Curate Omnes

Pay attention, everybody

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Athletes vs. Footballers

Over at Salon, a couple writers have a pet theory. After the US - Ghana match, King Kaufman found himself shocked that Ghana had 'better athletes' than the US. How could that be when America is a much bigger and richer country then Ghana? A couple weeks later, Andrew O'Hehir, took up the cause
parroting King's sentiments.

The basic argument is that "America's Best Athletes" leave soccer, forcing the athletic dregs to represent the US at the World Cup. King and Andrew went on to fantasize about several non-soccer athletes, usually drawn from baseball, basketball and football. If only, they say, we could get some of the ABAs to stick with soccer, then we would have a chance.

I've pretty much been through everything I want to say about this on the Salon comments, but I think this sort of thinking is a sort of defense mechanism. I think Americans are used to being the best at everything, so when they continue to underwhelm at the top levels, it must be because they're not really trying. Never mind that the people they keep talking about don't resemble in any way the top players in the world. Ignore the fact that the match that prompted all this talk was won on skills and determination and not athleticism. If we just had some big tall guys, then we'd be set.

America's soccer future is dim indeed.
All good things. . .

So the World Cup ends with Italy at the top spot. It seems that a touch of scandal at home is just what the doctor ordered to bring them their fourth title.

The game itself was a tense affair, which ended up needing penalties to determine the winner, but the moment that everyone will remember this game for is Zidane's childish reaction to Materazzi's smack talk. Unable to contain himself Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest, knocking him off his feet. Apparently the fourth quickly reviewed some video and let the referee know what happened. Zidane, playing in the last match of his career, was rightly sent off ten minutes before the end of extra time.

In the penalties themselves, the Italians put away all their shots, which meant that Trezeguet's miss cost the French their second World Cup. It's hard to say if Trezeguet would still have been in the penalty line up had Zidane still been on the field, but the French cause took a heavy blow when their best penalty taker got himself sent off.

As for the final result, the Italians truly deserved their victory. TV commentators are too polite to say this, but French penalty was the result of a major dive. There was no real contact between Malouda and Materazzi, but Malouda knew Materazzi was there and took the fall. The ref fell for it and Zidane's unconventional penalty crossed the line. The Italians came back full force and it was sweet that it was Materazzi who put them level with a powerful header from Pirlo's corner. Neither side was able to completely take control of the game after that, and the first half, then full time, and then extra time ended without either team managing to put a ball over the line. Late in the match, it was definitely the Italians who looked more fatigued and they were put into vulnerable positions on quite a few occasions by the French. But each time, the Italian defense was able to cope.

All in all a good victory by the Italians. I was especially glad to see them win after Zidane's shocking display, which lowered my respect for him immensely. I'll always remember him as a great player, but not as a class player.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Groups G and H settled
Round of 16 starts tomorrow

Groups G and H were finalized yesterday. Not too much of interest to report, except that France were able to redeem themselves and edge South Korea out of the second round in group G. The expected sides from group G are progressing, just not in the order people were expecting. I think it would have been great for the Koreans to make it through again, but they just didn't have quite enough to keep the Swiss at bay. As for the Swiss, I have to give them credit for pursuing the win. A tie would have seen them go through as group leaders unless France managed a three goal margin of victory, but they weren't going to be satisfied with that result.

Group H came out exactly as expected with Spain and Ukraine progressing. It's admirable to see how Ukraine was able to pick itself up after that thrashing Spain gave them in the first match. Saudi Arabia and Tunisia weren't able to stand up much to the Europeans and their single point each came from their 2-2 tie.

In the next round, it's Switzerland versus Ukraine and Spain versus France. There's not a lot to separate the Swiss from the Ukrainians in terms of form at this point, but my sense gives Switzerland the edge. Ukraine has gotten the victory in these last couple of matches, but they haven't exactly been dominant.

