Sunday, July 02, 2006

FWC 2006: Best World Cup Ever?

The quarterfinals are over, and as one looks back at the matches gone by, there is a certain excitement one feels, and many neutrals have already classified this as the best tournament in history. A few days ago, it was still being disputed, for Brazil didn't seem to have any challenges, but now that theory has been turned on its head with a Zizou-inspired performance that saw the World Champions eliminated from the tournament.

Think about it. Goals galore. The tournament averages nearly 3 goals a game. And with the Teamgeist causing keepers problems, that has led to some truly spectacular goals. There have been so many goals in this tournament capable of entering the tournament's all time Top 10 for sensational strikes that I have lost count. And you know, there is a bit of magic in the air when Frings and Lahm are in that category. It doesn't hurt that 19 goals have been scored in the first 10 minutes and 35 in the last 10, not to forget an extra time stunner from Maxi Rodriguez.
Not to forget the team goals, brilliant displays of teamwork and precision that have lit up the cup. Who can forget Esteban Cambiasso's goal against Serbia and Montenegro? 24 Argentina passes involving 8 different players, ending with a fabulous backheel from Crespo to Cambiasso, and BANG! The ball was in the back of the net. The Brazilians went one better against Ghana, passing 24 times within their own half before launching a long ball, which a flying Ze Roberto latched onto and dispatched. Cynics like me will point out that it was a deliberate move from the Brazilians to go past their South American rivals.
Not that either team really profitted from their flair play. Both teams went out shockingly in the quarterfinals, Argentina in a penalty shootout against the tactically astute Germans, and the Brazilians finding themselves 'outBraziled' by Zidane. That left just 4 teams in the competition, all European. Something of a shock since all the bets were on an Argentina-Brazil final.
Of course, some will say that this tournament was a bit boring in that all the semifinalists are European. I disagree for this shows the rest of the world that technique and tactics are crucial, something which the normally tactical coaches of Argentina and Brazil, Pekerman and Parreira respectively, threw out of the window at the wrong moment. The Africans were disappointing in this tournament with only Ghana reaching the second round. They probably deserved nothing better in my opinion, as they displayed the usual African tendency to go solo rather than build up to goals. However, there are still pluses for these teams, such as Ghana's humbling of the World Number 2 Czechs, Ivory Coast's spirited performances, and Tunisia's gutsy displays. Asians were even more disppointing, with South Korea being the only team from the continent not to finish bottom of its group, and for that they can thank Togo, the worst team of the competition.
On the whole, it was the deserving teams that got through, albeit with some controversy.
There were a few brawls, and while they were a disgrace to the spirit of football, for entertainment value these matches brought a spark to the tournament, and displayed the players' passion for the game. On the whole, these matches did bring a special something to the tournament that we won't see for a long time.
The fans were brilliant too, and why wouldn't they be? Franz Beckenbauer and the Organizing Committee were absolutely brilliant in the way they set up areas specially for fans, making it a joy for all those in the country, even those who couldn't get tickets to watch matches.

Goals, cards, feuds, the odd shock and yet the proven superiority of class and technique, and a whole host of bright young faces that lit up the tournament such as Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, Tranquillo Barnetta and Fernando Torres, coupled with the international rebirth of proven players such as Zidane, Ronaldo and Klose. Yes, this is truly, in my opinion, the best World Cup ever.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Argentina 6-0 Serbia and Montenegro

It has been about 20 hours since the match between Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro, yet I still can't find the right words to describe my state after that massacre. Flabbergasted? Somewhat. Shocked? Yes. Astounded? Yes. Thrilled and excited? Of course, I couldn't control my laughter watching what seemed the most one sided match in history. Still, these words don't even begin to describe what sort of impact a match like that can have on an already dazed kid like myself.
Let's be clear about a few things. Serbia and Montenegro is a very good team, with what is generally a brilliant defence. So, was the scoreline a bit exaggerated? Definitely not. Argentina destroyed the players from the former Yugoslav nation with the best passing game the world has ever seen (I am probably not exaggerating here). Things could have been far worse for the Serbs and Montenegrins. Argentina had a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside, and also looked like they were cruising in second gear. This was a team that had the luxury of players like Cambiasso, Messi and Tevez come off the bench to score, while the first team excelled too. Spain-Ukraine was a bit flattering in terms of the scoreline, as there was plenty of dodgy refereeing involved, though the better team did win in the end. In this case, there was no such problem. This was Argentina in cruise mode. And the rest of the teams in the tournament just saw why this team is rated the best Argentinian side since the 1986 winning one. If last week's Czech demolition of USA was awe-inspiring, you'd have to come up with a whole new word for Argentina's performance.
The first goal was a great team goal with plenty of passes, and was finally converted by Maxi Rodriguez. Soon after, the normally impressive Luis Gonzalez was taken off injured and replaced by Esteban Cambiasso. The sub made his presence felt soon enough, scoring after a fabulous move that involved 24 passes from 8 different outfield players. If Maradona's second goal against England in 1986 was the best solo goal ever, this is the best team goal ever, arguably. Things only got worse for the shocked SCG team when Rodriguez scored again after a brilliant display of opportunism by Saviola. A perfectly legal goal from Crespo was then ruled out for offside, and the player was booked for supposed 'time wasting.'
After the break, however, there was no respite, as wonderkids Tevez and Messi came on, and both scored, as did Hernan Crespo.
Simply put, this was a masterclass in football, and every team in the competition will try and cut classes when Argentina is teaching.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Failing France...

