World cup day 13 – Uruguay add a bit of bite to the tournament

A miserable day of football, to be honest.  The quality of play was pretty low, two very unpleasant teams advance, and the palate-cleanser of Colombia is nowhere close to enough to overwhelm the horribleness that is Luis Suarez.

Italy 0 – 1 Uruguay
Costa Rica 0 – 0 England

I commented to someone around 55 minutes into Italy-Uruguay: “Any sort of injustice could happen in this game and it wouldn’t really bother me. A phantom goal, a red for no reason, whatever. My only regret is that both teams can’t lose in horrible ways.” That’s how bad it was. But I had forgotten who was playing, and that my normal scale of ‘injustice’ simply wasn’t calibrated for the insanity that one Luis Suarez was ready to unleash.

It almost seemed like he had gotten ahold of his issues. I mean, he hadn’t bitten anyone or used racist insults in over a year! But I think it’s clear that there’s something pathological here. In an elimination game, with roughly 10 minutes left, to bite your opponent…it’s just insanity. Watching it live, it wasn’t quite clear if he had actually bitten, or maybe if it was a little bit of a headbutt. But the replays after make it very clear—as do the teeth marks on Chiellini’s shoulder—what happened. I have to imagine that was his last game in this tournament, and might well be his last game in the World Cup ever.  Then again, it’s FIFA so who knows what they’ll actually do.  But a 15 game ban seems like the bare minimum at this point.  Incredibly talented player, total lunatic on the field.

As for Italy, I mostly stick by my comment quoted above. They were truly dreadful today, and it’s hard for me to muster all that much sympathy for them. They showed up for a draw and did their best to stifle the game, made the absolute most out of every challenge, and generally played in a fashion designed to frustrate both the opposition and the viewer. Balotelli was terrible and justifiably subbed at halftime. But Immobile wasn’t any better. Even Pirlo seemed pretty off-kilter, taking a lot of wild shots and doing very little in the way of distribution.

As far as I can tell, the other game wasn’t quite as bad but offered very little in the way of excitement either. It seemed like England had the better opportunities, but a 0-0 sounds about right. I saw one very good chance missed by Sturridge but not a whole lot else. Honestly, I feel bad for England who actually played reasonably well. Unlike Uruguay who was pretty much awful for all three games but is somehow going through.

Oh, and by far the best player for Uruguay today: Godin. Who should have missed this game for the red card he ought to have received in the last game. That one terrible decision basically determined this group. I hope that ref is ashamed of himself.

Japan 1 – 4 Colombia
Greece 1 – 1 Ivory Coast

Well, that was unexpected. At around the 80th minute, my predictions for both these games was spot-on. Colombia were beating Japan 2-1 though they had not been dominating. And Ivory Coast were drawing with Greece 1-1, in a fairly even game. Then, Colombia knocked in several more goals (including an absolute beauty from James Rodriguez) as Japan fell apart. And Greece won a penalty well into stoppage time, winning them the game and advancing them to the next round.

Once again, I only watched the first match with limited attention, but Japan seemed to be a lot better than in their first two games. It only really got away from them at the end as they were chasing the game, needing several goals to stay alive. And you don’t want to have to chase against Colombia who attack with pace and power on the counter.

But I did watch the Ivory Coast-Greece game pretty closely. And while it has to have been truly heartbreaking for them to lose their chance to play in the knockout rounds, I can’t really say it was an undeserved result. Greece were the better team on the day, hit the crossbar several times, and actually played quite well. And Ivory Coast just could never get their attack to click. They dominated large stretches of the game in the middle of the pitch, but ended up giving away possession cheaply or taking weak shots rather than picking out the open man.

So, I certainly feel bad, and very much lament that Greece, of all teams, has advanced (ugh). But it might just be the fairest possible result out of what turned out to be a pretty weak group.

And now, Costa Rica will play Greece in one of the least-anticipated, least-expected knockout games of recent memory. And the Dutch will be that much happier to have won their group and have that game looming on their horizon for the quarterfinals if they can dispatch Mexico.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Nigeria 1 – 2 Argentina
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina 1 – 1 Iran
  • Honduras 1 – 2 Switzerland
  • Ecuador 1 – 3 France

Can’t say I’m all that excited about any of these games to be honest. Argentina and France are already through and will both very likely win their group. If Iran can win their game, that might generate a bit of tension in that group. But otherwise, Nigeria could lose and still go through. I can’t say I’m very exited to watch Honduras again, but Switzerland will need to get a result against them if they want to advance, so I suppose that’s the one the watch. France might make a mess of things against Ecuador but it doesn’t seem particularly likely.

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World cup day 12 – Mexico advance, Spain recover a little bit of dignity

Only one game today with real drama in it, but it ended up being a pretty good one.  Mexico booked their ticket for the knockout rounds with a stirring performance. And as much as I like this Croatia team and hoped they would advance, I’m happy to see our neighbors to the south moving on.  And I will certainly be rooting for them to wipe that smirk off of Robben’s face.

Australia 0 – 3 Spain
Netherlands 2 – 0 Chile

I half-watched both of these games which, as always, means that I didn’t get a good sense of what happened in either. The Spanish game mostly reiterated what I’ve been saying. They had a terrible 40 minutes against Holland, a mediocre game against Chile, and are on the down side of their cycle. But this is still an incredibly talented squad, and they dispatched Australia with quite a bit more ease than either of the other teams in the group. Obviously you can’t draw too many conclusions from a dead-rubber game, but I think the new generation of Spanish players is going to do just fine in the years to come.

