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FellainiDay Six was not the most scintillating day of football that we’ve seen in this World Cup, although after only a week, the bar has been set pretty high.  Today featured two games that likely would not have been close, had the managers of the favourites put out more dominant sides.

Mertens hearts something...

Mertens hearts something…

Algeria decided they would put 10 men behind the ball against Belgium, only making a serious break about 20 minutes in.  Jan Vertonghen took out Sofiane Feghouli, the referee gave the penalty and Feghouli put it away.   Then the Desert Foxes really started playing defensive.  After the break, Marc Wilmots put on Dries Mertens  — who probably should have started in the first place.  Romelu Lukaku’s performance was a shadow of his Premier League form… so off he came in the 58th.  Then Marouane Fellaini came on for Moussa Dembélé.  Five minutes later, Wilmots’ substitutions paid off.  Fellaini scored one of his trademark headers (where has that been all year?) and then Martens scored off Eden Hazard’s pass off the counter. It was a game that was exciting for 15 minutes… and that was enough for Belgium’s nervy World Cup return.  Belgium 2-1 Algeria

Uh-oh...

Uh-oh…

Meanwhile, the Russia-South Korea clash was less than satisfying… exactly as expected.  The South Koreans were quick, but the Russians played Fabio Capello’s cautious defensive tactics.    The South Koreans scored because of a clanger by Igor Akinfeev, probably the goalkeeper gaffe of the tournament.   It’s also interesting that Igor Denisov, Alan Dzagoev, and Aleksandr Kerzhakov — three of the better players on a dour Russian side — started on the bench, and that the goal came after their substitution.   Either side will fancy their chances of progressing.  Russia 1-1 South Korea

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups G & H

Germans arrive
The last two groups could not be more opposite in quality and reputation.  While I don’t think Group G is the Group of Death, I do think that the four nations will have their work cut out for them.  Meanwhile, the young Belgians will have a chance to strut their stuff while the other three fight their way through.

GROUP G

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Much has been written in recent days about the injuries to Joachim Löw’s Germany.  Marco Reus tore his ankle just days before the tournament, and potential starters Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are all either playing with knocks or coming off recent injuries.  Luckily for Löw, he suffers from an embarrassment of riches.   Half of Der Mannschaft (tee hee, Mannschaft…  still makes me giggle) plays for either of Germany’s two biggest teams: Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.  The side also features Arsenal’s three prizes: veteran defender Per Mertesacker, as well as attacking midfielders Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, and Chelsea’s Andre Schürrle.  Löw’s Teutonic system (the newest rage in football, a melange of tiki-taka and counter-attacking) means all hands going forward, which explains why he only brought one striker: 36-year-old Miroslav Klose.  If Klose plays — and scores — Germany’s all-time record goal-scorer will tie Brazil’s Ronaldo for all-time World Cup goals (15).   SEMI-FINALS

Apparently, he's going to be okay...

Apparently, he’s going to be okay…

If there is one nation whose fans’ self-delusion rivals that of England’s, it’s Portugal‘s.  Every four years — two if you count the Euros — their fans believe they have what it takes to be world beaters.  But like England, they strive and fall short.  Portugal features a superstar player in Cristiano Ronaldo (just like Wayne Rooney) who is surrounded by a team of competent players that would never get a kick at the can in a side like Argentina or Brazil (just like England).  Portugal are also a nation whose FIFA ranking is absurdly high, boosted by a complicated formula (just like England).   Ronaldo has been fighting to be fit for this tournament.  If he performs like he does for Real Madrid, Portugal could go deep into quarter-final territory.  But their path is likely blocked by Belgium in the knockout stages and then Argentina.  ROUND OF 16

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Jürgen Klinsmann says he will sing both Germany’s and the U.S.A.‘s national anthems, when the two teams square off in their very last group game.  By then, Klinsmann will have a pretty good idea whether his last three years of effort have finally elevated the USA into the elite pantheon of football nations.   A look at his side would suggest it hasn’t yet.   I don’t want to write off the Stars and Stripes: they are well organized and physical.  They feature a handful of players who are class: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are great keepers; Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore have all cut their teeth in the Premier League, and Michael Bradley — despite his strange move to MLS — will be the lynchpin of Klinsmann’s side.  It’s a pity they are in a group with Germany and Portugal.  The building continues.  THREE AND OUT

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars' two superstars

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars’ two superstars

Everyone’s favourite in South Africa 2010, Ghana faces the plague of other successful African nations: inflated expectations.  The Black Stars’ midfield is still credible: Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will bolster the back line,  with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in front of them.  But no one will be surprised by the Ghanaians, and that’s unfortunate in a tough group like this.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP H 

Just in case you're wondering who Hazard plays for...

