Thursday, July 22, 2010

Football at Fenway

A ticket from the first soccer game at Fenway park in over 40 years.
Fenway Park: hallowed ground for many American sports fans; site of many dramatic baseball events, some good (Fisk's home run), some bad (Bucky "F-ing" Dent's home run); soccer pitch?  Wednesday, the historic venue, played host to a sport looking to capture the hearts and minds of Americans the way the Red Sox have captured those in New England.

Gone was the pitcher's mound, replaced by penalty spots. Gone were line drives into the corner, replaced by corner kicks. Gone was "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", replaced by soccer chants rendered almost unintelligible by the enthusiasm with which they were sung. For non-soccer fans, the game was a novelty. For those who are fans of the beautiful game, this was a chance to see two storied European clubs face off, and it just happened to be taking place in "America's Most Beloved Ballpark".

Wednesday marked the first time a soccer ball has touched the Fenway grass since 1968 when the Boston Beacons of the NASL used the field at the corner of Yawkey Way and Brookline Ave.  as their home ground.  The match up between Celtic FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal, while lacking the cache of a Manchester United or Real Madrid, still presented the fan the opportunity to see high level soccer.  Celtic is one of the most storied clubs in Scotland, having won the Scottish League 42 times and the European Cup (the predecessor to the Champions League) in 1967.  Sporting, one of the "Big Three" soccer clubs in Portugal along with FC Porto and Benfica, has won 18 Portuguese League titles and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1964.

You have got to admire this woman's fervor. (Picture courtesy of Jon Couture)
The whole experience was a tad surreal.  The Fenway area was nearly as busy as when the Sox play, bared out by the announced attendance of 32,162, with tables at many of the area restaurants hard to com by.  As I was walking toward Fenway to meet my friends for dinner before the game, I was surrounded by a sea of green, horizontal stripes (both Celtic and Sporting use a green and white striped jersey as their main kit) instead of the ubiquitous Red Sox jerseys and "Yankees Suck"  t-shirts.  Replacing the pink hats were women with green wigs (some of them riding power scooters).

Once I entered the park, the entire surreal experience continued as a good portion of the infield and parts of the warning track had freshly laid sod over the dirt.  The pitcher's mound was gone but it's specter remained, as you could clearly see the outline of where the mound had been on Sunday.  While the pitch seemed a little smaller than normal, the transformation was astonishing.  The center circle was just past 2nd base in shallow right-center.  One goal was where third base used to be, the other goal in RF.  It was a such a crazy site, one accompanied by fans with Portuguese flags tied around their necks in the right field bleachers and fans with the Scottish lion or St. Andrew's Cross nestled next to the Green Monster.

The game followed usual protocol, with both teams entering the pitch and lining up while the national anthem was played.  Both teams fielded their B+ teams, some of their usual starting eleven were in the game, but many started on the bench or did not even accompany the team on their North American tours.  One of Sporting's best players, João Moutinho, was transferred to Porto prior to the tour but, Portuguese internationals,  Pedro Mendes (started) and Liédson (off the bench) both played roles in the game.  Celtic without former starting keeper Artur Boruc, now with Fiorentina, but did start Georgios Samaras and captain Scott Brown .

Once the game got started, the first half was less than beautiful.  The type of soccer played in the first 45 minutes belied the fact that both teams are in preseason, and fed into every stereotype Americans have about soccer.  While there were a couple of half-chances, neither team looked like they were going to score.  The game did pick up in the second half, with both teams attacking more, but still not looking comfortable on the makeshift pitch.  Several corner kicks, mostly by Sporting, were sent flying over the 18 yard box, much to the consternation of the Sporting fan sitting next to me.  Liédson, introduced at the beginning of the second half, looked dangerous and provided a near goal with a well placed header.

Celtic drew first blood in the 71st minute thanks to a penalty kick by Samaras.  Samaras created the chance when he was taken down in the box on what looked to be a bit of a flop, but by the rules of the game, it was a penalty and the ref made the right call.  Samaras fooled the keeper, Rui Patrício, sending the ball to the Patricio's right as he dove left.  The goal drew a hardy roar from the Celtic fans and prompted chanting from both sides.  Sporting was able to level 10 minutes later when Hélder Postiga, who had been subbed on just minutes prior, nodded home a rebound off the crossbar.  Following the goal, the Sporting fans had Fenway rocking with intense cheers and flag waving.  There were several other good chances, but the game ended regulation in a 1-1 draw.  Since the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy was at stake, there had to be a winner.  Rather than playing the usual 30 minutes of extra time, the game went straight to the penalty shootout, much to the delight of the crowd.  While soccer purests may dislike the shootout, you cannot deny the intensity it creates.

Hélder Postiga scoring the first PK of the shootout.
The entire stadium was on its feet as Hélder Postiga stepped to the spot to takethe first PK, which he was able to put past keeper Łukasz Załuska despite Załuska getting a hand on it.  The clubs alternated scoring until Liédson stepped to the spot for the 6th PK.  As he stepped to the spot, I turned to one of my friends and mentioned how Liédson was probably the best player on the pitch and that he should easily make the spot kick.  Apparently, I jinxed him, as he sent his shot high over the bar and into the bleachers.  Paul McGowan, then stepped to the spot and won the game for Celtic 6-5 on penalties.  The mostly pro-Celtic crowd erupted as the team celebrated on the field. As "Dirty Water' blared in the background, I consoled my pro-Sporting neighbor and left the park hoping that Football at Fenway would become a yearly tradition.

Friday, July 16, 2010

MLS Needs to Allow Landon Donovan to Go to Europe

MLS announced that it would not field offers for Landon Donovan.
Too bad we won't be seeing Donovan don Everton's kit permanently.
Yesterday evening, the Associated Press ran a story where MLS commissioner, Don Garber, basically said that MLS will not field offers for U.S. World Cup star, Landon Donovan.  Garber stated, "Landon is in my view the greatest player of our generation and an incredibly valuable part of our history but also of our future. He proved in England last year on loan and he proved in South Africa that he's a world-class player and he's also proved that he loves our league and really has accepted the mantle of really being one of the leaders of the sport. It is my hope and my expectation that we have him for the rest of his career because I think the contributions that he makes are invaluable to our future success."