The other game seemed quite dull, though again that might only be because I wasn’t devoting my full attention to it. Still: no shots on goal at all in the first half and only a handful in the second. Chile seemed to really miss Vidal, but if they’re worried about his fitness (and his yellow card situation) I think resting him here was a good call. No one WANTS to face Brazil in the first round, but having your best lineup is probably more important than going all out to win this game once you’ve already qualified. The Dutch looked fine, though not particularly exciting. Obviously, no one is going to want to play them while Robben and Van Persie are clicking this well (and they’ve got a reasonably easy route in the first couple knockout rounds), so you’d have to make them a strong bet to make the semifinals. I mean, apart from that one half against Spain this team hasn’t impressed me THAT much, but they’ve beaten everyone put in front of them and done so with some decent style. And every team in this tournament has some serious flaws.

Cameroon 1 – 4 Brazil
Croatia 1 – 3 Mexico

I mostly watched Croatia-Mexico and gave a few looks to Brazil. From what I could tell, they once again failed to impress and were flattered by the 4-1 scoreline. The defense looked quite weak, with a number of serious chances for a not particularly great Cameroon. But, again, whoever wins this tournament will necessarily be a team with flaws. So there’s absolutely no reason that could be Brazil.

Mexico deserved their win. For the first 60 minutes, it was pretty even. Croatia generally had a lot more of the ball, and produced the more organized and developed chances. But Mexico was repeatedly threatening on the break, and the Croatian backline looked a bit ragged. For the final 30 minutes it was all Mexico. They had a number of decent chances, a couple questionable refereeing decisions go against them that could have opened things up (including a penalty shout that lots of people seem to think was stone cold but I’m actually not at all sure about), and eventually got the goal that really put Croatia under pressure (a draw was enough to get Mexico through). As they pressed forward more, their already-stressed defense cracked and let in some more.

I feel bad for Croatia who played excellently in five of their six halves but got screwed by the ref against Brazil and got knocked out needing to chase the game today. Still, what really killed them more than anything is Mexico playing up to their potential. If the Mexico of the qualifying campaign had shown up, Croatia would have easily advanced.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Italy 1 – 2 Uruguay
  • Costa Rica 1 – 2 England
  • Japan 1 – 2 Colombia
  • Greece 1 – 1 Ivory Coast

I think Italy is the better team, but this Uruguay team just refuses to die. I can’t really justify it, but I’m predicting another questionable victory that puts them through to the knockout round. Speaking of things I can’t justify, I’m once again predicting a good result for England. But I think they’ve played well and will do even better now that the pressure is off.

For the other group, I think Colombia beats Japan because I am quite a bit less enthusiastic about this Japan team than I was a few weeks ago. And I think Greece scrapes a draw that doesn’t really do them any good, but allows them to exit the tournament with their heads held high.

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World Cup day 11 – the agony and the ecstasy

A moment of madness from Geoff Cameron. A moment of pure beauty from Jermaine Jones.  A game for the ages, that had the US just seconds away from a truly stunning victory and entrance into the knockout stages, torn away from us in the end. For all the pain of losing the victory at the end, this was a truly stupendous day of soccer.

Belgium 1 – 0 Russia

This game happened. I watched it. Both teams were pretty dull. Belgium woke up with about 10 minutes left and made a couple lively attacks. One of them produced a goal. Belgium has many good players but sure hasn’t looked very good yet.

South Korea 2 – 4 Algeria

Wow! I only watched the first half of this game since I spent the second half on the train to the city so I could watch the US game. But the part I saw was excellent. Algeria absolutely ran roughshod over South Korea, who looked desperately bad. But it sounds like they pulled things together a bit in the second half and salvaged some of their dignity, if not a result. Looking forward to watching that second half at some point.

United States 2 – 2 Portugal

This was a genuinely excellent performance from the US. The best I can remember seeing them play in a World Cup match, probably since 2002. As has become depressingly common, they conceded a stupid early goal and had to spend a significant portion of the game fighting back. But they did so, and quite well. The key to the gam was the right side, where Fabian Johnson was once again excellent and gave absolute fits to the makeshift Portuguese defense. Because Ronaldo was only nominally playing on the left anyway, and didn’t seem interested in defending regardless, there was very little need for Johnson to stay back. Especially since Jones (who was also excellent for a second straight game) was deputized to fold in behind him when necessary.

This was all helped by a very strong midfield performance from Bradley and Beckerman. Beckerman has really been a revelation to me. I’ve been snootily dismissive of him in the past because he has a limited skillset. But he sure does get everything out of those skills he can. He was tremendously good at closing off Portugal’s passing in the midfield. With Bradley as two holding players, there was a ton of cover for the center backs which freed up everyone else to get involved in the attack.

Speaking of Bradley, I’m kind of baffled that people seem to think he was terrible. Okay, I’m not baffled; I get why. He made two costly mistakes (not scoring and giving away possession at the end to allow Portugal to equalize). But he was crucial to the US even being in place to win the game. He was the key player keeping the US afloat in the first half, exerting substantial influence in the midfield. And the fact that he was completely spent by the end is a function of the fact that he was basically playing as the second striker in a 4-4-1-1 and also playing as the second holding player in a 4-2-3-1. Which is to say: he did the work of two players today. Lots of people want to blame him for some reason, but the US doesn’t get a draw without him.

Same point re: Cameron. Yes, huge and incredibly dumb missed clearance to let in a goal. And he probably could have done better on the final goal, too. But other than that, he was superb. Very mobile, able to race out to block off attacks. Big in the air. Lots of strong tackles. Somewhat surprisingly, our center backs have been a real strength so far.

