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Spain’s Pain, Dutch Dreams and Chile’s Voodoo on the Socceroos

THAT goal...

THAT goal…

After seven blindingly-good matches over two days, I’m already a bit knackered (several pints of cider having nothing to do with it).   There have been some shockers and lots of goals… good thing I’ve cleared my calendar.

After almost 48 hours, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the Dutch win over Spain.  Five goals against the defending World champions would be unheard of two years ago.  Both teams played high and aggressive, but it was power that won over possession, as the Netherlands seemed to find space for their runs.  Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were as good as they’ve ever been, with RvP scoring his Superman header, imitating Bobby Orr in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals.  Nigel de Jong dominated the midfield… but strangely, Wesley Sneijder was not as involved as he may have been in the past.  Meanwhile Spain’s spine seemed to shut down: Iker Casillas were horrible, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué were caught with their pants down, and Xavi seemed to falter.

The Dutch had Spain on her knees...

The Dutch had Spain on her knees…

Some pundits say the warning signs were there that this is a team in its autumn years… although you could also argue these are players that have come off punishing domestic and Champions league campaigns.   Also noteworthy is that Spain had most of the possession, but as Bobby McMahon wrote for Forbes magazine, possession means nothing.  Is this the end of Spanish dominance and tika-taka?  Netherlands 3-1 Spain

Bad officiating reared its ugly head in this match as well.  The second Dutch goal went in as RVP bonked Casillas in the noggin.  It should have been foul; instead it was 2-1 and changed the tone of the game.

Nothing dirty about Sanchez' goal

Nothing dirty about Sanchez’ goal

Meanwhile, Australia performed admirably against a lightning-quick Chile on Friday.   Both teams stuck to form, with the Chileans scoring early and dominating the first third of the game.  However, the Socceroos gathered the wits and Tim Cahill scored a trademark header.   Note: the Chileans are tiny.  Who knew?  However, they gave as good as they got, with almost as many tackles as the Aussies… but the South Americans had far fewer fouls.  The Chileans will get through (especially now that Spain is there for the taking), the Aussies won’t… but neither will be taken lightly from here on in.  Chile 3-1 Australia.

Brent P. Lanthier

 

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups A & B

brazuca

It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself.  The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching.  You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year.  Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12.  Here’s At The Rail’s predictions.  I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.

GROUP A

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing.  After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation).  But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots.   Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs).  Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari.  Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure.  CHAMPIONS

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain.  Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days.  But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs.   They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again.  ROUND OF 16

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever.  Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day.  Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama.   The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch.  Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it.  THREE AND OUT

Wham, bam, thank you Sam...

Wham, bam, thank you Sam…

Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football.  At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions  had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute.  This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be.   No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago.   While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England.  Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues.  Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century.  That streak should remain intact.  THREE AND OUT.

 

GROUP B

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won.  But Spain are no ordinary side.  This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008.   Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down.  Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España.   Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever.  Period.  Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything.  They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil.  FINALIST.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores.  'Nuff said.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores. ‘Nuff said.

Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years.   Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.   Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts.  Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up.  This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round.   ROUND OF 16.

Oh sure, they're all friends NOW...

Oh sure, they’re all friends NOW…

A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves.  While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns.   Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke.  But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side.  Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig.  Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United.   But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other?  THREE AND OUT

Don't get too comfy, lads.

Don’t get too comfy, lads.

Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya.  But you are not going to make major inroads in this group.   FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you).  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five.  Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos.  Australia 2022!  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Groups C & D  (Shocking, I know)

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Formation of the future?

Bastian Schweinsteiger

Bastian Schweinsteiger is a key cog in Germany’s formation.

This World Cup may go down as one to revolutionize soccer for years to come.  Whether or not Germany beats Spain in today’s semifinal, there is no doubt they have played much better than the sum of their parts.  And, with the Netherlands playing just as well, their place as worthy finalists cannot be debated.

What do these two teams have in common?  Their formation.  Both have used a 4-2-3-1 system to perfection.  So much so, the system may soon replace the traditional 4-4-2 as the formation of choice.  The Germans have Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira playing as holding midfielders protecting the back four, while the Dutch use Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel.  These players act as distributors of the ball all over the pitch, and help out the defence when necessary.  Three advanced midfielders play in front of these two and aid in pressing opponents up the pitch (when the opposition has the ball) or help their lone striker in attack (when they have possesion).  The Germans use Miroslav Klose as the lone striker, aided by Lukas Podolski (left), Thomas Mueller (right) and Mesut Ozil (central), although they’ll need to replace the suspended Mueller today against Spain.  Holland has Robin Van Persie alone up front, supported by Arjen Robben (right), Dirk Kuyt (left) and Wesley Sneijder (central).