While not accepting offers for Donovan makes perfect sense for the league, why get rid of the most recognizable U.S. soccer player, it doesn't make sense for U.S. soccer.  U.S. soccer needs its best players to play abroad where the competition level is higher and where they will become familiar with the players and teams they will face in international competitions.  MLS needs to allow the best players to leave to go to better leagues.  Period!  By not allowing those players that prove themselves internationally to play in Europe, MLS will never get better as a league.  This might sound counter intuitive, as keeping the best players should mean the level of competition would get better; however, US players will simply not sign with MLS if they know that the league is going to block a potential more to the more lucrative and more competitive European leagues.  Smaller European nations don't keep all their best talent at home (see Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Serbia) and countries in other parts of the world keep virtually none of their best talent in domestic leagues (Australia, most African countries).  Many of these countries' best players play in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, German, France).  It should be the same with the US.

Some might argue that it would be better to keep talent at home than have them sit on the bench in Europe (see Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and others).  While I would agree in principle, I think many U.S. players go about their entry into Europe in the wrong way.  I believe that players should follow the path that Michael Bradley has taken in moving from MLS.  He first moved to a more competitive league in one of Europe's smaller countries (in his case the Netherlands) and then on to a team in one of the Big 5 leagues (he now plays for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany).  Following his standout performance at the World Cup, there are rumors that Bradley could be moving the EPL, the league for many that represents the pinnacle of soccer competition.  Under this model, MLS would have players in their early career, helping to develop the skills needed to compete.  Fans would get to see the next generation of USMNT stars and would develop rooting interests in them.  After a bit of seasoning in MLS, the players most ready to move to Europe should move to leagues in countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, or Greece.  Hopefully, at clubs in these countries American players would develop further as players, learning a more technical style to go along with the unmatched fitness that is the hallmark of the USMNT.  After proving their worth in these smaller leagues, players could then move to a bigger league where the competition level would be even higher and where skills could be further sharpened.  If U.S. players followed this formula, I believe that we would produce far more top-level soccer talent and that both MLS and the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) would benefit.

The simple fact is that U.S. players need to compete on the highest level to truly give the USMNT a chance to compete internationally.  MLS needs to get on board or get out of the way.

UPDATE (7/21/2010): Manchester City's boss, Roberto Mancini, has stated that he is interested in adding Donovan.  I'm not a huge fan of a potential move to the Eastlands for Donovan, as Man City already has a ton of wing/midfield options.  I'm not sure that he will get the playing time he needs.  I still think a move back to Everton would be the best option.  More on the rumor here:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

¡España - Campeones del Mundo!

Congratulations are in order for La Furia Roja!  Spain defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in a match marred by poor officiating, brutal tackling and missed chances.  The game will likely be remembered more for the record 14 yellow cards than for any single act in the run of play.

The game had a cracking start, with Sergio Ramos narrowly missing a header in the 5th minute.  Unfortunately, that proved to be the highlight of a half that was at best lackluster and at worst downright boring.  Ramos was probably the most dangerous player during the first 45 minutes, consistently getting forward as he did in the game against Germany. Despite Ramos' adventurous runs down the wing, the game had no flow.  Midfield destroyers, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, both received yellow cards for harsh tackles before the game hit the half-hour mark.  Nigel De Jong was lucky to not receive red a card for his karate kick to Xabi Alonso's chest.  As in virtually all their games, Spain held the ball for more of the 1st half than the Dutch.  They passed the ball well, but just couldn't break down the Dutch defense.  Mercifully, half-time came with the promise of tactical changes.  Sadly, those changes did not come and the second half was more brutal than the first.

While there were more goal-scoring chances in the second half, the tackling got harder and referee Howard Webb handed out more yellow cards.  Some of the cards were deserved, some of them were harsh.  The Dutch chose to play a cynical style, fouling the Spanish midfield in an attempt to break-up their passing and possession.  The two clearest chances were from Arjen Robben and David Villa.  Robben had a break away, a result of a brilliant pass by Wesley Sneijder, stopped on a miraculous save by Iker Casillas.  Villa had an open shot that forced Maarten Stekelenburg to make an equally brilliant save.  The Dutch looked much more dangerous after Robben replaced the ineffective Robin Van Persie at the top of the Dutch attack.  As the game got closer to full time it became apparent that we were headed for extra time.  In extra time there were some chances, with Robben and Cesc Fábregas looking the most dangerous.  Anyone watching the match knew that a red card was going to appear at some point.  That card was given to John Heitinga following a crude tackle on Iniesta.  It was Heitinga's second yellow card and left the Dutch scrambling with only 10 men to finish the remaining 11 minutes.

Ultimately, it was a typical Spanish play that led to the game winning goal.  Fábregas controlled a cross by Fernando Torres and played it to an open Andrés Iniesta.  Iniesta was kept onside by Rafael Van der Vaart who had dived in an effort to stop Torres' cross.  Iniesta made no mistake, slotting the ball past a diving Stekelenburg.  To Stekelenburg's credit, he got a hand on the shot but was unable to prevent it from hitting the net.  With that shot, the result was all but sealed as the Dutch had a mere 3 minutes and any injury time to score the leveler.  During that period the Dutch pressed, but were unable to get any true chances.  After 3 minutes of injury time, referee Howard Webb blew the whistle ending an ugly match for him and both teams.

The Dutch really have nobody to blame but themselves for the loss.  The played a negative style and never seemed interested in attacking (with the exception of Arjen Robben).  Perhaps the best criticism I've read of the Dutch style was from Jonathan Wilson of Sports Illustrated.  In his column on the final he wrote, "Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else."