Dempsey had one of his better performances, I think. Didn’t allow himself to get isolated but also didn’t force himself back too far to try and link up. Put in more of a defensive shift than usual. And, as is his trademark, put himself into a position to score an ugly-looking goal. People tend to dismiss that skill since the actual scoring doesn’t look pretty. But it really IS a skill to be able to understand a play and place yourself in a position to pounce.

The goal from Jones…simply beautiful. It actually was quite similar to the stunner from Messi on the previous day. At the top of the box on the corner, move inside just a little, bend it to the corner. Messi’s was more pinpoint (and had to be), but the bend Jones got on his to go around the defender was amazing.

Finally…obviously it was a gut punch to lose the three points. But going into this tournament, a win against Ghana and draw against Portugal was at the top of my hopes. They’ve done very well to put themselves in good shape. Looking forward to Germany, the success with Johnson is encouraging. The same formula is likely to be our best bet there, since left back is probably their most vulnerable point, unless they switch Lahm back (which wouldn’t totally shock me). I do worry a little bit about health. Our guys have looked wiped in both games, and the Germans will have an extra day of rest. And they didn’t have to play in Manaus. Not sure if there’s anything that can really be done about that, though, since the players likely to most need rest (Dempsey, Bradley, Jones, Beckerman) really can’t afford to be dropped.

We shall see…

Speaking of which, here’s the new qualifying situation:

  • Win or draw – we’re through no matter what.
  • Portugal/Ghana is a draw – we’re through no matter what.
  • We lose and Ghana wins – we’re through ONLY if both games have one-goal margins AND they fail to out-score us by two goals.
  • We lose and Portugal wins – we’re through as long as their margin of victory and our margin of defeat add up to 4 or less. If it’s 5, it goes to goals scored as a tiebreaker, which they will likely win since they probably just scored a bunch of goals.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Australia 1 – 2 Spain
  • Netherlands 1 – 1 Chile
  • Cameroon 0 – 3 Brazil
  • Croatia 1 – 1 Mexico

Who knows what version of Spain will show up. If they play to their quality, of course they’ll win. But they could completely implode. Who knows? I expect Brazil to turn up for real and tear Cameroon apart. The other two games, I see hard-fought draws, which will qualify Mexico ahead of the unlucky Croatians, and will put Chile into a round of 16 game against Brazil.

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World Cup day 10 – Messi makes the difference

A wonderful strike from Messi, a wonderful game from Germany and Ghana, and…a third game was also played.  And once again, two of the fancied teams failed to fully impress.  Both Argentina and Germany remain in good position to win their groups, but neither will be particularly happy with their games today.

Argentina 1 – 0 Iran

Not a very good performance from Argentina, but a fascinating game. And for all their troubles today, I wouldn’t worry too much about Argentina. Messi bagged another brilliant goal, and they won’t play anyone again who will be so defensive.

So: there’s no denying that Argentina did not look particularly good. They had a very difficult time piercing the Iranian shield, probably ought to have conceded a (very, very stupid) penalty when Zabaleta cluttered into Ghoochannejhadfor no apparent reason, and relied on several excellent saves to keep them at 0-0. All things considered, you’d probably have to say that Iran had the better and more frequent scoring opportunities in the second half. For a tournament favorite against a very unfancied team like Iran, there’s no way to pretend that’s good.

All that said, it was just one game. And I’m just not that sure that the style of play here really tells us all that much about how they will fare in others. Iran played an incredibly defensive formation. For most of the game, all 11 of their players were in their own half, sometimes in their own final third. And they executed it extremely well. With only a few exceptions, they regularly provided one (or even two) covering defenders to stymie Argentina’s attacks. They swarmed the ball once it got close to their box, and they fouled intelligently (especially once they discovered that the ref was going to call a pretty loose game and let them get away with a fair amount). If a team can do that, and successfully execute, they’re going to make anyone in the world look lost for ideas. Because, frankly, you can’t beat a defensive bunker with ideas. You just have to keep probing, keep making the defense work, and eventually catch them in a mistake or find a moment of individual magic. Which is precisely what they did. They gave Messi a tiny pocket of space on the edge of the box, and he did what Messi does.

As someone who picked them to win the tournament, the only thing that really worries me is the 15-20 minutes in the second half when Iran opened the door to their bunker and started genuinely venturing into the attacking half. Because they seemed very vulnerable. The defense committed tons of very stupid fouls (including that one that could/should have been a penalty) and just gave too much space. Over the course of the game, the Iranian players didn’t have particularly good skill on the ball and routinely gave it away under pressure. Which I think made Argentina overly aggressive. But they needed to actually apply pressure, not foul them. And for all that Iran wasn’t great on the ball, they made some really brilliant runs off the ball. Which got them tantalizingly close to goals on a couple of occasions.

For a team who wants to play solid defense and then destroy teams on the counter-attack, that period was not encouraging. They really needed to A) defend better, because yikes and B) attack with a lot more speed and precision when they had the chance. They needed to press, win the ball, and then break with speed. They had a couple decent efforts like that (including one very nice little run from Messi where he hit the side netting), but that was their best chance to explode for a goal of the sort they want to score.

That said, I wonder how much of it is just down to surprise. Even after they had almost been hit a couple times, they never seemed to quite believe the threat was real. I’d expect them to do better in future games.

Germany 2 – 2 Ghana

What a game! I wish I had more on point comments about tactics or individual players but honestly it’s all kind of a blur of shots and tackles and perfectly weighted passes and heroic tackles. The first half was good, with Ghana doing a very nice job disrupting the German attack and creating more than a few chances for themselves. It was finely balanced, and I commented at halftime that ‘there were plenty of goals waiting to be found in this one.’ And oh my was that right. The second half was frantic, fast-paced, aggressive, incredible. Each team scored twice and was close to getting three or four more. It was truly a sight to behold.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch this game, you really should go back and check it out on WatchESPN. At least the second half.

