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Colombia, Ivory Coast take Group C pole positions

Group C’s matches were spaced out on Saturday, with the two Group D games between them. Presumably, this was to air the Ivory Coast-Japan game during prime time for Brazil’s significant Japanese population.   Every team in this group played to form, and the results were expected, if not predictable.

GROUP C
Radamel who? Colombia‘s performance was punctuated by an international coming-out party for James Rodriguez.  The Monaco man ran his little heart out and scored a lovely left-footed poke at the end of the match.  This game was also an example of what can go wrong with the current trend of having high-playing fullbacks/wingbacks.  Greece‘s José Holebas was exposed on the left as he failed to track back, allowing Colombia to score early.   Juan Cuadrado was brought in to flood the right and he did just that, setting up the first and third goals.  Greece also missed some great chances, including a sitter by Theo Gekas who headed the ball off the crossbar.  Colombia 3-0 Greece

First of two goals in as many mintues

First of two goals in as many minutes

The Ivory Coast went down early after Keisuke Honda’s cracker in the 13th minute.  I watched this one in the pub, and the entire room gasped when he scored.    But then Japan sat back and let the Elephants come at them.   The key moment, though, was the entrance of Didier Drogba.  The Ivory Coast captain sat while Wilfried Bony got the start.  Playing Bony made sense, considering the two players’ respective league seasons.  But Drogba’s introduction came at the expense of the holding midfielder, and now there were two strikers.  Bony scored two minutes after Drogba came on; Gervinho scored two minutes after that.   Ivory Coast 2-1 Japan

Brent P. Lanthier

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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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Holy spit! Spain beats Portugal

David Villa

They started the World Cup with a shock loss to Swizterland. But Spain, the reigning champions of Europe, have won all three matches since, and booked their berth in the quarterfinals today with a 1-0 victory over Iberian rivals Portugal, who barely got anything of merit out of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive footballer. David Villa, recently signed by Barcelona, struck the only goal of the match, firing his own rebound over Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo, who had gone more than 330 minutes at this tournament without conceding before he was beaten.

Spain had controlled most of the possession in this entertaining encounter in Cape Town, the final World Cup match for our correspondent, but it was Portugal who stretched play and created the clear-cut chances in most of the first hour, save for a pair of early Spanish shots against Eduardo. But after Fernando Llorente came on for Fernando Torres and immediately created a headed chance, Spain were in the ascendancy. In the end, Iniesta found Xavi, whose clever backheel freed Villa for the shot and follow-up effort into the roof of the net that sent Portugal packing.

Cristiano Ronaldo

While he’s clearly one of the most special talents in the game today, I’m no fan of Ronaldo and was pleased to see Argentinian referee Hector Baldassi refusing to buy into the foul-seeking floppiness he’s become infamous for. The supremely talented but too-often petulant winger struggled to get touches, whined when the calls didn’t go his way and spat in the direction of a cameraman trailing him off the field at the final whistle. Good riddance.

Having said that, I’ve watched the replays of Ricardo Costa’s late elbow on Joan Capdevilla that resulted in a 88th minute red card from Baldassi, and can’t see why it was a direct red. A bit of dirty play acting from the Spaniard perhaps? I hope not.

Paraguay fan

Elsewhere, it was a day for cheering with two hands, which meant finding a new place to stash your Blackberry, if you were a fan of Paraguay, who became the fourth South American team to book their spot in the last eight by beating Japan 5-3 on penalties, the first game to be decided in that fashion at this World Cup. After a pretty dire 120 minutes, during which penalties always looked the most likely outcome, La Albirroja converted all five from the spot, with substitute Oscar Cardoza sliding home the clincher to put his team in the last eight for the first time, while Japan’s Yuichi Komano banged his effort off the crossbar, sending the Blue Samurai home in shameful defeat.

So, the quarters are set and we all get a couple of days to catch our breath before the Netherlands face Brazil in Port Elizabeth on Friday morning, with Ghana and Uruguay squaring off at Soccer City in Soweto later that day. Saturday morning brings Argentina vs. Germany in Cape Town, with Spain meeting Paraguay at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium in the late game. I’m going with Ghana and Brazil to emerge on one side of the draw, with Spain and Argentina getting through on the other side, even though by picking against Germany I’m ignoring the choice of Paul the Octopus. He knows his football – that match should be a cracker.

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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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 E

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 expects in Group E:

Netherlands:  With all the talk about Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and England, it seems the Dutch have been overlooked.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, injuries were threatening to derail their tournament aspirations, but most of the players have recovered in time for the big show.  Goalkeeping and defence are a little questionable, but with Dirk Kuyt, Robin Van Persie, Rafael Van der Vaart, and the sensational Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, anything less than a semifinal showing will be considered a big disappointment.

Japan:  Perennial Asian powerhouse Japan will feel a little better going into the competition having played England very tough in a 2-1 loss.  Speedy and crafty, the Japanese must tighten up in defence if they hope to progress out of the group stage.  They’ll need some magic from former Celtic midfielder and free kick wizard Shunsuke Nakamura along the way.  The Japanese may also be bolstered by the fact that they have a stellar record in recent years against African countries, going 5-0-1 since 2007.

Cameroon:  And the award for tightest uniforms go to… but I digress.  The West Africans will be hoping to repeat the success of Italia ’90, and much of the pressure will fall on the captain’s shoulders.  Former great Roger Milla stirred up a little controversy recently, criticizing Samuel Eto’o for playing great for club but not country.  Perhaps he was looking to light a fire under the Inter superstar: time will tell if it worked. As a big fan of la Liga, I must also mention the play of Espanyol goalkeeper Kameni, who perhaps single handedly helped his club avoid relegation with his sensational play this season.

Denmark:  The most underrated team in the World Cup, the Danes beat out Hungary, Sweden, and mighty Portugal to win their qualification group.  Meticulously organized and solid (though not spectacular) at every position, this may be the team to pick as the darkhorse to go deep in the tournament.  That is, if the maddeningly inconsistent Nicolas Bendtner decides to play consistently for a change.

Predicted Results:

Netherlands 2-1 Denmark

Cameroon 2-0 Japan

Netherlands 3-1 Japan

Cameroon 1-1 Denmark

Denmark 2-0 Japan

Cameroon 0-2 Netherlands

Group Standings:

Netherlands  9 pts

Denmark 4 pts

Cameroon 4 pts

Japan 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, predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C, and expects a three-way dogfight in Group D.

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