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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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World Cup Payday

The best way I’ve heard the World Cup described is that it’s a sprint, not a marathon. In a sport where the best players on the biggest club teams often have to play a 50+ match season, seven games over a month isn’t a lot — and it may not be the best way to judge a player’s ability.

Scouting for the big clubs is a now a world-wide affair and it’s rare that a player is unknown.  But a great tournament performance can be too irresistible for some teams to pass up. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. Witness then-Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier’s ill-chosen signings from the 2002 Senegal team.

Still… if you base it on their World Cup performances, here’s 10 players who have earned a change of scenery.

Forlan's Golden Ball may earn him a golden handshake

Diego Forlan (URU)
Current Club: Atletico Madrid
This tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Forlan is coming off a Europa League win as well. He has excelled since leaving the Premier League and says he won’t go back. Look for Juventus to make an offer as Atletico tries to raise funds for defensive players.

Luis Suarez (URU)
Current Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Suarez played well off of Forlan, and scored some lovely goals before the hand-ball “incident”. He is rumoured to be a part of Ajax’s restructuring i.e. massive sell-off that already has Martin Jol seeing red.

Maxi Pereira (URU)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
This writer’s pick for right-back of the tournament, Pereira ran rampant on the flank. He scored against the Dutch, while clocking up 66 kilometres in six games. With natural fullbacks at a premium in the Prem, perhaps Senor Pereira might head north for the winter…

Carlos Salcido (MEX)
Current Club: PSV Eindhoven
The left-back led his national team in shots at this World Cup, including a close one off the crossbar against Argentina. A highly-rated player, even ‘Arry tried to sign him.  Rumours are that Roberto Martinez will try to bring him to Wigan.

Fabio Coentrao (POR)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
Only 22 years old, Coentrao was amazing on the left flank, slotted in as a fullback but playing like a winger. There is already talk that fellow countryman Jose Mourinho will pluck him from Lisbon and drop him into Madrid. Rumours are also swirling that Chelsea buying him as a replacement for Ashley Cole.

Justo Villar (PAR)
Current Club: Real Valladolid (Spanish 2nd Division)
Villar allowed only two goals all tournament — and one of them was David Villa’s weird-ass goal that went off the post three times. Villar also blocked a re-taken penalty kick and, in the match against Japan, denied the swarming Keisuke Honda a goal. Plus, he’s wanted out of his newly-relegated club since last season.

John Mensah (GHA)
Current Club: Olympique Lyonnais
What are the odds? Ghana’s central defence consisted of Johnathan Mensah —  who plays for Udinese — and Lyon’s John Mensah. Confusing, non? What’s not confusing is John’s next probable destination. He played 15 games for Sunderland on-loan last season — even scoring a goal and Steve Bruce would like to bring him back.  But it would likely have to be on loan again because of Mensah’s injury problems.

Robinho (BRA)
Current Club: Manchester City
Robinho spent last season on loan back in his native Brazil, due to a falling out with Citeh manager, Roberto Mancini. After a very decent performance alongside Luis Fabiano, it’s likely that Robinho will never return to Manchester. There are rumours he could be used as trade bait for Inter Milan’s Balotelli, or to pry young Brazilian star Neymar from Santos.

Mesut Ozil (GER)
Current Team: Werder Bremen
Everyone and their mother seem to be keen on Germany’s playmaker. The 21-year-old Ozil has been valued at 15 million pounds by Bremen. After scoring a goal — and helping on three others — he may be worth it.

Klose may still have wind in his wings...

Miroslav Klose (GER)
Current Club: Bayern Munich
This old warhorse had a great World Cup, scoring some unattractive but not unappreciated goals. He has vowed to remain in Munich for the last year of his contract, but after only starting 12 times last season due to injury, Klose has a tough fight on his hands. A stellar domestic season by first-choice Ivica Olic — and an astounding international debut by Thomas Muller — means it may be in Klose’s best interests to find another team.

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the bunch: WC Starting XI

So, Spain are World Cup champions after beating a Netherlands team that left Dutch legend Johan Cruyff hurting inside. Even on top of the world, Xabi Alonso might also be feeling a bit of pain – as Nigel de Jong can attest. You might be hurting, too, now that the World Cup is over and there’s no footy on every day. It’s back to work for most of us, but a happy retirement for Oracle Paul. My Futbol Guapa, a marine biologist, just wants to know one thing about this super smart octopus: Did he know who was going to win, or did he make it happen? Hmmmm.

