World Cup final – a somewhat belated post

Impossible Germany - Wilco

Astute readers may have noticed that I never posted my commentary on the World Cup final. When I was informed of this (Hi, Hunter!), I was surprised since I remembered having written it up. But, it turns out, I only wrote about half of it up and then never posted it. So, here is a version with the gaps filled in. There might not be anyone out there who cares about reading a match report for a game that happened five months ago, but my completionism demands that I post it. So enjoy, or not!

BTW, I handed in my dissertation a couple days ago so finally have time again for…well…anything else. Which means I’ll start posting here again. Look for end of the year lists coming up, along with some other stuff.

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And the Germans are champions. While I was rooting for Argentina (and Messi in particular) to put on a show, it’s hard to really argue with the end result. The Germans were the best team over the course of the tournament, and are well-deserved champions. And they fittingly won it on a very nice goal. It’s not one of the goals of the tournament, quite, but was still a lovely bit of skill late in a tiring game.

As per usual, the match was tense, controlled, and not necessarily one of the more intrinsically exciting games. In that respect, it was very similar to the last several final matches. However, that doesn’t mean it was boring. The first half, in particular, was extremely well played and featured some tremendous skill. It was notable just how different Argentina looked compared to their South American compatriots. Germany was given no space or time in the attacking third. While they were quite able to hold the ball at the periphery, there was a surprisingly lack of penetration. In a way, it sometimes seemed like everyone was expecting someone else to make the first incisive move. Özil and Müller, in particular, seemed to be waiting for a moment to pounce that never quite materialized.

One of the big conclusions people are drawing from this game is that Messi really missed his chance to show he’s an all-time great. He certainly was not able to impose himself on the game in the manner of Maradona ’86 or some of the other classic World Cup performances. But, as I have commented about all of their knockout matches, the truth in that claim needs to be balanced against some other very important factors. One is simply that the overall quality of play is SO much higher now than it was even a couple of decades ago. Messi’s opponents know precisely what he can do and have organized their squads to limit the damage they will let him do. It’s not a coincidence that Argentina’s supposedly shaky defense turned in such an impressive record of limiting their opponents in this tournament. In sort of a strange way, the threat of Messi was Argentina’s greatest defensive asset.

And then there’s the rest of his supporting cast. The moment Di Maria left the tournament, Messi’s influence declined precipitously. He was the only other consistent attacking threat over the course of the tournament, and was sorely missed. There was clearly something wrong with Aguero who looked nothing like his best self at any point in the tournament. And then there’s Higuaín, who spurned a glorious chance about 20 minutes in that could have radically changed things.

In the first half, Argentina definitely looked the stronger team, though not by a huge amount. The passing from both sides was crisp and precise, and the tackling intense. And that held for about 60 or 70 minutes. But after that, legs started to drag, and Argentina increasingly seemed bereft of ideas apart from ‘get the ball to Messi and hope for magic.’ After that, the longer the game dragged on, the more a German victory felt inevitable.

It’s a testament to this German team that they seemed utterly unfazed throughout the course of the tournament—with the very limited exception of (maybe) a brief spell in their match against Ghana. Here, they lost Khedira right before the match, but simply slotted in Kramer, who then ALSO had to be removed. And they just plugged right on.

And, when you get down to it, the balanced strength of the German team is what won them the Cup. Two of their substitutes combined for the winning goal. Their ability to move Lahm around the pitch gave them a lot of flexibility over the course of their matches. The quality of their players up the spine (the best keeper in the world, a rock solid central defense, and the mostly-excellent trio of Schweinsteiger, Khedira, and Kroos) kept them in control of every game. And the lack of a true striker never really harmed them.

On the other side, Argentina needed A+ performances from players who were capable but never quite felt certain to deliver. Mascherano was great once again, but the rest of the defense couldn’t quite hold together with him. And, like I have said, they really needed someone else on the attack capable of drawing Messi into the game more. It was certainly POSSIBLE for him to find that moment of magic, and it wasn’t a crazy strategy to just hope for it. But if the attack could have been better connected with the rest of the team, we might well have seen a different champion.

So, what do we take from this World Cup? It was a great tournament, for sure. Almost certainly the best I can remember, from top to bottom. We saw great players, great teams, some truly impressive dark horses, and deserved champions. And while the setting in Brazil had some issues in terms of social and political context, it’s a million times better than what we’re getting over the next few cycles.

Frankly, I have a hard time imagining how I can get excited for tournaments in Russia and (especially) Qatar. So I’m going to savor this one for a long time, as the memory of what a World Cup can be.

Looking back at my predictions, I got enough right to feel somewhat vindicated, and enough wrong to feel somewhat stupid. I had three of the four semifinalists. But also had Spain beating England in a quarterfinal. So there you go.

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World Cup semifinals – Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

Two games. One: a blistering assault that produced one of the most shocking results in the entire history of the game. The other: a relatively lifeless 0-0 decided on penalties, in which some of the best attacking players in the game today were almost completely shut out. The question now is whether the final will look more like the former or the latter. My guess, unfortunately, is that it will be cagey and tight. An interesting tactical battle waiting to be open up by a few moments of brilliance, rather than a blitzkrieg of movement through open space.

Germany 7 – 1 Brazil

Wow. Just wow. It’s really hard to know what to say about this game. I’m not positive is the single most shocking result in World Cup history, but it’s certainly on the shortlist. This wasn’t a vintage Brazil team but they were still very good, favorites going into the tournament, playing at home. Even without Neymar and Silva, this was being treated on the betting markets as basically a 50/50 match. And they were simply torn apart.

I’m hesitant to read too much into one result, no matter how catastrophic. The temptation will be toward Calvinism after a result like this: to think it was predestined, that this team was always going to be ripped apart, that they were awful. And I don’t want to completely ignore that possibility. But…let’s pause for a moment here. Let’s look back, and do our best to think about the underlying qualities of the team. Let’s ask ourselves whether it was truly wrong to have thought this game was a 50/50, and whether if things had gone differently in the opening 10 minutes, the whole outcome might have shifted. What if Lahm’s tackle on Marcelo had been slightly mistimed and Brazil had won a penalty? Would they have played as fecklessly at 1-1 as they did at 0-2? Quite possibly, but we can’t really know for sure. What if Silva had been in the team? Might his presence have calmed them during their madness, imposed some discipline, reigned in Marcelo’s ludicrously exposed flank? Is it possible that playing in Brazil actually harmed them? Were they too tense, too amped up, too scared of failing to impress?

All we can say for sure is that Brazil spent 30 minutes yesterday completely lost at sea. They were outplayed in the other 60 minutes, yes, but not by a huge margin. It’s the 30 minutes in the first half where they completely lost their minds and just couldn’t grasp what was happening that define this game. Just like those 40 minutes of Spain-Netherlands, when the reigning champions of everything were bewildered and pathetic.

