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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

WC2006: French resistence breaks Spanish Armada

Great encounter, favourable were the Spaniards. Raul joined Fernando Torres and David Villa to add more attack flair as the French gladly brought back Zinedine Zidane. The Spaniards struck first on 28mins as their pressure paid off to ot only keep the French back but moved them to make one mistake in a crucial area, that of the penalty box. A corner came across to the left and as it was knocked back into the box to Ibanez Pablo, he felt the studs down the back of his heel of Lillian Thuram. The referee gave the penalty decision, Villa stepped up to take and squeezed a low shot narrowly inside the post and just out of Fabien Barthez' reach. Impressively, Sergio Ramos took up the right back role and he was a duck to water, much better than at centre half for Real. Control, vision, and plenty of runs made him quite formidable on the right. Thierry Henry had threated many times to break the offside trap but it proved too tricky a task to accomplish even once, for the defence cleverly stayed up enough when France broke on the attack. But the Spanish armada was foiled when Patrick Vieira looked to play in Henry then instead changed direction for the advancing Ribery, and the much-talked about Marseille midfielder rounded Iker Casillas and touched the ball towards goal, Pablo would have got to it had he continued his run as it bobbled past him.

In the second half France were more the eager on the offence, Spain had been subdued and made more running than attacks on goal. Yet both sides seemed equal and therefore without a breaking chance on goal, the game seemed destined to reach extra time. Vieira had a slight remonstration with Spain coach Luis Aragones and constantly indicated the finger to the lips. With his comments in regard to Henry, Aragones is not a favourite with Vieira and Henry, to name two, and throughout the game Henry was in contest with Carlos Puyol as he was in the European Cup final, where Henry blamed the Barcelona captain of harsh challenges. So in the 82nd minute, Henry had revenge. A loose ball amongst the Spanish defence prompted Henry and Puyol to chase it, with Puyol barging Henry with a shoulder charge, ordinary in the game, but Henry indicated otherwise, wincing then going down clutching his face.

The referee came over instantly to give Puyol a booking, and I wonder if Henry had not gone down, would anything have been given at all because it was a fair shoulder barge that is very commonplace in football. From the freekick delivery of Zidane, the ball came off the head of Xabi Alonso and reached Vieira at the back post, who played the ball back across goal. The ball then deflected off Ramos into the net. This surely would be the winner, but France were allowed to go one better. Cesc Fabregas was closed down by three France players and gave the ball away, picked up by Zidane who went on a run towards goal on the left. Puyol and Pablo rushed back in time to cover but I notice Fabregas just tail off from the attack, as if confident Puyol would stop Zidane. But Zidane came in on his right foot past Puyol, and had Fabregas continued, he would have been in the box and given adequate cover. He wasn't, and as Zidane struck low, Casillas had no chance.

France were knocked, came back well and smartly and then took advantage of Spain's lack of defensive marking, and a dubious freekick award, to take the lead. As Spain pushed up for a last gasp equaliser, they were caught out and conceded again. Spain had never beaten France in a competitive match and last night cemented that fact. France could have been out, Spain looked a lethal side from the outset. How things can change. Henry did feign the contact and I was shocked he would do so, though understand he did it to get back at Puyol, and it worked, ten-fold.


Brazil move up into the quarter-finals

Brazil then France made up the final two teams for the last quarter-final place scheduled for Frankfurt this Saturday. Brazil rounded off a good contest with Ghana by hitting the West Africans 3-0 through the O's. Kaka played through Ronaldo as Ghana played a defensive wall so far up that Ronaldo simply had to run and make the ball with the equivalent of a playground between him and the goal. When he approached keeper Richard Kingston, the Real Madrid striker sold him a clean dummy and rounded the keeper to score which made Ronaldo the highest scorer in World Cup history with 15 goals. That was shortly after the game began, shortly before the half time break Adriano passed right to Kaka, who found Cafu. As Adriano indicated for the ball, Cafu crossed and Adriano managed to make contact with his thigh for the ball to go in. He looked skuspiciously offside at the time and the method of scoring has still to convince me Adriano is worthy of starting. Nonetheless, a goal is a goal. When it's given.

