soccer

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Seven.

The World Cup is over, Germany emerged victorious, and alas! we face four agonizing years until the next edition, which’ll be in Russia, which by then will hopefully be under the supervision of a kinder, gentler autocrat.

The final was an good game, though not high-scoring as I’d hoped. Germany controlled most of the action, as expected. Some feared that Argentina would play a negative game, sit back, generate little offense, but they got some good chances to score in regulation. The stat sheet shows ten total shots, same as Germany, though ze Germans got more on frame. Despite the same final score, this game was much better than the last time these two met in the final. God, that game was hideous. I’ll come back to it shortly.

I saw a few thingies on the internet billing the final as “Messi vs. Germany”. As much as I celebrate Messi’s talent, this Argentina team was not a bunch of slouches plus a superstar. This was a good collection of players– not 1986 good, but certainly better than 1990– that probably needed better coaching earlier in the tournament. Messi had an average game; he crossed a few from close in that just missed the target, or slipped just past the post. A commentator called his final free kick, which sailed over the bar, “selfish”. That wasn’t a fair comment at all. If Messi can score from there, if he has scored from there, and if he’d scored directly from a free kick earlier in this tournament, then I don’t get how “having one of the best free kick takers and shooters on Earth shoot the ball” is a selfish decision. He didn’t score. That’s all.

I’d have to think a while longer about whether this was the best World Cup I’ve seen. The first round was easily the best first round I can remember, despite Italy’s humiliating exit. There were more goals than we’ve seen in ages, the US advanced (and would have clinched it after two games if not for Ronaldo), we finally saw the goal-line tech in action, and we saw the 10-yard spray in action. Love that stuff. No more WWE-style scooching closer to the ball when the ref has his back turned. I was pleased with FIFA’s willingness to tinker, though they could certainly do more. And some more after that.

The knockout stage was good; the four best teams made it to the semifinals, and yes, I include Brazil in that, because “making it to the semis” is different from “actually playing in the semis”. The Brazil that won its group and won its first two knockout games was one of the best teams in the tournament– that is, as long as Neymar was on the field. Without him, the team just plain quit. It is apparent that Neymar’s greatest impact was psychological. It shouldn’t have been, because Brazil always has talent, and should never think they have to rely so heavily on just one player. Their collapse reflects poorly on the players, but lies squarely on the coach, and it’s good that Scolari and his entire staff resigned.

I don’t know if this year’s knockout stage was my favorite. I’d probably have to go with 1990. West Germany, Italy, and England were chock-full of stars, and though I was rooting for Italy, I could live with either ze Germans or the Last Good English Team winning. But what heightened the drama was Argentina’s run to the final that year. Maradona was an out-and-out villain, and Argentina played very negatively, but it worked. They finished third in their group and barely advanced (Maradona used the “Hand of God” to stop the Soviets from scoring), they squeezed past Brazil in the second round (there’s reason to believe that Argentinian trainers put tranquilizers in Brazil’s water bottles– I’m not making that up), and they beat Yugoslavia and Italy on penalties. It was ugly to watch, and it was disturbing to see such blatant, vicious, cheating bus-parkers get closer and closer to the final. And in the final, it looked like it could happen again: despite missing four suspended starters, being outshot 15-1, and getting the first red card in a World Cup final ever, Maradona and his partners-in-crime were just a few minutes away from getting to extra time when the ref gave West Germany a PK. Ze Germans scored, and won 1-0. The PK was a bit of a gift, but at least it saved us all from the horror and travesty of watching Maradona lift the World Cup again.

…I’m still bitter about Italy losing that semi.

Anyhow, back to the present: pretty darn good World Cup. Congratulations to ze Germans for winning the title and for being deserving champions; congratulations to the Argentinians for a valiant and proud effort. Hopefully FIFA will keep tinkering and improving the game, hopefully the US will return to the knockout stage and go even further, hopefully Italy will get its act together. And hopefully this Cup will get more American fans to keep watching– Champions League, Premiership, MLS, whatever– and will get more American kids interested in playing.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Six.