There is no denying that it happened. But there are plenty of questions to be asked about what it meant. My pop psychological theory is that they all were freaked out about losing Neymar and felt like they had to pour all their energy into finding a way to create something to lift the team. So you had 10 guys all hoping to be the savior, which meant they simply weren’t attentive to the more mundane duties of positioning and covering each other. So Marcelo would range far afield and no one would fill in behind him. And then you’ve got 50 yards of completely unoccupied space for the Germans to invade. And as soon as the second goal went in, it created a positive feedback cycle. They seemed to almost give up, thinking ‘there’s no way back from this,’ but also committed even more strongly to the idea of ‘throw everything in the air and hope some magic happens’ which left them even more exposed.

It’s an instance where the home field advantage flipped. They were under so much pressure that they completely lost themselves and started running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

So: I do not believe that Brazil truly are nearly as bad as the scoreline yesterday. I have repeatedly said that they were being somewhat overrated, and were flattered by their results so far. But there’s also no denying that they were the better team in each of their previous five games. Not by as much as they might have liked. But they were worthy semifinalists. Going forward, this game will define them and those five previous games won’t matter. And they certainly will need to seriously reconsider their approach to player development, to tactics, to expectations of always being the best, etc. But this was, and remains, a very talented group of players. If things had broken differently, they absolutely could have won this tournament. We shouldn’t forget that.

All that said, I’m still happy to poke a bit of fun at those 538 rankings, which touted Brazil as the overwhelming favorites going into the tournament. And express my frustration that Nate Silver – who I admire a great deal – seems so completely unwilling to acknowledge just how wrong they got this. It’s not just that Brazil failed to win. Obviously, a 45% favorite (as they called Brazil) will lose more than half the time. The point is that to think one team out of 32 genuinely has a 45% chance of winning things, you have to believe that they are miles better than all the opposition. That 45% basically means they thought Brazil would be 80% favorites in each of their knockout games. And 80% favorites simply don’t play like Brazil did in this tournament. They dominate games. They run roughshod over their opposition and only lose due to randomness and small sample size—hitting the post several times, fluke goals by the opposition, referee mistakes, superb tactical responses. And they absolutely, ABSOLUTELY do not get thumped 7-1.

As for Germany, let’s not forget just how good they were. Brazil fell apart but it took an incredibly talented, ruthless, aggressive team to put them away. Their passing was exquisite. Their movement off the ball was insane. Their vision in the midfield, to discover open spaces and exploit them, was magnificent. And their finishing was clinical. They’re obviously not THIS good, but they are absolutely the team in the world most likely to pounce on weakness and absolutely eviscerate the opposition. I doubt Argentina will give them nearly as many opportunities, but if they do…they better watch out.

Argentina 0 – 0 Netherlands (Argentina advance on penalties)

This wasn’t a terrible game, despite what some folks insist on saying. Yes, it suffered from a serious dearth of goal-scoring opportunities. And it certainly wasn’t overly exciting. But it was enjoyable in the same way that a good pitcher’s duel can be enjoyable. These two teams were both primarily concerned with the dangerous attacking players and set themselves up to neutralize first and only attack second. As a result, the vast majority of this game was played in the midfield. Van Persie was almost completely invisible as his service was totally dried up. Robben popped up a couple times but hardly exerted more presence. Messi was mostly shut out, by the relatively simple tactic of putting several men on him at basically all times. De Jong and Clasie de facto man-marked him for most of the game. And beyond that, Sneijder and Wijnaldum stayed very deep, rarely venturing forward, while Vlaar (playing the game of his life) came out regularly from the center of the defense to close off his angles. Those three players effective formed a triangle around Messi, meaning that he was often being marked by four players – two of whom were primarily concerned with closing off his ability to receive the ball in forward positions.

It’s not the most complicated strategy, and it massively reduces your ability to put numbers forward, but it just goes to show that even the greatest player in the world can be neutralized if you’re willing to devote the numbers.

That said, I want to push back against the idea that Messi played no part in this game. Precisely because he forced a radically defensive commitment by the Dutch, he massively reduced the burden on the rest of his team to defend. In effect, his presence on the field basically meant the Dutch were playing for a 0-0.

In that respect, it’s much like several other games in this tournament, where the opposition effectively shackled Messi for long periods. The only difference is that this time he couldn’t produce a match-winner. But he has done so in three games already (that beautiful run against Bosnia, that incredible goal against Iran, and the run that drew in the defense and freed Di Maria to score against Switzerland). So it’s not like this is a strategy without huge risks. That’s the thing about trying to limit Messi’s influence. You can mostly succeed, but doing so requires hamstringing your own attack, and still might be absolutely destroyed by a moment of genius.

A couple other things. Mascherano was easily Argentina’s best player. He absolutely dominated the midfield. The Dutch tactics left them somewhat toothless, but it was Mascherano who really shut them down completely. However, he really shouldn’t have been playing. It seems pretty likely that he suffered a concussion after a jarring head knock about 30 minutes in. Obviously he wanted to come back on, but the more we learn about this, the more horrifying this stuff is. It shouldn’t be up to the player or the team. We’re talking about FIFA, so asking them to do the right thing is probably fruitless, but there really ought to be independent medical professionals who get the final say.

Prediction:
I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran. That said, Germany has eviscerated two excellent teams (Portugal and Brazil) and ground out some incredibly comfortable 1-0s of their own against solid opposition (France, USA). So you’d have to think they’ll give Argentina a much sterner test than they’ve had so far.

The general consensus at this point seems to be that Germany are clear, but not overwhelming, favorites. Maybe 60-65%. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. They were SO impressive against Brazil, in a way that Argentina hasn’t even come close to matching.

That said, I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran.

I predict the game will look a lot like the quarterfinal matches that these teams played. Both were relatively composed 1-0 victories against excellent opponents (France an Belgium). I could see a similar caginess happening here. Argentina will likely play fairly deep, counting on Mascherano once again to keep them safe. And hoping that Messi can produce a goal out of nothing. Because ‘nothing’ is likely to be a pretty accurate description of the support he’ll get. If Di Maria can come back from his injury, that would be a huge help. He hasn’t been great this tournament, but even when he’s a little off he simply supplies a huge presence in the attack, makes focusing on Messi far more risky, and open up the attack.

Theoretically, Argentina have this awesome four-pronged attack (Messi, Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero). But Di Maria is really the key there. The other two simply haven’t been able to exert much influence. Higuain has been okay, but doesn’t provide all that much of a separate outlet for the attack. If you can shut out Messi, you’ll likely starve most of the danger from Higuain, too. And Aguero seems to be quite obviously hurt. At the top of his game, his is an explosive, almost unplayable attacker. Right now, he’s a ghost. Poor touch, slow, uninventive. Basically: they need Di Maria.