The other matchup set today was Spain against France. I don't see the French as having what it takes to get past this Spanish side, but then again, Spain has had a deserved reputation as underachievers in the past. However, this team genuinely seems to be different. Their play in the group was impressive and a team with various reserves was good enough to get past the Saudis for full points. In my opinion, France's only chance is if Spain collapse. I don't see that happening at this point in the tournament.

Round of sixteen (Eighthfinals)

I like the term that exists in Spanish and Portuguese for this round, which translates as eighthfinals. I think I'll use that from here on out, because second round and round of sixteen sound lame to me. Anyway, the first matches are tomorrow with Germany facing Sweden and Argentina facing Mexico. Both the favorites should be able to get past these matches, but they should be some excellent games. The Swedes played exceptionally well in their second half against England and their morale is high. The Germans, however, are surging after pounding Ecuador 3-0 and it's hard to see them producing a letdown in the eighthfinals.

As for Mexico, they started well in their group with an impressive victory against Iran, but were flat against Angola and Portugal. Against an Argentina that demolished the Serbians 6-0, the Mexicans look like heavy underdogs. Soccer being soccer, anything can happen, but I don't see Mexico taking the Argentines by surprise.

So far, this Cup hasn't had the zany energy of 2002. Australia, Ecuador, and Ghana are the only "surprise" teams in the 16 eighthfinalists, replacing the Croats, Poles, and Czechs that most people would have put in for those slots. But true upsets of the France-Senegal were pretty much non-existent and the eighthfinals have a very conventional look to them. Let's see if the quarterfinals follow that same trend.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Groups E and F settle out

Today saw the final match day for Groups E and F. At the start of the day in Group E, any of the four teams could theoretically qualify for the next round. Italy was first with four points; the Czechs and Ghanaians each held three points each and the Czechs' +1 goal difference putting them over Ghana's 0. The US was last with a single point and a -3 goal difference. The group's final matches featured Italy facing the Czech Republic, with Ghana and the US facing off in the other match.

Italy had the clearest path to qualification, because they could potentially qualify if they lost, if the US and Ghana tied. The Czechs needed a tie and for Ghana to do no better than a tie with the US. Ghana needed at least a tie and for the Italians to beat the Czechs. The US needed to win, preferably by as many goals as possible, while the Italians had to beat or tie the Czechs. In the case of a tie, the Americans needed to overcome their four goal deficit to the Czechs in goal difference.

As it turned out, Italy put two goals past the Czechs to definitively nail down the top spot with seven points. In the other game, Ghana defeated the US 2-1 to take second with six. The Ghanaian victory will be controversial because the second goal game from a penalty, and the replay showed that the foul was fairly dubious.

However, even if the penalty hadn't been awarded, the group would have ended the same way. Many people expected the US to beat Ghana, but having compared the Ghanaians' performance against the Czechs with the Americans against Italy, I didn't see that happening. It wasn't just the end results; it was how those results were achieved. Ghana played assuredly, with precise passing and cool, collected defending. The US were out of sync and ineffectual and needed an own goal from a ridiculously inept clearance attempt by Zaccardo. To be fair to the US, they did improve quite a bit. They were finally able to score a goal themselves, and were flowing much better. Unfortunately, they didn't have the quality needed to get the necessary result.

Group F was more settled at the start of the day but not by much. Brazil was qualified with their six points but nobody was yet eliminated. Australia held second with three points and a goal difference of zero. Croatia and Japan were tied with one point each, but Croatia's -1 goal difference put them over Japan with their -2. The final match day put Japan up against Brazil and Australia against Croatia. As I've mentioned, Brazil was already qualified, but a point would clinch first place in the group and a match against Ghana instead of Italy. Australia needed at least a tie to secure second, and if Japan beat Brazil, a win could secure first if the margin of victory was great enough. Croatia and Japan needed victory and goals, goals, goals, because in the case where they both won they second place would be decided on goal difference.