Nigeria 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Probably the most hard-luck result of the tournament so far. B&H created a truly lovely goal, capped off by a fine finish from Dzeko, only to have it wrongly disallowed for being offside. And then Nigeria hit back, scoring a goal that included what could possibly have been ruled a foul on the attacking player. That one was more of a 50/50 call – you see them given sometimes, but not always. But the net result is that Nigeria took a 1-0 lead instead of the opposite. For the rest of the match, B&H tried to poke through the Nigerian defense, something that proved quite difficult. But honestly, I think they mostly did things right. They got off a lot of chances, particularly in the final 10 minutes. But nothing would quite fall for them. Dzeko hit the bar, any number of shots went just wide, etc. Sometimes it’s just not your day.

Much like England, B&H are an imperfect team (whose frailties on the left side were exposed many times tonight and certainly led to the goal) who will justifiably feel a little hard done by. They played pretty well against Argentina and almost scraped a draw. And while they probably didn’t ‘deserve’ to win tonight on the overall balance of play, the scoreline could very easily have been the opposite. As it is, though, they’re out and have only pride to play for now.

Predictions for tomorrow:

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

Group H befuddles me. I’m pretty sure Belgium is the class of the group, but I have a hard time telling just how good they are. The others…who knows? So I’m calling a high-scoring draw in the first game and an Algerian victory in the second. But really I have no idea. The real doozy is the third game, where I have a sneaking, unhappy suspicion that our boys aren’t going to be able to find a goal.

By the way, let’s walk through the qualifying implications of tomorrow’s game, based on the different possible worlds created by each result:

Win – we advance.

Draw – we will be in good, but not great shape. That would put us and Germany both on 4 points, with Portugal and Ghana on 1 point each. Which would THEN mean:

A) Get any result in the third game – we advance. This would also apply to Germany. And it would not be the most shocking thing in the world for a mutually advantageous draw to somehow materialize.
B) Portugal and Ghana draw – we advance. They’d have two points to our 4.
C) Portugal win – we probably advance. The first tiebreaker is goal difference, where we have a 5 goal lead. That’s certainly possible to overcome, but would take quite a bit
D) Ghana win – we almost certainly don’t advance. We’ve only got a goal difference advantage of 2 against Ghana, which would be wiped out by us losing and them winning. Our only hope would be for 1-goal margins in both games, which would then send it to the THIRD tiebreaker: goals scored. The 4th tiebreaker is head to head record, which we would of course win.

Lose – we are in trouble. We would have to get a result of some sort against Germany.
A) If Portugal wins, we also have to win
B) If Portugal-Ghana draw, we would have to draw, unless Portugal beats us by three goals. Then we’d have to win
C) If Ghana wins, we have to win, or get the same convergence of events as listed above in 2D.

tl;dr – We need at least a draw against Portugal, and it would be better if it were a high-scoring one. Losing tomorrow, even losing big, wouldn’t be a knockout blow, but it would really close off our options. Get a draw and we’re in good shape.

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World Cup day 9 – Aux armes citoyens, formez vos bataillons

Italy 0 – 1 Costa Rica

Okay, I think it’s time to start taking them seriously. This was not in any way a fluke. Costa Rica were clearly the better team today. Italy had a couple periods of decent pressure, but that was just about it. For most of the game, Costa Rica were in control and posed more threats. Their strategy seemed to completely flummox Italy, which was the strangest thing about the game. They played the same formation as they had in the first game (with the 3/5 man defense), but pushed their back line up the field a lot and relied on the offside trap to protect themselves from Italy running into space.

It was a huge gamble but it paid off tremendously. Balotelli seemed to be completely lost about what to do, as did the attackers on the wings. They were repeatedly (and with ever-increasing frustrating) caught offside. And by condensing the midfield so much, Costa Rica were able to effectively play all nine of their ‘defensive’ players in a limited space around the halfway line. That allowed them to harry the Italian playmakers, who had no time or space to build forward.

It was truly, genuinely shocking how bereft of ideas they were in the face of this approach. If anyone in the world should be prepared to match up against a 3-man backline, and to spring the offside trap, you’d expect it to be Italy. But…they just had nothing. Compare this to the Spain-Chile game, which had everyone singing the death of Spanish football. But Spain, for all that they were imprecise, created a lot of chances in the second half. Italy, in this game, did very little. They weren’t done in by bad finishing; they were done in by an inability to create opportunities at all.

Balotelli is the sort of striker I would want to play against these tactics, but he seemed bewildered today. If I were in charge, I would have strongly considered replacing him with Immobile, who has the pace to burst into the space behind the defense and might have had a better effort of it than Balotelli.

Switzerland 2 – 5 France

After several chippy and relatively low-scoring games in a row, France brings back the spirit of the 2014 World Cup, tearing apart the Swiss defense and scoring goals for fun. This game shows why France could win the tournament, and also shows why France could get thumped out in the quarterfinals. Their attacking talent is fantastic, especially since they made several changes and everyone they brought in did pretty well. On the other hand, they seemed to switch off fairly regularly and could have very easily let Switzerland back into the game several times in the first half. And while they were never in danger of actually losing, they were torn apart several times in the final 10 minutes, and gave back two goals. If they fall behind against a good team, and the classic French dissension rears it’s head, they could easily switch off and start allowing dumb goals like these. That free kick, in particular, was just absurd. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a free kick travel on the ground the whole way from that distance and produce a goal.

