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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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South American teams still unbeaten

Gonzalo Higuain celebrates a goal against South Korea.

With the World Cup well into its second week, there has been a lot of talk about the sub par play of some of the traditional  superpowers, such as England, Italy, Spain and France.  However, another interesting story is unfolding, the superb play of the South American teams.  After Paraguay’s 2-0 victory over Slovakia this morning, and with Brazil’s tantalizing clash with the Ivory Coast still due up today, the South American teams remain unbeaten with a record of 6-0-2.

Paraguay looked solid in holding the defending champions, Italy, to an opening match 1-1 draw (with New Zealand shockingly duplicating the feat today), while Chile were ferocious in dismantling Honduras. Brazil patiently waited to take their chances against a surprisingly stingy North Korean side, putting them in control of their group, while Uruguay are in pole position in Group A, at the expense of the hapless French.  As for Argentina, if Leo Messi’s form holds, I don’t think anyone will fancy a go at Maradona’s boys.  It’s still early, mind you, and the rest of the nations have plenty of time to improve, but for now it’s the South Americans who are stealing the show in South Africa.
Hadi Zogheib

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Dirty shirts, little men… and Sven

Brent Lanthier

No one’s having more fun than this guy…

England players are used to talk of their millionaire lifestyles and misbehaving WAGs, so this next tidbit begs a “dirty laundry” joke about a sewage leak soiling their kits .  Look at me! I’m punny just like the British press!

And just when you couldn’t watch it anymore, I thought I’d post the Guardian’s Lego recreation of Robert Green’s Hand of Clod.

OK, back to the real matches. New Zealand and Slovakia opened up the day with a 1-1 draw. Last week, I publicly called the All Whites “filler” but they played well enough today. Both goals were headers… although Robert Vittek was offside when he put his in the net.  Winston Reid’s goal off a Shane Smeltz cross (deflected by a Slovakian player) was New Zealand’s first World Cup goal since scoring against Scotland in 1982 (Ed: Thanks Adam).

Next up in the so-called Group of Death: Ivory Coast vs. Portugal. The hope was that superstars Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba, who is pulling a Gary Lineker, would light up the pitch. But neither looked very Group of Death-y. Ronaldo did manage a cracker that went off the post, and then got a yellow after he was taken down a few minutes later. Tee hee.  Final was 0-0.

Sven-Goran says he’s having more fun as manager of Ivory Coast than he ever did as England boss. So are England fans.  But he also says he wants to return to England to coach Liverpool.  Make up your mind, Sven….  Oh, and he also wants a summit to discuss the ball.

Final match was Brazil vs. North Korea and everyone was expecting a blood bath in Jo-burg. But on a cold night, the Koreans held firm, playing not to lose. The “defensive-minded” Brazilians still managed 10 shots on net, with Inter Milan’s Maicon scoring first, on a goal that almost came from the touchline. Then Elano made a nifty little run, scoring again.  Not so fast! The North Koreans managed to pull one back in the 89th minute. However, I have no idea who scored because Kim Jong-Il is a power-mad dictator who rules with an iron fist, controlling all information in and out of his impoverished nation. So there.

Torres: New ‘do, new team?

Tomorrow, European Champions Spain start their campaign against Switzerland. Both Iniesta and Fernando Torres have been declared fit to play. That news comes amid reports that Chelsea offered Liverpool 50 million pounds for Torres.  And so it begins…

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group F

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. Today, the good doctor explains why he won’t be betting against the defending champions in Group F:

Italy:  Coach Marcelo Lippi has received heaps of criticism regarding his squad selection this time around.  Notable omissions from the Azzuri include Antonio Cassano, Fabrizio Miccoli, Luca Toni, and, of course Francesco Totti.  Questionable inclusions include Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, and even capitano Fabio Cannavaro, all of whom are believed to be too old and slow to compete this time around.  Then again, Lippi is a world champion.  The critics are not.  Look for Italy to challenge again.

Paraguay:  Take a glance at the South American qualifying results, and you’ll notice that Paraguay took 10 out of a possible 18 points against the other South American qualifiers, including wins against Argentina and Brazil.  Having a Paraguayan mother has allowed Argentine Lucas Barrios of Dortmund to join the squad, and he has scored in every friendly he has played in. Expect him to have a big tournament. The men in red and white will also have a great incentive to play well for their teammate Salvador Cabanas, who is recovering from a bullet wound to the head suffered in an altercation at a Mexican nightclub in January.  This team will be no pushover.

Slovakia:  The Slovaks were the surprise winners of  their group in qualifying, finishing ahead of the more fancied Slovenia, Poland, and the Czech Republic.  They will be heavily reliant on their solitary superstar, Marik Hamsek of Napoli.  Hamsek will no doubt want to have a great tournament to showcase his talents to the big clubs, such as Inter and Chelsea, both of whom are reported to be interested in the spiky-haired one.

