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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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England still looking for results…

 

He's in better shape than England's back four...

 

This next one is going to get me in a lot of trouble…

This week, the world watched and cheered as 33 Chilean miners were rescued after spending 10 long weeks trapped in the bowels of the earth.

Still easier than being an England fan.

Of course, I can joke now.  All of the miners are safe and sound… and to be honest, some of them looked like they enjoyed the ride up.  But’s it’s not been a fun ride for those who support the Three Lions.

Tuesday’s game against Montenegro was ghastly: shades of the World Cup against Algeria.  No ideas, no goals, errant passing and shoddy refereeing.  You could say England have been fumbling around in the dark with no way of knowing how this will end.  Ashley Young looked like he tripped over his neighbour’s hard hat…

The Chilean miners had their entire country and — you could argue — the entire world cheering for them.  But no one feels for England and its spoiled millionaires.   By the middle of the second half, you could hear the frustrated fans groaning every time England tried to move forward, only to have a player stumble over a cross or lose the ball in no man’s land.

On the Guardian’s podcast, the crew mentioned how tiny Montenegro overachieves for a country its size, with decent handball (snicker) and water polo teams.  Add football to that list.  The former Yugoslav state is the fifth seed in the group, but after playing half of its Euro qualifying games, it sits in first place… undefeated.

It’s not all darkness for the Lions.  They are also undefeated.  But in a group that plays two fewer games (meaning there are six fewer points up for grabs), they can not afford to finish second.  That means their final qualifier next year in Montenegro has assumed greater importance.

Let’s hope there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… even if it is a long way off.
Brent Lanthier

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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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Sweet 16 set in South Africa

Here’s the problem boys: You can’t score with your eyes closed

It was South American Colonies vs Former European Colonial Masters on the final day of group stage play at World Cup 2010, with Brazil facing Portugal to decide the top spot in Group G in one of the early games and Chile taking on Spain for first place in Group H in the late games.

As captivating as it looked on paper, the Brazil-Portugal clash didn’t really live up to the hype, finishing in a 0-0 draw that saw both teams go through, with Brazil securing first place. A shame, really, that this game didn’t come up earlier when both sides had more to play for…a draw was always on the cards given that it was enough to put the two teams into the knockout round.

Portugal have yet to concede at this tournament, but just as tellingly they haven’t put a goal past anyone other than North Korea. Good for them that they put seven past Kim Jong-Il’s boys, who may never be seen again after they bowed out with a 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast. Afterwards, Sven said goodbye to the Elephants, who were always going to need a big scoreline to keep going, but couldn’t pull it off . Sadly, the team many felt was Africa’s best but one that was consigned to a Group of Death for the second straight World Cup, finished one point behind Portugal, leaving Ghana as Africa’s lone representative in the second round.

David Villa’s cheeky goal pointed Spain into the second round

Later, while I was out covering a G20 protest march through downtown Toronto, Chile became the first South American team to taste defeat at this tournament, falling to Spain 2-1 thanks to an audacious first-half strike by David Villa and a well-struck shot by Andres Iniesta, and aided by an harsh sending off by Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez (the same guy who chased Australia’s Tim Cahill) after Marco Estrada clipped the heel of Fernando Torres, who disappointed again and was substituted early in the second half. Despite La Roja’s defeat, all five South American teams have reached the next stage, with a combined record to date of nine wins, one loss and five draws.

Finally, Switzerland’s bank-vault defence didn’t concede against Honduras in a 0-0 draw that gave the Central Americans their first and only point of the tournament, but did nothing to send the Swiss through.

So, it’s Brazil vs. Chile in an all-South American clash at Ellis Park Stadium in Jo’burg on the 28th, and Spain vs. Portugal in Cape Town on the 29th, our correspondent’s final match of his World Cup tour.

Ian Harrison

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Another European exit?

We’re down to the last two groups before the Round of 16. Top-ranked Brazil are finally meeting their colonial masters, while Ivory Coast look to salvage some African pride, a la Ghana. Meanwhile, early favourites Spain are struggling against one more South American juggernaut.