It wasn’t the greatest of finals, more a card-strewn affair that left plenty of people upset with Howard Webb, who didn’t have a great game but was in a tough spot with that lot. And while the sport didn’t shine in it’s signature moment, The Globe & Mail’s John Doyle won’t go easy on you if you think that means soccer sucks.
Anyway, before we go, time to hand out the hardware. The award for best young player goes to German Thomas Mueller, whose three assists break a deadlock with the other five-goal men to make him Golden Boot winner, too. Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, the subject of transfer rumours, has been named Golden Ball recipient as the tournament’s best player, the first winner not to play in the final.

No less lucrative and prestigious is inclusion in the At The Rails World Cup Starting XI. Brent and Dr. Z have each picked teams, and present them now for your perusal and pleasure.

Brent’s picks Hadi’s picks
GK: Richard Kingson (Gha): The man made 22 saves, while allowing only three goals all tournament. A big reason the Black Stars made it to the quarters. GK: Manuel Neuer (Ger): Not the busiest keeper in the tournament but solid when called upon. Also had a wonderful assist on the first goal against England.
RB: Maxi Pereira (Uru) Uruguay’s defence was a bit of an unknown quanitity coming into the tournament. But this right back-cum-midfielder kept the goal count down against his country, and even contributed one himself. RB: Philip Lahm (Ger) Doubts about his ability to lead this young German team quickly evaporated thanks to fantastic on field performances and a calmness  even Michael Ballack could admire.
CBs: Carles Puyol (Spa) Scored a massive goal against Germany to get his team into the Final and, along with… CB: Diego Lugano (Uru) Captained the most overachieving side in the tournament.  Anchored a Uruguay defence that was at times impenetrable.
CB: Gerard Pique (Spain) …. served as full-stop, the anchors of a stingy, stingy Spanish team. This pair are coming off another La Liga-winning season, as well as a Champions League semi-final. Its easy to see why. CB: Carles Puyol (Spain) The man with the wonder hair was at his brave best this past month.  Lunging, diving, blocking, and even scoring, he did it all for the Spanish.
LB: Fabio Coentrao (Por) A no-name player for Benfica who was part of a back four that conceded only one goal all tournament. Unfortunately, it was the goal that knocked them out. LB: Ashley Cole (Eng) The lone bright spot on a terrible English team. Equal contribution on offence and defence.  The only world class player who showed up for the Red and White.
MF: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Ger) The man sprayed the ball around like a Wehrmacht machine gun nest. Watch him carve through Argentina to set up Friedrich’s goal. MF: Thomas Mulller (Ger) What more can be said about this guy’s performance. At times seemed unstoppable. Cool on the ball and fantastic movement without it. A star is born.
MF: Xabi Alonso (Spa) Alonso was the first line of defence in solid, unchanging back eight and the pilot of a talented attacking team that knew how to bide its time. MF: Xavi (Spain) The best passer in the world.  Period.
MF: Lukas Podolski (Ger) If it wasn’t Muller, it was Klose. If it wasn’t Klose, it was Podolski. Both he and his fellow Polish-born team mate were written off after terrible club seasons. Two goals and two assists erased that. MF: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Ger) Took over for the injured Michael Ballack and did so to perfection. Considering he started his career as a winger, this central midfielder looks destined to lead a dangerous German team into the 2012 Euros.
MF: Thomas Mueller (Ger) Der Kinder Surprise on a team of babies, this man was sorely missed in the semifinal against Spain. MF: Wesley Sneijder (Ned) Might have challenged for Golden Ball if not for poor final.  The fulcrum of the Oranje, he can seemingly do it all:  pass, shoot, run, and even head.
FWD: Wesley Sneijder (Ned) The man of the tournament, and tied for top scorer with five goals, Sneijder has been a revelation, even after a treble-winning club season, injuries not withstanding. Automatic. FWD: David Villa (Spa) The best finisher in the world today is heading to Barcelona next season… as if they needed any more help.
FWD: David Villa (Spa) I wanted to take Miroslav Klose here because of his remarkable World Cup run. But Villas goals were a lot prettier… including his monster against Chile. FWD: Diego Forlan (Uru) Proved you can hit the Jabulani ball from distance and control it too.  Countless wonder strikes and always a threat to score.
Honorable mentions: Manuel Neuer, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Lucio, Ryan Nelsen, Phillip Lahm, Dirk Kuyt, Xavi, Arjen Robben, Andres Iniesta, Diego Forlan Honorable mentions: Iker Casillas, Fabio Coentrao, Da Silva, Maicon, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Arjen Robben, Mesut Ozil, Asamoah Gyan, Gonzalo Higuain