So: there are plenty of reasons to defer to the consensus and make Germany favorites. But I have faith in Messi, and see just enough in this Argentina team to justify sticking with that original prediction.  So: Argentina to win their third World Cup.

 

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World Cup quarterfinals – we’re gonna party like it’s 1990

Yikes. Well these quarterfinals are a bit of a turd floating in the punchbowl of an otherwise outstanding World Cup. None of these games were good, and several of them were actually pretty terrible. These were almost certainly the two worst days of the tournament so far. Tense, yes. But also suffocating. It’s like we were right back in 1990.

Germany 1 – 0 France

After all that we’ve seen from Germany in the past few years, all the flair and excitement, it was pretty depressing to see this. It felt like a vintage Germany performance. Resolute, dull, stultifying. They scored on a headed goal by a defender off a set piece and otherwise basically closed up shop. Good for them, not as good for the rest of us.

Going forward, I do think it says good things about their chances. There was quite a bit of doubt going into this tournament whether they were solid enough to actually win this thing. Then, with the various injuries, it was all to easy to see them coming unraveled if they ran into a strong attacking team who could threaten them in the midfield. But France, who had been quite flamboyant up until now, showed basically nothing. You’d have to think that Löw will stick with this lineup. Having a genuine fullback did wonders for them, and the Khedira/Schweinsteiger/Kroos midfield trio seemed quite capable. Also: having Hummels back was huge. They were far more mobile than they had been against Algeria.

Brazil 2 – 1 Colombia

Possibly the most exciting of the quarterfinal games, though not necessarily in a particularly good way. The first half was reasonably good, with Brazil probably putting in their best 45 minutes of the tournament so far. They looked far more creative than they had previously and did a good job muffling the Colombian attack. All that said, it was a half marred by a lot of aggressive fouling, and completely lacking the stabilizing hand of a referee. And that problem only multiplied as the game went on. He was letting virtually everything go, resolutely refusing to take out the yellow card for countless offenses. So it’s no wonder that the game shifted from aggressive to horrible as time went on. Then, when he finally started trying to exert his influence, it was too late. His cards came out for some relatively minor offenses, while a number of other ones went completely uncalled. There was a great deal of tension in the midst of all this. But ultimately the story of this game is about the terrible refereeing job. And that’s never a good sign.

In the end, Neymar took a hard foul to the back, and will miss the rest of the tournament. I don’t quite want to say ‘you reap what you sow’ since it’s not really Brazil’s fault the ref was so wretched. But they had been fouling James Rodriguez up and down the pitch, so it’s not shocking that their own #10 got some harsh treatment too.

Once again, Brazil advanced as the better team. But once again, they failed to really impress. And now they’ll be missing Neymar and Thiago Silva (for the semifinals). So their chances have definitely taken a hit. Still, they’ve made it this far and remain a very talented team across the board, so you wouldn’t put it past them to win. It’s just that they’re no longer truly favorites.

I’m curious to see what formation they’ll employ going forward. One obvious move is simply to move Oscar forward and slot him in to replace Neymar. But they’ll have to consider that Oscar has been a huge part of their defensive success – he’s somewhat sneakily a pretty excellent defender and shuts down attacks before they even start by harrying, intercepting passes, and executing quality tackles. So moving him forward will mean relinquishing control over the midfield a bit. Add in the fact that their center forwards (both Fred and Jo) have shown basically nothing so far…and I’m really not sure what they ought to do.

Argentina 1 – 0 Belgium

Another dull 1-0 win for the favorites. This one had a bit more excitement in it than Germany-France, but not much. Most of that excitement came from Messi who was once again magical. But absent better support there’s just not that much that the little fellow can do. He is really wonderful to watch because he’s just so absurdly talented that he can seemingly do anything. My three favorites moments: 1) He gathers the ball, and makes one of those famous mazy runs toward goal, shucking defenders left and right, darting around and through them, with the ball somehow staying stuck to his feet the whole way 2) That pass. Oh my god, that pass.  3) A long ball cleared from deep in Argentina’s defense. Messi leaps and traps it with his foot, knocking it down just far enough away to elude the defenders, lands, gathers it up, and darts around the Belgian players who have descended on him. It was one of the finest bits of hold-up play that you’ll ever see. But it came from the tiny Messi rather than the hulking number-9.

Like Germany, Argentina will take joy from their success in shutting down a potent attack. After taking something like 750 shots against the US, Belgium barely managed one in this game. They spent most of the second half launching long balls into the box in the hopes that Fellaini could knock one of them into the path of a Belgian player who could then direct it on goal. While that wasn’t completely unsuccessful, Argentina never really looked especially threatened. And in the end, they saw out their victory fairly easily.

Netherlands 0 – 0 Costa Rica (Netherlands advance on penalties)

I have to admit, I didn’t see this one. I was busy floating on the Russian River. And it’s probably for the best I didn’t see it. I was really pulling for Costa Rica but just couldn’t see them holding out against the Dutch attack. I assumed that they would be better about beating the offside trap and would punish Costa Rica to the tune of at least a couple goals. But instead, with a great deal of luck it sounds like, Costa Rica held out for two full hours. If I had been watching, I would have almost started to believe that the dream could continue once it went to penalties. Which only would have made me more depressed to see them ultimately go out by the narrowest of margins.

The talk about the game mostly seems to have focused on van Gaal’s decision to use his third substitution to bring on Krul for the penalties. I plan to go back and watch that bit later when I’ve got some time, so I can’t really say anything about it specifically. But as a general idea, it makes enough sense to me that it passes the smell test. The third keeper basically never ever plays. I think Reina is the only one to see any serious minutes in the whole cup – and that’s just because Spain wanted to give their great servant a chance to play, after they had been eliminated. Colombia also sent out the 43 year old Mondragon for a few honorary minutes in their final group game, to give him one shining moment at the end of a storied career. But basically, the third keeper will almost never be called on. So why wouldn’t you have him focus extensively on practicing for penalties? If nothing else, it gives you a psychological edge. It makes it feel like you are prepped for this and can get into the head of the opposition.

Anyways, it worked, and it doesn’t sound like there was any obvious outfield substitution that desperately needed to happen which this strategy foreclosed. So the Dutch move on.  And Costa Rica are done, after a truly valiant performance.  It was a lot of fun to watch them.  The offside trap isn’t exactly the most exciting way to play, but it was awesome to watch it executed so perfectly, and catching out some of the very best players in the world repeatedly.

