Friday, June 30, 2006

Toni wakes up with Brace

Luca Toni finds the form that has deserted him during the early stages of the world cup and bags 2 goals against plucky Ukraine.

After scoring early it appeared that Italy would salt away the game with their usual stifling defense. Instead Ukraine showed some fighting spirit and made Buffon bring his A game. After two second half strikes from striker Toni, Italy are through to the semi finals, where they will meet archrival Germany.

Italy was the logical choice to get to the semis. The game versus Germany will pit two old enemies on the World Cup semi final stage. Italy will look to replicate what it did in 1982 when it defeated, then West Germany, 3-1 to win their last major tournament. A factor that will not be lost on this years version.

I keep wondering when Germany's run will end, and the home field advantage will not make up for a pourous defense. I thought it would be against Argentina (again I really believe had Messi been in the game for the Extra Time that Argentina would be through). But this might be the game. Italy has, as always a stout defense, something Germany traditionally had but not this version. And if Toni takes momentum from this game and carries it over, he will prove too much to handle for the German defense. I think the home crowd will once again push the Germans but this time their shining star will burn out.

Italy 3 - Germany 1.....

Lehmann send Argentina packing



The home field advantage sees host Germany through after a cautious match against Argentina. Ending in penalties.

This game could have been very different had Abbondanzieri not needed to be substituted for in the 71st minute. This would or should have allowed Argentina to bring in Messi late in the game. Argentina need to be questioned with regards to their match management. Unless Riquelme is injured you should not remove him since he can control the tempo. And why not find a way to get your most dynamic player on the field - Messi? Too many teams want to sit on a one goal lead way too early in the game. Argentina started going defensive with over 20 minutes, too much time to allow the Germans to threaten your goal. As Extra Time approached it was clear that both teams were tired and both teams were making mistakes.

Germany won the way they know how to, playing for PKs and winning in front of a home crowd. Ashamed that Messi did not get a run at a very shaky German defense. Argentina will limp home wondering what could have been. Never lose with one of your best players on the bench.....

Thursday, June 29, 2006

World Cup 1/4 finals, the tension builds

A day away from what could prove as a great 1/4 round for the world cup. Aside from the Ukraine-Italy game, the other three matches should prove fascinating football. Some early thoughts:

  • Germany-Argentina - 5 world cups between them. One team playing at home, one team displaying a wealth of talent. Germany has proven many wrong by making a good run to the 1/4 finals, after a lackluster pre-World Cup campaign, Klinsmann has appeared to focused his team and have them playing inticing football. With Klose and Podoloski clicking up front, they have proven dangerous going forward. Ballack has demonstated some creativity in the midfield. Frings has demonstrated his ability to bomb the net from the outside. Their defense has not really been tested, outside the two goals from Costa Rica they have not really been threatened (missed PK aside). However, they have yet to play a team like Argentina. Will they be able to control the game when Riquelme et al are running at a very suspect defense? I think this game will be very entertaining, Germany will take much energy from the home field fans. However, I think that the offensive talent on the Argentinian side will overwhelm the poor German back line. Those that point to the Mexico game say that Argentina looked vulnerable, I would say pay attention to the end of the first half of that game and parts of the second, Argentina looked like they were moving the ball at will. Prediction - Argentina 2 Germany 1.
  • Italy-Ukraine: On paper this is the worst of the 4 matches. And I have to agree, I think that Italy have not had a "perfect" game yet. They did play the Czechs well, but they had a man advantage for much of the match. Needed a fortunate penalty against a tough Australian team. I think that Ukraine does not have the bloodline needed to challenge Italy. Granted Shevchenko remains a top 5 stiker and overall player, he will be dangerous no matter how much knowledge the Italian players have of him due to his years at AC Milan. Italy has too much talent and experience: Italy 2 Ukraine 0
  • England-Portugal: This one should be a great match...were it not for an irrational referee forcing Deco and Costinha to sit out this game. I think that Portugal will still give England fits. England has done just enough to progress, but at least they are progressing. Rooney is fully fit, but might still remain rusty in the flow of the game. The English midfield has not found its rythm yet, and the defense has been shakey. Portugal still have some heavy hitters in their midfield - Maniche, Ronaldo, Figo. The loss of Deco is huge, and cannot be underestimated. He gave Portugal a midfield general who could control the middle of the pitch, allowing Figo to play wide and giving Ronaldo a carte blanche to run free all over the pitch, without Deco we will have to see how Big Phil manages his strategy. I still think that Big Phil is much more intelligent that Sven. While on paper England has more talent, Portugal has a better game plan. Prediction: Portugal 1- England 0.
  • France-Brazil: A mouth watering match up, many would have predicting this to happen in the finals. Alas we will have to see one of the recent world cup winners out after the 1/4 finals. I need to step away from my bias and look at this objectively....well as objectively as possible. Brazil has appeared to be sleep walking to this stage, granted they have sleep walked to score 10 goals in 4 games...scarey. They still have a wealth of talent and at least 2-3 more gears, has Adriano really showed us what he is capable of, how about Ronaldino? On the other side, France has been building, at least appearing to build each game, and not just on the score sheet (scoring 0-1-2-3 goals progressively). Les Vieux (the old ones) appear to have kicked it up a notch. Vieira has been a monster the last 2 games, Zidane looked solid last game. Yet their remains some issues - Henry needs to have the ball fed to him sooner, as well as staying on sides more. Zidane will need to play quicker balls as well. This game will be won at the midfield, no surprise there. Similar to 1998, when Deschamps, Djorkaef, Petit and Zidane controlled the midfield against Brazil....the French will have to do so again to have any chances of winning. I think the French defense will be tested by the individual talent of the Brazilians, but I think the Brazilian defense which is suspect will also be tested. Both goalies do not instill the greatest confidence.....Predictions: I think this game will be back and forth, both teams testing the other. France played a great game against Spain and will be asked to do so again versus Brazil, Brazil are living off their individual talent and we are all waiting to see them kick it into the next gear. I think France keeps playing at a high level, and I think the competition gets Brazil to kick it up a level making for a great game - France 2 Brazil 2 goes to penalty shots....which I rather not fathom a guess on.....my stomach cannot take it....

