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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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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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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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Best of the Prem: Burnley to Hull City

Brent Lanthier

Don’t get yer knickers in a bunch, we’ve got more World Cup coverage coming! But you should probably keep the Premier League in the back of your mind, since the backroom machinations are still ongoing. Several clubs can’t wait for the tournament to end to start their wheeling and dealing.

Burnley: Wade Elliott (ENG)
Burnley’s Player of the Year, At The Rails has already sung the praises of Wade Elliott. He created width down the right while adding some grit to the Clarets: he led the team in both fouls and yellow cards. A team leader on last season’s version of Blackpool.

Future: While Burnley descends back into the Championship, Elliott will likely remain behind with one of the Prem’s lesser lights. Reports say his former boss Owen Coyle will offer Burnley 750,000 pounds to bring the winger to Bolton.

World Cup-bound? No, but at least it would have been nice to see him get a taste. Alas, playing on a relegation-bound club shut him out of Don Fabio’s plans immediately.

Chelsea: Frank Lampard (ENG)
This is going to bring the wrath of my fellow ATR writers: Fat Frank should have been the league’s Player of the Year.  After a shaky start, he was the real leader of Chelsea when Captain Schtupping was busy…. um, getting busy. The axis around which the entire team rotates, Lampard had 22 goals (as a central midfielder!) and led the league with 14 assists. Rooney had a stunning season but Frank was the complete player.

Future: Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, London, SW6 1HS.

World Cup-bound? Yes but where to play him? And who with? Barry or Gerrard?

Everton: Leighton Baines (ENG)
Last Monday’s performance notwithstanding, Baines was a model of consistency this season.  He started more games than any other Everton player and proved to be a force on the left side, defending and attacking with equal measure.  He also led in time of possession for the Toffees.

Future: A Scouser who grew up in Wigan’s system, he seems to finally be home.  Let’s hope his England experience will leave him with something to prove next season.

 World Cup-bound? No.  Apparently Baines is painfully shy… and now the whole world knows. Ugh.

Fulham: Mark Schwarzer (AUS)
The Cottagers allowed one more goal than Manchester City this season, and Schwarzer was a big part of that. The big Aussie faced a barrage of shots this season in the League, not to mention the club’s improbable run to the Europa Cup final. In fact, the last two seasons have been improbable for tiny Fulham. Guess when Schwarzer showed up?

Future: Schwarzer has one more year on his contract. But there are rumours Arsene Wenger wants to bring him to the Emirates… because Almunia is sh!te.

World Cup-bound? Yes. Pim Verbeek has built his team around Schwarzer and a strong back-four.  Many a punter has picked the Socceroos as their dark horse this tournament.

Hull City: Stephen Hunt (IRE)
Is he a bad luck charm or is he just unlucky? Hunt has been relegated from the Premier League twice… but it’s not been his fault.  The Irishman led the Tigers in scoring, even though he was injured for the last two months of the season. An intense midfielder, he was voted Player of the Year by the Hull faithful.

Future: Hull will be selling and he doesn’t appear to want to go back anyway.

World Cup-bound? Ask Thierry Henry.

Up Next: Liverpool to Stoke City

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group D

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. Even the good doctor can’t fix the injury concerns plaguing teams in Group D:

Germany: As ususal, Die Mannschaft will be a force in the tournament, although, on paper at least, this may be one of the weaker German squads to play in the finals. Already without their captain and leader Michael Ballack, coach Loew has been given further bad news that defender Heiko Westermann of Schalke will most likely miss the tournament due to injury as well. The good news is that Ballack’s potential replacement, Sami Khedira of Stuttgart, had a wonderful game against Hungary in last week’s friendly. The Germans will be hoping that Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger can continue their good form, or Bavaria will be drowning their sorrowsat the bottom of a stein very soon.

Australia: Once the punching bags of the world game, the Socceroos have become a model for the Canadian national team. Skilled and physical, the Aussies will be no pushover (just ask the Italians of 2006). Prem league fans will get a taste of déjà vu when they spot Harry Kewell on the pitch, but it will be Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer who will really be the ones carrying the load.

Serbia: The most maddeningly inconsistent team in Europe, the Serbs can play better than Brazil one day and then worse than New Zealand the next (as their result in last weekend’s friendly showed). If this team plays to its potential, they’ll cause an upset or two.

Ghana: With power, speed, and technique, Ghana was regarded as one of the teams with the potential to represent Africa in the semifinals or even the final…until they lost Michael Essien to injury. Now the West Africans will be hard pressed to make it out of this tough group.

Results:

Serbia 1-1 Ghana
Germany 2-0 Australia

Germany 2-2 Serbia
Australia 0-1 Ghana

Ghana 1-1 Germany
Australia 1-2 Serbia

Group Standings:

Germany 5 pts
Serbia 5 pts
Ghana 5 pts
Australia 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B, and predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C.

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