Predictions:
Three of these four are the teams I originally predicted to reach the semifinals back before things started. And while Brazil is looking quite a bit weaker than I expected, I guess I’ll still go with my original guess: a South American final. In all honesty, I don’t see all that much between any of these teams, so no matchup would surprise me in the least. The only thing I’d actually want to put money on is for at least one (if not both) of them to go to penalties. It’s Brazil-Germany tomorrow. Here’s hoping for a wide open game to restore some of the excitement we felt before the quarterfinals!

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World Cup day 20 – Team USA departs with heads held high

Belgium 2 – 1 United States (after extra time)

Talk of noble defeats is always bittersweet. I’d much rather win ugly than be going home. But this tournament has been all about noble defeats, and the US offered another stirring example. Strangely, the group winners won every game in the round of 16, despite basically every single game offering serious challenges to the supposed favorites. As a result, we got an amazing set of games, full of ever-increasing tension and late drama. And perhaps none were more full of intensity than the end to the US game.

Team USA was thoroughly battered for approximately 60 minutes in the middle of this game (roughly: the second half and the first half of extra time), and only really successfully expressed themselves in the final 15 frantic minutes. But those 15 minutes were some of the most intense and incredible minutes that US Soccer has ever put together. Good god it was awesome to watch. If that’s what the brave new future is going to look like, I am pretty excited.

And even when they were clinging on desperately, there was some astonishing performances here. None more so than Tim Howard, who provided one of the best goalkeeping performances in World Cup history. The most saves ever in a World Cup game. And many of those saves were top-notch. These were not tame shots that just needed to be gathered; they were guys through on goal needing to be closed down. He saved shots with his feet. He anticipated and put himself in position to block of any angle of attack. And he played a huge role in organizing the defense in front of him. Just a ridiculous performance from him.

But beyond Howard, this was a really impressive defensive performance by the entire unit. They were aggressive, powerful, disruptive, and resolute. It was something to behold. Beasley was great, Besler was a beast (except for his one crucial and totally forgivable mishap getting pushed away by Lukaku to set up the goal), Gonzalez once again performed way above my expectations for him, Cameron struggled a bit trying to fill the holding role but grew into it as the game progressed. I still think that Beckerman would have really helped in this game, but there’s no denying that having Cameron around as another tall man was nice, too. And Yedlin…oh what a revelation he has been. Forced into action due to Johnson’s injury, he posed an immediate and enduring threat bombing down the right. His touch was the best of any US player; the control he exerted on any number of long balls was just amazing. And Green! I mocked his inclusion, saying it was purely an under the table arrangement to persuade him to choose the US as his national team. He wasn’t ready, would never be put into a match. It was a wasted roster spot. But oh my god what a touch he had on the goal. And he looked absolutely full of life for the entire period he was on. He probably is not going to become the best player in the world, but for the very first time in US history we’ve got a player for whom that’s not utterly absurd to imagine…

And Bradley. Man alive it was nice to have the real Michael Bradley back. His touch was still a bit heavy at times, and his free kicks were…well, not very good. But his vision was superb and his passing was really excellent. He was the main guy collecting the ball from the back and organizing possession going forward. His distribution in the attacking half was great. Like in the previous games, he was playing a lot of speculative balls. The difference is that this time they were far more perfectly weighted. His ball for Green’s goal is the most obvious example, but there were dozens more in the same vein. AND he tracked back and made a ton of important defensive stops.

I don’t want to go too overboard here. I mean: the US was clearly the worse team today and were played off the pitch in more than a few instances. They sat back too deeply and had a lot of trouble keeping possession. They failed to capitalize on several of their best chances, which you really have to do if you’re going to win playing this way. Bedoya and Zusi worked hard but really didn’t offer enough. Dempsey was much better once he moved back into the attacking midfield role, but didn’t really have his best game. Several of those good chances that were spurned were from him. Not that he did terribly or anything; he just couldn’t quite control his shots and let Courtois gather them up.

All of which is to say: we got beat today by the better team, and shouldn’t feel satisfied. But given where I thought this team would end up in this tournament…I am really happy to have seen so much positive stuff. This might not be the best US team ever (I still think the 2002 group was probably better), but it was easily the most fun team to support. I loved watching them, and am really excited to see this new bunch

Argentina 1 – 0 Switzerland (after extra time)

Also an enthralling game. Quite similar to a bunch of others in the round of 16: the favorite struggled for long patches to break down the opposition, left themselves open to just enough attacks to make you think an upset really could be in order, but eventually found a way to win through a bit of magic. In this case, of course, the magic came from Messi, who weaved through the opposition into the Swiss box and then drew every single defender there toward him like a black hole. Then, with the space now open, he passed the ball to an onrushing Di Maria who finally got the goal he had been looking for the entire game.

Argentina – like every team left – has left us all asking some questions. While they controlled this game, they really had trouble generating high quality chances. They can get through the tournament if they keep playing this way, but it will take a lot of luck. But by far the most important thing they need is for the good version of Di Maria to turn up in the next three games.

A huge part of their strategy today revolved around Messi sucking up all the oxygen and disorganizing the defense as they struggled to contain him…and then letting Di Maria run rampant over the remaining elements. The problem is that Di Maria just couldn’t make his passes stick today. He kept getting himself into dangerous spots and then mis-hitting his cross or mis-controlling the ball and allowing the attack to fizzle.

I’m not sure what the answer is for them, but if they can find a way to improve his play, they still have a very good shot of winning this thing.

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World Cup day 19 – the paths of glory

Two amazing games today.  Filled with tension, excitement, and occasionally some real skill.  This World Cup continues to deliver.

France 2 – 0 Nigeria

This was the best performance by Nigeria so far. They looked worlds better than the team who were stultifying in the opening match against Iran, or the team who looked lost in the wilderness in a pre-tournament warmup match against the US. The first half was absolutely frantic on both sides. Not the finest quality play, but enthralling to watch. Really surprising that no goals went in.

France got pretty lucky here. There was an awful tackle from Matuidi that could easily have produced a red card. But he escaped and they were able to grow into the game. The huge switch happened when Griezmann came on. I was a little surprised he didn’t start, actually. Once he was on the pitch the French attack grew a lot more lively. Giroud had done very little, and replacing him with Griezmann gave them a lot more inventiveness in the midfield, and his movement really troubled the Nigeria defense, which then let Benzema slide into the open spaces left behind. From about 70 minutes on the pressure was incredibly intense and it seemed only a matter of time before France scored. They held on for a while thanks in large part to some great saves by Enyeama. But eventually Enyeama made a mistake, tapped a ball to the head of Pogba who slotted it in. After that, Nigeria looked pretty thoroughly beaten and the only real question was whether France would score more.