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Allez les Bleus....Allez les Bleus


WOW....that is about all I can say about the France - Spain game.

France emerges with a tough fought 3-1 victory to face Brazil.

Where to start,

first I have to tip my hat to Domenech (who I much critised in the past). He game out and appeared to instruct his team to play defensive, behind the half for the first 20 minutes. This gave Spain the false sense of control as their back line passed the ball around w while France was content in sitting back and watching, jumping on loose balls and throwing together some counter attacks.

Even after Spain went up 1-0 on a penalty, France kept their cool. A masterful Vieira opts not to play Henry, who was in an offside position, but rather holds for a second later to free Ribery alone. Ribery cooly dribbled Casillas and slotted home the equalizer. France almost broke through again when Spain bungled their defending and were it not for a misunderstanding between Henry and Ribery one might have broken through alone on Casillas again.

The second half resembled the first with the tension mounting. Zidane and Vieira looked masterful contolling the midfield, Ribery was causing the Spanairds problems. However Spain made the proper changes and brought in Garcia and Joaquin. Both looked dangerous, Joaquin deftly cutting the ball inside the box only to see his shot hit the outside of the net, must say that Barthez had covered the corner well.

As the game drew on it appeared that extra time was in the cards, however a silly foul on Henry by Puyol, on replay it is clear that Henry sells the foul, but Puyol did obstruct Henry. Zidane then finally hit a dangerous free kick into the box (Zidane's corner kicks left much to be desired). Vieira, inexplicably was left unmarked and thumped home a heavy header that was deflected into the net, this time no Koreanesque non call, this one was clearly in.

France then were under seige as Spain looked to eqaulize. Finally Domenech made some smart substitutions, bringing in a fresh Wiltord for Henry. Wiltord was the key man in springing Zidane for the coup de grace - a beautiful solo effort for the third goal.

A few intial thoughts:

  • Spain played well, but did not have the finishing touch needed to score from the run of play. They will continue to live with the moniker of not being able to step up in the big games. A moniker that is unfair, they were in this game and could have broken through the other way. I do have to question Raul playing behind the stikers, he was invicible and was not controlling the field.
  • France played a great game plan, Vieira, Zidane looked inspired and the defense held their ground. Sagnol played a huge game clearing out crosses and marking Torres. The volume of play in the midfield was evident when Gallas and Thurman were rarely called upon to clear up any mistakes. The one issue is keeping Henry focused and not lazy, wandering back from off sides positions. But he remains the type of stiker that only needs one clean ball and can finish.
  • Keeping cool, France kept their cool after being dominated on the possession as well as the score sheet going into the end of the first half...they were rewarded with the Ribery goal. France kept their cool in the second half when Spain pushed, a good sign from a team that at times looked shakey against the Swiss and Koreans.
  • The end of the game - the French players demonstrated a joy and happiness rarely seen from this team since the 2002 world cup debacle. I credit much of this to Ribery. After he scored he demonstrated the unbriddled joy of a young player who scored his first international goal, on the world cup stage none the less. His mad dash from the Spanish goal to the French touch line awoke some emotions in the French. The goal by Vieira inspired a mad full team celebration. Once the game was over you could see that this was much more than a victory, but a relief and a renewed sense of joy. France need to keep this attitude if they have a chance against Brazil.
  • The ref, of all the games this referree was the best, he controlled the game. Rather than start handing out cards in the first few minutes (similar to our Russian friend in the Portugal-Holland match) he chose to instead speak to players. I must admit some of his later cards were questionable...but overall he allowed the game to be played rather than being the focus.
So the 1/4 finals are set, with potentially three great matches, the Italy - Ukraine game does not get anyone outside of Kiev or Rome excited, althought a Schevcheko vs Italy match up could be interesting. The rest of the matches should prove very interesting. All I hope is that the officiating resembles more what we saw in the France-Spain match rather than the Portugal-Holland one....now I need to catch my breath.

Classy Spanish fans

Good to see the Spanish fans whistling the French national anthem...classy

Monday, June 26, 2006

Last day of the 1/8 finals, viva l'attaque!

So the clock ticks down to the last day of the 1/8 of finals. On tap we have Brazil-Ghana and the big one for me Espana - France.

First some thoughts on Brazil - Ghana. I think that Ghana can give Brazil some difficulties with their speed and overall agressive play. I am still not convinced Ronaldo is 100% fit nor motivated. Yes he scored twice, but against Japan...and the first goal I could have scored (maybe not Thierry Henry cause it required heading the ball into the net), the second goal was a spectacular strike from distance. But if Ronaldo is going to content himself with shooting from that distance, he will run into problems versus a tougher and more aggressive Ghana. The main reason why I think Ghana will lose, and Brazil will win rather easily is the lack of one Michael Essein. With two suspect yellow cards in the first round games he is out. He is the one world class player Ghana have, don't get me wrong they have solid players all over the pitch, but in terms of a top 10 world wide player Essein is the only one. His play, motor, and intimidation could have thrown the midfield balance in Ghana's way, he might be one of the few out there that could take a Kaka or Ronaldinho and shut them down. Without him Ghana plays tough but loses: 2-0.

Now on to what could be the best game of the second round - Espana v France. Aragones has decided to go with a very attacking formation:
Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Puyol, Pablo, Pernia, Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas, Raul, Torres, Villa. With three striker Spain is sending out the signal that they mean to attack and score often. Xavi, Alonso and Fabregas in the middle also indicates a push forward. With Domenech supposedly lining up with a 4-2-3-1 this could prove interesting. With two defensive/holding midfielders in Vieira and Makelele, France could play a block defense of 6 players (2 midfielders and the 4 backs) Sending Makelele and Vieira roaming to destroy any midfield creativity by Spain, and trusting the back four to block Raul, Torres and Villa.

I think that France can hold this attacking side, the three forwards have not really played all together on the pitch, they might end up getting in each other's way, and Raul is far from his all time best. I felt he was better suited as a late game joker. Xavi and Alonso are solid in the midfield but how good are they at stopping speedy wingers like Ribery and Malouda, this will place tremendous pressure on the 19 year old Fabergas (he can handle it, see his games for Arsenal, but this remains the World Cup). The key is whether or not this opens up space for France to counter attack, and if they can do so quickly through Zidane, something I am not convinced can be done anymore. Henry could potentially have more room to roam, and if he gets the ball quickly could be lethal. I fear that either Malouda or Ribery will have to track back further to get the ball, this will limit their offensive potential. I would also feel better had we had Coupet in goal, he is more likely to keep his calm and not make some gaff a la Barthez.

The key for France is to withstand what will surely be withering early pressure. If Les Bleus can go into half time tied or down only a goal, I think they have a chance to pull one out. But I think the spanish have it right, this is an old team and have not had the luxury to rest their players, attack early try to get an early goal, and see if France can answer....unfortunately I don't think Les Bleus can....