Switzerland are still in decent shape to qualify, but they’ll need to do some serious work shoring up that defense. They weren’t just making mistakes on the final ball (though there were plenty of those, too). They were giving France tons of space all over the pitch. Luckily for them, their next game is against Honduras who are pretty unlikely to capitalize on the empty space in front of the back four.

Sidenote: La Marseillaise is the best anthem, hands down.  Almost makes me want to support France.  Not quite, though.

Honduras 1 – 2 Ecuador

Ah yes, the classic lower-division question. Which are better, long balls or crosses? Based on the evidence of this match, crosses win 2-1. Honduras were much less offensive to the eye than they were against France, but still don’t have much about them except long kicks up the middle. And Ecuador aren’t much more complicated. They get the ball to the wings and then dump in cross after cross. By far the biggest difference-maker was Ecuador’s Enner Valencia who seemed to be pretty much everywhere, was instrumental in most of their attacks, and picked up both their goals. But for the first half, Honduras might just have been the better team. Yes, they conceded a lot of the ball. No, they didn’t complete many useful passes. But they mostly kept Ecuador contained and hit them for a goal on the most Route 1 goal you’re likely to see. Long kick, and then BAM, it’s in the net. The second half was a bit better, with Ecuador working things in slightly more intricate ways. But honestly, there wasn’t much complexity here. Ecuador were the better team and got the three points they needed. They still have a big hill to climb, needing to match whatever result Switzerland get, but having to do so against France.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Argentina 3 – 0 Iran
  • Germany 2 – 0 Ghana
  • Nigeria 1 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Argentina and Germany are excellent teams. Iran is not very good. Ghana is certainly a solid team and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see them get a result here. But my simple rule is to always bet on the Germans winning unless there’s a strong reason to think otherwise. I hope the third game is good. It’s another one of those that I could see going all kinds of ways. Nigeria looked really poor in their last game – and in their warmup games. But they won the Africa Cup of Nations with basically this group of players and there is quite a bit of talent in there. They pretty much need a win here if they hope to qualify, but I think B&H will have too much for them.

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World Cup day 8 – Triumphs of the New World

A New England - Billy Bragg

The New World is dominating this tournament.  Teams from the Americas have now won 10 games, drawn 2, and lost 3. The two draws were Brazil and Mexico playing each other. And one of the losses was Uruguay to Costa Rica.  So against teams from other confederations they have won 9 and lost 2.

Now, this level of dominance almost certainly won’t last, but holy cow that’s impressive.

Colombia 2 – 1 Ivory Coast

A wide open game that inexplicably remained 0-0 for quite a long time. And then suddenly, a bunch of goals poured in. Colombia deserved the win, just barely I think, but Ivory Coast were quite strong. They’ve probably put in the two best performances from any African team. Gervinho’s goal was great, if only partly because it just makes you wonder how so many people could have let him get past them. And they had a number of good chances to equalize at the end. Once again, bringing on Drogba was enormously helpful. I don’t think that means he should start, though. This new super-sub role seems good for him. Colombia look excellent and I can’t imagine anyone from Group D will be looking forward to playing them.

Uruguay 2 – 1 England

Poor England. They probably deserved to win this one. Godin could have seen red in the first 10 minutes for a handball that just might have denied a ‘clear goal scoring opportunity’ when Rooney was through on goal. And if not, he absolutely should have received a second yellow for a dreadfully cynical challenge on Sturridge. With a man advantage for 60 minutes, chances are very high that England would have won.  So it was a pretty costly bit of gutlessness from the referee (a UEFA representative by the way, showing that poor refereeing decisions aren’t unique to the less favored confederations)

Instead, England lost because of two very dumb and very preventable goals. The first one was a 2 v 6 counterattack, where the entire England defense just seemed to forget that there was a high-quality striker lurking behind them. Let Suarez free and bam, you’re down a goal. The second was a bit unlucky. Suarez was way offside but the throughball came off of Gerrard’s head. And since he was well offside, there was no one to mark him once he had the ball.

On the other side, Rooney finally broke his endless dry spell, but could have very easily scored two or three others. He hit the post with a header, had a pretty wide open shot right in front of the goal that hit the keeper, and only just missed with a free kick. Still, he was probably England’s best player for once. So good job, Wayne.

England aren’t quite out. If Italy beats Costa Rica tomorrow and Uruguay in the third match, all they’ll need to do is beat Costa Rica and they’ll still qualify. But that’s asking for three specific results, so it’s certainly not very likely. It’s kind of strange. This team has played quite a bit better than they did four years ago, but they have nothing to show for it.

Japan 0 – 0 Greece

I can’t believe I picked Japan to finish second in this group. They are awful and would be lucky to finish second in a group of two. They played a huge chunk of the game against a 10-man Greece—and Greece isn’t that good to start with—and generated shockingly little. Their primary strategy, and I’m being serious here, seemed to be: get fouled and take mediocre free kicks. My dislike for Greece is intense but I was rooting for them by the end of the game. Japan were, to be fair, markedly better for about 20 minutes after Kagawa came on. But even that was just a comparative thing. If you didn’t watch this game, you missed very little.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Italy 2 – 0 Costa Rica
  • Switzerland 1 – 3 France
  • Honduras 1 – 2 Ecuador

Costa Rica looked good in their last game, but I still don’t think they’re a match for Italy. Same goes for Switzerland v. France. Honduras were wretched against France but I’m not convinced they’re actually that bad. We’ll see.