The group F table oscillated wildly throughout the two hours. Croatia's second minute goal had them progressing. Japan moved closer with their goal in the 34th minute, with Croatia still edging them on goal difference. However, at the 38th minute, Craig Moore scored a penalty for Australia, putting the Aussies in the second spot on goal difference over Japan. In the 46th minute, the hopes of the Japanese took a blow when Brazil leveled the score at one putting them back in last place. This was how the first half ended.

In the second half, Brazil began to nail the coffin shut as they scored again to put themselves in front. Croatia revived their bid in the 56th minute Niko Kovac scored, giving them the lead over Australia. Brazil sealed Japan's fate with a third goal in the 59th minute. But the group dramatically turned around again when Australia, through Harry Kewell, tied for the second time. They were able to hold on to the tie to secure the second round spot. Brazil added one more goal in the 81st minute to complete their emphatic victory and justified their claim on the top spot.

Looking ahead, Australia will face Italy in the second round with Brazil and Ghana facing off. I think Australia will give Italy some trouble, but I see Italy as having the resources to overcome the Aussies. I think Brazil should be able to take Ghana but the Ghanaians will not just lie down and since both teams favor precision passing and attacking, it should be an excellent game. All in all, the second round is looking like it will be exhilarating.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Groups A, B, and D settled

As expected, Germany takes the top spot in Group A. Less expected was Ecuador's performance, which as impressive despite their 3-0 loss to Germany in the final game. This is the cleanest World Cup group so far with the Germans beating everybody, Ecuador beating everybody but Germany, the Poles beating just Costa Rica and the poor Ticos as the punching bags of the group. No ties, and no thoughts of tiebreakers or anything like that.

Ecuador's reward for making it to the next round is a match against England, who secured top spot in their group with a 2-2 tie with Sweden. The tie was enough for both teams to make it to the next round on points, leaving Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago behind. The England Ecuador match will be interesting, because England is not playing particularly well and Ecuador has shown they can be quite dangerous. That match is pretty close to a 50/50, and with the injury to Michael Owen, it could be an unpleasant surprise for the English. As for the Swedes, their match against the Germans sees them facing off against a German team that is growing in confidence and in good form. The Swedes will have to perform even more brilliantly than they were able to in the second half of the game against England.

This morning, Group D was settled. Portugal was able to hold on to a 2-1 advantage and progressed as group leaders with all nine points. Despite their loss, Mexico was able to progress because Angola was only able to manage a 1-1 tie with Iran, leaving those team at two and one points respectively. Mexico will face the second from Group C, which at this exact moment is the Netherlands. The Dutch are facing off against Argentina and in the 5th minute of the match we're still nil-nil. If this result holds, then it's the Argentines first on goal difference, facing Mexico in the next round, with the Dutch facing Portugal.

Well, time to put my attention where it belongs: the match.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Mexico 0-0 Angola (fulltime)

Wow. What a performance by Angola. Not exactly beautiful play, but it was good enough today to get a point and keep them alive, mathematically speaking. João Ricardo was especially brilliant, with a spectacular save in the 43rd minute of the second half on a rifled shot from Rafa Marquez.

At the moment, the Mexicans lead Group D with four points and a +2 goal difference, followed by Portugal with three points and a +1, Angola with one point and -1, and finally Iran with zero points and a -2 goal difference. Of course, Portugal and Iran will probably change all this.

For now, Angola should savor this tie with the flavor of a victory.
Mexico 0 - 0 Angola (second half)

At this point, I'm at the 11th minute of the second half and the Mexicans have just gone through a spell where they really whould have scored. However, the Angolans put together some excellent defending and saved themselves about three or four times over.

The first half ended nil-nil which looked a lot better on the Angolans than it did on the Mexicans. It seems to me that the early goal Angola gave up against Portugal might have been their "we're at the World Cup!" moment and now they're much more settled. They've actually given Mexico a couple of scares and the game could still go either way. If the Angolans tie this game, then they still have a chance mathematically. If they somehow manage to win, then they're right back in the race. Personally I'm hoping that the Angolans can get some kind of result, because it would be great to have a group where the question of who qualifies for the second round were decided by the last game.

