Italy will meet France in the final

I haven’t seen the match yet; unfortunately it was one of the few matches unavailable on a local station. I was planning to watch the delayed broadcast this evening, but unfortunately the beans were spilt at work. I don’t know the actual score, but i’m not really in the mood to wait any more. Especially as the match involved two teams I never particularly wanted to see in the finals.

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Bye bye, England

It is tantalisingly ironic that by far England’s best performance in the tournament saw as its reward another demoralising defeat by penalty kicks. England were the better team for much of this match; they created most of the chances, and, even after Wayne Rooney’s dismissal, looked the likelier team to find the net. England dominated the midfield; Owen Hargreaves was outstanding in the holding role, and after Rooney left the pitch, the Bayern Munich man was easily the most dynamic player on the pitch. Frank Lampard was his usual disappointing self, fluffing his lines to scuff over the bar England’s most presentable chance of the first half. Had he been unfit, as per the wishes of this observer, England might have started with Michael Carrick or even Jermaine Jenas alongside Hargreaves in the centre of midfield. As it was, Lampard was exposed at both ends of the pitch, where his lack of confidence and pace became serious liabilities.

But not liabilities as serious as that of captain David Beckham’s continued presence, ostensibly on the right wing. Beckham has not been a right-winger for his country for some time now, but as long as he was exerting a genuine influence on proceedings, his desire to stray from the touchline could be tolerated. More recently however, his contributions have been pedestrian at best. It is true that he is a fantastic striker of the ball, but he no longer lacks the ability to find the space to send in his trademarks crosses. Beckham has famously never been quick, but his inexhaustible motor took him up and down the touchline with all the assuredness of the little engine that could. But he has not only lost what little pace he may have had, he has lost the ability to chug up and down the field, choosing instead to stroll arbitrarily around the right-hand side of the pitch. As a result, when he receives the ball it is not by the corner flag, or in any zone in line with the penalty area. In fact he receives the ball nowhere useful at all. Instead of launching in crosses from dangerous positions, Beckham’s long balls are often speculative punts from distance, easily dealt with by any halfway competent defence. People claimed Beckham was a one trick pony; now he is a lame one trick pony. Beckham’s free kick delivery is still above average, but is it worth keeping an otherwise useless player on the pitch just because he can kick a mean deadball? Aren’t Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and others all meant to be useful takers of free kicks?

When Aaron Lennon came on for Beckham he immediately changed the way England looked. Suddenly they had penetration down that flank. Suddenly Portugal’s left back had to start to worry, midfielders had to track back, space was opening in the final third of the pitch as Portuguese players had to worry about tracking both Lennon and the space he was unlocking.

In the end, England lost, but at least the future is still bright. Beckham has relinquished his carefully manicured grasp on the captaincy and with it the air of invincibility (read ‘undropablity’) that infuriated much of the England fan base must surely have crumbled and blown away like dust in the wind. Let’s hope that for all his proximity to the debacle of the latter years of the Beckham regime, new England manager Steve McClaren will not be afraid to ring in the changes.

Argentina’s problems of Pekerman’s making

As Argentina soiled their reputation with the ugly scenes that followed Friday’s match against Germany, the truth was they had only themselves to blame for their predicament. Perhaps that guilt was responsible for the collective red mist that descended over the squad from South America as they thundered en masse to engage in fisticuffs with a German team that had allegedly been taunting them after Esteban Cambiasso’s woeful final penalty.

The game was lost on the flanks, where Argentina had little width. Fabricio Coloccini didn’t offer any dynamism going forward, and on the left Carlos Tevez was ineffectual. Tevez appeared to be suffering a case of Eagerbeaveritis. This was his first start in a meaningful match this tournament, and so happy was he to have been taken off his leash that he scampered up and down the pitch, and round and round with the glee of a dog who has just rediscovered his own tail. Tevez was arguably included to trouble the German right back, Arne Friedrich. All he succeeded in was troubling the legions of onlookers wondering how a man who for a year has been far and away the best player in Brazilian football could look so naïve.

The Crespo/Saviola combination had worked wonders for Argentina. The only time in this world cup, before Friday, that they did not start together, was the final game of the already qualified for the second round, manager Jose Pekerman chose to have a closer look at Tevez and Lionel Messi. Argentina did not find the target in that match.