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World Cup day seven – the champions are out

Well, I can’t say that I expected Spain to be the first team eliminated from the tournament.  But it’s a funny old game, so here we are.

Australia 2 – 3 Netherlands

This was, surprisingly, one of the best games of the tournament. Australia came ready to play and were probably the better team for the first 60 minutes. The Dutch were done in by a bit of complacency to start things off—they stuck with the formation that served them so well against Spain. But the 3-man backline was really not working today. It often meant Cahill tied up three defenders while Leckie bombed forward and cut through them. Their direct passing was aggressive and fast, and tore apart the defense in a way that Spain’s intricate buildup never managed. It was awesome to watch.

So when the Dutch took the lead, it was very much against the run of play and quite depressing—since it seemed like that might shift the tide and deaden the game. Instead, it was precisely the opposite. Australia came back within 45 seconds and scored one of the goals of the tournament. A long ball toward the back post where Cahill waited, turned on it, and lashed it over the keeper’s head. Brilliantly taken.

Things settled down for the Dutch once they were forced to switch the formation due to an injury. And honestly, they should have made the change as early as 20-25 minutes into the game when it was so clear that things weren’t working. Nevertheless, Australia actually took the lead on a pretty soft penalty. It did hit the hand but it’s hard to argue there was ‘intent’ there, and it seems like those usually aren’t given. Still, they converted and held the lead for a glorious four minutes.

In the end, sadly, the gulf in skill won out. Australia had a number of other very fine chances but couldn’t convert, including a wide open goal for Leckie who inexplicably chested the ball weakly enough for the keeper to gather it rather than heading it into the net. And then, the Dutch took the ball immediately upfield, weren’t closed down, and took a long distance shot that fooled the keeper and put them ahead for good. Two mistakes in quick succession from the Australians and they were down 3-2 instead of ahead by the same margin.

After that, things fizzled out a bit. They were clearly exhausted and the adrenaline had faded. Lots of sloppy passing and ill-conceived attempts to dribble through two or three defenders. Still, for 60 or 70 minutes, this was one of the most riveting matches of the tournament. And Australia is out, despite putting in some very fine performances.

Spain 0 – 2 Chile

For the third time in the last four cycles, the holders can’t make it out of the group stages. And a lot of people seem ready to call it a catastrophe. But I have to say: they really weren’t all that bad. This was at the low range of what you’d expect from Spain, World Champions. But it wasn’t dreadful. Yes, they were harried on the ball and didn’t look nearly as sharp as vintage Spain. And yes they conceded two goals. And yes their finishing was bad. But it’s a massive overstatement to say that they fell apart or were soundly beaten.  Honestly, I think they were the better team today.  Certainly they were better everywhere outside of the 6-yard boxes.  And being better than Chile isn’t easy!

With average finishing, they’d have had two, maybe three goals. They had chances galore. Not just the sitter from Busquets. Alonso had several very good ones. Ramos missed one around 85 minutes. Iniesta and Costa, too. And if Casillas hadn’t turned into a pumpkin, they’d have only conceded one. And you know what: if they had won 3-1, with the exact same quality of performance otherwise, everyone would be talking about a fine return to form. In fact, according to the expected goals model, that’s pretty much the result you would expect on average from the chances that each side created in this game.

Now, obviously, Casillas DID make that error and the attackers DID fail to score. So I’m not saying they ought to have won. But finishing and keeper-errors are highly variable and not tremendously predictive. So their elimination was, at the very least, a bit unlucky. And it certainly isn’t proof that they fell apart, or couldn’t play against Chile, or that tiki-taka is truly dead, or whatever other apocalyptic stuff people are saying.

I’m sad to see them out, since I’ve always liked watching them play. But I’m pretty happy that Chile and Netherlands will be advancing. Both are excellent and will bring plenty of skill and excitement to the next round.

Cameroon 0 – 4 Croatia

Croatia looked very good, but this was mostly about Cameroon being terrible.  In the first half, they got the ball into some decent attacking areas but just couldn’t do anything with it. So it was no surprise when Croatia took the lead. And then Alex Song made the utterly inexplicable decision to elbow someone right in front of the ref and got himself sent off. Total insanity. And from that point on, there was only ever going to be one result. You have to feel a little bad for Croatia, who has been excellent in both games and is still facing a win-or-go-home contest against Mexico. All the goals they piled in today won’t even help them, since it’s 100% impossible for them to end up the same number of points as Mexico and virtually impossible with Brazil.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Colombia 0 – 0 Ivory Coast
  • Uruguay 2 – 2 England
  • Japan 1 – 1 Greece

Not sure why, but I’m calling draws in all three of these. I think Colombia and Ivory Cost will both be cagey, knowing that a draw serves them both reasonably well. I think Uruguay and England will both desperately want to win but will stumble into a draw that neither really wants (though it would certainly be better for England than Uruguay). And while I think Japan is better, I expect Greece to do their thing and nick an irritating goal at the end to pull back a point. I’ve also realized that despite picking Japan to take second in the group, I didn’t pick them to win any games. So, yeah, I don’t know.

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World Cup day six – goals are overrated

This was probably the worst day of the tournament so far, because only one of the games was superb. The others were merely solid. And there was a stretch of about two and half hours where not a single goal went in! But that’s how good things have been for us.

Belgium 2 – 1 Algeria

Not the most convincing victory from the Belgians, but they successfully kicked things into gear for a 20-minute spell in the second half when they got both their goals. For all the skill in their attacking players, they seemed strangely lost for ideas for most of the match. Still, I think you have to give credit to Algeria who were a lot better than four years ago, and did a very nice job of stifling Belgium’s options while also posing enough of a threat going forward to keep them honest. At least for the first 50-60 minutes.

