soccer

World Cup Russia 2018: Fin.

We now enter the long, dark four-and-a-half-year-gap-between-World-Cups of the soul.

That was a pretty darn good final, and a pretty darn good World Cup overall. Not my favorite of either. I preferred the 2006 Final because it was far more dramatic (click here for my write-up from back then). I preferred Italia ’90, maybe because that’s the first one I followed– American coverage back then was so bad they had commercial breaks during the action– maybe because of the ancestral connection, but mainly because it featured a far better villain. The big storyline was whether Maradona could will his team to victory despite negative play, despite him being a horrible a@#$%^e, despite losing the opener to Cameroon, despite losing their starting keeper to a broken leg. He almost did. Thank God for West Germany.

Anyhow, back to the present. It was a pretty entertaining game. Croatia played well, but France had better players, more energy (it helps to not have to play three consecutive overtime games), more shots on frame, and more goals in the net. The end. The fact that France’s first goal came off a dive takes a teensy bit of shine off their trophy, but their other goals were legit.

An irony: both of Croatia’s goal-scorers also gave up goals. Mandžukić was “credited” with the own goal, and Perišić’s handball led to France’s penalty. I was reminded of the ’06 final, when Materazzi gave up a penalty early and scored off a corner about ten minutes alter. I hoped the parallel would extend to a Croatian victory, but… it didn’t.

France is a worthy champion, and given their youth they’ve got to be favorites to win next time. In the meantime, I’ve got four years to figure out what my students are going to do while I’m watching games in the middle of the workday.

Also in the meantime:

  • FIFA should keep tweaking VAR. I was pleasantly surprised with it this time around, but hopefully they’ll find a way to make those decisions faster.
  • They need to work harder at increasing scoring and reducing time-wasting.
  • They need to crack down harder than ever on diving.
  • They need to replace the yellow card tiebreaker rule.
  • And they need to schedule the Qatar 2022 games for whatever works out to be 5 PM and 8 PM in my time zone. I believe that’d be 8 AM and 11 AM over there.

I foresee no difficulties.

World Cup Russia 2018: Calling the Final.

I was half-right. I called Belgium and Croatia in the final, but the Frenchies beat the Belgians in a sort-of boring game. Proud to say I got Croatia right, though.

England looked like they over-relied on Route One. Against weaker teams, that can work. They beat Panama badly, and they would’ve beat Tunisia worse than 2-1 if the ref had made a few more calls. They were able to draw fouls near the box, win free kicks, PKs, do well on corners, etc. Against teams closer in skill, that didn’t work as well. Belgium beat them twice, Colombia could’ve beaten them if they’d played more seriously throughout the game. I’m not the best analyst, but in England’s last two games, the semi and the third-place match, the front line really looked like a bunch of poor decision-makers. They made wrong decisions about whether and when to pass or shoot, and they took too long to make decisions– even the right decision. On several occasions, the young guns up front held the ball just a fraction of a second too long and missed the opportunity to shoot, to play through, to pass to a wide-open teammate. Again, that’s not based on any expert-level detailed analysis, but it sure did look like Southgate’s triangle and circle buttons were jammed.

I think Belgium, France, and yes, Croatia have been the class of the tournament so far, and I’d like to throw in Brazil when Neymar was playing seriously instead of flopping. England’s not at that level yet. Given where they landed in the Round of 16, they went about as far as was expected.

Barring a disastrously embarrassing performance tomorrow, either team would make a fine champion. They’ve both earned their way to the final… despite Belgium’s whining about France’s performance in the semi. All this nonsense about France playing too far back? Pfft. Belgium had 60% of the possession that game and got off some good shots, but France completely out-shot them. France shot more, both on- and off-target. Same number of offsides, Belgium had one extra corner. This wasn’t like ze early German performances, where one team completely and unquestionably dominated play but the other managed to score. This was much more even. France just won.

I’ve probably been a bit unfair in singling out Mbappé for flopping, because so many players on so many teams do it. But it’s frustrating to see such a talented player turn to that level of diving and flopping so early in his career. It’s disappointing to think that instead of seeing the next Messi or Ronaldo, we’re going to see the next Neymar. And yes, Messi and Ronaldo dive on occasion, but Neymar has become notorious for it, thus the comparison. So, Mbappé, please grow up and play great.

