Saturday, June 24, 2006

Let the Games Begin

So to round two. For a while there it looked like the qualifiers would almost all be traditional powers. But while all my favourite flaky underachievers have gone though - Portugal, Spain, Holland, Mexico and England - there's also been a few surprises. The success of Ghana, Australia and Ecuador means there will be some new faces in the second round, and still a chance of a bolter getting right through to the semis.

I've rather been beaten to the punch by an article in the Guardian / Observer blog in describing my fears for the knock-out stages of this World Cup. After a pretty entertaining series of group games, with attacking play, plenty of goals, and some skillful, intricate play by Argentina and Spain in particular, there's still the chance that part two of the tournament could be a damp squib.

History says that when World Cups get to the winner-takes-all stage, teams feel heavily burdened by the fear of losing, and matches become tight, dour affairs decided by the odd goal or going down to penalties. Japan / Korea 2002 was a good example of this trend.

A reaon for being optimistic and expecting this time to be a different is the theory I described previously, relating to the movement of the ball and the improvement in attacking play, which have seen goals being scored from everywhere and teams wary of sitting back. In addition, with fewer minnows through, most games will see a contest that both sides think they can win, perhaps resulting in a more aggressive approach.

Games at this stage often turn on a stroke of luck, or a refereeing decision, so that the side with the moral claim to being "better on the day" doesn't necessarily progress.

The other great confounding factor is the vagaries of the draw.

Because the trajectories through to the semi-finals and final are already set out in a neat geometric patterns, we can already discern the likely match-ups, and groan as we see two of the favourites pitted against one another at a too-early stage. The draw for the knock-outs is divided into quadrants - and just as there are "groups of death", this time there is both a "quadrant of death", and one that looks comparatively weak.

The quadrant of death features Spain, France, Brazil, and Ghana. The last two World Cup winners, one of the two best teams at the tournament so far, and the exciting Ghanaians. Only one of these four teams can reach the semi-finals. My biggest fear here is that the aging French will call on their experience and shut out the Spanish, thus depriving us a of a classic mano a mano clash between Spain and Brazil in the quarters. Assuming, that is, that Brazil gets past Ghana, who I think will give them a huge fright and may even cause an upset.

Next quadrant across is a complete contrast, with the winner of Italy vs. Australia facing either a moderate Switzerland or a pedestrian Ukraine in the quarters. It makes you want to weep. Granted, Italy has had some bad luck in the past, going out to penalties in 1990 (semis), 1994 (final), and 1998 (quarters), and being on the wrong end of some dubious refereeing in the 2002 2-1 second round loss to South Korea. This time it looks like they've got some good karma. If they play to anything like their potential, Italy will surely be in the semis.

The other worrying fixture comes in quadrant 4, where Argentina and Germany are headed for a showdown in the quarters. It's a concern that Argentina, now probably the favourite team for most neutrals, have to face up to the hosts at such an early stage. Argentina certainly won't be beaten for skill, but with the Germans' strength, persistence, and the self-belief instilled by their home crowds, there's every chance they could squeeze a win.

Of course, it would be sad for the home team to go out, too, but it would also provide an opportunity for the amenable Germans to concentrate 100% on being fantastic hosts to a great tournament. Let's hope that Riquelme, Crespo, Saviola, Messi et al refuse to be overawed.

The other quadrant is something of a consolation, since it features three of my underachievers - Portugal, Holland and England - plus Ecuador, who have the chance to earn more respect for the next tier of South American football - much better, I feel, than the impression given by the non-Brazil/Argentina teams' usual performances at World Cups. One of these four teams will also make the semis.

I'm not going to make any predictions for the individual games, but I am:
-sticking to my orignal prediction of a Italy vs. Argentina final
-dreaming of a possible Spain vs. Argentina final
-hoping against hope that it's not Italy vs. Germany

NB (written before the matches Germany vs. Sweden and Argentina vs. Mexico,to be played in the next few hours)

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