Just in case you’re wondering who Hazard plays for…

The return of Belgium to the biggest international stage has excited many soccer purists.  After finishing fourth at Mexico ’86, the Belgians were disappointing, bowing out early in the next three World Cups.  The country’s football association then changed the way it trained young players, and it also changed its relationship with its big clubs.  Now the the Red Devils are in their first international tournament since Japan/Korea ’02 and what a line-up.  Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet are two of the most sought-after young keepers in the world right now.  Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were easily Chelsea and Everton’s best players, respectively, while Kevin Mirallas was no slouch either, and Dries Marten scored 13 goals for Rafa Benitez’ Napoli.  Marc Wilmots is bringing only one true fullback, selecting seven centre backs to play in his defence.  What’s more, that defence is expected to press high up the pitch.  Even if they don’t go far, this team will get a couple another kick at the can at the Euros in France and then Russia’s World Cup. QUARTER-FINALS

A rare smile from Capello

A rare smile from Capello

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to rebuild itself to the former power of her predecessor (that’s because most of the USSR’s great players were Ukrainian.  Shhh).  Save for a third place finish in Euro 2008, they’ve failed to make it out of the group stage.  However, Euro 2012 was a good showcase for them.  Too bad this is a different side with a different manager.  Capello has made this team more defensive, as is his way.  Captain Roman Shirokov had to bow out to injury, and exciting young Alan Dzagoev is in the Italian gaffer’s bad books.  Still, this is a weak group, and they should be able to get through… unless they can’t stand the heat.  Literally.  ROUND OF 16

Slimani sees who's waiting if they finish second...

Slimani sees who’s waiting if they finish second…

Algeria are currently the highest-ranked team in Africa right now, due in part to a new philosophy brought in by manager,Vahid Halilhodžić.  Most of his players are young men who were born in France but chose to play in the country of their parents’ birth, and most of them are bench players in the Spanish, French and English leagues.  One exception is Islam Slimani, who scored 10 goals in 31 appearances for Sporting Lisbon; another is Sofiane Feghouli who regularly starts for Valencia.  Anything has to be an improvement over the boooring football played in South Africa (ask England fans), but Algeria still have to grow.  THREE AND OUT

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

South Korea have also done a 180 with their tactics, after Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo made them more technical, with less kick-and-run and more passing.   British football fans will be familiar with Ki Sung-yeung, who was bought from Celtic by Swansea City, in a move that broke the Welsh team’s transfer record; he then spent this season on loan at Sunderland.   Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min is probably S. Korea’s best player, which leaves a smattering of bit players in the Bundesliga, Prem and Asian leagues.   You want the Koreans to replicate the success they had at their own World Cup in 2002, but they won’t.  THREE AND OUT

 Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: The Bracket

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Pint-sized punch powers England

Jermain Defoe

He’s only 5’7″, but little Jermain Defoe scored a very big goal for England in their 1-0 victory over Slovenia, sending the Three Lions through to the knockout round of the World Cup, a win that was lubricated by Don Fabio’s decision to let the lads have a beer the night before. Proper English, that.

All across Blighty today, the country watched with a mix of fear and fascination, with even court cases taking a break to catch the match. Proper English and all, innit?

England weren’t great in this one, but they were a world better than they had been in Friday’s dour draw with Algeria, with the introduction of James Milner and Defoe creating the pivotal goal, and the attack more incisive and urgent, although Wayne Rooney still seemed sluggish and unsure at times. John Terry/Captain Schtupping’s failed insurrection didn’t do anything to hinder his play, even with his third partner in three matches, Matthew Upson.

John Terry

So, it’s Germany on Sunday for England, who were pipped back to second in the group when Landon Donovan’s late strike gave the US a 1-0 victory over Algeria, a match in which the Americans were once again denied a goal by a questionable referee’s decision. Algeria become the fourth African nation to crash out, and unfortunately they left a bit of a bad taste.