I do wonder what Pekerman was thinking with his substitutions. It is true that goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri’s withdrawal was forced on him by injury. However, withdrawing flagging playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Cambiasso was a flagrant infraction of the rules of beautiful football. And not just because of the hair. Rather, it was because it smacked of a defeatism not associated with Argentinean football, at least not the electrifying football that has been embraced under Pekerman’s reign. It was the sort of tactic you would expect a certain dour-faced, balding man who until recently was leading one of the British nations to have employed; namely thanking your lucky stars for a lead of any sorts, and then bringing off your most creative players and replacing them with destructive ones.

Riquelme was struggling, but had he come off, surely Pablo Aimar, or the ball-keeping talents of Messi were in order. With the possibility always remaining that Germany would equalise, why deprive your team its primary source of game-winning extemporisation? Ever since the squad was named, Argentina has been the source of much jealousy for its attacking depth. Riquelme having an off day? Say hello to Mr Aimar. Saviola dripping over his buck teeth? Time for Mr Messi to save the day. Crespo looking out of sorts. That’s your cue, Mr Tevez.

In fact, it was not Riquelme’s but surely Crespo’s substitution that has been the source of the most post match analysis. Crespo was not particulary effective, but then again he is a player you never want to withdraw. Much like Ronaldo he can drift innocuously for 85 minutes of a match and then nip into beat the offside trap just when the opposition defence has gone to sleep. He is not a player who ever looks lively, but he is a player who will always keep defences honest. Julio Cruz may be a perfectly good player, but there was no need to serve him the call to duty. Tactically it offered nothing new, and as Crespo was not waning, why get rid of him? Surely Pekerman should have waited to see what would happen.

But perhaps the desire to wait was Pekermans’ problem. He robbed his team of its artistry and trusted his defence would see him through to the final whistle. Had he gone for the throat, this match would have been over as a contest before the half. The much discussed frailties of the German defence were there to be exposed, but Pekerman and his Argentina squad failed to rise to the occasion.

Bye Bye Frankie?

gerrard with a cup

We may have to say goodbye to Frank Lampard in order to see this man lifting a trophy this summer

Reports from the England camp are of an ankle injury to Frank Lampard. Could this be fate smiling on the English nation? Eriksson’s intransigence (or, as some would suggest, more sinister, commercial motivations) have seen the manager insist on a central midfield pairing of Lampard with Liverpool dynamo Steven Gerrard. The results have never been satisfactory; England have typically had the talent to overcome most teams with this combinations, but at the quarterfinals of the World Cup the suspicion is that English football’s worst kept secret will be exposed; namely that the two best English midfielders cannot work in tandem at the highest level.

The two have long endured criticism that they are too alike to play together. Much of the debate has centred on the formation they play for England, which is different to that employed at their respective clubs. At Chelsea, Lampard has the man whose through his excellence has come to define the role of the holding midfielder, Frenchman Claude Makelele, patrolling the space behind him. At Liverpool, either Germany’s Dietmar Hamann or Malian Mohammed Sissoko to hold the fort as Gerrard launches forward with suicidal gusto. The presence of such accomplished defensive minds in the midfield permits Gerrard and Lampard to stride forward at will, knowing that the defensive integrity of their team’s shape will not be compromised. When they play in their national colours, however, Lampard and Gerrard have no such assurances. This means that when one goes forward, one must stay back. Fair enough, you might say, these are seasoned professionals who should be able to accommodate slight modifications to their styles in play for the benefit of the team. But this does not seem to be the case. Gerrard is arguably the better defender of the two, but he is also the more dynamic; asking him to do the majority of the sitting back deprives England of a major inspiration in the final third of the pitch. Combine this with the fact, that worrying about defending seems to curb both men’s instincts; rather than darting towards the penalty box without a second thought, the two must always be glancing over their shoulders just to make sure the cover is there. At this level of football a split second is all a move needs to break down. Surely not good enough to win a World Cup.