Not the MOST impressive display from France, but more than enough to get the job done. A bit shaky for the first hour but high quality in the last third of the match. They remain a serious threat to anyone who has to play them.

Germany 2 – 1 Algeria (aet)

What a fantastic game! Algeria started out excellently, with a blistering pressing game and a rapid series of pouncing attacks. Germany seemed quite bewildered and took a good 20 or 30 minutes to start settling down. If not for some serious sweeping efforts by Neuer in goal (who raced out of his box to close down attacking players who had beaten the defenders probably a dozen times over the course of the game), they could very easily have conceded several goals. The lack of Mats Hummels was keenly felt, I think, since he is only of the only players in their standard backline who is a bit mobile.

I’ve been wondering all tournament why they are so insistent on playing Lahm in midfield, and this game gave us a good chance to see both sides of the issue. Due to an injury, Lahm was forced to move back to fullback about 70 minutes in. This coincided with one of the strongest periods for Germany, as his overlapping attacks were far more useful than his defensive midfield work had been. On the other hand, the back four was dangerously exposed on several occasions, suggesting that Khedira and Schweinsteiger just don’t have the defensive chops to really handle this position anymore.

As regular time came to a close, Germany was pounding the ball into the box and creating chance after chance, none of which would go in. It became almost comical after a while, and the humor was enormously compounded by a Keystone Cops of a free kick that (as with that incredibly terrible Rooney corner) was one of the most joyful and absurd moments of the whole tournament.

So it went to extra time, and Germany almost immediately scored on an absolutely delectable shot from Schurrle, who hit a backheel while contorting himself to get the right angle. One of the finishes of the tournament for sure.

And for a bit it seemed that Algeria might fold at this point, but they managed to struggle back and hung on for a while longer. Both teams were clearly tired and far less precise, and it eventually bit them as they let Germany pass it around in the box long enough for Özil to get an open shot on goal. Since there were only two minutes left at this point, it all seemed over. And I actually think the Algerian defender on the line really needed to Suarez the shot (meaning: stop it with his hand…not bite it). Yes, you’ll get sent off, but at least it forces them to convert the penalty rather than get an automatic second goal. Still, it seemed pretty unlikely that they’d score anyways…until they almost immediately did. And they did manage one final shot just as time expired, but sadly for all us non-Germans it failed to go in, and we were robbed of any more excitement.

Still, this was a ludicrously fun game, and it’s sad to see Algeria go out. Which is crazy, since they were easily the least watchable team of the 2010 World Cup.

So: we’ll have a Germany-France quarterfinal. For all the storied success of these teams, they’ve only met three times in the World Cup before. Germany knocked France out of the 1982 and 1986 tournaments, both times in the semifinals, with that 1982 match often being referred to as one of the all-time classics. And, of course, Germany invaded France a couple times in some big wars. So the French definitely have some historical aggression to work off here.

Neither team was at their most impressive today, but both were still pretty good. I don’t see any reason to change my initial prediction of a German win, though I continue to think that it’s pretty finely balanced.

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World Cup day 18 – more late drama

Two more enthralling games. Both featured goals in the final five minutes which radically shifted the game. The Dutch came from behind to win as the clock ticked down. And a 10-man Costa Rica lost their lead but just barely held on to the draw, giving themselves a chance to authoritatively smash home all five penalties and book a place in the quarterfinals.

Netherlands 2 – 1 Mexico

Heartbreaking stuff for Mexico, who held a deserved 1-0 lead until the final five minutes. They were easily the best team in the first half, where the Dutch looked bereft of ideas and quite slow. It seemed to repeat every couple minutes: Mexico would control the ball in the midfield, move it diagonally to the wings, and then send an attacker toward the goal line. And the Dutch defense was just sooo slow that they would be beaten to the ball even if they had four or five leading steps. And in this we saw the essence of why Holland is pretty unlikely to win the tournament. Their defense has held together so far, but really just can’t deal with a strong and pacey attack. They don’t have the skill to take the ball off people running at them, and they don’t have the pace to catch up to speculative balls over the top.

When Mexico scored early in the second half, the big question was whether it would waken the Dutch from their slumber. And, to a certain extent, it did. They looked livelier and more aggressive. Though, still, they didn’t seem to have much in the way of ideas. Their key game plan, pretty much the whole game, was: get the ball to Robben and hope something happens. Usually: hope that Robben can discover a foul and win a penalty.

But they were helped by getting Kuyt more involved thanks to some tactical switches. But really the key thing was simply that Mexico started retreating. They seemed happy to try and hold their lead, and took off Dos Santos who was giving the defenders fits. And this in turn let the Dutch push forward and discard their third center back. The final 30+ minutes were pretty much all one direction.

Still, Mexico held on pretty strong. And it was a bit of a surprise when things finally broke down, especially with the strike coming from Sneijder who has looked terrible and completely off the game so far. But he collected the tidy little headed pass from Huntelaar and buried it with precision and power. And suddenly the whole tenor changed. Now it was Mexico trying to survive the clock and needing to re-establish their earlier dominance. But, tragically, the same old plan of getting the ball to Robben and hoping to win a penalty finally paid off…

I’ve watched it a couple times now and I have to say, though it pains me, that it probably was a penalty. There is contact. That’s a foul anywhere else on the pitch. Robben was in a dangerous position and Marquez lunged. You don’t always see them given, but very often will. And, after all, Holland was denied a much better penalty shout at the end of the first half.

Still, it really leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, to see this comparatively ugly and unpleasant Dutch team move on, thanks to the unpleasant Robben falling over himself in the box all night and eventually getting a call. There IS a foul there, but it was a very minor one and Robben was absolutely looking for it, as he always does. It was a sour ending to an otherwise very enjoyable match.

Costa Rica 1 – 1 Greece (Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties)

Desperately dull in the first half, but grew in excitement as things progressed. Neither team particularly wanted to attack and neither team has particularly skilled or exciting players, for the most part. But thanks to a Costa Rica goal early in the second half and a Costa Rican red card a bit later, Greece was able to exert some influence, eventually giving the game a bit more aggression.

The opening goal was truly quite baffling. I think it was a mis-hit by Ruiz, and the entire Greek defense seemed perplexed at its direction. They just stood there, mouths agape as it ever…so…slowly… inched its way across the line. I know the keeper had the entire length of the goal to cross, but it sure seemed like he could have run long way around the perimeter of the entire penalty area to get there and still had time to make the stop.

When Greece finally got their equalizer, I lamented both that Greece seemed ready to snatch victory away from another team I was rooting for, but also that I would be subjected to another 30 minutes of watching Greece play. However, they were a bit less drab in extra time, forcing a couple of very nice saves.