Say what you will about the overall quality of the play, I’m just happy only two matches were decided by penalty kicks. I’m also among those impressed by the excellent job South Africa did as host, with the country now considering an Olympic bid. Of course, while there was joy over Nelson Mandela’s appearance at the closing ceremonies, there’ ll still be crushing poverty and racial inequality when the hype dies down. Still, plenty of anticipated problems never showed up, allowing the country to shine on the world stage. For that, and for plenty else, South Africa deserves a lot of credit.

Ian Harrison, Brent Lanthier & Hadi Zogheib

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Dutch Courage vs. Spanish Elan

Thirty days later and we’ve arrived here:  The Final Countdown.  One game, two European teams, both of whom have been stuck with the “choker” label in recent years. Half a billion people are expected to watch the final.  No pressure, boys.  Let’s ease into it then, with the consolation round!

Germany and Uruguay kept true to the form of past third-place games, with the goals coming fast and furious.  The match finished 3-2 Germany, though Uruguay’s Golden Boy Diego Forlan hit the crossbar in the last minute.  A new dawn has risen for German football — with a young team that should impress for years to come. Let’s hope the same can be said for little Uruguay. 

Goals from Forlan and Germany’s Thomas Muller bring both players to five. That makes them level with Wesley Sneijder and David Villa for the Golden Boot. Of course, Sneijder and Villa have one more shot to build on their tally. There hasn’t been this many players tied for the Golden Boot since Chile ’62… when six players shared the honour.

Blast from the Gen X past: U.S. star Alexei Lalas said he picked Netherlands-Uruguay and Spain-Germany in his bracket, with Holland beating Spain 3-2 in the final.  They used to burn Gingers at the stake for stuff like this…

According to FIFA’s foul and card count, the dirtiest team in the tournament will play the cleanest.  If you don’t which is which, I’ll throw out a hint: Mark Van Bommel.

The calls have been growing louder for Van Bommel’s head. The Dutchman has only picked up one yellow, despite video evidence showing some vicious attacks through the tournament.

Spanish eyes mustn’t have been smiling when they heard Howard Webb was officiating the final. Webb reffed the 2009 Champions League quarterfinal match between Barcelona and Van Bommel’s Bayern Munich. Watch Van Bommel’s vicious elbow on Lionel Messi. Webb played the advantage — which led to a Barca goal.  Trust me, the Spaniards haven’t forgotten…

Enjoy the final!

Brent Lanthier

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Uruguay, Ghana both score knockouts

After a somewhat subdued opening round, the first two games of the knockout stages did not disappoint. With sheets of rain sweeping across Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, Uruguay and South Korea both played with a sense of urgency… which was a treat for both partisans and neutrals alike.

Luis Suarez was magnificent, scoring both of Uruguay’s tallies. The first one came when Diego Forlan raced to catch a loose ball at the touchline, turning and sending a cross through the box. The Korean keeper missed it and Suarez was waiting. 1-0 Uruguay.

A miscommunication between Fernando Muslera and captain Diego Lugano resulted in a collision, and a gift for Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong. 1-1. By the way, there were four Diegos on the pitch during this game. Weird.

The winner came on what might be the goal of the tournament.  The ball was headed away from the pack in front of the net, after a Forlan corner. Suarez gets the ball, swings past his man at the edge and sends in a bendy ball that hits the post, deflecting into the net.  Awesome, as was his celebration. Uruguay’s win marks the first time since 1970 that a South American team other than Brazil or Argentina has advanced to the quarterfinals.

Kevin-Prince Boateng

Boateng celebrates after opening the scoring.

Ghana-U.S.A. was a repeat of a group match in 2006… and it produced the same result.  Kevin-Prince Boateng put the Black Stars on the board after only five minutes — Ghana’s first goal from open play in this tournament.  The U.S. coughed up the ball at the centre spot, and Boateng left-footed it past two defenders and the keeper.