Coming off a loss to Serbia, Germany were still on the brink in their late  match against Ghana, but Mesut Ozil’s second-half strike proved decisive in a 1-0 victory for Die Mannschaft. The Black Stars stayed alive despite the loss, surely thankful that the pounding that 10-man Australia absorbed from Germany in their opening game had significantly decreased the Socceroos’ chances of overturning their goal difference, despite ending the tournament on a high by beating Serbia 2-1 and knocking Dr. Z’s darkhorse to the bottom of Group D. So, who needs Michael Essien?

I would have loved to see an England-Ghana matchup, but the Germany game will still be very tasty, while the Ghanians will attempt to eliminate the Americans for the second straight World Cup in the other round of 16 encounter.

Ian Harrison

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Go Time for Groups C & D

All the teams in Groups C & D are still in play, including a certain team in white…

Wayne Rooney's unreliable England team-mates bring out the worst in striker

Group C
Slovenia: 4 pts., +1 GD, 3 GS
U.S.A.: 2 pts., 0 GD, 3 GS
England: 2 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Algeria: 1 pt., -1 GD, 0 GS

Little, lowly Slovenia goes through with a win or a draw. They can still go through on a loss if the U.S. ties or loses.

The U.S. goes through if they win, or if they draw and England draws — without scoring too many goals — or loses.

England needs to win. If they draw, they need to score a lot of goals, and hope the Americans draw 0-0… or better yet, lose.

Algeria will go through on a win and an England loss.

Prediction: Slovenia-England draw England hang on for a win, U.S. beat Algeria. The U.S. wins the group on goals, with the Three Lions coming second. I might regret this one after the game but…

Germany's Lukas Podolski reacts after missing a chance on goal during a 2010 World Cup Group D match at Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in Port Elizabeth.

Group D:
Ghana: 4 pts., +1 GD, 2 GS
Germany: 3 pts., +3 GD, 4 GS
Serbia: 3 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Australia: 1 pt., -4 GD, 1 GS

Ghana can go through with a win. A draw will get them through if Serbia loses or draws. Ghana can still get through on a loss if Serbia loses in a game that keeps Australia’s goal difference less than the Africans.

Germany goes through on a win, or a draw and a Serbian loss. A loss knocks them out. Achtung!

Serbia goes through on a win. They can go through on a draw if Ghana wins, or if Germany wins but Serbia scores more goals than Ghana.

Australia need to win and hope the Germans lose. If they Germany wins or draws, then Australia has to make up the massive goal difference. Good luck with that.

Prediction: Germany beats Ghana. Serbia beats Australia. Germany goes first on goal difference.

Sunday’s games: U.S.A vs. Serbia, Germany vs. England.

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Our correspondent checks in

NBA player Steve Nash shares a pint with his old school chum Eric, and our correspondent, on the right.

Steve Nash shares a pint with his old school chum Eric, and our correspondent, right.

Simon ‘The Happy Hoofer’ Hagens is in South Africa for two weeks of World Cup football and boozing. He’ll be providing irregular (and we mean highly irregular) updates for At The Rails, and through Twitter. Enjoy!

Touching down in Cape Town Thursday morning, the night after South Africa’s 3-0 loss to Uruguay, was a little like attending a New Year’s Eve party on the morning of January 1st. Clearing customs took a while, as the agent complained about Bafana Bafana’s performance and South Africa’s chances, paying little attention to the credentials of me and my disreputable companions. Long faces drooped on the streets and in the bars. A lone vuvuzela would sound out only occasionally. But as the day progressed and England fans continued to pour into the city, the mood became merrier, louder and drunker. As France took the field against Mexico in Polokwane, the French anthem was drowned out in our Cape Town pub by English supporters singing ‘God Save The Queen.’ The Mexican death-blow to the French generated a sense of jubilation, which spilled over into the next day for England-Algeria. The Algerian fans were great in the run-up and after the match, totally full of energy.

Our correspondent and his England mates share a cheer with some Algerians on the Cape Town waterfront.

Our correspondent and his England mates share a cheer with some Algerians on the Cape Town waterfront.

Green Point Stadium in Cape Town is beautiful and pristine, perched between the mountains and the ocean and equipped with a football field’s worth of urinal. Near perfection in design. The lone flaw? There’s only one entrance for all 64,000 fans, a few short of what’s needed, and the only time I felt the England fans might actually lose their temper.