It would be fair to say that France are a pale shadow of the glorious WC 98 and Euro 2000 winning team.

A lacklustre qualifying campaign and a dull start to the Cup has raised fears that it is going to be a repeat of the 2002 debacle. But how have the mighty fallen so badly? The answer lies in their two best players, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.

Put bluntly, Zidane and Henry simply aren't compatible with each other. Henry is a striker whose essential need is space- space in which to run, to get past people and to get in on goal. Therefore it is imperitive that to get the best out of him, attacks are like rapier thrusts- quick and direct, so that when he gets the ball in the final third, the opposition is still struggling to regroup, giving him the opportunity to use his pace. Zidane, for all his attributes, tends to slow down the game. So by the time the ball reaches Henry, he is surrounded on all sides by the defence, and sees no way to go, no space in which to run.

There are two possible solutions to this problem: a) Drop Zidane or b) Drop Henry. If the former, then France need to play Vieira in the centre and Malouda on the right, and Trezeguet alongside Henry in a 4-4-2 formation so that they can break with pace and get the ball early to the Arsenal man. If the latter, then France need to play either Trezeguet as the lone striker or pair him up with Saha and drop Vieira.

The main problem is Raymond Domenech's indecision whether to build the team around Henry or Zidane. Quite clearly there is no space in the side for both of them. There is still time to take the bild step, but if Domenech persists with this line-up, it is a recipe for disaster... and instead of the chants of "Allez Les Blues", we could soon be hearing cries of "Sacre Bleau!" from the French fans.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Redemption for FWC 2006!

Just as I thought the first day of the World Cup was going to be the only decent day in terms of excitement during this tournament, I was, thankfully, proved wrong. First, I witnessed the most exciting match of FWC 2006 so far. Then came the most dominant performance.
The first game of the day was between Japan and Australia. After some bright play early on by Australia, Japan got a completely undeserved lead through Shunsuke Nakamura's cross when 2 Japanese players wrestled Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer to the ground, hence allowing Nakamura's cross to float into goal. Mysteriously, the ref didn't spot a thing, much to the fury of Socceroos coach Guus Hiddink. Sadly, this travesty let Japan have the lead well into the second half as well, until Hiddink, out of desperation, brought on Josh Kennedy, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi. Kennedy caused problems to the Japanese immediately with his aerial ability and his unique movement when on the ground. Cahill and Aloisi took time to settle down, but when they did, the game was turned on its head. In the 84th minute, after confusion in the Japanese penalty area following a throw in, Cahill slotted the ball home. 5 minutes later, he received the ball on the edge of the box, and slammed one onto the inside of the post. 2-1. The Japanese were fading fast, and Aloisi then compounded their misery, and Hiddink's selection headaches for the next match, by running through the defence to score his 23rd international goal. Easily the best match of the tournament so far.
Things were to get even better for football in general, and for the Czechs in particular. After a dominant performance at Euro 2004, many felt they were past their best after having to scrape through to the finals after 2 1-0 wins in the playoffs against Norway, and 2 defeats by Holland in the group stages, their World Number 2 ranking seemingly undeserved. Today, they proved their doubters wrong. They put in the most dominant performance of the last one year, at least, at club and international level (and I am including 6-1, 6-0,7-0 results and even Brazil's 8-0 win over a Swiss second division side). The best way to express how the United States players and coaches must have felt during the side's 3-0 loss to the Czechs can best be expressed in boxing terms. Imagine you are a boxer, and you draw your hand back to deliver what you think is a killer blow to your opponent. And while you are drawing your hand back, he punches you 4 times in the face and knocks you to the ground. He does this many times, and just tries not to deliver a knockout blow to see how long he can keep the fun going. Imagine yourself in this state and you would know just how USA coach Bruce Arena felt. His side dominated possession, but just to try and keep the Czechs from getting the ball.
Not that it worked. Rosicky, Nedved and Poborsky just kept going at the US defence. And Koller up front scored an early goal. It must have been heartbreaking for 6 foot tall Damarcus Beasley to leap and find the ball flying over him, and then turn around to see the tallest player in the tournament crouch to head the ball in. Even when he left with a hamstring injury, the US had no respite, as 6'5" Vratislav Lokvenc came in. No need for Milan Baros, it seems.
Elsewhere, Rosicky, aided by Nedved, plagued the Americans, and slammed 2 beautiful goals, the first arguably the best goal in the tournament (at least as good as Frings') and the second after being released by a beautiful piece of vision from Nedved. All in all, 3-0 doesn't even begin to convey the Czech dominance, and it makes one wonder why Arsene Wenger wants to convert one of the best attacking midfielders in the world (Rosicky) to a winger. Especially when his last such experiment, Aliaksandr Hleb, is still to perform at around 5% of his capabilities (hopefully, he will get there).
Anyway, I am pretty glad I decided to watch all the matches today. Now to watch Italy take on Ghana. So long!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Can England do it?