Of course, Portugal could qualify tomorrow with a win against Iran, a result that I think most people are expecting. Actually, if that happens and Angola gets a result here, then the final match day would be really interesting. If Angola wins, then they'd be tied with Mexico at three points. Then both Mexico and Angola would be looking for a win in their last games and with as many goals as possible. Of course, if Angola ties here, then they have to hope that Mexico loses against Portugal, because even a tie for them would put them out of reach. However, Angola would still be looking to defeat Iran by as many goals as possible, because if Mexico were to lose, then goal difference would decide who goes to the second round. That would add some much needed drama, since Group C is pretty much settled.
Netherlands 2 - 1 Ivory Coast

I missed most of this match because I was watching the Argentina - Serbia & Montenegro match that I had recorded from this morning which turned out to be the right call and then some. From what I saw, the Ivory Coast looked good, and it looked like they could get the tie. The Netherlands looked good too, but not earthshattering, and certainly not good enough to beat Argentina if the Argentines play like they did today.

In any case, that's pretty much that for the Group of Death. The Netherlands have six points and a +2 goal difference, which means that they are second unless they can beat Argentina.

So far, there haven't been the surprises of the last Cup and the major powers have been progressing pretty much according to plan. The one I'm actually afraid for is Brazil. They way they've been playing, I think we could be in for a nasty shock. We'll see what happens as the second match day progresses.
Argentina 6 - 0 Serbia & Montenegro (fulltime)

Maradona has plenty of reasons to be psyched. This dominant performance leaves no doubt who should be the favorite in this Cup. Since it's likely that Serbia & Montenegro the country will be splitting into it's component parts, and that this team is almost exclusively Serb (there are two Montenegrans, I think), this is likely their second last game ever. Unfortunately for them, there's not much of an upside here. The Argentines were just on a totally different level. As far as World Cup blowouts go, this is much bigger than the 8-0 drubbing that the Germans gave the Saudis in 2002. Serbia & Montenegro has first team players from all the top leagues in Europe, and yet the Argentines were able to roll over them with ease.

The three second half goals came from Crespo, Tevez, and Messi. Tevez was particularly impressive, with his goal and the pass that allowed Messi to score his goal. Argentina are frightening and all teams in this Cup should be paying attention. They are really looking like they'll take this thing.

As for the Group of Death, Argentina look immortal. With six points and an incredible +7 (!) goal difference, they look unassailable as group leaders. I don't think the Netherlands has a similar performance in them, and I don't see them beating this Argentina.
Argentina 3 - 0 Serbia (halftime)

Argentina are just too much for the Serbs and Montenegrans. With two goals from Maxi Rodriquez and a goal from Estaban Cambiasso, they are most of the way towards a second round spot. The Argentines are simply playing a better brand of football, and even the best efforts of the Serbs have been dealt with without much trouble.

One concerning this is the fact that the referee doesn't seem to believe that the Serbs can be fouled. He is waving off apparent fouls on them at a much higher rate than those against the Argentines. Of course, this may or may not be bias, since it could just be that the apparent fouls on the Serbs are all dives, but it definitely is a pattern.

The Argentines are simply playing their game to perfection. They're being classically "South American" with their combination of precise short passing and well-coordinated runs. Played as well as this, it's a style of play that is fun to watch and deadly effective. If they didn't know it before, the rest of the Cup is now on notice: watch out for Argentina.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tomorrow's games

I'm going to try to blog tomorrow's games as live as possible, meaning a post at halftime and at fulltime as they happen. Doing it after the fact, it's hard to keep the result a secret and therefore it's hard to give fresh, unbiased commentary.

Tommorrow's games should be a great. They are all contests between teams that need to win to keep their hopes alive and teams that could book a second round spot with a victory. That suggests lots of attacking and wide-open, end to end play.

