Saturday, June 17, 2006

As Long As Its Not Italy vs. Germany

Thrilling stuff in the World Cup's first week, with lots of goals, attacking play, and several excellent games. In addition, nothing so far has contradicted my prediction that the two teams to watch would be Argentina and Italy.

Yesterday's stunning 6-0 win by Argentina over Serbia & Montenegro, with several goals which brought tears to the eyes, demonstrated exactly what I meant when I talked in previous posts about the "elaboarate interweaving of individual skills".

Overnight, there's been a lot of jumping on the bandwagon, with the Guardian, for example, asking "Can anyone stop Argentina?". But of course the caveat is that it's all too common for teams which dazzle in the group stages to be knocked out later by an opponent which is more clinical, or simply has luck on its side. And World Cup history is replete with examples of teams, which begin looking thoroughly ordinary, transforming themselves in the later stages.

It's pleasing that my favourite flaky, underachieving teams - Holland, Portugal, Spain and Mexico - have all won, and look good to go through to the second round. In fact, Spain has been the other team to impress most, with a dazzling 4-0 demolition of Ukraine, leading some to suggest that they might finally replicate the flair and confidence of their club teams at a national level.

Of the other teams, England have looked flawed and extremely pedestrian despite their two wins. Brazil were also disappointing, and appeared brittle in their win over Croatia. Worst of all, France can't seem to buy a goal, and appear unlikely to erase memories of their disaster in 2002.

On the other hand, the pessimism of the German fans has rapidly dissolved, with a couple of bright displays. They look quite potent up front, and with the home advantage and their traditional resilience, I'll be suprised if they don't make the semifinals.

The distinction seems to be between the teams that seem determined to play all their "stars", no matter how unfit, out of form, or past it (e.g. Brazil, England and France), and those which have placed an emphasis on form, youth, and a proper team structure (notably Argentina, Spain and Holland). In the former case, there's more than a suggestion that coaches have half an eye on the desires of the sponsors.

What's different from South Korea and Japan four years ago, and many previous World Cups, is that so far there haven't been any real shock upsets. I'm of the view that this is a good thing. While upsets give unpredictability to the tournament, they also lead to some poorer quality matches later on, as the minnows can't sustain their quality of play.

This time it looks like the knockout stages will be dominated by the bigger teams, so whoever gets through to the final will have proved themselves in a number of major contests.

Worst piece of luck is the demise of Ivory Coast in the "group of death". After narrow losses to Argentina and Holland, they're already out, despite having played some of the best football of the tournament so far. And like many others, I must apologise for my dismissal of Ecuador's prospects at sea level - they've been the surprise performers of the World Cup.

Overall, there's no doubt that already it's been a much better tournament than Korea & Japan 2002, or Euro 2004, where a heroic but uninspiring Greece squeezed out wins against all comers.

One of the reasons for this may be the longer preparation time - the finals have started nine days later than in 2002, so teams have had longer to overcome injuries, rest, and prepare. In addition, it may be that some of the bigger teams got such a shock at their poor performance in 2002, that they have prepared more carefully this time.

My view is that an important factor is the controversial tournament ball. So far, it's been a goalkeeper's nightmare: it flies, it swerves, it dips. With each game, more and more spectacular goals are being scored from ever more improbable distances (to my mind Torsten Frings' goal against Costa Rica was one of the best, but was upstaged by Bakary Kone's sensational effort for Ivory Coast against Holland).

The ease of scoring from distance has meant that the defensive approach of sitting deep and putting the majority of players behind the ball becomes a lot riskier. You might try and play conservative, but then - ping! - you go behind to a 30-metre screamer. Better to take an attacking approach and try and score first.

Only time will tell if this approach continues in the knockout stages.

So, what are my predictions for the knockout rounds? Really, I can't do better than pure speculation, but I will say that's I won't be at all surprised if the semi-finalists don't go outside the big four of Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany. If one of them misses out, my pick is for Brazil's fragilities to be exposed in the quarter-finals. Fourth semi-finalist? Spain or England. Don't laugh, England have a strong defense, are capable of pinching a goal or two, and usually play better against the bigger teams. Wouldn't bet on it, though.

Though I'll be holding out for a Spain vs. Argentina final, really I can live with any combination as long as it's not Italy vs. Germany. While both teams look to have made some changes and are playing in a way that gives the lie to their dour reputations, my prejudices just run too deep. Key perhaps is that my formative football-watching experience was in 1982, when Italy knocked out the beloved Brazilian team of Zico, Socrates et al, and a cynical West Germany stopped Michel Platini's France on penalties in the semi-final.

Speaking of which, if there's one more request I could make to the footballing gods, it's that as many matches as possible are won by the side that score more goals in open play. I know there's no obviously better and fairer way of separating two sides, in this day and age of tight schedules and domination by TV. But please, please, if at all possible, let there not be penalties.

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