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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups G & H

Germans arrive
The last two groups could not be more opposite in quality and reputation.  While I don’t think Group G is the Group of Death, I do think that the four nations will have their work cut out for them.  Meanwhile, the young Belgians will have a chance to strut their stuff while the other three fight their way through.

GROUP G

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Much has been written in recent days about the injuries to Joachim Löw’s Germany.  Marco Reus tore his ankle just days before the tournament, and potential starters Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are all either playing with knocks or coming off recent injuries.  Luckily for Löw, he suffers from an embarrassment of riches.   Half of Der Mannschaft (tee hee, Mannschaft…  still makes me giggle) plays for either of Germany’s two biggest teams: Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.  The side also features Arsenal’s three prizes: veteran defender Per Mertesacker, as well as attacking midfielders Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, and Chelsea’s Andre Schürrle.  Löw’s Teutonic system (the newest rage in football, a melange of tiki-taka and counter-attacking) means all hands going forward, which explains why he only brought one striker: 36-year-old Miroslav Klose.  If Klose plays — and scores — Germany’s all-time record goal-scorer will tie Brazil’s Ronaldo for all-time World Cup goals (15).   SEMI-FINALS

Apparently, he's going to be okay...

Apparently, he’s going to be okay…

If there is one nation whose fans’ self-delusion rivals that of England’s, it’s Portugal‘s.  Every four years — two if you count the Euros — their fans believe they have what it takes to be world beaters.  But like England, they strive and fall short.  Portugal features a superstar player in Cristiano Ronaldo (just like Wayne Rooney) who is surrounded by a team of competent players that would never get a kick at the can in a side like Argentina or Brazil (just like England).  Portugal are also a nation whose FIFA ranking is absurdly high, boosted by a complicated formula (just like England).   Ronaldo has been fighting to be fit for this tournament.  If he performs like he does for Real Madrid, Portugal could go deep into quarter-final territory.  But their path is likely blocked by Belgium in the knockout stages and then Argentina.  ROUND OF 16

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Jürgen Klinsmann says he will sing both Germany’s and the U.S.A.‘s national anthems, when the two teams square off in their very last group game.  By then, Klinsmann will have a pretty good idea whether his last three years of effort have finally elevated the USA into the elite pantheon of football nations.   A look at his side would suggest it hasn’t yet.   I don’t want to write off the Stars and Stripes: they are well organized and physical.  They feature a handful of players who are class: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are great keepers; Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore have all cut their teeth in the Premier League, and Michael Bradley — despite his strange move to MLS — will be the lynchpin of Klinsmann’s side.  It’s a pity they are in a group with Germany and Portugal.  The building continues.  THREE AND OUT

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars' two superstars

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars’ two superstars

Everyone’s favourite in South Africa 2010, Ghana faces the plague of other successful African nations: inflated expectations.  The Black Stars’ midfield is still credible: Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will bolster the back line,  with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in front of them.  But no one will be surprised by the Ghanaians, and that’s unfortunate in a tough group like this.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP H 

Just in case you're wondering who Hazard plays for...

Just in case you’re wondering who Hazard plays for…

The return of Belgium to the biggest international stage has excited many soccer purists.  After finishing fourth at Mexico ’86, the Belgians were disappointing, bowing out early in the next three World Cups.  The country’s football association then changed the way it trained young players, and it also changed its relationship with its big clubs.  Now the the Red Devils are in their first international tournament since Japan/Korea ’02 and what a line-up.  Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet are two of the most sought-after young keepers in the world right now.  Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were easily Chelsea and Everton’s best players, respectively, while Kevin Mirallas was no slouch either, and Dries Marten scored 13 goals for Rafa Benitez’ Napoli.  Marc Wilmots is bringing only one true fullback, selecting seven centre backs to play in his defence.  What’s more, that defence is expected to press high up the pitch.  Even if they don’t go far, this team will get a couple another kick at the can at the Euros in France and then Russia’s World Cup. QUARTER-FINALS

A rare smile from Capello

A rare smile from Capello

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to rebuild itself to the former power of her predecessor (that’s because most of the USSR’s great players were Ukrainian.  Shhh).  Save for a third place finish in Euro 2008, they’ve failed to make it out of the group stage.  However, Euro 2012 was a good showcase for them.  Too bad this is a different side with a different manager.  Capello has made this team more defensive, as is his way.  Captain Roman Shirokov had to bow out to injury, and exciting young Alan Dzagoev is in the Italian gaffer’s bad books.  Still, this is a weak group, and they should be able to get through… unless they can’t stand the heat.  Literally.  ROUND OF 16

Slimani sees who's waiting if they finish second...