Then, for all the lack of skill on display out on the pitch during the game, these two teams put on a real clinic in how to take penalties. 8 of the 9 were converted – many with both power and placement – and the only one that was stopped required and excellent save.

So, the quarterfinal will be Netherlands-Costa Rica. Obviously the Dutch will be the favorites, particularly given how much work Costa Rica had to put in today. But they didn’t have an easy game either, and were playing in much more harsh conditions. So the real question is just whether Costa Rica have another huge game in them. Based on the evidence today, I would say no. This was nothing close to the quality they showed in their group stage wins. Today, they were a mediocre CONCACAF team desperately trying to hold on to the meager scraps they had gathered. And doing so against a thoroughly bleh Greece.

So the question is: which one is the real Costa Rica? A mediocre team who got lucky to play the two games of their lives in a row? Or a genuinely good team who might reasonably be expected to play that well again? My argument for the former is:

  • They beat a Uruguay team playing without Suarez, who theoretically are still a very good team, but…Uruguay honestly didn’t look particularly good in any of their games, not even the ones they one with Suarez
  • They beat Italy on the back of their game in Manaus. And Italy looked thoroughly wiped out
  • They beat Italy by playing a dangerously high line and counting on their inability to beat the offside trap. And hey, it worked! But if they try to play that way against the Dutch, they could lose 10-0.

All that said, I’ve learned my lesson in counting this team out. The Dutch will be favorites, but it certainly wouldn’t shock me if we saw an upset here.

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World Cup day 17 – heartbreak for Chile, reprieve for Brazil

James - Ex Cops

Brazil 1 – 1 Chile (Brazil win 3-2 on penalties)

What a fantastic game, and a great way to start the knockout round. The skill on the ball wasn’t always perfect, and both sides could very easily have created more goals, but the pace of play was out of this world. Both sides applied enormous pressure, meaning that the game covered every inch of the pitch and was constantly moving. Well, except for all of the people lying on the ground writhing in agony until they suddenly got better.

In the end Brazil advanced, but they came dangerously, excruciatingly close to going out. This was probably their best performance yet, though honestly that isn’t saying all that much. They were the better team today, but not that much better. Their attack remains quite limited, thanks in large part to the uselessness of their center forwards and the inconsistencies of their playmakers. Neymar showed off in patches today but mostly only in quick counter-attacks. There wasn’t a lot of good buildup from him. Oscar was pretty anonymous, then would pop up with a beautiful long diagonal pass, and then would disappear again for long stretches. Hulk had his best game yet, with a couple brilliant runs and powerful shots, as well as a goal that was (correctly, but only just) ruled out for handball. The problem is that their success mostly depended on one individual doing something excellent – there wasn’t much fluidity in the team.

In part, I think, that’s because Chile are just SO impossible to play against. They press so tightly and are so excellent at pushing you off the ball, that it’s almost pointless to try and build through the center against them. Which meant that Brazil was often trying to work around the defense rather than cutting through it.

For their part, Chile did what they needed to do. They didn’t have as many good chances as Brazil, but they made the most of the ones they got. Strangely, sort of like Brazil, most of their best attacks didn’t come from good movement in possession but instead came from pouncing on mistakes. The goal, for example, emerged almost out of nowhere. They nicked a weak tap-back by Hulk off a throw-in, and then suddenly the ball was in the back of the net.

The last 75 minutes of this game looked a lot like the second half of Spain-Chile, with Chile holding out against a probing attack, riding their luck a bit, and mostly succeeding because the more-favored opposition couldn’t quite put everything together. But then, with just a minute left, again out of almost nothing, they had the ball at the top of the Brazil box and fired a shot that rattled the crossbar and left millions of hearts in throats. A few inches lower and Chile would be readying to play Colombia now.

Sadly, it was not to be. It went to penalties, and Brazil just eked it out. It’s worth noting that Cesar was really coming off his line for his saves. Which technically isn’t allowed, though it’s basically never called. But his jumps were particularly egregious. Sill, he made the saves and got away with it, so good for him.

Final thought: Howard Webb (who famously cocked up refereeing the final four years ago) did a really excellent job. He made a number of tough calls – including disallowing Hulk’s goal – and pretty much got them all right. And while this game was very intense and very aggressive, he managed to keep it from escalating out of control (the thing he failed to do with the Netherlands-Spain game). Good for him.

Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay

I’ve got a lot less to say about this one. The difference was basically James Rodriguez, who scored a wonder goal and tapped in another. Other than that, I can’t say Colombia particularly controlled this game. Despite the scoreline, this was probably the least impressive game they’ve played. Still, they held the lead the whole way and seemed quite comfortable letting Uruguay probe at them. So I’m sure they could have amped their attack back up if necessary. Uruguay desperately missed Suarez, who very likely would have converted one or more of the decent chances they put together and also likely would have added quite a bit more guile and incisiveness to their attack

You’ll notice that I resisted making any puns about biting there. I think I deserve a reward for that.

Anyways, these two teams will be playing in the quarterfinals. 538 continues to insist that Brazil is far-and-away the best team in the world, making them 80% favorites to go through. I (and the bookies) are far less skeptical. Brazil should be the favorites for that match, but Colombia could give them a great deal of trouble at the back. And if they can’t resolve their problems with fluency in the attack, their victory today may have only staved off elimination by a little bit. We will have to see…

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World Cup day 16 – a brief respite

There are four quadrants of the bracket, each of which will produce one semifinalist. Today I’ll briefly preview each, and give a quick thought or two about what I’m looking for in these matchups.

I should also say, for what it’s worth, that my pre-tournament predictions have mostly held up regarding the structure of the bracket – apart from one quadrant where literally everything is wrong. I got a lot of the second-place teams wrong but two of the quarterfinal matchups I predicted are still reasonably likely to occur (Brazil-Colombia and France-Germany), while Argentina remains the favorite to march to their semifinal berth as well. But in the other quadrant…holy hell, what happened?

The South American Massacre
Brazil – Chile
Colombia – Uruguay

Somehow four of the five remaining South American teams have clustered in this one corner of the bracket. Which is rather unfortunate since I would have really liked to get some more data on the comparative quality of the European and South American teams. Sadly, there will be a bloodbath of CONMEBOL teams here and only one will emerge with the chance to take on (most likely) Germany or France for a berth in the final.

I will stick with my pre-tournament guesses here, with Brazil emerging victorious, beating Colombia in the quarterfinals. But I think it’s a close call in both games. Current odds seem to put Brazil as roughly 75% to go through against Chile which seems very high. Chile is difficult to play against and I could see them frustrating Brazil a great deal. Meanwhile Colombia have been very impressive (admittedly against pretty weak opposition). I expect them to beat a Suarez-less Uruguay and to give Brazil a great deal of trouble.