World Cups are known to change the course of soccer.  Could we be witnessing the latest moment of evolution in South Africa?

Hadi Zogheib

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Oranje book date with Samba Stars

Kaka celebrates with Luis Fabiano

Kaka celebrates Brazil’s second with Luis Fabiano

They gave it a brave try for the opening half hour, but Chile eventually proved no match for the magic and might of Brazil, who scored twice within a three minute span in the first half and added a gorgeous third after the interval to crush the hopes of their continental cousins in a 3-0 victory that sent the Selecao into the quarter finals.

Chile were aggressive and daring, and deserve plaudits for the way their young team performed at this tournament. Still, keeping the world’s top-ranked team off the scoresheet was always going to be a struggle, and it didn’t help La Roja that they were without the defensive duo of Gary Medel and Waldo Ponce, both suspended for yellow cards. Midfielder Marco Estrada, sent off for a tame challenge on Spain’s Fernando Torres in the final group stage game, was also reduced to spectator for this one, but even a full-strength Chile would have been fortunate to unseat the five-time champions, who look a good bet for a sixth crown on July 11.

Arjen Robben

Arjen Robben fires home the opener for the Oranje

To get there, however, Brazil will have to knock off the Netherlands, who extended their unbeaten run to 23 matches and have won eight straight overall after a 2-1 victory over a Slovakian side that was a shadow of the team that knocked Italy out of the tournament last week. Arjen Robben, making his first start of this World Cup, slotted the opening goal inside the post early in the first half, while Slovakia didn’t manage a single shot on net for the first 62 minutes of the match. Two glorious chances soon after both went begging, with Maarten Stekelenburg bailing out the Oranje with some fine saves before Dirk Kuyt gifted Wesley Sneijder for Holland’s decisive second, and only a (rather dubious) final-kick penalty putting Slovakia on the board.

The Dutch have yet to concede a goal from open play at this tournament, while Brazil has allowed just two, and neither team has trailed at any point so far. Something’s got to give when this pair of heavyweights clash in Port Elizabeth on Friday. The Netherlands haven’t faced anyone with the quality and depth of Brazil so far, and will have to raise its game to match the South Americans. If they can, this one could be a classic.

Ian Harrison

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Arrivederci Italia


For the first time since 1974, Italy has crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage, losing a 3-2 decision to Slovakia today to finish bottom of Group F, a shocking fall for the defending champion Azzurri. Coach Marcello Lippi said his team “played with fear in their legs and their hearts” throughout their brief stay at the tournament, perhaps never more than today when, for long stretches, Slovakia bossed the game and created the bulk of the chances.

This might have been the most dramatic game at the World Cup so far, with the stakes so high for both teams and the goals coming thick and fast in the final 10 minutes. But aging Italy, hampered by the loss of  goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and without Andrea Pirlo for the first two matches, never really woke up until then, and it cost them even worse than failing to beat New Zealand in their previous match. Slovakia’s players, notably the keeper, were guilty of some serious time wasting in the dying moments, with the match threatening to drag on longer than a certain Wimbledon epic, but they held on for a famous win.

As for the Kiwis, they pulled off another draw, their third in as many matches. For a team that was expected to be cannon fodder at this World Cup, New Zealand can hold their heads high, but they’re still packing their bags after a 0-0 snoozer against Paraguay, with the South Americans moving on.

The late games saw the Netherlands outclass Cameroon 2-1, the first time a Dutch team has won all three group stage matches at the World Cup (and extending an unbeaten streak that began with an undefeated qualifying campaign). Arjen Robben returned to the Dutch team after missing victories over Denmark and Japan. On the other side, Paul LeGuen resigned as coach of the Indomitable Lions after losing all three matches and could be heading Down Under for his next job.

Finally, Japan bent a pair of free kicks into the Danish net and, after conceding a second-half penalty, sealed it with a late third goal to earn a 3-1 win that dumped Denmark out. Even if their continent won’t be cheering for them, Japan are moving on, and doing so for the first time on foreign soil.

With all eyes focussed on South Africa, this seemed a good time for Chelsea to hand Nicolas Anelka a contract extension. Wonder whether there’s a behaviour clause? Does Stamford Bridge have a swear jar?

So, the Netherlands take on upstart Slovakia on Monday, with Paraguay taking on the Japanese on Tuesday, with just four places left in the round of 16.

Ian Harrison

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