Mindful of this, Sven introduced a second-round experiment of playing Tottenham’s Michael Carrick in a withdrawn midfield role in order to allow Lampard and Gerrard to combine. The hope was that two of the best attacking midfielders in Germany would finally be able to cast off their shackles and probe the Ecuadorean defence with reckless abandon. No such luck. Gerrard and Lampard both demand the entire midfield, and no matter whether there is a man covering behind them, they demand that everything happens through them. When you have two dominant personalities they can often cancel each other out. Brazil is the only nation to try and fit all its best parts together, with its so-called magical quartet of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka. However, even they have been underperforming. They only other team with such an embarrassment of riches has been more sensible about parcelling them out. Pablo Aimar does not start alongside Juan-Roman Riquelme. Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez must accept that they will be second fiddles to the striking partnership of Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola.

If Eriksson looked more closely at the way Liverpool play, he might see the ideal way to extract the most passion and impact from Steven Gerrard. At Liverpool Gerrard not only has the destructive forces of Hamann or Sissoko behind him, but also a deep-lying playmaker in the form of Xabi Alonso. This means there is always someone to find Gerrard when he makes his devastating runs forward. In Owen Hargreaves England have a man ideally suited to take on the Sissoko role. And in Michael Carrick they have not a true holding midfielder, but a man who dictates the play from deep. Carrick may not be quite the passer Xabi Alonso is, but he is still very good, and alongside the tenacity of Hargreaves, his elegance just might set the platform for Gerrard to shine.

Let’s just hope that Lampard is still lame come Saturday night.

Well, how the hell is this happening?

It’s Wednesday afternoon Japan time, and I’m watching the time-delayed broadcast of the second round match between France and Spain. It’s injury time and washed up old man Zinedine Zidane has just bamboozled Spanish centre-back Carles Puyol and shot his country into a shock 3-1 lead. I haven’t read the press reports yet, but surely the finger will point squarely at Spain coach Luis Aragones’ decision to deviate from the starting line-up that was so exciting in the group stages. Marcos Senna made way for Cesc Fabregas in the midfield and Luis Garcia was excluded in favour of former golden boy Raul. The introduction of Fabregas hardly diminished the overall quality of the midfield, but up front the inclusion of Raul must have raised many an eyebrow around the world. The player was as anonymous against France as he has been for club and country for some time now. When Aragones attempted to make amends early in the second half by returning Luis Garcia to the pitch in place of the Real Madrid man the effect was immediate. The Liverpool forward’s mobility and willingness to make dangerous runs off the ball, as well has his undoubted skill with it gave Spain the penetration they had been lacking. For much of the first half Aragones’ men had been trapped in their own half; in spite of their advantage in the possession statistics, they seldom passed the ball beyond the midfield. Such was the regularity with which they touched the ball back to centre- halves Puyol and Pablo Ibañez that at times one could be forgiven for wondering whether Xavi, Fabregas and Xabi Alonso weren’t having their own private competition to see who could do the best impression of the playing style of David Batty. Luis Garcia, and Joaquin who was introduced into the game simultaneously, changed that. Spain suddenly had a bit more pace, guile and hunger in their forward line. Both players came close to scoring, and both players looked as if they might have done had they been given the time. Shame on Aragones for not having the courage to go with the team that had served him so well and made Spain look like genuine contenders for once. This time the Iberians didn’t even make it as far as their usual bottling stage, the quarter-finals. As much as I hate to, I shall now be forced to support the over-hyped Brazilians when they meet Zizou and Co. in a few days time. Boo.

Ghana vs Brazil

Stephen AppiahWelcome to yet another World Cup in which just a solitary African team advances to the knockout phase. Ghana will be flying their black-starred flag not just for their 22 million odd people but also on behalf of the roughly 12 percent of the world’s population that calls the continent of Africa home. In spite of the achievement, the tea leaves woukld seem not to indicate much more to cheer in Ghana’s immediate future. Ghana will require a special

performance from captain Appiah

The West Africans will have to overcome defending champions Brazil in their second round match. Although Brazil’s status as pre-tournament favourites was somewhat tarnished by uninspired performances in their first two group matches, a team largely made up of second-stringers found an impressive rhythm against Japan in the final group game. Even the comedy value of watching Ronaldo waddling ponderously around the Japanese half was overshadowed, briefly, by his two goals, and the fact that he looked lively enough to have scored two more. Ronaldo is said to be a man who will take one goal-scoring opportunity out of two, and on this evidence it would seem that while his pace may have deserted him for good, his eye for goal is returning just in time to propel Brazil into the quarter finals.