Slimani sees who’s waiting if they finish second…

Algeria are currently the highest-ranked team in Africa right now, due in part to a new philosophy brought in by manager,Vahid Halilhodžić.  Most of his players are young men who were born in France but chose to play in the country of their parents’ birth, and most of them are bench players in the Spanish, French and English leagues.  One exception is Islam Slimani, who scored 10 goals in 31 appearances for Sporting Lisbon; another is Sofiane Feghouli who regularly starts for Valencia.  Anything has to be an improvement over the boooring football played in South Africa (ask England fans), but Algeria still have to grow.  THREE AND OUT

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

South Korea have also done a 180 with their tactics, after Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo made them more technical, with less kick-and-run and more passing.   British football fans will be familiar with Ki Sung-yeung, who was bought from Celtic by Swansea City, in a move that broke the Welsh team’s transfer record; he then spent this season on loan at Sunderland.   Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min is probably S. Korea’s best player, which leaves a smattering of bit players in the Bundesliga, Prem and Asian leagues.   You want the Koreans to replicate the success they had at their own World Cup in 2002, but they won’t.  THREE AND OUT

 Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: The Bracket

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Best of the Prem 2014: Arsenal to Crystal Palace

Arsene Wenger could have done with less injuries, more silverware this season.

Arsene Wenger could have done with less injuries, more silverware this season.

Best. Season. Ever. You’ve heard it since Christmas from pundits and fans alike. I have to disagree because of my allegiances (heartbreak for my two clubs, although for different reasons)…. but for the neutral, this was the year that old hegemonies were broken and glimpses of the Premier League’s new reality started to come to light.  Here then is the first installment of my picks for each club’s best player in this remarkable season.

All Hail King Ramsey

All Hail King Ramsey

ARSENAL
Aaron Ramsey (WAL)  – Oh what could have been for the mighty Gunners this season.  After a summer of selling Arsenal’s flotsam and jetsam without a single major signing,  Arsène Wenger waited until the very end of the transfer window to bring in German and Real Madrid superstar Mesut Özil.  The move turned heads amongst the media, the supporters and England’s other clubs.  But it turns out Wenger’s best signing was one he made eight years ago, when he bought 16-year-old Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff City.  Wenger never wanted to make a splashy buy, preferring his policy of youth development.  If Aaron Ramsey didn’t have to deal with the ever-present spectre of injury that has marked his young career, he would vindicated his mentor this season.  The Welshman scored 13 goals and provided seven assists before Christmas.  After he went out, Arsenal slipped from the pile of title challengers, struggling to win the last Champions League spot.  Let’s see if he can help Arsenal gain some consolation next weekend at Wembley.

Benteke may need divine help to recover

Benteke may need divine help to recover

ASTON VILLA
Christian Benteke (BEL) – How bad are Aston Villa? Bad enough that three seasons of relegation escapes (16th, 15th and 15th) astound anyone who has a look at their threadbare squad.   They can’t defend: Villa gave up 12 goals in their last four games, and only the relegated teams had a worse goals-against.  Their offence was even worse… save for their young Belgian striker.  Christian Benteke was the club’s highest scorer, despite missing the last six weeks of the season.   He will likely be out until October with a ruptured Achilles tendon.  Depending on how he recovers, this next season with Aston Villa will likely be his last.

St. Peter: Upon this rock...

St. Peter: Upon this rock…

CARDIFF CITY
Peter Whittingham (ENG) – Over six years, you’ve seen your side climb from the bottom half of the Championship to promotion into the Premier League.  You found yourself at Wembley for two league finals.  You’ve watched a rich foreign owner buy the club and then turn it on its head.   You’ve watched as the man who kept his faith in you by signing you to a new contract, get turfed on the whim of said owner.  You watch as the supporters turn against vilified Bond Villain Owner, as your team sinks back in the relegation mire.  Yet even as you look around and think to yourself, “Bloody Hell”, you do your job as best you can… marshalling a midfield that is, well, middling.

Your name must be Peter Whittingham.

Care to Hazard a guess where he'll be next season?

Care to Hazard a guess where he’ll be next season?