Group G
Brazil: 6 pts., +3 GD, 5 GS
Portugal: 4 pts., +7 GD, 7 GS
Ivory Coast: 1 pt., -2 GD, 1 GS
North Korea: 0 pts., -8 GD, 1 GS

Brazil is already in. But they’ll need a win or a draw to secure top spot in the group.

Portugal is almost guaranteed to qualify, needing either a win or a draw. But if they lose, they can still get in, as long as they don’t lose their shirts to Brazil. That — or Ivory Coast runs up the goals on North Korea like Das Quinas did in their game against the Asian team.

Ivory Coast needs to win and they need to win big. There is a nine-goal difference between The Elephants and Portugal, which they would need to make up. Of course, that’s assuming Portugal loses.

North Korea are out.

Prediction: Brazil will beat Portugal in a close match. Ivory Coast will beat North Korea, but it won’t be enough. Brazil wins the group, Portugal follows.

Group H:
Chile: 6 pts., +2 GD, 2 GS
Spain: 3 pts., +1 GD, 2 GS
Switzerland: 3 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Honduras: 0 pts., -3 GD, 0 GS

Chile gets through with a win or a draw. If they lose, they need Switzerland to draw or tie. If Switzerland wins (and Chile loses), then the Chileans have to hope the Swiss don’t make up the two-goal difference.

Spain’s situation is a bit more complicated. A win is almost necessary for the European champions. But even with a win, they have to hope the Swiss don’t come out on top is well. The Spaniards’ only hope is a single goal: they lead the Swiss by one in goal difference and goals scored.

Spain can also go through on a draw, or even a loss, but they have to hope the Swiss do the same.

Not to dismiss Honduras either. They could sneak in with a massive win against the Swiss, and a Spanish loss.  But the Swiss defence is like a Zurich bank account: no names and tough to crack.

Predictions: Spain are reliving their old ways as chokers. They may have a tough time against an aggressive Chilean team. Meanwhile, the Swiss will likely stick to their conservative game plan against Honduras.  Spain draws Chile. Switzerland beats Honduras by a goal. Chile wins the group, Switzerland advances, leaving early favourites Spain to join France and Italy.

Tuesday Games: Brazil vs. Switzerland, Chile vs. Portugal

Brent Lanthier

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Portugal win laugher, Spain & Chile also victorious

There were goals aplenty for Portugal in its match against North Korea, a 7-0 whitewash that eliminated Kim Jong-Il’s crew (probably only the second-biggest story in that country today) and all-but guaranteed that Ronaldo and company will be joining Brazil in the next round.  Even Didier Drogba’s firepower isn’t likely to be enough for Ivory Coast to overcome its goal difference woes and escape this Group of Death, another African casualty ready to be wheeled in to the World Cup morgue.

Wacky refereeing was the story in Chile’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Switzerland in the second match of the day as South American teams remained unbeaten. You might have thought, given the history of this Chile team and it’s appearance at the U-20 World Cup in Canada a few years back, that it would have been them who lost their cool when the cards started flying thick and fast, but it was Switzerland’s Volan Behrami who was sent packing, and Steve Von Bergen resorting to handbag tactics in the second half. The Swiss held their ground long enough to establish a World Cup record for minutes played without conceding, but couldn’t keep the hard-charging Chileans at bay. Even with six points, Marcelo Bielsa’s team is not guaranteed a berth in the knockout round, and will have to be more clinical in its finishing to survive Spain and, should it advance, the cream of Group G.

Finally, the aforementioned Spaniards turned on the style against Honduras in the late game, posting a 2-0 victory thanks to a brace from David Villa, who also missed a penalty. Fernando Torres failed to impress but this was more like it from the reigning European champions, who can still top their group by beating Chile in Pretoria on Friday, a game that could be an cracker. Coach Vincente Del Bosque sees room for improvement, with Villa’s behaviour one area that could be brushed up, but this should keep the critics at bay, which is more than can be said for Nigeria’s Sani Kaita. Really people, it’s only football.

Ian Harrison

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