New Zealand:  Shayne Smeltz may have been a scoring machine against the likes of New Caledonia and Fiji, but I doubt he’ll have the same luck against slightly tougher opponents like Italy and Paraguay. The Kiwis will hope to gain some valuable experience and pop in a goal or two.  Here’s hoping FIFA will allow them to do the Haka dance before the game like the All Blacks rugby team!

Predicted Results:

Italy 1-1 Paraguay

New Zealand 0-1 Slovakia

Italy 4-0 New Zealand

Paraguay 2-1 Slovakia

Paraguay 2-0 New Zealand

Slovakia 1-2 Italy

Group Standings:

Italy 7 pts

Paraguay 7 pts

Slovakia 3 pts

New Zealand 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B, and predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C. The good doctor expects a three-way dogfight in Group D and is happy to see the Netherlands healthy in Group E.

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Best of the Prem: Arsenal to Bolton

Brent Lanthier

Oh look, I finally put my name on an article! This is a five-part series on picks for each Premier League team’s player of the season. The reasons why they were picked, what the future holds for each player, as well as their World Cup prospects (if any!).

In the fifth piece, I’ll pick my Team of the Year, as well as Player of the Year. Most of you won’t be happy….

Arsenal: Francesc Fabregas (ESP)
The Gunners’ captain missed the last six weeks of the season with a broken fibula and his team definitely missed him. Arsenal only won two of their last seven games, including a humbling 4-1 loss to Barcelona, followed by losses to hated rivals Tottenham at the Emirates… and then to lowly Wigan.

Future: There are reports that Arsene Wenger called the Catalonian at home in a last-ditch plea to keep him from bolting back to Barcelona.

World Cup-bound? Yes. But this EPL Player of the Year candidate will likely start on Del Bosque’s bench, behind Barcelona’s formidable midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta.

Aston Villa: Gabriel Agbonlahor (ENG)
“Gabby, Gabby, Gabby, Gabby, Gabby Agbonlahor. He’s f#cking fast, he’s f####cking faaaaaast.”
Sung to the tune of Karma Chameleon, the Villa fans colourfully sum up the skills of the speedy scorer. Agbonlahor led the club in goals, on a talented team that should have scored more. Critics say Gabby himself should have done better, given the amount of times he went through defenders. Brad Friedel gets honourable mention here: he faced more shots than 75% of Premier League keepers, yet Villa was fourth in goals against.

Future: Rumours of a move to Man City are likely just talk for Agbonlahor, a native Brummie.

World Cup-bound? No. There’s really only three spots up front after Rooney. With Jermaine Defoe playing the role of speedy striker, teammate Emile Heskey adding some heft up front, and Darren Bent having both speed and size, Agbonlahor never really stood a chance.

Birmingham City: Joe Hart (ENG)
An injured Shay Given means Man City will recall on-loan Joe Hart. But what a season. Birmingham was expected to rebound back to the Championship. But despite facing the third-most shots in the Premier League, Hart backstopped Brum to eighth place, with the Blues being especially stingy at St. Andrew’s.

Future: The numbers say Joe Hart is a better keeper than Shay Given, and he could be one more important piece in Man City’s Champions League puzzle.

World Cup-bound? Yes, yes, yes. This writer thinks Joe Hart will get the Go signal from Don Fabio, over Robert Green and too-old Calamity James.

Blackburn Rovers: Ryan Nelsen (NZ)
It was a toss-up between Nelsen and the resurgent David Dunn. But in the end , the 32-year-old captain for both Blackburn and New Zealand won out. Hard without being dirty, the central defender was third in scoring on a typically boring Allardyce team.

Future: After Rovers’ surprising ninth-place finish, Big Sam is unlikely to deal his defensive lynch pin. However, an exceptional showing by New Zealand in the World Cup could thrust Nelsen into the spotlight, and onto the auction block.

World Cup-bound? Yes. Nelsen will be the All Whites’ keystone in South Africa.

Bolton Wanderers: Jussi Jaaskelainen (FIN)
Owen Coyle escaped the drop when he swapped Lancashire clubs, and he can thank Jaaskelainen for helping him escape again. The big Finn faced more shots than any other keeper in the Prem. But it’s not a good sign for a side when their best player is the goalkeeper. Despite Bolton’s 14th place finish, they’ll likely have to battle local rivals Wigan to avoid the relegation next season.

Future: Jaaskelainen has been Bolton’s go-to man for a decade. With over 400 games under his belt, the Finn should retire in the black and white.

World Cup-bound? No. Finland failed to qualify on the back of losses to Russia, and a draw against Liechenstein. Jaaskelainen retired from international competition at the end of qualifiers.

Up Next: Burnley to Hull City

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