Ghana hadn't woken up until after the first goal and when they did, Brazil were then suddenly pinned back and under pressure, The amount of times Ghana tackled and dribbled towards goal they were favourites to make something happen but the end pass or touch always failed them. I felt there were a number of players who, when presented with a good chance in front of goal to pass to another, decided instead to shoot from difficult angles, to no avail. Yet Haminu Dramani blasted a shot that Dida had to tip over the bar, Matthew Amoah and Sulley Muntari made excellent one-twos at times that worked round the Brazilian defence, and John Mensah was the closest in the first half when a Stephen Appiah corner came over all and Mensah headed down powerfully for the ball to come off Dida's right foot. The AC Milan keeper knew nothing of it otherwise.

But being 2-0 down I've always said all players must keep their composure and focus on what is required. In this instance Ghana needed their eleven to keep the pressure up, something which they could have used later to grab a needed goal. But after being booked before in the 48th minute, Asamoah Gyan dived blatantly and received his second yellow. I wouldn't say Brazil were desperate for the advantage but they certainly wouldn't turn it down. As much as Ghana looked great on the attack, they opened up at the back. Kaka came off for Ricardinho on 83mins and a minute later it was his flick over the defence, who had pressed up too high again, that allowed Ze Roberto to run up to and nudge pass the helpless Kingston, pick up again and touch into the net.

I don't know whether Brazil had not exercised fourth gear because they felt Ghana wouldn't press them to or they had only enough steam to run back and forth, for Ghana were quite unlucky not to have made more of their chances. As for Ronaldo, the whispers that he was passed it, overweight, wouldn't shine because he had a lame domestic season.......their originators should stay undercover for good. Not so much that he scored, again, and holds the record for most goals, it was the way too. I think they boy is getting better as the games go on.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WC2006: Italy and Ukraine progress

I felt the Australians created good football to warrant a goal from and from the kick-off they pressed on the Italians to create an immediate aura that stated they were not playing merely as opponents. I wondered if Marcello Lippi is actually aware of his strongest line-up during the tournament as I expected Alessandro Del Piero to have started each game, and then we saw him line-up at the expense of Francesco Totti. I would have Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo then Del Piero across the midfield, Totti behind Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino.

Marco Materazzi stood in for the injured Alessandro Nesta, and during the second half both he and Tim Cahill went to challenge for an aerial ball with Gattuso. Cahill was judged to have flailed an arm onto Materazzi's face, for which the Everton midfielder was caution and made gestures to Materazzi he was making more noise about it than necessary. Materazzi told him to be quiet with a finger to the lips. However, minutes later that moment may have made its toll on the Inter defender. Marco Bresciano made good his route to the penalty box while being shadowed by Gattuso and Materazzi made a rash tackle that missed the ball and caught the Aussie midfielder. A booking at the most, the referee sent off Materazzi on a straight red.

That then pressurised the Italians, with Gilardino changed at half time for Vincenzo Iaquinta, Toni came off for four minutes later for Palermo player Andrea Barzagli to shore up the defence. The Aussies kept pressing at the Italian goal, Cahill headed over from Bresciano freekick and Bresciano himself hit an effort wide of the goal. Totti came on on 75mins for Del Piero and went on to dictate some of the control in midfield, setting up Simone Perotta for a shot blocked by Lucas Neill, who has looked one of Australia's best players in the tournament. Pirlo also struck a freekick that forced Mark Schwarzer to tip it over as it threatened to creep under the crossbar. Guus Hiddink introduced John Aloisi for Mile Sterjovski with 10mins of normal time remaining but he didn't manage to obtain enough of the ball to create an influence.

With the last seconds of injury time remaining, Fabio Grosso tackled through Jason Culina and then met up Neill in the box, and as the Palermo defender tackled Neill, he stumbled over him, but the referee gave a penalty. A contentious decision a granted penalty regularly is, this was more outrageous. Neill made no movement or attempt to indicate impeding Grosso and at best he could not get out of the way as Grosso fell but surprisingly the decision was given, and I have to respect the referee for granting it without hesitation, given the circumstances and the timing. Other referees may have decided to let it continue to avoid any controversy, which would mean not using their ethics, training, experience and self judgement. That, nonetheless, does not make this decision a right one.

Totti stepped up to take the kick, camera zooming in onto his eyes to see any fear, hesitancy or nervousness, and I began to recall Franco Baresi, Daniele Massaro and Roberto Baggio in USA '94. Missing the penalty would put the game into extra-time so it was not as essential as twelve years ago, but still the similarity speaks volumes. Totti stepped up and smacked the ball just out of Schwarzer's reach into the net. That was literally the last action of the game, Italy had progressed into the quarter-finals in dying drama, and the Australians were very hard done by.