After watching the entire game, here are some facts/observations:
  • Maarten Stekelenburg is better than I thought.  He was massive in this game, stopping virtually ever shot that came his way.  He made a great effort on the Spanish goal and kept the Dutch in the game.  This game showed that he is a worthy successor to Edwin Van Der Sar.

  • Spain had several wasted chances.  Ramos missed two open headers.  Fabregas wasted a breakaway attempt and another shot that came at the end of a marauding run through the Dutch center.  Villa had his shot saved by Stekelenburg and several Spanish free kicks were put either wide or over the net.

  • The Netherlands (particularly Arjen Robben) had several wasted chances as well.  Robben could have chipped Casillas on his breakaway but instead tried a driven shot that Casillas caught with his outstretched leg.

  • The Dutch played intentionally rough soccer according to defender Gregory Van Der Wiel, "Yes, we did that intentionally.  It was not the idea to let Spain play soccer comfortably. They can play fantastic soccer, and if you let them, you doom yourself. We tried to apply pressure wherever we could and tried to make the game hard on Spain."  While this makes sense, it led to a game that never really had the flow many had hoped to see.  It also proved that any vestige of Total Football is gone from the Dutch team.  Its death will be mourned by fans of the beautiful game.

  • The goal, in the 116th minute, led to Spain's 4th straight 1-0 victory and their 5th 1 goal victory of the tournament.

  • Spain scored only 8 goals in winning the tournament, easily the fewest for any World Cup winner.  The previous record was 11, shared by three teams: Italy (1934 in 4 games), England (1966 in 6 games) and Brazil (1994 in 7 games).

  • The Dutch have now lost 3 World Cup finals (1974, 1978, 2010).  The only team to have finished 2nd more often are the Germans (1966, 1982, 1986, 2002).

  • The Dutch have appeared in the most World Cup finals without winning one.  The only other teams to appear in multiple finals without a win are Hungary (1938, 1954) and Czechoslovakia (1934 and 1962).

As for the awards handed out following the game, I can't really argue with any of them.  Casillas was the best goalkeeper of the tournament.  While Stekelenburg played better than I expected, Casillas came up huge in the games that mattered most. Thomas Müller won both the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player award.  The Golden Boot is awarded o the player that scored the most goals in the tournament.  While Müller tied with Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder, and David Villa for the most goals (5), Müller won the award due to his three assists (the first tie-breaker).  Forlan shouldn't be too upset at not winning the Golden Boot, as he won the Golden Ball as the tournament's MVP.  Forlan is deserving of this award, despite playing for the 4th place team.  Forlan was classy throughout the tournament.  Take Forlan off the team and Uruguay wouldn't have even made it out of the first round.

In the end, this World Cup was compelling.  The officiating was questionable and perhaps will spur FIFA to make some changes (INSTANT REPLAY PLEASE!).  New stars emerged (Müller, Mesut Özil, Asamoah Gyan, Siphiwe Tshabalala) and veterans rose to new heights (Forlan, Luis Suárez, Stekelenburg).  Here's to World Cup 2010! Only 1432 more days until kick-off.

Friday, July 9, 2010

World Cup Final: Spain vs. the Netherlands

I'm not even sure that I need to write this post because Paul the Octopus has predicted a Spanish victory.  As far as I know, he hasn't also broken down the match-ups.  Don't worry Paul, I'll do that for you.  It can be tough blogging with 8 arms, suction cups, and no opposable thumbs.

Not since Red and Orange fought over who would be first in the rainbow (red won that fight and will here too) have we seen an epic match between those two colors.  La Furia Roja (the Red Fury) take on the Oranje (the Orange) on Sunday for the World Cup title.  Spain and the Netherlands are almost universally recognized as the two best teams to never win a World Cup.  One team loses that status on Sunday, while the other will carry that mantle for at least 4 more years.  Both are dangerous sides and have been historic underachievers.

Despite their collective, historic skill, neither team has had the success to match.  The Dutch have contested two finals (1974 and 1978), have won 1 European championship (1988) and been close several other times.  Both near misses for the Dutch involved playing the host country in the final.  Both times they lost.  South Africa has happily obliged the Dutch in not making the final, so at least they won't have to face a team with the home field advantage on their side.  Spain's best showing at the World Cup, prior to this year, was way back in 1950 when they finished 4th.  The Spanish have also won two European championships (1964 and 2008) and have been ranked 1st or 2nd for he better part of the last 2 years.  While the match may not include Brazil, Italy, England or Argentina, this is a heavyweight fight.

Goalkeeper - This match-up is almost a no-contest.   Iker Casillas is head-and-shoulders better than Maarten Stekelenburg.  I know that many have been talking Stekelenburg up during the tournament, but I just don't see it.  He was shaky against Uruguay, letting in a Jabulani goal by Diego Forlán.  Granted, Stekelenburg has made some great saves, but to call him the best keeper at the World Cup is certainly hyperbole. His time on the club level at Ajax would seem to confirm that he is a good keeper, but not of the same class as Casillas. On the other side of the pitch, Casillas has rebounded nicely from early tournament drama.  He looked distracted during the group stage, perhaps as a result of his girlfriend calling him out , or perhaps it was due to a long season backstopping Real Madrid.  Whatever the reason, Casillas has rebounded to look like the man who earned the moniker St. Iker.  I expect Casillas to perform up to his usual standards.  If Stekelenburg can regain the form he showed earlier in the tournament, the Dutch will be in a good position.  If plays like he did against Uruguay, the Dutch are in trouble.  Advantage: Spain

Defense - This match-up again favors Spain.  The Spanish fullbacks get forward better than Netherlands, especially Sergio Ramos, who was a monster in attack against Germany game.  Joan Capdevila doesn't get the same kind of press as Ramos, but he has done well on the left.  The Dutch will have Gregory Van Der Wiel back and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst did unleash what might be the goal of the tournament (watch the highlights), but the Spanish fullbacks are still the class in this game.  Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué are both better than the Dutch center back tandem of Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga.  Puyol was a beast in the Germany game, scoring the game winner in the 73rd minute.  Pique has also been solid.  The will have their hands full with the Dutch attack, but I also thought they would have difficulty with Germany and they shut down what had been a prolific German attack.  Mathijsen and Heitinga are both good defenders, but I question their ability to consistently stop the Spanish attack.  David Villa should find some room to run against the Dutch D, which is definitely not a good thing.