Spain 2 - France 1...Spain scores two early, France pulls one back late through substitute Trezeguet.

Let the French rebuilding begin!

French system - the Maginot Line.....

According the sports daily L'Equipe, France will line up in a 4-2-3-1 against Spain: Barthez - Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal - Makelele, Vieira, Ribéry, Malouda, Zidane - Henry.

Ugh...not sure about this line up, if the games versus the Swiss and Koreans showed anything is that this system does a few things:

  • Allows teams to focus in on Henry, Ribery has yet to demonstrate he can finish, Zidane has not shown any ability to break down defenses with dribbles, and Henry alone gets boxed in. With Trezeguet teams need to be respectful of his scoring ability, in addition Trezeguet gives France the option to play off him in the air, something Henry cannot do (can you name for me the last time Henry scored off a header?)
  • The midfield gets bogged down. While Malouda and Ribery are spark plugs and can cover the entire pitch, Zidane's presence in the middle makes these runs less dangerous to the opposition. When Zidane slots higher, behind Henry, he has not demonstrated the old flair to shot and open up the field.
I realize this is the "safe" option, one that will ensure France has the necessary coverage in the middle of the pitch and has Zidane to orchestrate the game. But not sure that Henry running around alone up front will really scare Spain.

We all know what happened with the Maginot line, hopefully the same does not occur tuesday, alas I fear this is the last game we see Zidane and Thuram (I hold out hope that Makelele stays on)....and maybe (hopefully) the last game we might see Domenech.


Another Red Card!

After 50 minutes the Italians are down to 10 players...granted I am at work and could not see the foul but this is getting ridiculous.

Italians drop Totti, would Domenech have the courage to do the same with Zidane?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/world_cup_2006/4991534.stm

Before kick off of the Italy-Australia match, the Italians have left Totti on the bench and added a third striker in Del Piero. Gutsy move by Lippi, but one that gives the Italians a more attacking flavor. Totti has not been aweful but has not controlled the game either, that role going to Pirlo who has emerged as the maestro for the Italian midfield.

We will see what this means for the Italians, remember that without Totti they destroyed Germany during a friendly 4-1 in Florence.

Maybe Domenech should take heed and give strong consideration to go back to the 4-4-2 he employed against Togo....with, gasp, Zidane on the bench.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Refs at it again

Too much of this on Sunday (see above). Portugal gets through to the 1/4 finals after surviving a card filled game that the Russian ref lost control of early on in the game.

Portugal go up 1-0 on a great move inside the 18 yard box between Deco - Pauleta - Maniche. Seeing Maniche finish clinically. The rest of the match degenerated, we should have seen this coming with the hard fouls on Ronaldo, eventually forcing him to ask out with an injury. But must much be said about the referreeing, setting a record 16 cards. Reducing both teams to 9 players. What is going on with this World Cup and the cards. Can we see a game end with 11 players on each side? Of the 4 round of sixteen games half have ended will equal strength 11 player teams on both sides. The refs are out of control with the cards.

Van Basten needs to be critized as well, how do you leave Van Nistelrooy on the bench all game when you need a goal? Inexcusable. Van Basten will be questioned for that move or lack of move for years.

Finally the only team smiling tonight is England who now face a depleted Portugal team without Deco and Constinha, and potentially without Ronaldo depending on the injury. I was not able to see the England victory on Equador but from all reports it was another lackluster exhibity by the three lions....they survived but at some point they will need to do more than that. I fear that against a depleted Portugal they have a chance to move on to the next stage despite themselves.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

First day done

Germany goes through after two lightening quick strikes in the first 15 minutes. They will face Argentina - an amazing strike from Maxi Rodriguez in Extra Time.

Argentina showed why they should be viewed as favorites. After giving up a quick early goal they rapidly leveled the score. Mexico played well but you could see Argentina begin to dominate the game, carrying the game to El Tri.

The insertion of Messi and Tevez was scarey, by themselves up front they were running at tired Mexican legs, at some points you would see 2-3 Mexican defenders try to clamp down one of the stikers. Heading into the game versus Germany I think we are in for a great match of young guns - Podolski, Tevez and Messi - 20, 22, 19 years old.