CHELSEA
Eden Hazard (BEL) – When did José Mourinho go from megalomaniac to paranoid curmudgeon?  The Special One turned on Eden Hazard after the winger publicly criticized his manager’s negative-to-the-umpteenth-degree tactics against Liverpool and Atlético Madrid.  This season, Mourinho returned to his self-proclaimed home with the same propensity to pick internal squabbles as he did at Real Madrid.  Mourinho fought with Juan Mata, he chastized his Inter Milan favourite Samuel Eto’o… and even benched long-time loyalist Ashley Cole.  But to criticize a player like Eden Hazard — a winger who runs and swerves like he’s riding a motorcycle on its back wheel through the narrow streets of Brugge — is almost blasphemy.  The Belgian outscored all Chelsea strikers and picked up the slack when Oscar started to slump.   He rightly deserved the PFA Young Player of the Year, and he should be an absolute joy to watch in Brazil next month.

jason-puncheon-crystal-palace-transfer-363302

Puncheon-drunk love for Palace

CRYSTAL PALACE
Jason Puncheon (ENG) – No one had more fun than Crystal Palace fans this season, and Jason Puncheon was part of the reason why.  The Croyden native permanently returned to his boyhood club, after helping them get promoted last year.   He then benefited from Palace’s hiring of Tony Pulis, whose second-half revival of the club from 18th to 11th was simply remarkable.   Even Puncheon admits, after nine different clubs, he played the best football of his career this season.  The Eagles may end up selling him, but would he even want to leave?

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Everton to Manchester City

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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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Formation of the future?

Bastian Schweinsteiger

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

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

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

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

Hadi Zogheib

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Maradona’s men meet their match

There were long faces and dark mutterings around the family home of my Futbol Guapa after her Albicelestes met another early exit from the World Cup Saturday, thrashed 4-0 by Germany’s young stars in the day’s first quarterfinal match, a victory that moves Die Mannschaft one step Klose (get it?) to the finals. Even the choripan didn’t taste quite as good afterward, tinged with the disappointment of a title drought that will now last another four years.

Much of the blame will be laid at the feet of the last man to lift a World Cup trophy in Argentinian colours. Diego Maradona, a firebrand striker in 1986 and now a portly coach, at least saved us all the decidedly unwelcome prospect of watching him run (waddle?) naked through the streets of Buenos Aires, which he’d promised to do if his team had won in South Africa. He may have inspired a similar pledge from Larissa Riquelme, which I salute, but Diego’s team selection and tactics were highly suspect. How handy would it have been for Argentina to have Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso to call into Maradona’s attack-minded lineup against Germany, helping to prop up a lonely Javier Mascherano in front of the back four, or replacing the highly suspect Nicolas Otamendi, whose foul led to Thomas Muller’s opening goal after just three minutes. So much for God’s will.

Having said that, these Germans are clearly a force to be reckoned with. The highest-scoring team at the tournament so far, they’ve recorded a trio of four-goal games. Muller, who’ll miss the semifinal through suspension, and fellow midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira have turned the loss of Michael Ballack into more blessing than curse, while Miroslav Klose’s two goals against Argentina give him 14 in his World Cup career, one more than Pele, tied with German legend Gerd Muller and just one behind Ronaldo for the most ever. Clearly, coach Joachim Loew knows Germany is the pick of the crop.

Of course, to reach the final, the Germans still have to get past Spain, who withstood a strong and resolute Paraguay, with David Villa’s late goal proving decisive in a 1-0 final that denied us all to see a little bit more of the aforementioned Ms. Riquelme.

It wasn’t easy for Spain, up against a team who, as our Dr. Z has pointed out, knocked off Argentina, Brazil and Chile during CONMEBOL qualifying and were clearly not overawed by the prospect of facing the reigning European champions. Paraguay will probably feel a bit hard done by that they were denied the opening goal after Nelson Valdez scored shortly before half, only to have the strike disallowed because teammate Oscar Cardozo had been offside, and leapt for the ball as it came into the area.

The second half saw a bizarre sequence of penalties, with Gerard Pique using both hands to haul Cardozo to the ground, but Casillas saving and holding the shot. Seconds later, Villa was bundled over at the other end, but Xabi Alonso’s strike was ruled out because Spanish players had encroached into the penalty area. Replays later showed the same was true of Cardozo’s missed penalty, something that apparently eluded referee Carlos Batres of Guatemala. Alsono tried again, but Justo Villar made the stop, then escaped further discipline for crashing into Cesc Fabregas as he went after the rebound.

All that wackiness set the stage for an 83rd minute goal as wild as any at this tournament. Andres Iniesta left two Paraguayans in his wake with a driving run up the middle, laying the ball off for Pedro, whose shot rebounded off the post to Villa. The Golden Boot candidate also hit the post but got a more fortunate bounce, and the South Americans were sunk. Sure, Casillas was called on again to deny Roque Santa Cruz in the final minute, but Spain were otherwise comfortable in possession with the lead.

So, at a World Cup where we were once marveling at South American success and scratching our heads over European ineptitude, Uruguay is the last South American team standing as we head to the semis, with three European sides, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, still going strong. You’d have to favour the Dutch against Uruguay in Tuesday’s first semifinal, while the Spain-Germany clash on Wednesday looks like a can’t-miss classic.

Ian Harrison

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