The first game, between Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro, looks like it could go to Argentina, but the Serbian team has a lot of talent and a lot of motivation after their loss to the Netherlands. They didn't have much success trying to take the game to the Dutch, but after giving up the goal they got sturdier in defense and kept them from adding to the tally. Argentina was solid against the Ivory Coast, and another performance like that should see them past the Serbs.

Netherlands and Ivory Coast is a more even match and the Ivorians might just have what it takes to surprise the Dutch. A lot will depend on how they are able to cope with Robben and the rest of the Netherland's arsenal. If they're able to keep the Dutch off the scoreboard, they could grab a winner.

Mexico and Angola looks to be the most lopsided affair, but the Angolans were surprisingly stout against the Portuguese, keeping them to the one goal after it looked like Figo and company would bury them in goals. They'll need all that and more against a Mexican team that has made "si se puede" more than just a slogan. Mexico is in high gear and will want to emphatically declare their place in the second round.

Anyway, I'm going to try to get up early to see all the games live. Wish me luck.
Group B mostly set

England will be going through on the two victories they've earned so far. Neither of these was particularly convincing and it's still extremely questionable whether a team on this form makes it past the second round.

Sweden's last minute win over Paraguay puts them in second with 4 points and a +1 goal difference. They're likely to go through, but technically speaking Trinidad & Tobago still has a chance mathematically. For that to happen, Sweden needs to lose to England, T&T needs to beat Paraguay, and all that with a four goal swing in favor of T&T. All Sweden needs is a tie against England and they're through, but of course a loss by T&T seals their fate as well.

Of course, Sweden could still be group leaders with a victory over England. This is quite possible, even though neither of these teams has been setting the world on fire. There's the distinct impression that a tie is in the cards for next Tuesday.
England 2 - 0 Trinidad & Tobago (fulltime)

As I said, England's finishing did end up being the determining factor in this game. They have serious talent on their team, but getting the ball on target seemed impossible for most of the game.

Not much else to say here, actually, other than that even with this decent result England doesn't yet look like a team that could threaten a top team. They were lucky to win against Paraguay and this result a bit fortunate as well. T&T clearly didn't have the firepower to threaten England much, and even so the English required some heroics to save the day.

Groupwise, this puts England in charge, with six points, +3 goal difference, and a ticket to the second round. It's hard to see them going too much farther than that though, since both Germany and Ecuador are both showing much more menace. Either of those matchups look like bad news for the English.
England 0 - 0 Trinidad and Tobago

England are lucky and unlucky. They're lucky because they could well be down a couple goals. They're unlucky because they could well be up a couple goals. That said, the current result is definitely a case of T&T taking a point and England giving up two.

If T&T is interested in something more than the 0-0, then they'll have to find something more to offer in attack. England on the other hand are needing a better finishing touch. They have been sending the ball towards the T&T goal constantly, but each time they're off target. It got especially bad towards the end of the half when in the space of two minutes both Lampard and Crouch managed to fluff gold-plated scoring opportunities. Crouch in particular was shocking, since he was all alone less than 10 yards in front of goal.

At this point, the second half could go either way, but I think England might have what it takes to get the result against T&T. It doesn't feel like they have a convincing win in them, but we'll see.
Ecuador 3 - 0 Costa Rica (fulltime)

Ecuador was the better team, end to end, today. The second half started out with plenty of attacking pressures from Costa Rica, but there wasn't anything new to them, just more of it. As such, the Ecuadorians spent some nervous minutes soaking up the pressure, but the Ticos didn't have the solution to their defense today.