I think that Germany will have the home field advantage as well as Argentina having played a full extra time (and why did Riquelme play all 90 minutes of a meaningless game versus Holland?). However I think that if Argentina can avoid the fast German starts (Germany has been lightening quick against Costa Rica, Equador and Sweden, scoring very quickly in all those matches) Argentina will have the advantage as the game wears on. Even with 10 players Sweden was dangerous at times and gave the back line for Germany fits. What will Crespo, Saviola, Tevez and Messi do?

Early prediction: Argentina 2 - Germany 1. Germany is playing well but people forget how much trouble they have against world class teams (apologies to Sweden, but the nordics are a solid team but not in the class of Argentina, especially down to 10 players second half). The home field keeps this game close but in the end, the dangerous Messi/Tevez late game combo seals the fate of the Germans.

Refs - what are they thinking?

Just finished watching Germany beat Sweden, a game that was over by the 15th minute (even though Larsson should have slotted home the PK which would have made things slightly more interesting). While I was impressed by Podolski and Klose up front, I am still not impressed by the overall German team, their defense is suspect and against a team such as Argentina or Spain they will be exposed. This team is a great example of the advantage of playing on home soil. But on to my main point of this posting - the referees.

The Germany - Sweden game was really over at half time when the ref handed out a second yellow to Lucic on a completely BS call. Lucic barely grabbed Klose who crumbled like a house of cards. A verbal warning at most, maybe a yellow for Klose for diving, but the ref should be aware of the situation and a borderline call like that should not be made in such a way as to completely turn the game - reducing Sweden to 10 players. But this is just the first of many questionable calls:

  • Non hand ball call in the France - Switzerland game, that could have given the French a PK and potentially a 1-0 game or at least opened things up.
  • Essien questionable yellow in Ghana - USA, meaning he misses the Brazil game and invariably gives Ghana even less of a chance to pull off the upset.
  • 2 offsides calls in the France-Togo game, both of which were clearly not offsides.
  • Yellow card for Zidane against South Korea, when he touched the Korean player as he tried to avoid him.
  • The US-Italy game, yellow cards, and red cards everywhere. The De Rossi one deserved, the Mastroni one I believe deserved due to the accumulation of hard play by the americans but still harsh, the second yellow for Pope (Again talk to the player knowing if he gets another he is off)
I know the refs are trying to reign in diving, tackles from behind, grabbing, etc, but there are too many yellow cards and straight red cards for a tournament of this caliber. A red card should be given for only the most egregious of fouls, yellow cards need to be given out with caution as well due to the impact it has on teams. So far the World Cup has been exciting, and I think we are due to see some great football - potential Germany-Argentina game, France-Spain, Holland-Portugal, potential Brazil-Spain (I wish I could slot France in there but my rational side says no way), etc. But I fear the refs will play too much a part in the outcome and that is not how the beautiful game should be decided.

Then again why should things change - 1982 Schumacher almost cripples Battiston on a semi break away and suffers no punishement, 2002 Spain sees three goals dissallowed against South Korea, 1966 did the goal for England really cross the line against West Germany, etc....

Friday, June 23, 2006

Oufffff



France 2 - Togo 0:

Thanks to the former and current Gunner captain...

France passes to the second round of the world cup. After watching the French against the Swiss and the Koreans, this is actually a relief that they made it through. Something that this team could not do 4 years ago. First, lets be clear, the French made this much harder than it had to be. They should have beaten either Switzerland or Korea rather than drawing. The first half of the Togo match did not give me much confidence either. As hard as France pushed Togo was up for the challenge. However, the essential is done, they are through. Now comes the hard part - Espana.

Spain is looking like one of the in form teams (the other being Argentina, Holland also receiving votes). Here are the slivers of hope I have for playing Spain:

  • An extra day of rest for the team, in addition to having Zidane and Abidal not play today. At this point of the tournament I think an extra day pays off.
  • Pressure is on the Spanish - after having scored 8 goals and only conceded 1, the Spanish are the overwhelming favorites. Also, they have not lost a game in 2 years. The French were under the microscope the first round, due in large part to what happened in 2002 and their struggles in qualifying. Spain has always dazzled, but at times folded when the pressure built up.
  • Trezeguet - Henry combo, unless Domenech has a brain fart (not out of the realm of possibility) and decides to put Trezeguet back on the bench this combo should cause some concern for the defensive line for Spain.
  • Vieira - both the Korea and Togo game, Vieira stepped up and played like the old Vieira. Tackling, passing, playing defense, even scoring a goal (Actually 2). If he plays like the Pat we know, that could determine who controls the midfield, easing the pressure on Zidane.
I still think France will be an underdog and will have to play much better to beat a strong Spanish team. But I at least have hope...much more than I had 24 hours ago.