michaelessienisscary

The loss of Essien to suspension has proved a cruel blow
But what of Ghana? They have a strong midfield which will surely miss the industry, pace and power of Michael Essien, unfortunate to miss the match after picking up a second yellow card of the tournament against the Americans. Ghana have ability across the pitch, though their goalkeeper Richard Kingson, for all his alertness in one on one situations, has looked very ordinary when having to deal with crosses. Fortunately Brazil are a team that tend to keep the ball on the floor, and given the form of Adriano, Brazil’s only starting aerial threat, Kingson should have relatively little to worry in that department. Stephen Appiah in particular will have to shoulder the responsibility to drive his team forward; whilst Appiah has been captain it is the Chelsea midfielder who has been the heartbeat of the team. It will be time for Appiah to show the world why he deserves the armband. Ghana’s strikers will also have to learn where the back of the net is. Asamoah Gyan has been woefully wasteful, and such profligacy will ultimately be punished, even if apparent valium addict Adriano is playing. Where Ghana can cause problems is with the aggression of their play, and the pace with which they execute their gameplan. Brazil are used to being to a man the quickest side on the field, but they may have met their match in the quickness stakes. Ghana’s pace and strength is likely to ensure that Brazil don’t have the time they so love on the ball. It also means that the South American’s roving defenders will have to be alert to the space they leave behind when they make their forward runs. If central defender Juan gets as far forward against Ghana as he did against Japan to make the pass for Ronaldo’s second goal, he had best hope the result is the same, because if Ghana reclaim possession they have the pace and the passers to punish any gaps that open up in the Brazilian defence. This advantage will become more pronounced if Brazil coach Perreira insists on playing his geriatric fullbacks Cafu (36) and Roberto Carlos (33). Ironically of the two it is the older Cafu who has looked the most capable of offering pace and balance out wide. Although still fast, Roberto Carlos seems to have lost the energy that saw him motoring up and down the left hand side of the pitch for the duration of the game. Both players prefer now to saunter back into position, trusting that their team-mates will maintain possession long enough for the two elder statesmen to return some semblance of shape to their very fluid side.

But are Brazil fluid? They were against Japan. But then they fielded a much hungrier team, with the relative youth of Cicinho (26 today) and Gilberto (30) in the full back positions, and Robinho in for the static Adriano. Juninho Pernambucano and Gilberto Silva gave better shape to the midfield with old man Ecicinho. too young to withdraw his pension so an unlikely choice to startmerson (clearly vying with Mr Cambiasso for the ‘worst hair of the tournament’ award) and attacking midfilder cum holding player Ze Roberto asked to sit on the bench. If all the rested players return then Ghana will be in with a chance, especially if Dida, arguably the most mediocre in a long line of mediocre Brazilian goalkeepers, is between the post. If Ghana could only find someone who could hit the target….

Cicinho, 26 today, but

still too young for his coach?

Africa doesn’t so much expect as it hopes.

Viva Ghana!

Best Team, Worst Hair?


Michael Bolton proudly displays his new national colours

Argentina have cast the fear of the sublime into to the hearts of all potential opponents at this year’s World Cup. Their demolition by six goals to nil of the stingiest defence in Europe should be awesome for its scoreline alone. Let’s not forget that Serbia and Montenegro finished ahead of this team’s other free-flowing scorers, Spain, in their qualification group. However, above and beyond the six goals was the unabashed panache with which Argentina controlled the tempo of the game, and the quality of the substitutes on hand. With Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez Argentina have surely the two premier forwards of the decade to come. Pablo Aimar is no donkey either, and it is only the outrageous skill and performances of Barcelona discard and tournament novice Juan Roman Riquelme that ensure that no one bats and eyelid when the more seasoned World Cup campaigner is consigned to the bench.