-Michael Steele, Getty Images

As Skysports commentators Martin Tyler and Andy Grey never fail to remind us, England last won the World Cup in 1966 and this is their best shot of repeating that feat in the last forty years. That is probably right, if only Sven Goran Eriksson would get his men to throw off the chains and start playing real football.

With the wealth of attacking talent England have, you really have to wonder at the pragmatic approach adopted by Beckham and co. After a perfect start against a very average Paraguay side, England's failure to build on the momentum was extremely disappointing. Instead the team sat back, and allowed the Central Americans to come on to them in hopes of an equaliser, hopes which should have been extinguished for good in the first twenty minutes itself.

Eriksson's post match comments regarding Michael Owen's fitness were baffling to say the least. The Newcastle man is a pale shadow of the tearing forward who so terrorized Argentina in 1998. His pace is gone, his touch has deserted him and it looks as if his predatory instincts are failing as well. And as to his substitution, why, oh why Sven, did you bring Downing (left winger) on??? What was the point of taking Theo Walcott to Germany if not to unleash him on defences in situations like these? If you were never so confident about him, you might as well have taken Defoe. Also, what's with this Owen Hargreaves fascination you have? Why remove Joe Cole, your best attacking player on the night, for a defensive midfielder? You weren't protecting a one goal lead against Brazil or Holland, you know.

Another thing which could end up being England's downfall is Sven's insistence on playing Steven Gerrard out of position. The Liverpool man is not a defensive midfielder and has never been one. He is a creator, not a destroyer. And moreover, he is better than Lampard. The absence of Rooney's genius and Gerrard's drive (in the attacking role) were major contributors to the listless display we saw yesterday.

If, in spite of Eriksson's caution which verges on the absurd, were England to win the World Cup, it would be in the same pragmatic manner, and it would get them few fans. Learn from the Dutch, Sven, that in the long run it's better to lose beautifully than win ugly. You have a team, which on their day, can give the Brazilians a run for their money. Use it well.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Germany 4-2 Costa Rica

What a start to the Greatest Show on Earth! After a rather low key opening ceremony (as per FIFA's orders), the world witnessed the highest scoring opening match in World Cup history, and arguably the most exciting one too. World Cup 2006 was less than 6 minutes old when young leftback Philip Lahm rounded a defender and curled one into the top corer at the far post, from the corner of the 18 yard box. Now you know you are in for a treat when someone like Philip Lahm opens the scoring, that too in such spectacular fashion!
German celebrations didn't last long however. In the 12th minute, a clumsily worked offside trap let Paulo Wanchope take advantage and he went through on goal alone, placing the ball past a hapless Jens Lehmann, for whom things would get worse moments later when he injured his ankle (someone please tell me where Oliver Kahn goes to pray- I could do with some luck myself!).
Parity had been restored, but it lasted less than 5 minutes, with Miroslav Klose tapping one in after good work by Schneider and Schweinsteiger. He doubled his tally after the break with some quick reflexes after the keeper stopped his bullet header. Remember, this guy had been written off after the last world cup, even though he scored 5 goals then to be second in the scoring charts. The media blasted his apparent lack of ability when deprived of space to head the ball. Now, he came in to this match as the German Footballer of the Year, and scored 2 goals with those 'non-functional' feet of his, taking his World Cup tally to an impressive 7 goals from 8 games.
Soon after Klose's substitution, Wanchope took advantage of another offside trap gone wrong, Arne Friedrich the guilty party on both occasions, to spark the game back to life. Then, in the 87th minute, Torsten Frings struck. Yes, you read it right. Torsten Frings. Guy who barely ever shoots, forget score. Receiving a pass from Schweinsteiger, he let go from over 30 yards, straight into the top corner, to score a goal that may remain the best this World Cup has seen even after the next one month has gone by. 6 goals in the opening match, a new record, including 2 stunners from very unlikely sources that can stand out in comparison with almost any goal in World Cup history. This was already turning out to be a stunning World Cup.
Things only got better for neutrals, when Ecuador upset Poland 2-0. After a stunning qualification campaign, the Poles were favourites to qualify from this group with Germany, but now find that they need a miracle to progress in this tournament.
Elsewhere, the Togo team suffered a huge loss when coach Otto Pfister resigned over a pay dispute. The team now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to go through the Group stages with an interim coach.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