For Belgium: the lack of real fullbacks did seem like a problem. It meant Algeria could clog the middle of the pitch and deny the space for the creative players. Still: the doom and gloom about this performance is being overstated. They were clearly the better team and got their deserved three points. Both goals were good, and showed strengths of the team. Fellaini’s header reminds us of how many different impact players they have to call on. And their second goal was beautiful – winning the ball in their own box and then racing to the other end to score. If they get a lead and draw out the opposition, or if they play teams who look to play high defensive lines, you’ll see more like that. And they could have scored several others. I had them as 50/50 to make the quarterfinals and that still seems about right.

Brazil 0 – 0 Mexico

One of the more exciting 0-0 games you’re likely to see. And strong evidence that goals aren’t necessary to make a classic match.  End to end stuff, shifts in momentum, powerful attacks, great tackles. And Brazil continue to be less-than-impressive. For a team that was supposedly as likely to win this thing as the entire rest of the field combined, they sure haven’t shown much yet. They were better today—results notwithstanding, and did create quite a few chances. But still not nearly as many as they would have hoped. In addition, they had to contend with a keeper who seemed to preternaturally always be in the right place. That said, and not to take away from Ochoa’s performance too much (he was very good), but a number of those saves were more a matter of Brazil shooting straight at the keeper and less about particularly great saves.

On the balance I would say that Brazil was better, but not by all that much, and a draw was a pretty fair result. And there were certainly periods where Mexico was rampant and looked far more likely to score. The first half was pretty chippy, with the ref allowing lots of fouls, but he clamped down a bit in the second half and the quality of play got even better. I also appreciate him not giving a penalty to Brazil for something similar to the one from their Croatia game. Marcelo was slightly more firmly touched than Fred, but it still wasn’t a penalty.

Russia 1 – 1 South Korea

If not for the Iran-Nigeria game, this would be the worst match of the tournament. But it really wasn’t that bad. It’s just that this tournament is spoiled for riches. Both goals were eminently preventable. Akinfeev was spilling shots the whole game, as if he didn’t know he was even allowed to catch the ball. But his mistake for the goal was really something else. He didn’t quite throw the ball in his own net, but it was pretty close. And then on the other side, the keeper let it spill loose as well and the Russian effort successfully bundled it into the net eventually. Speaking of which, I have a message for the Korean defenders: maybe instead of standing there with your arms in the air demanding a handball call, you should try to STOP THE GUY FROM SHOOTING. I have never, not once in my life, seen those demands change the ref’s mind. But I constantly see defenders switch off and fail to prevent goals. It’s maddening. Anyways, neither of these teams were very impressive. Group H certainly looks like the weakest group at this point.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Australia 0 – 2 Netherlands
  • Spain 1 – 1 Chile
  • Cameroon 1 – 2 Croatia

I was reasonably impressed with Australia, but they’re still not a match for the Dutch, I don’t think. I’ve gone back and forth on the second game many times. I still think Spain is very good but I worry about their ability to bounce back from what happened in the first game. I didn’t see too much quality in Cameroon and thought Croatia was very good, which mostly confirms my pre-tournament expectations.  So I’ll call that one a victory for the Europeans.

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Further thoughts on US-Ghana

Because I’m a huge nerd, I went back and re-watched the first half on the ESPN tactical cam.  It basically shows you the whole pitch from way up behind one of the goals.  Very interesting way to experience the game.  Lets you see a lot of stuff that gets missed with the standard approach.  Some more thoughts, after seeing things a second time around:

  • I’m not sure what formation this was, but it would be really stretching things to call it a diamond. Certainly after Altidore went off, it pretty much just looked like a 4-4-2 with four central midfielders and minimal support from the fullbacks. Which definitely explain why things weren’t going very well.
  • The back line was doing a very good job of playing the Ghanaian attackers offside in the opening 20 minutes or so.
  • Beasley wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered. He was pressured, certainly, but wasn’t getting torn apart. 
  • Howard was excellent. Few shots to stop, but he commanded the area very well. There were a couple dangerous-looking crosses that he took nicely. There was a very dangerous throughball that he came out to stop which took him outside the box. I think a lot of keepers would have stayed back and potentially been burned. His distribution was okay. They were playing from the back much more than late in the game. 
  • Ghana basically got nothing down the left. Every time they tried, Johnson and/or Bedoya were a brick wall, and they had to shift things back to the right.
  • Bradley was perfectly fine for 15 minutes or so, but then started giving away presents like it was Ghana’s birthday. For the final third of the half, I’m not sure he contributed positively in any way at all. Very strange.
  • As far as I could tell, from about the 6th to the 16th minute Dempsey touched the ball precisely once (and he was offside). But then just a few minutes later he had a lovely touch that linked up the play in the move that built up to Altidore’s blocked shot. He rescued a 50/50 ball, had a quick one-two with Bradley, and then got the ball to Bedoya, who sent it racing down the wing to Johnson coming forward, who then whipped it into the box. That play was really excellent and was a couple of feet away from putting the US up 2-0. If Bradley had been two steps further forward he could have buried the ball in the net. And when it came to Jozy it was just a bit too far behind him so he had to collect and then couldn’t get any power on the shot, which gave the defenders time to get in the way.
  • I would definitely say that up until Altidore went off, the US were pretty clearly the better team. The tide had already started to turn a little bit at that point, and the US players were starting to send a lot more pointless long balls. But the big shift was definitely right at this moment. After he went off, they looked very lost. I almost feel like there has to have been a psychological element. It often seems like the 20 minute mark is kind of a natural lull, when a team with the advantage starts to cool off anyways. Add in the stress of losing Altidore and the necessity altering the game plan, and i can definitely see it causing them to start pressing. I don’t think they tried a single attack down the wings for ages after it. They just were playing sideways passes in their own half and then hoofing it up the center of the pitch. 
  • For all that Ghana was firmly in control of the game for the last 25-30 minutes of the half, they really couldn’t find much of a way through. And I don’t think that’s just down to them being poor or spurning chances. Their chances were mostly pretty terrible because they were exclusively working from the wing and weren’t being given any angles. But it definitely helps to explain why the eventual addition of Prince-Boateng was so huge
  • The quality of play for the last 20 minutes was not good [em]at all[/em]. By either team. It looked a lot like Iran-Nigeria. Ghana was definitely better, in the sense that they successfully completed some of their passes. But honestly they weren’t that much better. Lots of dumb and pointless giveaways by both sides.

