were invaluable in the center of midfield, directing play and switching the attack from flank to flank, keeping the Czechs off balance. And Essien was even more invaluable closing down Paval Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Tomas Rosicky in the midfield, staying in their grill and never giving them space to effectively link up with their forwards. Vratislav Lokvenc was a poor substitute for Milan Baros and Jan Koller, both out with fitness problems. When defender Tomas Ujfalusi was sent off in the second half the Czechs recklessly went forward in numbers, leaving the few defenders they had left on an island for Ghana’s attackers to dismantle, using their speed and man advantage to break down the Czech offside trap and score the clincher late. As good as the Czechs were five days earlier they were just as bad this time. Asamoah Gyan took innumerable shots after one-timing it for the second-minute score, such was the service he was getting. Even after Sulley Muntari’s clinchers Ghana was attacking at will, literally going for the jugular and leaving Czech keeper Petr Cech to make save after impossible save (he actually had a good game). Thanks to Ghana Africa has its first win in this World Cup, and now have a realistic chance to make it out of this group.
(NOTE: After the way the Netherlands and Argentina thoroughly ran away with Group C, it is a plain as the nose on your face that the real “Group of Death” has been proven to be Group E. Now that Ghana is a real player, Italy and the Czech Republic have to work hard right down to this final whistle in their last fixture against each other. I don’t envy the second place finisher: They in all likelihood will get Brazil in the knockout stage.)
– The refereeing in the USA-Italy match was spectacularly awful. Good refereeing is when you hardly notice that he’s there; clearly this guy insinuated himself on this fixture in a major way, to the detriment of both sides. For the first 28 minutes it was actually an energetic and entertaining match, with both sides playing direct attacking football, and surprisingly with the USA doing a pretty decent job of controlling the midfield. When the USA denied the ball to Pirlo Italy was impotent – you saw what happened when he did get the ball; he was able to service the front men, and it mattered for a while. Set pieces mattered early. The USA caught some early lucky breaks: first they get an own-goal, then Danielle de Rossi threw an elbow and was sent off, making Italy play a man down for more than 60 minutes. Then things turned for the worse for the USA in a space of three game minutes when both Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were ejected. While this opened up space, both teams strategies and tactics changed drastically, where neither controlled the midfield and both were just trying to get the ball quickly up front to try and make anything chaotic offensively materialize by happenstance. Still, gotta give it to coach Bruce Arena, who did a splendid job of preparing the USA after a disastrous start to this tournament. While having to settle for a tie the USA fought tooth and nail, and because of Ghana’s win have at least a slugger’s chance in this, the “Real Group of Death”. This fixture should have never devolved into an unorganized slugfest like it did. Players win games, coaches lose games, and referees ruin games.
– Japan-Croatia lacked any real attacking coordination and continuity from either team. Play was choppy on both sides with neither team able to establish any kind of a rhythm. Japan had a majority of the possession but couldn’t get the ball to their front men in the box, and as a result there was no decent combination play by the forwards. Both teams took long-range shots, with Nico Krancjar taking the best of them. Croatia still not getting their midfielders into the forward attack too much; Krancjar was doing his best to link up with his forwards but with ineffective results. Darijo Srna is ball winning and getting most of the forward possession, while Dado Prso, getting no service in the box, is spending a lot of time coming to the half-touch line and bringing the ball forward. Japan can’t seem to find any combination of men going forward that has any coordination at all, although they were finding a little more space in front of goal in the second half. Decent defensive organization from both teams, and both teams did a good job of man-marking the opposition strikers in the box, although Croatia at times got the better possession by their front men due in no small part to their size superiority. Both teams still have a chance to advance but they had better come up with some kind of linkup with their front men to have any chance.
– Good tactical discipline from Australia; their defense was rock solid. When not in possession the dropped numbers back into a zone about 30 yards in front of goal and did not allow Brazil any space to run on to. They forced Brazil to go to the side and backwards but they weren’t allowing them to go forward. Both Adriano and Ronaldo had to run back outside the penalty area to get the ball. Ronaldinho was being surrounded, so the better service was coming from Kaka (as it was in Brazil’s first group fixture against Croatia). Once again, Ronaldo just is missing that certain pizzazz that made him the player he was in previous World Cups; now he just doesn’t have the touch. When Robinho finally replaced Ronaldo, it was as if they got a shot of adrenaline for one very simple reason — Robinho can move off the ball; Ronaldo can’t. Adriano’s goal was a good example of what happens when you don’t crowd their playmakers; in that instance Ronaldo and Adriano were allowed space to link up. Against a Brazilian side this magically creative you can’t afford to make a tactical mistake like that. You saw how important Ze Roberto and Emerson were to Brazil in the Australian counter-attacks; the Socceroos had beaten the offside trap and had nothing but space and opportunity going towards goal until both Brazilian defensive midfielders chased down the Australian attackers and dispossessed them. Robinho’s presence gave Brazil space and flair going forward, and they owned the possession from then on – Fred’s clincher late was proof of that. Gotta give it to Australia, though; even though they played most of the second half behind they kept coming and wouldn’t go away. That will serve them well in their final fixture against Croatia. A much better win for Brazil than their first fixture but coach Carlos Alberto Pareirra had better come to the quick realization that Robinho gives them much better attacking creativity than that fat ass Ronaldo.