FIFA World Cup Preview- Group D

Group D looks somewhat straightforward with Portugal being the clear favourites. Mexico are amongst the best sides in the world, and should be able to beat a skillful Iranian side to the second qualification spot. Angola are the outsiders in this group. The problem with qualification from this group is that the qualifying teams will set up a showdown with the qualifiers from the Group of Death in the second round.
Portugal is one of the strongest teams around. A skillful team with a delightful blend of youth and experience, the team has been rebuilt almost completely by 'Big Phil' Luiz Felipe Scolari after the Golden Generation moved on. One of the few survivors of that gloriously underachieving team is Luis Figo, arguably the greatest player in the country's history after Eusebio. The Inter midfieler will be at hand to lend some experience to a youthful side that has not witnessed many major tournaments.
Inspite of Figo's presence, most Portuguese fans are pinning their hopes on the shoulders of the young and talented, if somewhat erratic, Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo (in pic). The flamboyant number seven is known for his stepovers and bursts of pace that often leave defenders redfaced. He has often been criticised for needless trickery, especially at club level. However, for his nation, he has been a stellar performer over the last three years and will be keen to display his dazzling talents at the World Cup Finals.
He is ably supported in midfield by Barcelona star Deco, who is likely to display his status as one of the world's most valuable midfielders. Winger Simao is more than capable of causing a few tears to opposition fullbacks and will prove to be quite a handful. Maniche is a skillful player with fabulous technique but might end up watching from the sidelines after half a season on loan at Chel$ki that saw him make very good friends with the subs' bench. Midfielders competing for the holding role include Costinha, Hugo Viana and Armando Petit. Lyon's Tiago will be another midfielder to watch. This lot will try to provide service to Pauleta up front, while sitting in front of a strong defence that includes, Paulo Ferreira, Miguel, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente, and Fernando Meira, among others. They will of course be backed up by goalkeeper Ricardo, one of the stars of Euro 2004, who has been chosen as number one ahead of Quim and Bruno Vale. The main strategy will be to burst down the wings and play the ball into the one man up front, though Pauleta can also be replaced by Helder Postiga, the experienced Nuno Gomes, and Fulham's combative forward Luis Boa Morte. All in all a tough team to beat.
Mexico is one of the strongest unseeded teams, and is strong inspite of coach Ricardo Lavolpe's unusual selection policies, which include dropping the country's biggest star Cuauhtemoc Blanco and picking his son-in-law Rafael Garcia. The country's main strength is its defensive setup, which includes a talented shotstopper in Oswaldo Sanchez and a tough tackling back four, also capable of burst down the field, that comprises Carlos Salcido, Barca defender Rafael Marquez and 37 year old Carlos Suarez, among others. The midfield is a little suspect, but the team has many world class strikers to get the goals no matter how poor the service is. Jared Borghetti is the team's all time leading scorer, and is backed up by Jose Fonseca and the somewhat out of form but ever enthusiastic Guillermo Franco (remember his seven misses in the Champs League semifinal second leg?).
The only challenge to Mexico for the second qualifying spot will be from Iran. The team has many players who played as youngsters at France 98. In Ali Daei, they have the all time leading goalscorer in men's football at the international level. Ali Karimi, a former Asian Player of the Year, is a star at Bayern Munich, and the team also has other Germany based players such as Vahid Hashemian and Mehdi Mahdavikia. The team's strength is its attack, but it is also capable of dour defence when required.
Angola are rank outsiders in this group, and this World Cup will serve as a launchpad for future success for the team rather than an immediate impact on the world stage.

ASSESSMENT/PREDICTIONS- Portugal will go through qualification without much hassle. Mexico should also go through easily, but Iran is capable of giving a few scares.