The depressing funk stage of the World Cup– those breaks between the last few rounds, when you realize that there are only a few matches left and then no more World Cup for four more years– is over, and it’s on to the consolation match and the final. I’d like to see FIFA work in more consolation matches featuring more eliminated teams so that not a single day goes by without a match being played. Maybe in 2018.

Argentina’s win over the Netherlands was one of the tighter, and I think smarter, games of the tournament. I switched my pick to Holland because they looked better throughout the tournament than Argentina did. The Dutch weren’t that good in the first half, but played much stronger in the second and I thought for sure they’d win. Nope. In an odd way, Holland’s loss in PKs made van Gaal look even smarter for subbing Krul in for Cillessen against Costa Rica. This time: no Krul, no saves. Oh well. Messi’s time to shine on the big stage.

There’s nothing that can be said about Brazil’s loss to Germany that hasn’t already been said. For the first 30 minutes of the match, I could only check the score via the FIFA app on my phone. At first, I thought someone had hacked the app and was fooling around. Nope. Brazil really did play that horribly, and 7-1 doesn’t capture how bad it was. I have never seen such a poor defensive effort on such a big stage. Brazil just plain quit. That’s two cups in a row (maybe three, I don’t remember Brazil’s elimination in 2006) that Brazil seems to have simply flaked out and mentally collapsed. The loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva is no excuse, and the rest of the team owes those two an apology.

I think Germany will win the rubber match against Argentina. I can’t call them a lock because (A) Messi’s on the other team, (B) Argentina aren’t pushovers and played well against Holland, the most Germany-like team out there, and (C) the Germans may have used up all their goals in the semifinal. I just hope it’s an insanely entertaining, high-scoring final.

Oh, and I’ll take the Dutch in the third place match.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Five.

Had the semifinalists (Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Holland) right from the beginning, though there was a bit more squeaking-by than I expected. My original picks, as documented in this august journal and in my ESPN bracket, were Brazil over Germany and Argentina over Holland. If those picks turn out right, I will gladly accept congratulations, accolades, and cash from the world over. But I no longer believe that’s how the semis will go.

Germany’s been pretty consistent. They flailed a bit against Algeria in regulation, but that aside they’ve been strong on offense and defense, they’ve attacked consistently, and they’re due to get back to final. The loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva puts Brazil in a lot of trouble. Hulk’s played hard and sorta well; now Oscar and Fred et al need to turn it on. The Brazilians still have more than enough talent to win it, but this whole tournament they’ve over-relied on Neymar to the point that I wonder whether they think they can win without him. I now have to take Germany over Brazil.

Argentina is still getting by on talent without being properly organized, and that’s not going to work much longer. Di María is out just as Argentina is running into its toughest, best organized, most fearless opposition so far. Yes, Aguero is coming back, and yes, Messi is still Messi, but no di María means no playmaker in the midfield. Meanwhile, Holland looks awesome. True, they needed PKs to get past Costa Rica, but I think the Dutch were unlucky not to blow the Ticos away in regulation. And hanging on to that last sub juuuust in case you want to change out your keeper for the PKs? That’s insane, but it worked, and that’s what counts. Between that gamble, and the amazing comebacks, and that epic whupping of Spain, and their generally dominating play throughout the tournament, I now think Holland’s going back to the final.

So, am I going back on my original calls? Yes. Could you say I’ve picked all four teams to win? Yes. Will I backtrack on this blogpost if my new predictions turn out wrong? Certainly. But Germany and Holland are more impressive, Brazil and Argentina are hobbled by key injuries, and so: Germany over Brazil, Holland over Argentina, Holland over Germany in the final. No coin flipping this time.

About Robben: the guy doesn’t dive. He does embellish, no doubt. It’s embarrassing to watch, but the reality is he’s super-fast, he can use either foot, and so the bad guys foul him. A lot. Twice he was fouled badly enough in the box in the first half against Mexico that he should’ve gotten a PK. Against Spain four years ago, two defenders were hacking the bejeezus out of him on a breakaway and he didn’t go down. He doesn’t dive. He plays hard, non-stop, and I no longer want to run a power sander over his face.