Midfield - This is where the game will take place.  The match in the middle of the park is the marquee portion of the World Cup finals.  The Dutch midfield will likely consist of  Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong.  I like the team better when Rafael Van der Vaart is on the pitch, but I suspect Bert van Marwijk will go with what has worked for the entire tournament (match against Uruguay not included due to De Jong's suspension).  The Spanish will have to stop Sneijder and Robben from making dangerous runs out of the midfield.  Sneijder has been electric the entire tournament.  He is tied for the Golden Boot with David Villa and doesn't look like he is going to slow down.  Robben has been excellent since his return from injury and provides the Dutch with the necessary width to attack the Spanish defense.  Kuyt has done the dirty work in attack and has been underrated this tournament.

The Spanish will likely deploy XaviAndrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets with David Silva and Cesc Fábregas off the bench. The Spanish are spoiled for choice in their lineup and having Fabregas on the bench as a super-sub is an ace in the hole for them.  David Silva or Fabregas could start in the place of the ineffective Fernando Torres, or Vicente Del Bosque could go with Pedro up front as a compliment to Villa.  I think the Spanish will need to attack down the wing in order to avoid the Van Bommel and De Jong.  It will be interesting to see if Van Bommel and De Jong can disrupt the Spanish midfield with their hard tackles.  It isn't too had to imagine a hard tackle by one of the Dutch enforcers altering the game in their favor.  Both teams hold the ball well, but Spain's game is more predicated on possession and short passing than the Dutch.  I hope that we will see the flowing soccer that has been a hallmark of the Dutch and Spanish sides in their past.  Advantage: Push

Forwards - Based solely on this tournament, this would appear to be another no-contest.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot, while Robin Van Persie has disappeared for long stretches.  Van Persie's disappearing act belies his skill, one need look no further than his campaign with Arsenal this year.  In just 2o appearances, he scored 10 goals and had 8 assists!  Not a bad ratio if you ask me.

Villa, of course, has been superlative at this World Cup and internationally for Spain.  He has been prolific for La Furia Roja, making 64 appearances and scoring 43 goals.  This past club season saw him score 28 goals and dish out 10 assists in 45 appearances for Valencia and led to a move to Barcelona.

Beyond the obvious starters, Spain has greater depth than the Dutch.  Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is not on par with Fernando Torres when he is playing his best.  Right now, the argument could be made they are much closer (given Torres' slump), though Huntelaar has seen only 49 total minutes of action in South Africa.  Beyond Huntelaar, the Dutch don't have any strikers on their roster, as Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia are wingers and generally play closer to the midfield.  Neither has seen much playing time (Babel has not gotten into a game, and Elia has played a total of 89 minutes).  As mentioned above, Pedro could also play a role in this game.  He was dangerous against Spain and could come off the bench or start in place of Torres.  Beyond Pedro, the Spanish have Fernando Llorente and Jesús Navas on the bench.  Llorente is more of a striker, while Navas is a winger.  As with their Dutch counterparts, neither has seen much time in South Africa.  Llorente has played 32 minutes, while Navas has started one game (against Honduras) and played 29 minutes in another.  Neither of Navas' games have been since the group stage.  Advantage: Spain

If Spain can keep possession the way they did against Germany and find Villa making runs through the Dutch defense Spain will win this game.  If the Spanish allow the Dutch midfield space, especially Robben and Sneijder, Spain will be in trouble.  Robben and Sneijder are creative enough to conjure moments of glory out of nowhere and the Spanish must be mindful.  Ultimately, I think the Spanish will prevail in a close game.  The top-to-bottom quality of the Spanish side will overwhelm the Dutch, despite the Dutch having a world-class midfield.  Final score: Spain 2 - Netherlands 1.

I hope that Paul the Octopus approves of this post.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

¡Viva La Furia Roja!

Looking at my predictions, I just can't seem to ever get more than 50% correct (except in the round of 16, I went 5-3).   An octopus is better at predicting the winner's than I am! While my prediction for the Spain-Germany game turned out to be incorrect, the team I wanted to win took care of business. The unlikely goal scorer, Carles Puyol, was an injury doubt but had a massive game in defense and his header in the 73rd minute propelled Spain to its first ever World Cup final.

The win was a workman like effort for Spain.  Unlike what I predicted, Spain was the better team in this game.  They dominated possession and kept the Germans from counterattacking the way they did against Argentina and England.  Vicente Del Bosque benched Fernando Torres in favor of Pedro, who was deployed on the wing opposite Andrés Iniesta. This turned out to be a smart move, as Pedro played much better than Torres has been playing.  Pedro had some chances, but did make a mistake in not passing the ball to an open Torres for a game clinching goal.  Clearly Cesc Fábregas must not have been completely healthy, as he did not feature in the game at all.  He would have been the logical choice to replace Torres in the starting eleven if he had been able to go.

An interesting match-up took place between Iniesta and Jerome Boateng.  Boateng was clearly out of his depth against the Spanish right-side of Iniesta and Sergio Ramos.  Ramos and Iniesta continually made overlapping runs in attack with Iniesta pinching into the center of the field as Ramos streaked down the touchline.  From very early in the game, Ramos was extremely high in the attacking zone.  Joachim Löw attempted to protect Boateng in the first half by switching him to the right back position, only to have Iniesta follow him across the field.  It took Löw until the 51st minute to realize that Boateng was over matched and make a substitution.  Why Löw waited this long is anybody's guess.  If he was thinking of making a change it should have been made at half time.