However, the most remarkable side to Argentina’s achievements is surely the fact that they have managed to play the tournament’s most delightful football while sporting some of the tournament’s most desastrous hair. Michael Bolton apparently fed up with the lack of appreciation of his music and image, has emigrated to a country that allowed him to regrow his famous locks of hay. It would also seem that despite a lack of pace and the occasional act of defensive incompetency, he’s a decent footballer to boot. A change of name to something with a more local flavour, and presto, you have one-paced but reasonably competent as long as his team have the ball defender Fabricio Collocini.

cambiasso looks foolish

Is this the worst hair in all of football?
Collocini is bad, the stringy mullet on ox-man Carlos Tevez is arguably little better, though to be fair Tevez’s extremely questionable do does distract attention from the other members of the squad veering down the ignominious road to mulletdom. And Tevez and Collocini both have to shrug their shoulders and admit that the title of worst haircut of any footballer in the world ever belongs to colleague Esteban Cambiasso. I have seen earlier photos of Mr Cambiasso, and it is true that once upon a time he was a very handsome individual. Unfortunately for Mr Cambiasso the makeweight in the Faustian deal that saw him receive a not inconsiderable talent for the game of football was his hair and dignity. Mr Cambiasso is suffering from a receding hairline, perhaps a little excessive for a man of his modest years, but not entirely outside the realm of genetic possibility. This in and of itself, while unfortunate is no crime. What is criminal is Mr Cambiasso’s devotion to what remains of his once luscious locks. Mr Cambiasso is almost entirely bald on the top his head, but Mephistopheles has seen fit to leave him with a little Tintin tuft at the front of his hear, where the forehead ordinarily meets the hairline. Cambiasso combs this tuft backwards, in essence producing an array of tendrils running perpendicular to Bobby Moore’s famous comb over. However, unlike Mr Moore, Mr Cambiasso really does not have much material to work with. Morever, his tendrils comecambiasso celebrates loose and during the course of the average match, taking on a sweat-drenched life of their own. The man looks like he is cultivating a Medusa in miniature on the frontal region of his cranium. Please, Mr Cambiasso, put us all out of our misery and shave everything on top of your beautiful pate and let our attention be drawn my the majesty of your football, not the mess on top your head.

Esteban celebrates that goal. But look at that hair.

Korea vs France…?

park ji-sung scores. yippee!

According to Japanese television, this goal was never scored…


I spent the better part of Monday morning hoping that one of Japan’s five main terrestrial channels would show me highlights of the previous night’s match between South Korea and France. Although all reports that I had read courtesy of the internet suggested that it was a match short on titillation, the fact that there was a goal a piece for the combatant squads led me to believe that there were at least two reels of footage worth exposing to a football hungry public.

Clearly I was mistaken in this belief, for in the two hours that I had the television on yesterday, I heard not so much the slightest mention of a match involving a nation a short plane ride away. (Indeed for many residents of western Japan, myself included, the closest capital city is not Tokyo, but Seoul.) It is strictly speaking possible that during the five minutes I was in the shower (I bathe quickly) that they managed to squeeze in all the high points of a by all accounts unmemorable game. I’m not sure that this is the case though. Morning news goes in cycles, and when all the main stories have been told, the wheel starts again, from the first point in its rotation.

Understandably most of the football related conversation (and most of the conversation was indeed football related) centred round the previous night’s scoreless draw between Japan and Croatia, and its implications for the progression of the ‘Samurai Blue’ as this World Cup squad has been monikered. Japan must not only topple Brazil, but must also hope for a favourable result in the match between Croatia and Australia. Australia will qualify for the second round with a win, but barring a Japanese annihilation of Brazil, a draw may suit the antipodeans just as well thanks to their superior goal difference after thumping three late goals past Japan in their first game of the tournament. Japan’s progression is to a large extent out of their hands, and much of the morning was spent closely analysing the possible permutations of the last two games in Group F. As a result, we were treated to the goals from the confrontation between Brazil and Australia, which had kicked off an hour after the final whistle had blown in the fixture between Japan and Croatia. The highlights were, very literally, the two goals, and nothing more. No missed shots, none of Australia’s multitude of almost goals. But, at least we, the viewing public had been able to see the goals in that match. I would have thought, that as a neighbour Korea would have generated more interest amongst the Japanese media. Either as a derby rival, or as a fellow Asian team, surely the spotlight would at some point have turned to the progress of their neighbours to the west. But no, there was no mention. Even for the sake of journalistic professionalism, it should normally be safe to assume that for an event as large as the World Cup references would be made to all the matches. Alas, it seems that I am mistaken.

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