Dr. Hmnahmna tells me that his daughter saw a picture of Lionel Messi in the paper today and asked if it was me. Me! But of course it wasn’t me; I’m right-footed.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Four.

I don’t think the US played well against Belgium. Tim Howard is rightly getting his due, and the defense in many cases did well to force Belgium into low-probability shots. But I thought we were poor in transition and offense until the last few minutes of regular time and the second half of extra time. I realize that part of the offensive surge at the end was due to Belgium falling back and defending a lead, but it was also due to greater aggression, better decision-making, and better touch on the passes– all of which were missing for most of the previous 105 minutes. I lost track of how many times our mids either didn’t play the ball through, or tried to play it through and kicked it right at a defender. Oh well.

I like what Klinsmann has done with the team, and I loved watching him sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during pre-game. We’ll always wonder about his decision to leave Donovan off the roster, but keep in mind we advanced out of the so-called “Group of Death” without him. In fact, if not for a defensive lapse at the end of the Portugal game, we would have clinched advancement after two games. Yes, Wondo missed at the end of regulation, and we can wonder about whether Donovan would’ve buried it. But Donovan’s comments and attitude throughout qualification made Klinsmann question his desire and commitment, and that was that.

Hopefully our guys will build on this (we had a young team, this was a good experience), and MLS will build on this (though I won’t hold my breath), and we’ll breeze through qualification, and we’ll draw an easier group in 2018, and go even further in the knockouts.

My predictions from the last post:

“Brazil over Chile. Chile was better than expected, but Brazil is hitting its stride and there’s no way the tourney/refs will let Brazil lose this one anyway.” Yes and no. Yes, Brazil won, but no, they didn’t get any help from the refs this time.

“Colombia over Uruguay.” Easy pick.

“France over Nigeria, Germany over Algeria, Netherlands over Mexico, Argentina over Switerland… those winners have looked strong and played positive games.” Three of these were nail-biters. I’m most impressed with Holland. They have fallen behind in three of their four games– once at halftime to the defending champion, once in the second half against an upstart, once with two minutes left in regulation of a knockout game– and all three times they won. It’s not like they’re barely eking out one-goal victories with early goals and packing the bus. They’re playing high-flying, attack-first games and winning.

“Costa Rica will beat Greece…” Yes…

“…and I think the US will beat Belgium.” No. Someone had to pick them, and I didn’t care that it might cost me my bracket. Seven of eight isn’t bad. Odd that all eight winners were the group winners.

My quarterfinal picks: Brazil over Colombia. Messitina over Belgium. Holland over Costa Rica.

France v. Germany. This is a really tough call. France has thoroughly impressed throughout the tournament, but I have Germany in my bracket, and I’m sticking with them. Germany’s had its scare and had its mettle tested, France hasn’t. I say that’ll be the difference. We’ll see.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Three.

My prediction performance so far, with my correct picks in bold:

Group A: Brazil, Mexico. Easy picks.

Group B: The Netherlands, Spain. Even after the whupping from Holland, I thought Spain would bounce back. Nope. The Dutch look good. I mean real good. I mean like “we’re back for revenge and we don’t care who gets in our way” good. And it looks like Chile’s high ranking was justified.

Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast. Got Colombia right despite not knowing too much about the group. I’m a bit disappointed about the Ivory Coast; Drogba’s a genuinely good guy and I wanted to see him do as well as possible.

Group D: Italy, Uruguay. Whoops. Italy was awful in its last two games, but was still unfortunate not to advance. But if hard work begets good luck, then they didn’t earn any good luck. After the first match, the offense disappeared. The Azzurri were barely even trying to score. Balotelli reminds me of Wayne Rooney in his first World Cup appearance– incredibly talented, but undisciplined and immature. Even if Italy had advanced, his second yellow would have kept him out of the Round of 16 game. They need him to grow up, and they need to develop at least one other reliable striker to pair with him.