As England entered the pitch, they’d have been hard pressed to think they weren’t on home soil. The St. James cross outnumbered Algerian flags at least 20-1, and the stands were a sea of red and white. God Save the Queen boomed as the anthems were sing. Inspiration, one would think. Despite the scoreline, it was not a boring match to watch live. Algeria were quite competent, although many in the crowd gave more credit to lack of competence for the ‘home’ side. Frank Lampard received plenty of ill will for his uninspiring play, while much more was expected of Wayne Rooney. The most enthusiasm came following Peter Crouch’s entry late in the second half. As the minutes ticked down, despite some limited excitement near the end, it felt like a foregone conclusion. And while the draw was a bit of a letdown, our blues were erased when Fatboy Slim took the stage in the convention centre a few hours later to put on a stunning show (including, with a favourable exchange rate, $3 Cdn. pints).

For England, it all rests on a victory over Slovenia on Wednesday in Port Elizabeth, which is our next game. It looks to be a challenge for the Three Lions, and should be greatly entertaining. We’ll update again then.

Simon Hagens

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I was saying ‘Boo-urns’


If they haven’t already drowned themselves at the bottom of a swimming pool filled with Stella, I’m hoping Brent and Kevin can add some analysis on England’s thoroughly lacklustre 0-0 draw with Algeria today that leaves the Three Lions teetering on the brink of failing to advance out of what was generally considered to be an easy Group C.

Wayne Rooney, whose first touch was dreadful all game and hasn’t been behaving himself all week, took umbrage at the boos directed at the team as they trudged off to think about facing group leaders Slovenia, who were fortunate to hold on for a 2-2 draw with the Sash-and-burners of Team USA when the referee inexplicably disallowed a goal by former Toronto FC player Maurice Edu. As for England, even Algeria were surprised at how crap they played, which was poorly enough that one fan felt compelled to break into the dressing room and have a go at the players. Not sure whether it was Prince Harry or William.

About the only good thing to happen all day was Serbia’s 1-0 victory over Germany, in which Miroslav Klose was sent off for a second bookable offence and Lukas Podolski had a penalty saved. Turns out not every opponent is as old and rubbish as Australia’s Socceroos. The result is a big break for injury-wracked Ghana, who face Australia on Saturday, while the Group E lads get it on with the Netherlands playing Japan and Cameroon facing Denmark.

Ian Harrison

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group C

Dentist by day, football prognosticator by night, our own Dr. Hadi Zogheib is scouting out each group at World Cup 2010 and predicting first round scores and standings. Here’s what the good doctor says about Group C:

England:  Their rabid fans will expect no less than first place from this mediocre group, and Don Fabio’s men should deliver.  World class all over the pitch (except in goal), England will nevertheless be heavily reliant on Wayne Rooney to pop in a goal or ten.  The Lampard/Gerard cohesiveness question has arisen once again with Gareth Barry’s questionable fitness, but as long as Super Wayne is healthy, expect to see the Men of St. George’s Cross advance deep into the tournament.

Slovenia:  The smallest country, population-wise in the World Cup party, the Slovenians are just happy to be there.  However, any team from Europe is capable of a surprise (just ask mighty Russia, who Slovenia beat in a playoff to get to South Africa).  The men in green will rely heavily on Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to keep them competitive.

Algeria:  Coming off an unconvincing 3-0 loss against the Irish in a recent friendly , the Algerians look to be the weakest team in the group based on talent alone.  However, any team that can defeat African champions Egypt in a playoff deserves to be respected.  They may not be technically gifted, but the Algerians are as scrappy as they come.

USA:  As Ian Harrison wrote in a previous entry, the Yanks are not just in South Africa to make up the numbers. Excellent goalkeeping from Tim Howard and a solid midfield led by Clint Dempsey will help the Americans give any opponent a run for their money.  Edson Buddle has been tearing up MLS this season with the LA Galaxy, and has earned his call-up, but it will most likely be Jozy Altidore who coach Bob Bradley relyies on to lead the line.

Results:

England 2-1 USA

Algeria 1-0 Slovenia

England 3-1 Algeria

Slovenia 0-2 USA

Slovenia 1-2 England

Algeria 0-0 USA

Group Standings:

England 9 pts

USA 4 pts

Algeria 4 pts

Slovenia 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, and expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B.

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