The Ecuadorians began to wrest the game from the Ticos in the 8th minute of the second half. From inside the area, Valencia sent a cross in front of the six-yard box to Delgado, who unleashed a powerful scissors-kick volley. Unfortunately, Porras was perfectly positioned and took the shot calmly into this arms. However, one minute later he wasn't so lucky, as Edison Mendez chiped the ball over two Costa Rican defenders to Delgado, who took it on his chest and then volleyed past the keeper at the near post. A beautiful play and one of the best goals scored so far in the Cup. 2 - 0 for the Ecuadorians.

The goal increased the pressure on the Ticos and they kept trying to get those goals they so desperately need. Solis had a great run from the middle of the field into the area, but Mora parried his shot to give up a corner. If Solis had been able to get past Mora, it would certainly have been a top goal not only of this Cup, but for all time. Costa Rica wasn't able to do anything with the resulting free kick, however, and Solis' efforts go unrewarded.

Ecuador, for its part, wasn't content to lie back and let the result stand, however, and they were effective in keeping the Costa Ricans on the defensive. In the end, it was Ecuador who found the third goal, with another excellent team play two minutes into extra time. Mendez was again the creative force behind the goal, as he places yet another perfect cross, this time met by Ivan Kaviedes for a simple tap-in volley.

With this result, Group A is mostly settled. Ecuador, with six points and a goal difference of +5, sits at the head of the Group A over Germany, with their six points and a goal difference of +3. The Ecuadorians have played impressively over these past two matches and they have a bit of an advantage going to their game with Germany, as they only need a tie to secure first place in the group. However, I doubt they'll play for one as their success so far has been owed to aggressively and intelligently pressing for goals. I expect them to come out with the same sort of attitude and give the Germans a fight for the leadership of the group.
Ecuador 1 - 0 Costa Rica (halftime)

The first half has definitely favored the Ecuadorians and not only in the scoreline. They have had much better use of their possession and they have been consistently threatening whenever they approach the Ticos' box. Costa Rica, on the other hand, has been unable to trouble the Ecuadorian defense too much. The exception was a gift-wrapped opportunity that Sequeira headed wide, from a perfectly placed cross from Gonzalez, from the left corner of the penalty box to the right corner of the six-yard box. At the other end, Delgado misplayed an absolute sitter, sending Mendez' cross wide from six yards out.

If the current results hold out, then Group A is all settled except for the exact positions of first and second. As it stands, Germany is first on goals scored. Costa Rica will have to bring something really special if they don't want to be watching the second round from home.
Brazil 1 - 0 Croatia

This was an extremely frustrating match. I don't know if Parreira decided that they needed to conserve energy to face Australia after seeing the comeback against Japan. It's a crazy strategy, if that's what he was thinking. Not only could they have lost or tied, but even with the win, they could have used the lift that an emphatic win would have provided. As it is, they're now flat heading into the Australia match. I hope they can get themselves up before Sunday.

As for the game itself, I felt bad for the Croatians. Even before Kaká's goal, it was pretty clear that the Brazilians wanted to walk through the game. They weren't making any runs into the area, any serious attacks down the flank, or any use of all that talent wandering around the field. The Croatians, on the other hand, were really putting themselves into the game. Dida and the defense was playing fairly well, and it was enough to keep them at bay.

After the goal, it got only worse. Brazil passed the ball around effectively, but there was no real menace, only more and more of those shots from distance. When Robinho was introduced in place of Ronaldo, I hoped that he would use his speed and dribbling to good effect, and maybe enliven Brazil and the game. Unfortunately, he too was content to move the ball around and hope that Dida could keep the ball out.

In the end, the three points are valuable for Brazil, but they'll need to take up several notches if they're going to live up to the hype. I hope they're up to it.

Friday, June 09, 2006

World Cup 2006.

Due to fact that I had some shoulder surgery, I happen to be home during most of the World Cup. I've watched most of the matches so far, and it's been pretty good. The opening match was good, and obviously Spain - Ukraine was the surprise match so far, considering Spain's reputation as the underachievers of all underachievers.

I'm going to be using this blog to post some impressions of the games that I see. I'm going to start with Brazil - Croatia in my next post.