I’m rooting for Croatia to beat France for three big reasons. One, it’d be neat to see a new champion. Two, Croatia’s dark jerseys are the best in the tournament. And three, this Modric guy reminds me of a dorkier, less appreciated version of Pirlo. But France is better, and they have played well, so for the first time in the knockout round, I predict they’ll win.

World Cup Russia 2018: Into the Semifinals.

My predictions from last time:

Sweden and Russia […] might’ve been able to Rudy or Rocky their way past their next opponents, but I think England and Croatia just had their mettle tested and will play spirited games. England should beat Sweden and Croatia should beat Russia.

…Belgium and Uruguay are talented without over-reliance on superstars and spirited without being undisciplined. Screw it: Belgium over Brazil and Uruguay over France.

Three out of four ain’t bad (even though I got all four 2014 semifinalists right before that tournament started). The Croatia-Russia game was intense. I thought for sure that Croatia was dead meat when Subašić’s hamstring started acting up– how could he possibly stop any shots if he couldn’t push off that leg? Magic spray, magic sponge, and voila, he did great in the OT and the shootout. Kudos to him.

The especially nice thing about Belgium’s win over Brazil was that the threat of a second yellow cured Neymar of his diving. Once he realized the ref wouldn’t tolerate it, he got serious. Hopefully he keeps it. He stopped diving, he bounced back up after fouls, and he led as relentless an attack as I’ve seen in this Cup, but it was too little, too late.

I’ve gotten France wrong twice in a row, thinking weaker but older teams would overcome them. Nope. They’re a good team. They’re favorites to win. Unfortunately, Mfloppé seems to have picked up Neymar’s mantle with his embarrassing dive. Not a good sign for a rising star.

The picks are getting tougher with each round, and I’m in the odd position of not really caring who wins. A Belgium-Croatia final would guarantee a first-time champion, yet England-France would give me some pretty good meme fodder for my APUSH class this year.

I think Belgium will beat France. They were losing big late and came back against Japan, they built a big lead on Brazil and held off a desperate and ferocious attack. They’ve shown poise and maturity, and that has to win out over youth eventually, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? France is good, but Mfloppé just absorbed all the distaste I previously had for Neymar. So I pick Belgium. I look forward to the Hitchhiker’s memes if they win.

I think England is better than Croatia, but they’ve become very reliant on Route One. I think Croatia will handle that better than anyone England’s faced yet. Plus, Croatia’s black and blue jerseys are awesome. I pick Croatia.

Belgium v. Croatia in the final. We’ll know by Wednesday.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part Five.

Let’s look at my Round of 16 predictions from last time:

Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.

Solid my rear end. Spain tiki-taka’d themselves right out of the tournament. As boring as it was to watch, the Russians executed their game plan to perfection. No radioactive poisoning necessary. Croatia and Belgium won, but winning via PKs or miraculous comebacks does not constitute a “solid” win. The second half of Belgium-Japan might’ve been the best half of the World Cup, with the possible exception of France-Argentina. 2 for 3 so far.

Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. […] England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. […] And Sweden over Switzerland.

3 for 3. Brazil was just plain better than Mexico. We’ll see if it keeps up. Neymar is turning into a villain, fast. Yes, he is honest-to-goodness getting fouled more than anyone else, but the embellishment is disgusting. Some folks justify it by pointing out that the embellishment draws the ref’s attention to fouls. Perhaps. But the refs do tend to focus a little bit more when one of the best players on Earth, possibly the best left in the tournament, is the most heavily-fouled player left in the tournament. He doesn’t need to embellish. He’s just increasing his own risk of earning a yellow.

England-Colombia was disgusting to watch. England should have finished them off in regular time because the ref should’ve shown Colombia more cards. But Colombia applied a lesson from the old Bad Boys of Detroit: sometimes, you can commit so many fouls that the ref gets tired of calling them. The shame of it is that after Colombia finally equalized at the end of regulation, they finally started playing a disciplined and even dominant game. I think they badly outperformed England in extra time. So where was that the first 90 minutes?

I was right about Sweden. I don’t follow the Swedes closely enough to know, but I wonder whether Zlatan’s absence is a reason for their success. Sometimes a dominant player occupies so much of the attention of his teammates that they forget “the right way to play,” deviate from better game plans, feed him the ball too much. Then when said player goes bye-bye, the team starts playing like a team again. I think Bill Simmons calls this the Ewing Theory.

The toughest quarter of the bracket, […] which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. […] And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France.