In real time, I thought the US were pretty poor in the first half.  On the rewatch, I’m a little bit less critical.  Ghana was probably a bit better over the half, but they didn’t create any opportunities as good as Dempsey’s goal.  Or as good as the move I mentioned from the US that ended with Altidore’s blocked shot.

In the grand scheme of things, I think I’d rather have a few good chances than more mediocre ones.

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World Cup day five – the sweet taste of revenge

Two more great games today. One featured beautiful and flowing football from the Germans. The other featured scrappy, mediocre football from the German-Americans. And the less said about the third game the better.

Germany 4 – 0 Portugal

In some ways it was the most emphatic performance of the tournament. Unlike Spain, Portugal didn’t suffer a nervous collapse or anything; they just couldn’t withstand the relentless pressure and found it very difficult to stay afloat. I honestly didn’t think they were all that bad for the first 40 minutes or so. They gave up two goals, yes, but created a few chances of their own. And I mostly think it was just a matter of Germany being very very good, more than Portugal being bad. But then, of course, Pepe was an idiot (shocking, I know) and got himself sent off (who could have guessed) and from that point on they were pretty abject. Still, Germany should be very happy with their performance. They pretty effectively neutralized Ronaldo and were playing some beautiful football in the midfield. A 4-0 result against Portugal is fantastic and Germany should continue to be treated as one of the favorites to make the semifinals.

Oh, and they’re now just three goals behind Brazil for most scored all-time.  They have come as close as a 1-goal deficit, but have never reduced it to zero.

Iran 0 – 0 Nigeria

Do you remember the 2010 World Cup? Iran and Nigeria sure do.

Ghana 1 – 2 United States

USA! Our boys did not play their best game by any stretch of the imagination, but they still came away with three glorious points. And did so against the team who eliminated us from the past two tournaments.

Dempsey’s opening goal was a thing of beauty. Two different wonderful touches to put the ball in precisely the right spot and then a clinical finish. There couldn’t have been a better start. And for about 10-15 minutes, the US looked spritely, engaged, energetic. But from that point on, we were on the backfoot and looked increasingly skill-less. They gave away the ball very quickly, took pointlessly speculative passes, and generally seemed lost. It didn’t help that Altidore went off at about 20 minutes. While he obviously has his weaknesses, a big part of the strategy is built around having him at the top. Johansson gave it his best, but that’s just not his game.

The second half got a little bit better. Clearly they had a talk about re-organizing the formation because Jones provided much better cover for Beasley (who was getting pretty regularly skinned in the first half), and Bradley improved (though not nearly enough).

I have to hand it to the team (and Klinsmann) though. A lot of the guys I’ve been very nervous about played really well. This is probably the best I’ve seen from Jones. Beckerman wasn’t much for the attack, but filled his protective role very well, Brooks came on at the half for the injured Besler and had a few nervous moments but mostly settled in. All in all, it was a very solid defensive performance. Ghana had a fair number of opportunities but most were half-chances, if that. And the ones that did turn up were handled pretty admirably by Howard (who was great).

All that said, for long stretches of this game Ghana was the better team. It’s not just that the US chose to play very defensively to protect the lead, it was the casual way they tossed possession away when they did obtain it. Bradley had one of his worst games for the squad in a long long time. Dempsey was invisible for long stretches (though he was playing with what seemed like a broken nose, so it’s hard to judge him that harshly). Johnson and Beasley provided very little attacking help, which pretty much eliminated the width of our attack.

And when Ghana’s equalizer went in (on a brilliant set of moves BTW – great through ball form the left back, incredible back hell, deadly slicing finish that totally fooled Howard), my heart sank. It sure didn’t look like we had the ideas (or legs) for an equalizer. But just a couple minutes later, John Brooks (!) of all people slammed home a header off a very dangerous corner and just like that, the US was back on top. And from that point on, they played a lot better and held on for the win.

This was a must-win game, and they won it. They didn’t play their best, and will have to do better to get a result from one of the other games. But a draw against Portugal would put us in a commanding position. And that’s certainly achievable. Looking forward to it…

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Belgium 2 – 0 Algeria
  • Brazil 3 – 1 Mexico
  • Russia 1 – 0 South Korea

Belgium is very good and I don’t expect too much from Algeria. But I said the same thing about Costa Rica so who knows.  I would like to tip Mexico against Brazil but I don’t think they’ll quite get it done.  I imagine this as a 1-1 going into the 85th minute with two quick Brazil goals to close out the match at the end.  I don’t know many of the Russian players anymore, but reliable sources seem to think they’re pretty good (and that South Korea is awful). So I’ll go ahead and call a Russian victory.

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