– France had the majority of the possession in the first half, which is their game, denying South Korea decent possession and cutting off their service into the penalty area. Thierry Henry was all over the pitch, ball-winning, making things happen going forward, and being a target in front of goal. He is clearly their best player right now. Zinedine Zidane displayed hypnotic vision and one-touch creativity, especially in creating the goal for Henry. For 135 minutes Korea had failed to get Park Ji-Sung involved, and he is key to Korea’s fortunes. While Korea showed a lot of energy and pace, France displayed a lot of calm and creativity and, as a result, they controlled the tempo…
   …Then in the second half France made a fatal error, one that Korea’s opponents four years earlier made: They downshifted, and that fed right into the Korean’s hands. Korea is probably the most physically fit team on the planet – and they never EVER give up. Korea found a fifth gear and ran right at France, never letting Zidane and Henry get comfortable on the ball again. Korea transitioned from attack to defense quickly and just kept coming and coming until France wilted under the pressure. It is not in Korea’s game to show any creative attacking flair, but that is not the point. The Park Ji-Sung equalizer (he finally got into the game) was less a creative score and more of an inevitable result of the mounting Korean pressure; if it wasn’t Park it just would have been somebody else. Now France have to go into their final fixture versus Togo needing a win – and without Zidane, now sitting on two yellow cards – while Korea controls their own destiny, leading the group two points clear.
– Both Switzerland and Togo, clearly motivated by France’s inability to get max points in both their fixtures, played the kind of wide open football fans like to see. The ball was not spending a lot of time in the middle of the field. Switzerland was criticized mightily for playing a tactically cautious game against France in their first group fixture. They opened up a lot more against Togo, using a five-man midfield to go forward, spread the defense out on the wings and send the ball inside to Alexandre Frei. The linkup between the flankers and Frei, the lone striker, worked well, as evidenced by his early score. Togo wasn’t letting roots grow under their feet, though. They were making direct, long-range passes into the attacking end frequently, and not taking the time to build up a coordinated attack – but at least it was entertaining and fun to watch. Emmanuel Adebayor and Mohamed Kader were actually linking up pretty well but without any forward help were getting cut off by a Swiss backline anchored by Philippe Senderos, who to my mind is the best center-back in this tournament so far. Even late in the game Switzerland kept going forward, bringing on another attacker and keeping the offensive pressure on Togo and still executing a slow buildup forward. A solid win for the Swiss, but Togo did not embarrass themselves despite the off-field turmoil.
– I can’t help but think that the wet conditions in Hamburg had more to do with Saudi Arabia losing than the Ukraine’s attack did. On both first half goals the goalkeeper slipped on balls he would have ordinarily gotten to had the pitch been dry. That said, the Ukraine played much better attacking football this game than they did in their fixture versus Spain. Sergei Rebrov in midfield was a vast attacking improvement, linking up with front man Andrei Shevchenko well. Saudi Arabia seemed to have been slowed considerably by the wet field; they just didn’t have the energy and pace they had in their first fixture, and were unable to make those speedy runs into space. The Ukraine went with a three-man backline this time out, and they did a fairly decent job of denying the Saudi’s front men decent service throughout, relying on the midfield to stay in the grill of the Saudis and perform most of the dispossessing. It certainly was risky using only three defenders on their backline, especially with this suspect a defense and against a side as energetic and pacy as the Saudis, but you can’t argue with the results. The Saudis can’t entirely blame the weather for losing their shape and organization in the back, especially on set pieces, which were fatal. The Spain match was clearly not an accurate indication of the Ukraine’s real football ability. But Saudi Arabia showed some real football ability this time, which bodes well for their future.
– John Madden once said, “Prevent defenses prevent you from winning.” Need Proof? Tunisia, who took an early one-goal lead on a breakaway and Spain defensive breakdown, then proceeded to spend the next 60+ minutes dropping everybody – and I do mean EVERYBODY – back in defense; they literally had eleven men in front of goal, never once seriously going forward, and just conceded a vast majority of possession to Spain… Bad Idea! Spain, with three midfielders but more germane to the issue three attackers up front, relentlessly kept sending numbers forward. The ball spent an obscene amount of time in the Tunisian penalty area – you knew that Spain was going to break through sometime. Sure enough, after Spain coach Luis Aragones sent Joaquin in as an extra flanker and Raul in as an extra attacker, the two subs hooked up for the equalizer. The game winner followed in short order from Fernando Torres, who found space behind the defense, which by that time had lost its composure and organization, after Tunisia finally decided to loosen up after the equalizer. Even a team as enigmatic as Spain was not going to go without scoring under these circumstances. That said, Madd Props to Tunisia, who made the Spanish attack work for their three points and really put a scare into them. A better game than anyone thought it would be and a good example of why the Spanish can crash out of this tournament earlier than they should.