Uruguay advanced as expected, but the how was unexpected. If the ref sees the bite, Suarez gets a red, Uruguay’s down to ten men, they probably don’t score a minute later, and Italy advances with four points. But I’m not mad at the ref. Shame on Italy for allowing themselves to be in that position, and shame on FIFA for the light punishment. This was not the first time Suarez bit an opponent. This was not the second time Suarez bit an opponent. This was the third. He needs a complete and total ban for at least a year (some have argued for a lifetime ban; I wouldn’t object), and mandate a psychological evaluation and extensive therapy. Four months is a mere vacation.

All that said, Costa Rica looked darn good. I’d bet nobody outside Costa Rica picked them to win this group, much less with seven points. This was the real Group of Death; Italy, Uruguay, and England were all ranked in FIFA’s top ten heading into the tournament. Costa Rica beat them. Congratulations to our CONCACAF rival for doing so.

Group E: France, Switzerland. Nailed it, but France looks even better than expected.

Group F: Argentina, Nigeria. I thought these were easy picks, though Iran did have a shot at sneaking through in the final group game. What’s scary is that Argentina won without looking very good. Messi has shown up, what happens if/when the rest of the team does?

Group G: Here’s what I wrote: “Germany will win the Group of Death, and the US will finish second.” Yep.

“In the first set of games, the US will finally get past Ghana, and Portugal will be beaten and beaten up by Germany.” Yep.

“Ronaldo’s nagging injuries will get the better of him, and I think Portugal’s a paper tiger without him in good health.” Not quite. Ronaldo was Portugal’s only bright spot, and the more I read about his charitable work, the less I despise him.

“We’ll tie or beat Portugal in our second match, Germany will beat Ghana and secure passage to the second round.” I gave myself some leeway in the USA-POR game, but was surprised by the Germany-Ghana tie.

I could only listen to the USA-Portugal game on ESPN Radio, but it sounded like we had the better of the game. We were better than Portugal. We didn’t get the result we should have, but that’s because we were sloppy and they were fortunate to score.

“Then we’ll tie Germany in the third match and advance with five points. I hope.” Close enough.

Group H: South Korea, Belgium. Belgium won the group, so I should give myself half-credit. South Korea disappointed. The Algeria-Russia match was fun to watch. Aabrock and I flew out to Vegas to watch the last two days of the group stage, and were surrounded by Russians in the sports book. We hoped for a high-scoring Russian victory so we could (A) be assured of making it out alive and (B) witness their loud and happy and terrifying celebrations. Didn’t happen. They drew, and Algeria advanced.

In toto: Got 12 of the 16 second-rounders right, with 11 of those 12 in exactly the right spot. Not bad. I think I’m winning my fantasy league right now. That in mind, my original picks for the knockout rounds are mostly intact, but let me offer some new picks.

Brazil over Chile. Chile was better than expected, but Brazil is hitting its stride and there’s no way the tourney/refs will let Brazil lose this one anyway.

Colombia over Uruguay. Colombia is better than expected, Uruguay is down to its gums.

France over Nigeria, Germany over Algeria, Netherlands over Mexico, Argentina over Switerland… those winners have looked strong and played positive games.

Costa Rica will beat Greece…and I think the US will beat Belgium. Belgium’s had their nice little run, but we’re better than everyone they’ve played so far. They aren’t as good as Germany. Altidore will be back. We’ll be ready– not to squeeze past them, but to beat them.

Match of the tournament so far: tough call. The most significant game so far was Holland’s defeat of Spain. The term “statement game” is perhaps overused by American commentators, but that was one if I ever saw one. Spain’s run of greatness was over, Holland was back and angry.

The goal of the tournament so far was from that same game. Robin Van Persie’s Nintendo goal right before the half was well-served, well-struck, and well-timed. You could see the life and hope drain out of Spain– that’s when it was over.