The Western Front
France – Nigeria
Germany – Algeria

France are heavy favorites against Nigeria, and justifiably so. Nigeria were, by a pretty large margin, the least impressive team that managed to advance (with only Greece as a competitor). They’re not terrible by any means, but they will really struggle to generate goals and I have a hard time seeing them holding France to less than two.

Germany should also be expected to beat Algeria, who I anticipate will fall back into the more defensive tactics they employed against Belgium. I hope they don’t because they more attacking approach they took in their latter two games was a lot more fun. But I feel like Germany would clinically dispatch them if they show too much space. So this should be somewhat similar to Germany’s victory over the US yesterday. Relatively dull, with a modest chance of Algeria springing a surprise result, but likely to end in a German win.

After that, I’ll once again stick with my pre-tournament prediction. France have looked very good, but I still think Germany is more cohesive on the attack, less reliant on standout individual performances. But that’s a 55/45 sort of game.

Um, What Happened Here?
Netherlands – Mexico
Costa Rica – Greece

So, yeah. I only predicted that one of these teams would even reach the knockout round (Holland, who I thought would finish second and lose to Brazil). Whoever wins in Mexico-Netherlands has to be considered the favorite to advance to the semifinals. Greece are pretty bleh. And while Costa Rica was very good, I think they got pretty darn lucky, too. Playing Uruguay without Suarez, playing Italy after Manaus (and bereft of tactical ideas). Still, I don’t see any of the teams in this group being as good as basically any other team that will be in the quarterfinals. If Costa Rica can beat Italy, I see no reason to think they couldn’t manage it against the Dutch, too.

I guess I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that Mexico advances to the semifinals. The quality is there for them, and for once it all seems to be clicking together. I can’t see them fully containing Robben – particularly the danger of his pace – but I think they’re far less likely to lose shape and get overrun. I think this is the year they finally break the curse of the Round of 16.

Manifest Destiny
Argentina – Switzerland
Belgium – USA

Some people are a little down on Argentina, who have at times struggled to open up defenses and have looked a bit exposed at the back. I don’t deny those concerns. And it looks like they’ll be without Aguero for at least a game or two, if not the whole tournament. But honestly, something has clearly been wrong with him since the first game. And they have other options who might well be better (at 100%) than the 75% Aguero has been. I also think this creates a bit more tactical flexibility for them. Any time you’ve got ‘undroppable’ players, it has the potential to unbalance your team. Bringing on Lavezzi, for example, would give them a very different look that could be helpful. Obviously, it would be preferable to have a healthy Aguero, but I don’t think this will hurt them that badly.

Which is to say, I’ll stick with Argentina winning this quadrant. And while I’m less confident than I was in my prediction of them as the eventual winners, no one else has quite convinced me to switch my opinion. The Swiss have some very nice players and have looked good in patches. If they could connect their attack and defense better – and not leave themselves so awkwardly exposed when they lose the ball – they could spring a surprise. And while Belgium has excellent players, I actually see them as slightly less risky for Argentina. I just can’t see them devoting the resources to containing Messi and bottling up Di Maria. In fact, of all the teams in this group, I almost think the US might be the one that could bother Argentina the most.

As for Belgium-US, I can’t quite convince myself to pick us to win. But I see that game looking a lot more like the one we played against Portugal and a lot less like the other two. I think the US can challenge for midfield supremacy against Belgium (not win, but challenge) if Beckerman continues to be the beast of a holding midfielder he’s been so far. I feel like the US is most threatened by quality attacking fullbacks and that’s precisely what Belgium lacks. I still think that’s a Belgium win but I there’s a quite decent chance the US could pull through.

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World cup day 15 – All differences forgotten, and no need at all to mention the war

Moving On - Mimicking Birds
I’ve Got It All (Most) - Modest Mouse

We are through! In the end, it was a tiny bit anticlimactic.  For a period of 20 minutes or so, we were a single goal away from elimination at the hands of Ghana, who could have advanced over us for the third straight World Cup.  But then, bless his soul, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal for Portugal and we could all breathe a lot easier. So things petered out, and the US is on to the next round!

I have to say, I didn’t think they would do it.  I wrote a couple weeks ago: “I certainly think this team has it in them to beat Ghana and nick a draw from Portugal and/or Germany.  But each of those results is at least a little optimistic.  I would not be at all shocked if we only get one point (or even zero) from this group.”  And back in the winter I was saying that we probably had a 25% chance, trying to make a fair assessment, but in my heart I couldn’t even really get myself to believe it. I was sure we’d get bludgeoned in at least one of these games. But in the end: beat Ghana, draw Portugal, lose to Germany by a small margin turned out to be exactly what happened.

And to have done all this having lost Altidore after 20 minutes, having Bradley playing at the bottom of his expected range of quality, with the obvious tired legs they displayed today after a grueling schedule, against these three excellent teams…it’s a really proud moment for US Soccer.

They have shown (against my own expectations) that we deserve to be talked about as a legitimate second-grade ‘power’ of global football. We are tough to beat, can hang in there with anyone, and when we play up to our potential, can beat anyone. And that’s with a group of players who weren’t particularly highly thought-of going into the tournament.

First on that list is Kyle Beckerman, who I pooh-poohed, but who has been absolutely huge for us.  And his performance in the holding role has freed up Jones – who has been the best player on the team over these three games.  It’s really stunning to see him play so excellently.  Fabian Johnson has been a revelation. I have been high on him for awhile but he’s arguably been our most important attacking player so far.  Beasley has held out stubbornly against all odds (and quite a few held breaths). And I’ve loved seeing Yedlin off the bench.

One thing that’s becoming more and more clear: MLS is a quality league.  It’s not La Liga or Serie A or anything, but the guys from MLS have looked perfectly capable of playing at the top level.  Even five or six years ago, I was still pretty dismissive of the quality in our domestic league, but I’m really coming around.  It’s pretty exciting.

United States 0 – 1 Germany
Portugal 2 – 1 Ghana

I know some people feel like losing today somehow cheapens the fact of advancing. But I don’t see it that way at all.  Losing 1-0 to one of the best teams in the world is a perfectly fine result.  We did the hard work in the first two games. This one was about keeping ourselves in a position to respond to events.  If Ghana had taken a lead at some point, you can bet the US would have attacked more aggressively and looked for an equalizer.  But attacking too much can leave you exposed. We saw what Germany did to Portugal. The goal was to avoid that risk, unless it became necessary.  Stifle the game, protect ourselves from getting battered, and prevent the extra freshness of the German players (who had an extra day to recover and a less intense climate in their last game…and who are probably just better athletes in general) from overrunning us.

