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Batista stakes his claim in Argentina

When Sergio Batista was given the reins of Argentina’s national team on an interim basis, reactions in his home nation were mixed.  Some were still mourning the resignation of national icon Diego Maradona, while others were hoping for a different gaffer, one with some managerial experience in Europe or  Argentina’s domestic league.  After all, Batista was coming off a horrendous experience with the youth squad, having failed to guide Argentina to the World Youth Cup for the first time in recent memory.

Some, however, remember Batista as the brilliant tactical manager who ledArgentina to Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008.  In the process, he found a way to get the most out of his best players, namely Leo Messi, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano. So how would he perform at the senior level?  The answer, thus far, is magnificently.

Unlike Maradona, Batista has stacked his midfield and defence with more  possession based players, and the results have been astonishing.  Nicolas Ottamendi, Di Maria, and Maxi Rodriguez were replaced by Ever Banega, Esteban Cambiasso, and Javier Zanetti and Argentina has looked unstoppable since.  In fact, following Tuesday’s 4-1 demolition of world champions Spain, supporters of the Albicelestes are no doubt be wondering what could have been had Batista been in charge in South Africa instead of Maradona.

Batista still has a number of upcoming friendlies to justify his appointment as permanent manager, including a match against hated-rivals Brazil. But if the big win over Spain is any indication,  he looks certain to be around for some time.

Hadi Zogheib

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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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Englishmen in World Cup final (sort of)

Howard Webb

Without any concerns of Uruguayan complications to worry about, Premier League referee Howard Webb has been tabbed to handle Sunday’s World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City in Soweto. Finally, an Englishman in the World Cup Final! The last was Jack Taylor in 1974.

The news comes on the same day that FIFA says it will make refereeing changes to ensure there’s no repeat of the goal-line blunder that hurt England at this World Cup.

The no-nonsense Webb, a 38-year-old former police officer from South Yorkshire, has been in charge of three matches so far and has not awarded a red card or a penalty kick.  Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey will serve as Webb’s assistants.

Webb, who handled this year’s Champions League Final, issued ten cards in the 2007 Carling Cup Final between Chelsea and Arsenal. He was also in charge of the 2009 FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Everton.

At this World Cup, Webb worked Spain’s tournament-opening loss to Switzerland, Slovakia’s upset of Italy and Brazil’s round of 16 victory over Chile.

Also, At The Rails would like to say a sad farewell to Robert Millward, the London-based sportswriter for the Associated Press, who was found dead in his Johannesburg hotel room today after apparently suffering a heart attack. Today’s preview of Sunday’s final was the last story he ever filed. Millward, a West Brom supporter, was 58.

Ian Harrison

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Puyol powers Spain into final

Carles Puyol

Not only will a European nation win the World Cup outside Europe for the first time, but the tournament is now guaranteed a first-time winner as well, after Carles Puyol’s second half header gave Spain a 1-0 victory over Germany, sending the European champions into Sunday’s final against the Netherlands. It’s the first final for Spain and the third for the Dutch, who lost in 1974 and 1978.

Paul the Octopus was right again and is a perfect 6-0 on German results. Before the Spanish turn him into a soupy pulpo, I’d love to know who he thinks will win Sunday in what looks like a fascinating clash of first-class football teams, both stacked with talent all over the field.

Germany will no doubt wonder whether things might have gone differently for them had young midfielder Thomas Mueller been available for selection. Gotta say I’m not a fan of keeping the yellow card count going all the way through to the quarterfinals…I’d prefer they were reset after the group stages and recounted from there, and I’m sure many Germans agree, although the idea was apparently to keep players alive for the final. German fans might also have preferred to see their team take the game to the Spanish a bit more, rather than sitting back and trying to hit off the counter. About the only time Spain wasn’t passing the ball crisply was when a vuvuzela-toting Italian invaded the pitch to belatedly make a case for Antonio Cassano.

Spain, who left the struggling Fernando Torres on the bench to start this one, moved the ball around with characteristic flair, but couldn’t break the deadlock until the peerless Puyol, his curly mane trailing behind him, rose to hammer Xavi’s corner into the back of the net in the 73rd minute, all they would need to secure their third straight 1-0 victory and book passage to Soccer City.

I’m no octopus, and while Spain does make me right on one pre-tournament final pick, this is a tough one to call. Joachim Loew says Spain are the best team in the world, which might just be true. I expect the Netherlands will demand a bit more possession and open the game up enough that there’s more than one goal in it, but Roja will win out over Oranje in the end. Can’t wait for Sunday!!

Ian Harrison

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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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Life’s a beach at the World Cup

Simon Hagens has (somewhat reluctantly) returned to Canada after two weeks in South Africa watching World Cup football and visiting family. In his final post, Simon returns to Cape Town for the playoff match between Spain and Portugal. Check out Simon’s complete adventures on Twitter to see more photos from his travels.

After a few days in Plettenberg Bay visiting cousin Nicola (where I enjoyed the beautiful setting, great people and Nicola’s pub), while my travel companions headed north for a safari in Kruger National Park, we were all back to Cape Town for our last game: Spain vs. Portugal. It would have been nice to see Cote D’Ivoire have the chance to take on Spain. Everywhere we went there was massive enthusiasm for the African teams, and Ghana is clearly now shouldering a lot of hopes. The Ghana victory over the USA was the talk all over South Africa.

On match day, the city had a great feel. Not like the wash of red and white, and spontaneous belting out of songs we’d seen before England games, more of a sense of camaraderie with flags from both countries everywhere and lively debates to win fence-sitters. The stadium filled up early, and the vuvuzela buzz started to build. The lack of fondness (mildly put) of the England fans for the vuvuzelas meant that we hadn’t experienced much more than a few random honks. Spanish and Portuguese fans, it seems, appreciate the vuvuzela a great deal more. Other than a few bouts of excessive ear damage, I actually came to appreciate them…sort of.

There was a huge banner inside the stadium that said “Brantford, Ontario supports Portugal.” There wasn’t nearly as much decoration for this game, so it stood out as a little odd. Go Brantford.

The game itself was a fantastic show, with plenty of spark and energy. Save for a few minutes early in second half, Spain was dominant, controlling the ball in the midfield and providing numerous entertaining attacks before David Villa’s breakthrough goal. The crowds were fantastic after, filling the streets and kicking their heels up. Cape Town is accommodating of revellers and treated us well, be it with great places to watch games while enjoying drinks and food, or finding locations to show off traditional Canadian dancing (wildly popular in South Africa). Full of regret, we wandered home to bed that night to prepare for the lengthy journey home.

The energy in South Africa, some super travelling companions and a lot of quality football made this an amazing trip, one well worth the effort. It was fantastic to be at the tournament, and there was a great vibe throughout the country. I’m already pencilling my next World Cup trip into my schedule.

Simon Hagens

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