On the whole, the German team just did not look like the same team that scorched both Argentina and England.  For the first time since the loss to Serbia in the opening round, Germany looked like a team that didn't know what to do.  Perhaps it was their youth running up against a more experienced Spanish team.  Or perhaps Germany missed Thomas Müller more than anyone could have expected.  Müller's replacement, Piotr Trochowski,didn't play up to his level.  Mesut Özil, who received a lot of attention after his performances in the early rounds, just couldn't get anything going against the Spanish defense making Müller's absence all the more glaring.  Without Müller, Germany was out shot 13 (5 on goal) - 5 (2).  You just aren't going to win many games like that, especially against a team the caliber of Spain.

The final between the Netherlands and Spain should be fun to watch (I intend to post an in-depth preview closer to the game) and will come with some added drama as we will have a first-time winner of the World Cup.  Spain or the Netherlands will become just the 8th team to win the tournament.  This stat is incredible, given that this is the 19th World Cup.  Whether the Dutch or the Spanish win, the winner will become the first first-time winner since France in 1998.  The last team to win their first World Cup prior to that was Argentina in 1978 (against the Dutch).

Third Place Game (Saturday July 10 at 2:30pm Eastern) - Very briefly, I wanted to discuss the third place game between Germany and Uruguay.  I think this game should be fun to watch, as both teams possess top class attacking talent.  Luis Suárez will be back from his red card for Uruguay and will likely pair up top with the ever-present, Diego Forlán.  Müller will also return from suspension for Germany.  With Lukas Podolski, Özil and Müller reunited behind Miroslav Klose, Germany should make a return to the attacking form that made them so fun to watch earlier in the tournament.  Ultimately, Germany just has more talent than Uruguay at virtually every position.  It would take a massive game from Suárez and Forlán for Uruguay to win.  Germany wins this game to finish 3rd for the second straight World Cup.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Before I launch into my preview of the Germany-Spain match, let's look back at today's game between Uruguay and the Netherlands.  The game turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, with 5 goals being scored.  Two of the tournament's best performers (Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán) were again on display.  Sneijder bagged his 5th goal and is tied with David Villa for the Golden Boot.  The Dutch's first goal was a great shot from distance by veteran left back,  Giovanni Van Bronckhorst.  The ball was a great strike into the top corner, Fernando Muslera could do little to keep it out.  Uruguay equalized through a goal by Forlán just before the half.  The Dutch pushed for a good portion of the second half and finally got a goal when Sneijder's shot from the edge of the box took a funny bounce off of Maxi Pereira.  There is a question as to whether the goal should have been allowed, as Robin Van Persie (who has been less than stellar this World Cup) was narrowly offside.  Perhaps the referee saw him as being in a passive position (most definitely not) or perhaps he called him onside due to Maxi Pereira's "playing" of the ball.  Either way, the goal counted.  THe Dutch scored again through a sublime build up and cross by Dirk KuytArjen Robben finished the cross from Kuyt to put the Oranje up 3-1.  Uruguay pushed in the final 5 minutes with Maxi Pereira scoring a goal off a well-played free kick that was laid off to him at the top of the box. The win propelled the Dutch to their first World Cup final since 1978 and assured an all European final.

An interesting thing about the Dutch win is that it eliminated the last South American team from the 2010 World Cup. South American teams had been dominant up to the quarterfinals, with 4 out of the 5 entrants making it to the final 8. Uruguay was the only South American team to make the semifinals.  Europe, on the other hand, has had a shaky Cup, until now.  Three European teams made it to the final 8.  All three advanced to the final 4 and we will have 2 European teams in the final.  Which team will be the second European team in the 2010 World Cup final? Let's break down the match.

This is a match of a team that classically overachieves versus a team that is trying to permanently shed its underachiever label.  Spain went a long way to shedding that ignominious label by beating Germany in the Euro 2008 final. The win propelled Spain to the #1 spot in the FIFA rankings, but a series of less than stellar outings allowed Brazil to regain the top spot.  Spain's loss to the US at the 2009 Confederations Cup combined with an opening game loss to Switzerland at this World Cup made the Euro 2008 victory seem like a thing of the past.  Spain has rebounded nicely to make it to their first ever semifinal at the World Cup.  Germany, on the other hand, are in their 4th semifinal in a row and are seeking a shot at their 4th title.

Goalkeeper - Captain, and arguably best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas is in net for Spain, while relative newcomer, Manuel Neuer will again backstop Germany.  Initial reaction from most fans would be the this is a no contest victory for Spain; however, Casillas has seemed a bit distracted throughout the tournament.  That said, a distracted Casillas is still better than most goalkeepers, and he rose to the occasion against Paraguay.  His save of  Óscar Cardozo's PK was clutch!  The save kept Spain in the game and allowed David Villa to score the game winner.  Neuer has been playing very well and has only conceded 2 goals the entire tournament.  He is still untested in truly big games (and this one is massive).  Will he rise to the occasion?  Advantage: Spain

Defense - Here too, many fans might see Spain has having a much better defense than Germany.  Look past the glitzy names like Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué and this match up is much closer than it initially appears.  Spain certainly has the name recognition, but Germany's defense has been excellent throughout the tournament.  While they are susceptible to the counter attack, as show by England, they bend but don't break.  Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker might not have the name recognition of the Spanish center back tandem, but they have played every bit as well.  They worked tirelessly to keep Argentina's potent offense off the score sheet, making Lionel Messi look a bit lost.  Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm have also done well at the full back positions, both in defense and going forward in attack. There has been some speculation that Puyol may miss game due to injury, which would likely mean Carlos Marchena or Raúl Albiol would start in his place.  Both replacements are solid, but Puyol marshals the back line very well, and his presence would be missed.  Advantage: Spain (by a small margin if Puyol plays).