US crashes out under heavy expectations

To no surprise the vaunted US soccer squad crashed out of the World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Ghana. For some of us this was not unexpected having seen the group they were slotted in. Unlike some pundits (Balboa and Wynalda) who months ago were waxing the virtues of the US team, how they would reach the 1/4 finals and maybe further, how they had built on their success 4 years ago, etc etc etc.

The cruel aspect of world cup football, is that 4 years is a very long time. Teams change. Situations change. Players get older (look at Zidane). Before we look at this year's version of Team America, we should revisit where the irrational exhuberance came from, World Cup 2002:

  • The United States caught Portugal flat footed the first 20 minutes of their opening game, scoreing 3 quick goals. Portugal finally woke up and remembered why they were a "favorite" and scored 2 second half goals, still losing 3-2.
  • Against Korea, the US scored first only to see Korea come back and tie the game. Both teams looked equal.
  • Against Poland, who had been eliminated already, the Americans got thrashed 3-1, looking very unworthy on the pitch. Had Korea not scored a late winner against Portugal the US would have been heading home.
  • Round of 16 - The US got the perfect draw - Mexico. The one team they play and know how to beat, and to their credit they do so 2-0
  • 1/4 finals - US runs into the eventual runner ups - Germany. By far not a top German team they lose 1-0 with some controversy
So a good run by Team USA (MUCH MUCH better than Les Bleus), but look who else had good runs that tournament - South Korea, Senegal and Turkey, not exactly world beating teams. Every tournament has a team that comes out and makes a deep run - 1998 Croatia semi finals, 1994 Bulgaria and Sweden semi finals, 1990 Ireland and Cameroon, 1986 Belgium, and so forth. But where are these nations in the world of futball? They are all solid but have not repeated their success on a regular basis on the world stage. The pundits that foresaw an American 1/2 this year were caught up in the irrational exhuberance that sometimes takes over those that do not study history. With a #5 ranking in FIFA, a blown call 4 years earlier that many believe would have given the US a chance to beat Germany, the US was destined for a deep run.

Too bad Arena refused to change his system, players that the team was built on (donovan, beasley) have never stepped it up in big situations, and they had a tough group. This led to the realistic last place finish by the americans.

  • Arena - played players out of postion...not the only manager making that mistake of hubris (see domenech and erickson). But he is to blame for selection (no twellman?) and for his system as well as motivation....how can your team come out that flat for the first game of the world cup? Also, he is afraid to use his subs...needing a goal he only brings on Johnson at the 60th minute?
  • Donovan - the more I hear about how great he is the more I wonder what people are talking about. He limped back from the Bundesliga, and decided to opt for the laid back life in california and the MLS, this shows on the highest level of competition. He is hyped up by the american press but he is shown for what he is on the world stage - a decent player with much growing to do. Case in point, again Ghana he turns on his defender on the left side of the 18yard box, rather than going to goal he cuts back towards the gaggle of players on top of the box, then on a free kick he balloons it over the goal...terrible
  • Reyna - hard worker, probably the face of US soccer, but might have played on tournament too many, especially when he had no support from those he was suppose to...
  • Beasley - being played out of position, but did not impressed irregardless
The US will now have to rebuild, they have targetted 2010 as a year to win the cup. I think that might be too much of a reach...then again it was already a reach in 1998 when they first professed this goal.

France - Togo: Last Hurrah or First Step Back?

Will we see many (at least 2) of Henry celebrating today? As we enter the last day of the first round of the World Cup, Les Bleus once again find themselves in a difficult situation. 4 years ago after scoring no goals in the first two games, including a loss to Senegal the French had to beat the Danes by 2 goals to go through. We all know what happened...losing 2-0 and crashing out of the world cup.

This year the situation is similar: France must win by 2 goals to guarantee a place in the next round. If they only win by 1 goal they will need much help from the Swiss - Korea game. And they must do all this without Zidane....then again that might be a blessing. France will line with with two strikers (what a novel idea) in a traditional 4-4-2 line up. Without the aged Zidane they have Malouda and Ribery on the wings, with Makelele and Vieira in the middle. I think this could be a strong offensive team. With two stikers up front, Trezeguet and Henry, Togo will have to defend deeper and cannot only focus on Henry. Ribery and Malouda have the legs that the old gaurd - Wiltord and Zidane, no longer enjoy. They can run at the defense forcing errors and giving the stikers chances. The defense stays the same, which has been fairly solid so far. The telling sign will be Sagnol and Silvestre, will they have the space and time to make runs in support of the offense?