I got Uruguay right, and France wrong. These games were good. France over Argentina is my new favorite game of the tournament. I think it was the most dramatic throughout, unlike Belgium-Japan which was only dramatic at the end (which in fairness is the best time to be dramatic, but I digress). I was wrong about France’s youth, and my God, that MmmBop kid is good. France looked ready to run Argentina right out of the stadium early, then the Argentines pulled ahead, then France blew right past them in the second half. That’s two, two lead changes, ah-ah-ah, which is entirely too rare in soccer. And Aguero’s late goal might’ve led to a miracle finish, but alas.

Argentina’s coach needs his head examined. As someone pointed out, he left 600 goals (Aguero and Higuain) on the bench too long. Yep. Put them on the field, put a little more offensive pressure on France, give Messi a little more room to work with.

Six of eight picks isn’t horrible. It was seven last time, but six isn’t horrible.

Anyhow, my picks for the quarters, even though no result would surprise me at this point:

The right half of the bracket features geographic close-ish-ness and stylistic similarity, but gaps in talent. Sweden and Russia have outperformed expectations so far, and they’ve both shown strength of character. They might’ve been able to Rudy or Rocky their way past their next opponents, but I think England and Croatia just had their mettle tested and will play spirited games. England should beat Sweden and Croatia should beat Russia.

The left half is trickier for me. A quick check with 538’s predictions shows Brazil and France with 64 and 62 percent odds against their opponents, but I think that’s overstating the gaps in talent. Belgium and Uruguay are talented without over-reliance on superstars and spirited without being undisciplined. Screw it: Belgium over Brazil and Uruguay over France.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part Four.

Before I make my picks, allow me to express my dissatisfaction with the current structure of the bracket. The Group A winner knows they’ll play the Group B runner-up. The winner of that match knows they’ll play the winner of the match between Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up. And on it goes. I think this teensy bit of foreknowledge injects a little too much gamesmanship into the last games of the group stage.

For instance, there was a broad consensus that the loser of Group G’s final match would end up in the easier half of the bracket, given that by the time the match started, 14 of the 16 second-round slots had been filled. In one half of the bracket, call it the “left” half, were four past World Cup champions (Argentina, Brazil, France, Uruguay) and the reigning champion of Europe (Portugal). In the “right” half of the bracket was one past World Cup champion (Spain). No disrespect to the other teams in either half of the bracket, but the left half is clearly tougher than the right. And Group G’s winner– Belgium– won the right to be in the tougher, left half of the bracket. England, meanwhile, should have an easier path to the semifinal.

We could rectify this problem with randomization akin to bracket selection in UEFA’s Champions League. For the Round of 16, randomly pair group winners with group runners-up. For the quarterfinals, randomly pair winners of the R16 games. For the semifinals, randomly pair the quarterfinal winners. This would remove the aforementioned incentive to win by losing. The only caveat I’d throw in would be that you cannot be paired with the other team from your own group prior to the final.

I’d still like group winners to have some additional incentive, so give the group winners the certainty of knowing where their R16 match will be played. For example, you could announce that the winner of Group A will play its Round of 16 match in Moscow. As soon as they win Group A, they can pack their bags, head to Moscow, settle in, relax, and prepare for their next opponent. Meanwhile, the Group A runners-up have to wait until the Group Stage is completely finished to be informed where they’re playing, then rush to get there, only to meet a well-rested opponent.

Anyhow, my picks:

Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.

Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. I think Mexico’s 3-0 loss was misleading. They out-shot, out-passed, and out-possessed Sweden but just couldn’t get a goal. They got their reprieve thanks to South Korea beating ze Germans, and they’ll give Brazil a tough game… but lose. England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. We’ll see what the MRI says. Also, England beat the stuffing out of two weak teams, played their reserves against a tougher team… we’ll see if these results have masked true might or true mediocrity. And Sweden over Switzerland. Sweden won two games in a really tough group, and arguably should have beaten Germany also. Switzerland tied Brazil, which was impressive, but gave up three goals to Serbia and Costa Rica. Sweden just plain looks better, even though 538 gives Switzerland slight odds to win.

The toughest quarter of the bracket, which is being played tomorrow and which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. Uruguay has shut down their weaker opponents; Portugal has not. Uruguay’s been getting better, Portugal has not. And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France. Messi, experience, guile, and an emotional upswing that would rival any Argentine telenovela will overcome France’s youth and blandness. France will be felled by the negative karma generated by their lame 0-0 draw with Denmark.