Midfield - Spain, once again, has the star power in midfield with the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fábregas (who will likely start, if healthy, in the place of the slumping Fernando Torres).   If Spain elects to sit Torres, they will employ a 4-5-1 formation, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso playing behind the aforementioned trio.  Keep in mind that Fabregas appears to be nursing a leg injury, suffered during practice on Monday.  The Spanish midfield typically has a lot of possession as they like to use short passes to cut open defenses.  This, however, has allowed some teams to shut them down (see the US at the Confederations Cup, Switzerland and even Paraguay in defeat).  Their reliance on short passing can make them one-dimensional in their attack.  It wasn't until the 83rd minute that Spain finally broke through against a tiring Paraguay (remember Paraguay had just played a game that went to PKs against Japan).  Germany has shown that it is a master of counterattacking in this World Cup.  Manager, Joachim Löw, has used his talent to the best of its abilities.  Thomas Müller has been a revelation, but will miss the semifinal due to yellow card accumulation.  Finding his replacement could be tough given how well he has been playing.  Even without him, Germany are strong with emerging holding midfielder Sami Khedira, attacking starlet Mesut Özil, and veteran playmaker/free kick specialist Bastian Schweinsteiger.  This match up shuld be fun to watch, as the Spanish try to break down the German back line and the Germans counterattack. The emergence of Özil, great play from Schweinsteiger and Khedira, and the potential injury to Fabregas make this an even match up.  Advantage: Push

Forward - As with every other area of the pitch, the Spanish have more star power up front.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot with 5 goals and Fernando Torres has been prolific for Liverpool since joining the EPL.  Torres, unfortunately for Spain, has not been able to translate that form to the international stage.  He has looked tired, lost, and just plain bad most of the tournament.  This is likely to prompt Spain into a tactical switch, leaving Villa as the lone striker.  Germany has Miroslav Klose, a man who knows how to score goals for his country, particularly in the World Cup. Klose (14 career goals at the World Cup) is 1 goal from tying Ronaldo for the most World Cup goals scored by a player in his career.  He has been his usual, solid self all tournament.  Lukas Podolski has been excellent setting up the attack and has found the back of the net twice himself.  Germany has more depth than Spain, being able to bring Cacau and Mario Gomez off the bench.  Both players are dangerous.  Spain has Fernando Llorente and wingers Pedro and Jesús Navas.  All are good players, but none have the finishing ability of Cacau or Gomez.  Advantage: Germany

Germany is a classic example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts.  They have several excellent players, but none are as flashy as their Spanish counterparts.  While Spain, on paper, has a better grouping of players, Germany has a better team.  For this reason, and Löw's tactical superiority over Vicente Del Bosque, Germany will win this game.  They have looked much better throughout the tournament than Spain, but I still want to see Spain win.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Netherlands vs. Uruguay... The Semifinal Everyone Thought Would Happen

Since "I Didn't See That Coming" was the title of my last post, I couldn't repeat that for this post; however, I did not see this coming as the semifinal on this side of the bracket (I though Uruguay-Brazil was more likely).  Sure some people might have picked this as a semifinal when the tournament made it to the final 16 or at the quarterfinal stage, but I doubt (m)any people would have predicted this at the beginning of the tournament.  Not to take anything away from the Netherlands and Uruguay, but both teams are playing tomorrow thanks to mistakes and missed opportunities by the teams they ultimately defeated.  A Brazil own goal (now credited to Wesley Sneijder) and red card meltdown by Felipe Melo helped propel the Dutch to their first semifinal since 1998.  A miraculous stupid/sublime handball by Luis Suarez, the subsequent Asamoah Gyan missed PK and Ghana's inability to make PKs as a team are the reason Uruguay are still alive.  Despite making it to the semifinal thanks for a bit of luck, both teams have played well throughout the tournament - Uruguay has 4 wins and a draw, and the Dutch have 5 wins.  The game (2:30 Eastern on Tuesday 7/6) should be a good one.

Goalkeeper - Neither goalkeeper is known on the world stage the way the goalkeepers on the other side of the draw are; however, both Fernando Muslera and Maarten Stekelenburg have played very well in this tournament.  Muslera has only conceded 2 goals through 5 games and save two PKs against Ghana in the shootout to propel Uruguay to the semifinals.  Muslera has played well enough this World Cup to, perhaps, draw the interest of some bigger clubs in Europe.  At the very least, his play this summer has solidified his place as first choice at his club, Lazio.  Stekelenburg has been equally as good, surrendering just 3 goals in the 5 Dutch wins.  I didn't think he would be able to withstand Brazil's attack, but he was up to task.  He made several stellar saves on Brazilian attacks and kept the Dutch in the game, allowing Sneijder and the rest of the Dutch attack to conjure a second half comeback.  Stekelenburg's performance must have also caught the eyes of the big clubs around Europe, and Ajax may be in for a fight to keep him in Amsterdam.  Advantage: Uruguay by a small margin.

Defense - Both teams play four defenders across the back and have been solid throughout the tournament.  Both teams are also facing injuries/suspensions along their back lines.  The Celeste must play without their captain and best defender, Diego Lugano, who is out with a knee injury and left back Jorge Fucile who is out due to yellow card accumulation.  With both players out, Uruguay will have a patchwork back line, which could make them vulnerable to the potent Dutch attack.  Whoever replaces Fucile will have to deal with Arjen Robben, no easy task.  The Dutch will also be without two of their starters.  Right back, and one of my favorite defenders of the tournament, Gregory Van Der Wiel is suspended for yellow card accumulation, and center back Joris Mathijsen is questionable.  The Dutch defense performed fairly well against Brazil but Mathijsen's replacement, Andre Ooijer, kept Robinho on-side for Brazil's goal.  Given that Van Der Wiel's likely replacement is Khalid Boulahrouz, an experienced defender, and Ooijer's better play in the 2nd half, the Dutch are in better shape than Uruguay.  Advantage: Netherlands