I think this game will be much harder than some believe, Togo has been fraught with issues since qualifying, but they played Korea tough (Really deserved a point) and gave up a very late goal to the Swiss otherwise were hanging in that game until the end. In addition, Togo has the former colonist motivation to beat their old colonizer!

Prognostic: France 4 - Togo 1 (Togo scores early but France wakes up, Trezeguet scores 2, Henry 1, and Ribery 1)

South Korea 2 - Switzerland 2

France play Ukraine
Switzerland play Spain

Of course I would not be surpised to see France struggle, score a late goal and then push for the second only to see Togo counter attack, to level the game at 1 seeing France crash out of another world cup....

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

France - moving forward

I have to dedicate an seperate piece to my beloved Les Bleus. I must admit that prior to the start of the tournament I had some guarded optimism about how far the French could go in this tournament. They won 1-0 versus a tired Mexico team, played great against the always tough Danes, and looked lethergic versus China (due in large part to the horrific injury to Cisse). I felt that maybe, just maybe Domenech had righted the ship, despite himself. The defense looked solid (I really like Abidal on the left side), Barthez looked like the good Barthez not the clown Barthez, Henry was strong and seemed to work well with Ribery, Zidane seemed to accept his role as passer no longer being able to beat 2 -3 players with his former dazzling footwork....alas after two lethargic games France look poised for a dramatic crashing out of their second world cup.

First, I think that Domenech has not been the right manager since day one. He came in under a cloud. Santini had underachieved at the Euro, losing to the eventual champions Greece but the French looked lethargic the entire tournament. Santini insisted on keeping an aging and ineffective Desailly to anchor his defense, forced Zidane to play on the wing, and did not bring in enough youth to give the team a semblance of the next generation. France beat England 2-0 mainly due to English stupidity and poor penalty taking (fouling Makelele at the 18, setting up Zidane's masterful direct kick? Gerrards beautiful through ball to Henry? Beckham's missed penalty shot?), barely drew with Croatia, and struggled to beat Switzerland (thinking of it I would have LOVED to struggle to beat the swiss this year....). Santini left after the Euro (he had announced that prior to the tournament which I think was terrible for the team) to manage Spurs. Then started the fireworks - some players asked for Laurent Blanc to manage, others like former World Cup winning manager Aime Jacquet pushed for his buddy who managed the youth team Domenech. We all know who emerged. Then we saw the veterans retire - Desailly, Lizarzu, Makelele, Thuram and the biggest - Zidane. Domenech was not the universally accepted choice, and was not a strong enough personality to pull the team together.

Second, the team has been in flux. The French tried to establish a new system to work around the lack of a true number 10. Still possessing a wealth of talent they could not figure out what system to play with players staring for their clubs such as - Henry, Trezeguet, Saha, Anelka, Guily, Micoud, etc. They struggled with qualifying, however things could hvae been very different early on. The France - Switerland match in Paris had at least 3 clear times when the French missed point blank chances. That would have changed everything. The French did not know how to build a team around Henry or Vieira .... they needed the old guard of Zidane, Thuram and Makelele back to ensure qualification. Domenech has not been able to resolve this issue.

Third, the 2002 debacle still weighs heavily on the team. With many players returning from that debacle, many are afraid to lose. They do not want to live throught that humiliation again. There is no leader such as Blanc or Deschamps that can motivate and push the team. the old guard lead by example and are not the most vocal players.

Finally, the team is old. With 6 players from the 1998 world cup team - Barthez, Thuram, Henry, Trezeguet, Vieira, and Zidane, as well as aged stars - Wiltord, Makelele, Sagnol, and Dhorosso - the team is getting on in years. This is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, and it shows. Against both the swiss and the koreans it was apparent in the second half when the French were lethargic. It is a little to late to select more youth but maybe it what youth is there needs to be leveraged (which appears to be the case with Trezeguet and Henry up front, Malouda and Ribery playing the wings against Togo)

What does this mean? The French, should qualify for the second round. They should be able to defeat Togo by at least 2 goals. Then again they should have scored in the 2002 world cup...