It wasn’t pretty, exactly, but it wasn’t nearly as desperate as they were for most of the Ghana game.  This was a more composed effort.  And while it petered out quite a bit in the final third of the game, they had enough left in them to challenge for a draw right ‘til the end.  But frankly, once Portugal re-took the lead in the other game, it didn’t make much sense to push too hard.  We were going to finish second either way so the only real risk was giving up a couple late goals, ruining our goal differential, and suddenly letting Portugal back into things.  It was a good plan from Klinsman and was well-executed by the team.

Notable performances: Tim Howard remains excellent.  He made a couple nice saves but was really excellent in controlling the box.  He came out for quite a few crosses and through balls, and did a fantastic job organizing the defense in front of him.  He’s not quite at the level of Neuer or Courtois and a few others, but I think there’s a very solid argument for him being among the best 10-15 keepers in the world.  Bradley was somewhere in between the first two games. Still having trouble with his first touch, but more composed than against Ghana.  He was fine tonight.  Not good.  If we’re going to beat Belgium, though, we’re really going to need a top-level performance from him. And from Jones who was excellent once again today, apart from his tendency to keep running into people (the ref, other US players). Then there’s Gonzalez, who started at center back, in for Cameron, in a move that I don’t really understand. He managed fine (a couple scary moments, a couple nice ones, mostly pretty solid), but I am terrified about him getting any more minutes for this team.  I really hope that this decision was a matter of Cameron being particularly exhausted from the previous game and dragging a bit in training. Because from what I’ve seen, he’s a clear step better (and more experienced) than Gonzalez.  I hope he’ll be back for the next game.  Notable in a bad way was Brad Davis. Or rather: totally un-notable.  I have no idea why he started today.  He provides very little defensively and was at fault for a great deal of the early pressure. And if he touched the ball in any useful way more than two or three times the whole day, I sure didn’t see it.  Rotating Bedoya made some sense, I think. But I sure would have liked to see…well…just about anyone else.  Diskerud perhaps?

I mostly focused on the US game and took glances at the other one, up until the final 20 minutes when I reversed my attention.  So I can’t speak too much about that one, except to say that it seemed frantic, very very open, and lacking in a bit of quality.  Which is to say: pretty fun for a neutral but nerve-wracking for a US fan who just wanted it to remain 0-0 the whole day.

South Korea 0 – 1 Belgium
Algeria 1 – 1 Russia

Algeria are through!  Their game was reasonably exciting, with a lot of attacking from both sides, though Russia never quite seemed comfortable in their counter-attacking role.  A draw seemed just about the right result, and I won’t be shedding any tears about Russia getting summarily dumped out of things.

The other game was terrible.  Belgium went down to 10 men just before halftime, which seemed to make no discernable difference.  They were the better team, I guess, but mostly only because South Korea once again seemed pretty helpless.  They created just enough to have possibly nicked a win here but can’t really have much to complain about.

This was a truly rotten tournament for Asian teams, by the way.  All together, they got 3 points from 12 matches, by far the worst ratio of any confederation. They were outscored by 16 goals, again the worst of any confederation. Australia gave it a go in two or their games, and Iran was excellent against Argentina.  But other than that, these teams brought very very little. For example, both South Korea and Japan faced opponents that were reduced to 10 men before halftime.  In those 90+ minutes, they scored zero goals while conceding one.  That’s…well, it’s not very good.

While we’re on the subject, here’s the confederation table, by goal difference and average points:
CONMEBOL – 6.8  +17
UEFA – 4.7  +10
CONCACAF – 4.5  -1
CAF – 2.4  -10
AFC – 0.75  -16

80% of teams from the Americas advance.  33% of teams from the rest of the world do.  Maybe there is a significant home continent advantage after all.

I’ll post tomorrow with my predictions and commentary for the Round of 16.

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World cup day 14 – Argentina and France top weak groups

Nigeria 2 – 3 Argentina
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3 – 1 Iran

Messi was at it again, scoring two more goals and playing much better outside of the goals as well.  Argentina still have a lot of questions to answer—having conceded two very sloppy goals here.  But their attacking play certainly looked better this time around.  Though some of that was likely to do with the circumstances. Nigeria knew fairly early on that Iran was trailing, and that they were likely safe even if they lost.  Which gave the game a casualness that was quite fun.  Messi and Eneyeama in the Nigerian goal were particularly playful with each other

In the other game, Bosnia quite comfortably dispatched Iran, who looked a lot more ragged than in their first two efforts.  Part of that is just natural regression—it’s virtually impossible to consistently play as perfectly as a unit as they did against Argentina—and part of it is the fact that they needed to WIN the game to advance.  Especially once Bosnia went ahead, Iran were forced to push further up the field which made their shape a lot harder to hold.

I feel bad for Bosnia, who were quite good in their first and third games and had a goal unjustly disallowed in the second. If that goal had stood, they’d very likely be the ones advancing right now

Honduras 0 – 3 Switzerland
Ecuador 0 – 0 France

An anticlimactic end to a group that brought very few surprises.  France created a lot of chances but couldn’t score any of them.  They certainly weren’t terrible, so I wouldn’t read too much into this one.  Especially since they had already basically wrapped up first place, making this almost a completely meaningless game for them.  On the other side, Honduras put on a serious clinic in how to avoid scoring. Pretty much any way you can imagine, they did it.  Misguided headers, shots pulled just wide, shots barely over the bar, forcing saves, unmarked people in the box who couldn’t be picked out, hilariously obvious penalties not being called.  Switzerland were not at ALL impressive, scoreline be damned.  Though Shaqiri’s first goal was pretty tasty.

This all means that France and Argentina are going to have to really like their chances against Nigeria and Switzerland.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Portugal 2 – 2 Ghana
  • United States 0 – 1 Germany
  • South Korea 1 – 3 Belgium
  • Algeria 1 – 2 Russia

Well, here it is.  I still am convinced that Portugal is a pretty good team, and they will really need to go for it here.  Both teams, actually, are going to really want goals.  A draw helps neither of them, and a high scoring win is particularly helpful for both.  If Ghana wins by only one goal, then goals-scored might well become the next tiebreaker for them and the US.  And Portugal need to ratchet back a 5 goal margin in goal difference.  So 2-2 might even be underestimating things.

At this point, I just have no idea what to predict from the US games. A cagey 1-1 draw that would suit both teams seems quite possible (or even a 0-0 draw).  A 5-0 demolition by Germany seems possible. A 4-3 victory seems possible. Who the heck knows? But I’m predicting a 1-0 because (as I’ve said) my presumption is always that Germany will somehow find a way to win.  And I think they’ll both set out to play conservatively.

In the other group, I see an easy win for Belgium and a grueling, awful, soul-crushing win from Russia. Because that’s just how these things go.

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