The U.S. got back on the board on a penalty, after Clint Dempsey was brought down in the box. The game remained tied after 90 minutes, and so began the tournament’s first taste of extra-time.  Three minutes in, Asamoah Gyan scored his third of this World Cup — and it proved to be the winner. Ghana becomes only the third African team to reach the quarters, after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002. Landon Donovan says his team was naive, by not putting Ghana away. For the second time in a row, the Black Stars knock out the Stars and Stripes.

Uruguay and Ghana play next Friday.

Brent Lanthier

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French are toast, while Yakubu’s howler burns Nigerians

It was a contrast in dignity. One team — lowly-ranked before the World Cup even began — put up a desparate last-gasp effort to remain in its own tournament. The other team made a mockery of it.  In the end, both France and South Africa are out… with Bafana Bafana winning 2-1, sending last year’s finalists home to face the wrath of their countrymen. Of course, there was a sending-off, and “Le Fou” Domenech couldn’t leave without one last petty gesture. From the Guardian: Not Everybody Loves Raymond.

In the other game, Uruguay won the group, after it beat Mexico 1-0, who have backed into second place. Before the tournament, many pundits talked about the strike force of Forlan and Suarez (who have both scored), but the Uruguayan defence has yet to concede a goal.

In Group B, Diego Maradona made seven changes to his team, yet they still won comfortably against hapless Greece, 2-0. Maradona has started talking sense, as well. That’s no fun…

The other game was South Korea-Nigeria. (Here’s where I admit my few shortcomings: I wrote Nigeria needed to win by more than a goal. Not true; they just needed a win). Lots of back and forth, with a nice first goal by Nigeria. But the Africans got caught on two set pieces and ended up down 2-1. Yakubu missed a goal that I could have scored drunk.  The Nigerians ended converting a penalty kick, making it 2-2, but it wasn’t enough.

So now it’s Uruguay vs. South Korea, and Argentina-Mexico. Note that three of the five South American teams have now qualified, yet three of six African teams are going home.

Brent Lanthier

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Swiss bliss is Spain’s pain as hosts look like toast

Spanish fans in Madrid can’t believe the score against Switzerland.

The upset of the tournament so far, and one of the biggest upsets in decades, has turned Group H into a dogfight for reigning European champions Spain, who went down to Switzerland 1-0. The deciding score came early in the second half, a scrappy goal by Gelson Fernandes, who bundled the ball in after a collision between Spanish keeper Iker Casillas and Swiss forward Eren Derdiyok. Spain’s Xabi Alonso hit the bar late on, but the Swiss held on for a famous win, and will vie with Chile (who broke a 48-year winless streak at the World Cup by beating Honduras 1-0) for control of the group, while Spain will have its work cut out to avoid second place and a possible match-up with Brazil in the round of 16.

The late game saw the hosts lose keeper Itumeleng Khune to a somewhat dubious red card while Diego Forlan scored twice, including once from the spot after Khune was dismissed, in a 3-0 victory for Uruguay, which was hardly the way anyone in South Africa wanted to mark the 34th anniversary of the Soweto student uprising, and did little to make anyone feel better about the disturbing news of strikes by poorly-paid security guards and protest marches against the FIFA fatcats, who won’t even let a bunch of women in orange miniskirts get their party on. It’s no surprise, but a bit of a shame, that Bafana Bafana are likely to bow out after their final Group A game against France, making them the first host team ever not to reach the knockout round.

It seems the World Cup may also be over for Italian netminder Gianluigi Buffon, whose back is a bit wonky. Maybe the long flight down didn’t do him any favours. At least he probably travelled in more style than CBS correspondent Steve Nash. As for our correspondent, the Happy Hoofer was posing for pictures in Abu Dhabi this morning, killing time while waiting for a connecting flight (he’s the one on the right).

While Portugal were busy trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo’s yellow card rescinded, there was more fun elsewhere. With his team set to face the Red Devils of South Korea tomorrow, Argentina boss Diego Maradona was made available to a hungry pack of media wolves today, and didn’t disappoint, firing off shots at Pele and Michel Platini (damn French and their lack of social skills), revealing that Juan Sebastian Veron would not start because of a calf injury, and producing several other Maradona musings. Can’t wait to see his antics on the touchline tomorrow, and what suit his daughters dress him in.

Ian Harrison

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