France qualifies, barely, for the next round....but loses, badly to a red hot Spain side.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

World Cup - It has been a long time

I have been absent for too long on my Blog. General laziness is to blame. But how could I not share some thoughts and ideas during the biggest tournament for futball fans of the world? So are some musings as the first round draws to a close:
  • England, they are through to the next round but not impressive. Doing what they needed to do but not convincing me that they can go far. This is compounded with the apparent loss of Owen for the tournament. This only makes the selection of Walcott even more glaring. While I am all for selecting a young player to give him a taste of the big stage, preping him for future greatness. But when your strikers are Walcott (young and apparently not trusted by Erickson), Crouch (completely useless unless you drop 15 crosses on his head, otherwise does nothing), and Rooney (when healthy one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, but he is still recovering from a broken foot). England gets to the 1/4 finals and crashes out against a superior Holland squad
  • Brazil, Ronaldo, Adriano both look lethargic. I have faith that Adriano will turn things around, but Ronaldo is fat, out of shape and does not care. They will have a hard time against a tough Czech or Italian squad in the second round...upset special - Spain will defeat Brazil in the 1/4 finals.
  • Germany: Won all three of their games and let out a collective sigh of relief when England did not lose to Sweden avoiding a Germany-England game. They will face a tough match against Sweden, but due to the home field they will make it through, only to run into the buzz saw that is Argentina.
  • Holland: Van Basten has picked a solid team, unlike others (Domenech) he is not afraid to drop players - Seedorf, Davids etc - to build a team that the deems worthy. He has them clicking and they will be dangerous. They have pace - Robbens, finishing - Van Nisterlrooy, all round talent - Van Persie up front. With players loke Cocu bringing some veteran leadership they will go far.
  • Argentina: Anyone who watched them demolish Serbia knows these guys are for real. The beat a tough Ivory Coast team 2-1 and then demolished Serbia. All this with players like Messi and Teves coming off the bench....how deep is this team???? Defensively they are solid. Offensively they are scarey. With Riquelme running the midfield they will go very far.
  • Espana: The perennial underachievers, appear to have finally gotten things together. They also have a wealth of talent, when you can bring Raul and Fabergas off the bench you are embarassingly deep. Torres will drive teams crazy. Their midfielders all know their roles - Alonso, Xavi etc. The old Spain would have folded like a house of cards after being down 1-0 against Tunisia, instead they kept pushing, stayed within themselves and earned a well deserved 3-1 win.
  • Czechs: Tale of two teams, versus the US they looked like a machine. Rosicky and Nedved completely controlling the midfield, Koller dominating up front. Against Ghana they looked like an old team, depending on Cech to keep the loss to a 2-0 defeat rather than a 4 -0 or 5 -0 .... With Baros and Koller back, they will remember how to play and find their way to the semis.
  • Italia: I was not impressed with either of their games. They looked out of sorts against the US, allowing the Yanks to dictate the pace. Down to 9 players in the second half, the Americans actually looked more dangerous. Where is Toni and the rest of the strikers? Del Piero is the only one that looked dangerous on Saturday. They limp into the next round and lose to Brazil.
  • Ivory Coast: Knocked out already, but looked dangerous. Had they been in France's group they would be in first place and throught to the second round. Their defense is solid based on the Toure boys. Midfield is solid, and Drogba does less whining and diving and more playing...something he should try for Chelsea
  • Ghana: Also looks dangerous. The team is more than Essein, they play well as team, tackle hard and run people into the ground. Will end with a hard earned victory against the US.
  • United States: Looked out classed against the Czechs. They had no fire. Against Italy they got lucky...both ways. Lucky to get the own goal, and unlucky not to score another one. They took the game to the Italians, and played the style an underdog needs to - physical. The defense tackled hard, pulled jerseys etc, but did so up the field, preventing truly dangerous free kicks but also breaking up the rythm of the Italians, and allowing their team to reset on defense. Will end the tournament with 1 point, not a bad tournament considering the group they were in, but bad in light of the irrational exhuberance from the American pundits who saw America getting to the Semi finals...
  • France: Worst for last....they are terrible. Domenech is aweful, Zidane is done, Henry has brought his whining game not his scoring game from Arsenal....but I cannot do my rant justice in this section so more later.....
Finals - similar to 1978 Argentina plays Holland
Third Place game - Spain vs Czech Rep

Holland champion
Spain 3rd place
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