Midfield - As with the previous positions, both teams are getting strong performances from their midfields.  Uruguay typically plays with 4 midfielders (although Edinson Cavani wanders forward quite often), while the Dutch play an attacking 5-man midfield (with Robben, Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt, playing in front of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong.  Uruguay's central midfield has been strong, helping the defenders thwart attacks.  Diego Perez will need to keep playing at a high level in order to disrupt the Dutch midfield.  It is possible that Álvaro Pereira will be called upon to play left back, which would create a hole on the left side of the midfield.  In addition, Uruguay will be without Nicolas Lodeiro, who has a broken foot, taking a bit of bite out of their attack.  The midfield is the strong point for the Dutch, featuring Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Bommel and De Jong.  De Jong, however, will be missing from the midfield due to yellow card accumulation.  His absence shouldn't prove too costly, as the other 4 members of the starting Dutch midfield are all world class players and will be able to play.  Advantage: Netherlands

Forwards - Uruguay's forwards have certainly been more potent than the Dutch forwards so far.  Sneijder, a midfielder, leads the Dutch in scoring.  Robin Van Persie, the starting Dutch forward, has only one goal during the World Cup and hasn't really looked dangerous during many of the games. The Dutch are attacking much more out of midfield. Uruguay, on the other hand, has an in form Diego Forlán, who has 3 goals so far and has been dangerous from set pieces. Uruguay will be without Suarez (3 goals) following his game saving red card, which means that Edinson Cavani and Sebastián Fernández will be called on to replace his goal scoring.  Forlán has been dangerous and has had a better tournament than Van Persie.  If Suarez weren't suspended, this would be a no contest for me.  I think, on the whole, Uruguay's forwards are more dangerous than the Dutch forwards.  Advantage: Uruguay

These two teams are certainly no strangers to World Cup finals or semifinals.  The Dutch have been to two finals (losing both) and finished 4th in 1998.  Uruguay has won the World Cup twice (1930 and 1950) and finished 4th twice (1954 and 1970).  Which team will be able to recapture the glories of the past?  While both teams won two areas of the field, the Dutch midfield is just so much stronger than any part of Uruguay's team (even counting Forlán, who has been splendid).  The Dutch will use their strong midfield to dominate possession and break down Uruguay's defense.  The left side of the field could prove to be problematic for Uruguay, as Robben will be going against the replacement for Fucile.  Sneijder has also been on fire and must be closely monitored.  I see the Dutch winning this game, setting up an all European final.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I Didn't See That Coming

The Germany-Argentina game was shocking. Who could have seen a 4-0 demolition by the Mannschaft coming? Germany is way better than I thought.

Also, Luis Suarez's seemingly bone-headed red card saved Uruguay from elimination. Now the play looks brilliant as the Celeste get to play another game.

Spain must do their thing now. I am looking forward to the semis. The games should be fun.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

World Cup Quarterfinal Preview and Predictions

Having taken a vacation to recover from the US's crushing loss to Ghana, it's back to the World Cup.  Despite the lack of both England and the US, I am still enamored with the quadrennial football fiesta.  The one thing that is missing is a team to support.  At the beginning of the tournament, as with Euro 2008, I was into the Dutch.  What's not to like?  They play flowing soccer that is beautiful to watch.  Yet, as the tournament has gone on, the in-fighting in the Dutch camp has left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I just can't bring myself to root for Brazil or Germany.  I almost likened cheering for them to cheering for the Yankees, but the Brazilians are eminently more likeable, the Germans marginally so.  For obvious reasons Ghana is out.  Paraguay just doesn't do much for me.  They don't play exciting soccer and they don't have any superlative talents to seduce me.  Uruguay has some appeal.  They are a plucky country with a strong World Cup tradition (they won in 1930 and 1950).  They also sport Luis Suarez, the best forward many people have never heard of.  Check him out, he was prolific with Ajax and will be the target of a big money move this summer.  There is something about Argentina that I like.  Is it their crazy manager?  Their diminutive talisman?  Or those spiffy uniforms?  I'm not sure, but they are a close second for me right now.  In discussions at work, I think I've settled on Spain.  They are fun to watch.  Their midfield picks teams apart and David Villa is a striking dynamo.  Can Spain win?  Yes.  They are the #2 team in the world and thankfully, they are on the opposite side of the bracket as Brazil.

Netherlands (#4 in the FIFA World Rankings) vs. Brazil (#1) - 10am, Friday 7/2:  It is truly a shame that this match is happening at the quarterfinal stage.  This match pits one of the best teams never to win a World Cup against the only team to win on 4 (hoping to make it 5) different continents.  Brazil has looked like a machine during the tournament.  They easily finished first in the supposed "Group of Death", never really having a problem.  They then dismantled a Chile team that was playing some excellent soccer coming into their round of 16 match.  While Brazil may not have their traditional flare, they are still fun to watch.  They are a tough squad that mirrors their manager and if it is possible with a Brazil team, they are greater than the sum of their parts (which is substantial).

The Dutch marched through their group and swept away Slovakia in the round of 16.  Arjen Robben returned to provide the spark the Dutch needed and should be a greater contributor against Brazil.  (As an aside, does anyone think that Robben is soccer's Greg Oden, a man who despite being a relatively young age looks like he's about 50).  The Dutch have played excellent defense and but have lacked a little of their traditional attacking flare.  What they haven't lacked is their traditional in-fighting.  Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder just can't seem to bury a hatchet that has been around since Euro '08 and this tension has spilled over to the rest of the team.  Another question mark is Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch keeper.  He has played admirably thus far, but can he withstand the Brazilian attack?

This match should provide some fun soccer.  Ultimately, I think that Brazil's strong midfield and defense (captained by Lucio) will clog the field and prevent Robben, Van Persie, Sneijeder and the rest of the Dutch attacking talent from truly opening up the game.  I also believe that Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Kaka will conjure enough magic to break through the Dutch defense.  Prediction: Brazil 

Uruguay (#16) vs. Ghana (#32) - 2:30pm, Friday 7/2:  The late game tomorrow pits a team that has been to the top of the mountain (albeit 60 years ago) against Africa's last hope.  Uruguay has looked impressive thus far, easily winning its group (thanks in part to an imploding France and a not ready for prime time South Africa).   It took a late winner from the aforementioned Luis Suarez to defeat South Korea in the round of 16, but Uruguay had the better of the chances in that game.  Uruguay has displayed an attacking style that is fun to watch, and they have two top level forwards in Suarez and Diego ForlanFernando Muslera, who plays his club soccer with Lazio in Italy, has been great in goal.  Uruguay will be missing defender Diego Godin, due to injury, and will have to find a replacement.

Ghana, as we know, defeated the US in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals.  Prior to that, they finished 2nd in what I thought was the toughest group at the World Cup.  They were able to make it out of a group that consisted of Germany, Serbia and Australia.  Ghana is the lowest ranked team left playing in the World Cup and was the lowest ranked team in their group.  The Black Stars have taken advantage of home-field advantage and are receiving the support of the entire continent of Africa.  Ghana hadn't scored a goal in the run of play prior to the US game, so scoring for them could be difficult.  Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng will provide the attacking impetus.

This match could be fun, though I doubt it will be as exciting as the early game tomorrow.  Ghana's defense and goal-keeping has looked shaky (the US game notwithstanding) and I think that the Uruguayan front line will be able to pick its spots.  I also think that Ghana will find it difficult to break down the Uruguayan defense and get a shot past Muslera.  Forlan and Suarez will lead Uruguay to its first semifinal appearance in 40 years.  Prediction: Uruguay

Would you want to mess with this guy?
Argentina (#7) vs. Germany (#6) - 10am, Saturday 7/3:

This match has generated the most off-field buzz, as one might expect when the match includes Diego Maradona.  A war of words has erupted between Germany and Argentina that stems from bad blood created at the 2006 World Cup.  Germany defeated Argentina on penalty kicks in that game, which was followed by some unsportsmanlike conduct (punches were thrown).  Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of Germany's most important midfielders, admitted that he has been thinking about the 2006 match and expects Argentina to try to stir things up.  Diego Maradona, of course, replied to Schweinsteiger's comments by donning a mock German accent to taunt the midfielder.  Maradona is crazy, who knows what the guy will do next.  It is part of Argentina's appeal.  Carloz Tevez also got in on the war of words stating that he believed Mexico were better than Germany (a statement that is clearly false, my US fan credentials aside).

On the field, Germany has been its usual efficient self.  Apart from a 1-0 loss to Serbia (partially thanks to a dubious red card), Germany has looked every bit a contender.  Disallowed goal or not, Germany demolished England in the round of 16, dismantled Australia in the group stage and eased past Ghana.  The side is a mix of new and old, and features some up-and-coming talents that will surely be targets in the summer transfer window.  Mesut Özil has been a revelation, for Germany in the midfield and Thomas Müller has been his equal.  These World Cup rookies have been guided along by veterans like Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Lucas Podolski, and Philipp Lahm.  Germany was once again unfancied coming into this tournament but have (as is usual for German teams) stepped up when it matters most.

Just as Germany has looked dominant in their run to the quarters, Argentina has been clicking on all cylinders.  Following an uninspiring 1-0 victory over Nigeria, Argentina then scored 9 goals while conceding just 2 over its next three games.  Destroying South Korea 4-1, Greece 2-0 and Mexico 3-1.  Gonzalo Higuain, has been in fine form, and the defense has made a minimum number of mistakes.  Lionel Messi hasn't scored yet, but his presence is almost worth as much as his goal scoring.   Argentina's mercurial manager has actually made some shrew managerial decisions, and hasn't impeded a stacked team's progression.

Whether Argentina's defense can hold is a question that must be answered.  They will face a difficult task against Germany, but I think they are up to it.  Argentina will get some revenge for the loss in 2006 and advance to the semifinal.  Prediction: Argentina

Paraguay (#31) vs. Spain (#2) - 2:30pm, Saturday 7/3:  The last of the quarterfinals might also be the least intriguing.  Spain should dominate this match, at least on paper.  Paraguay has played well throughout the tournament, winning a group that included Italy.  Looking back, Paraguay may have won the easiest group in the tournament.  New Zealand were up for a match, but certainly aren't that dangerous and Slovakia were never able to regain their qualifying form.  Paraguay's victory over Japan was a scoreless affair that required penalty kicks to decide the outcome.  Thus far, Paraguay has only scored 3 goals.  On the other hand, they have only conceded 1 goal.  Paraguay needs to play amazing defense to shut down the Spanish midfield and a great game from Roque Santa Cruz or Óscar Cardozo if they want to advance.

Following a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game, Spain has looked like the team that won Euro 2008.  They have passed the ball beautifully through midfield, defended well, and David Villa has been his usual goal-scoring self.  The one negative thus far has been Fernando Torres inability to find the form that made him one of the most feared strikers in the EPL and all of international soccer. I don't think that Spain will need Torres to find that form to win this game.  Will they need it to win the tournament?  Yes, they will.

My guess is that Paraguay will try to sit back on defense and then counter-attack.  This could lead to a rather drab game.  I, ultimately, see Spain winning this game after they break down Paraguay's defensive shell.  Prediction: Spain

If my predictions are right, there will be three South American teams in the semifinals, an incredible stat when you think that South America only sent 5 teams to the World Cup.  The match-ups would be Uruguay-Brazil and Argentina-Spain.  Both games should be fun to watch and the possibilities for the finals are tantalizing.  I can only hope that my support of Spain doesn't jinx them the way my support of the US and England contributed to their respective downfalls.  Viva La Furia Roja!