Respectfully, there is little to write excitedly about Switzerland v Ukraine match, the 120mins of it. Andrei Shevchenko had an effort come of the post as Alexander Frei's freekick came off the crossbar. Marco Streller ran on into the box and set himself up to shoot but was superbly blocked by Andrei Gusin, and the Ukraine introduced in extra time Dinamo Kiev's Artem Milevski, star player recently at the European U21 championship where I understand the Ukraine lost out in the finals to a Dutch side. Milevski brought fresh legs and tenacity straight away to the game, taking on three or four players on two occasions.

The droll thing is despite the odd chances on goal and shots, both sides looked despondent in pushing forward in fear of opening up too much, thus the efforts on goal overall were low and not evident in quality. The mood of the night seemed to have been set via the official, Mexican Benito Archundia Tellez, who appeared to be reluctant in giving a booking AT ALL, despite a number of challenges occurring that would have warranted the firing squad with other officials. I suspect FIFA were crystal clear in debriefing Tellez after the Portugal v Holland officiating that brought 16 bookings, four dismissals. I still maintain Valentin Ivanov was fine in doing so. In last night's game, only Tranquillo Barnetta was booked but Ricardo Cabanas should have gone off for his stamp on Andrei Nesmachny and raking his studs down the shin of Vladislav Vashchuk. Nonetheless, I liked that the referee's reluctance may have deterred more diving or exaggerated contact, though at one point Streller dropped to the ground in spectacular fashion like a stuntman being shot in mid-air.

With 120mins of football failing to deliver any goals, penalty time arrived. For the Swiss Frei has been substituted and he could not therefore take part, someone I regard as a confident taker. The Ukraine began the elimination with none other than Shevchenko, he of the Champions League nightmare but he of the moment against Saudi Arabia. But his effort was weak and near to Pascal Zuberbuhler. For the Swiss, their starter was Streller, who hit his kick tamely for Alexander Shovkovsky to gather. I know little of the Ukraine keeper but I felt he had more guile for penalties, more so than Zuberbuhler, who I also felt should have been tested by low shots rather than the high ones and crosses he picked out with ease during the game.

Next was Milevski. The Swiss fans behind the goal booed and jeered as he stepped up but he was coolness personified. He took aim and then chipped the ball down the middle and then faced the jeering crowd with a finger to the lips, Jose Mourinho style. He could be a name to watch out for in future. For the Swiss came Barnetta for their second kick. Barnetta struck his effort off the bar. Sergei Rebrov stepped up to score the Ukraine's second penalty, down the keeper's left side and then Cabanas sent his kick weakly to Shovkovsky's left for the keeper to easily stop and hold. That meant the Ukrainians were one kick away from the quarter-finals and that kick was the responsibility of Oleg Gusev. With coolness and a lack of nervousness, the Dinamo Kiev defender, who had been very good during the match, stepped up and lashed his effort to score as Zuberbuhler dived the wrong way.

After looking a reserved side against the Spaniards, the Eastern bloc team were now meeting the Italians in the quarter-finals of their first World Cup. The Swiss set two records in being the only team to have not conceded at all in the World Cup and one who had failed to score at all during a penalty-shoot out. Coach Kubi Kuhn said the players gave no chance to the keepers in practice but on the night nerves crept in. I can't say I disagree with that, for the Swiss have proven to be better players than I excepted and thus I expected better penalties from them. Yet if the Italians continue to make much work of their playability, then the Ukrainians should be geared to take advantage. Something tells me the Italians will still win in Hamburg on June 30th.


Monday, June 26, 2006

Portugal win as yellows and reds are dispersed

Portugal made it into the last 16, and how. Ruud van Nistelrooy was dropped in favour of Dirk Kuyt, new exciting prospect at Feyenoord. Portugal drew first blood through Maniche Riberio, Christian Ronaldo feeding Deco down the right, Deco then passed across to Pedro Pauleta, who touched it just right into Maniche's path, the former Chelsea man side-stepping Andre Ooijer to fire past Edwin van Der Sar on 23mins. The Dutch pressed for an equaliser and Robin van Persie made a number of darting runs, twisting and turning and almost gained one with a punt across goal that just went wide. The Dutch made a number of attacks on the Portugal goal, Philip Cocu missed a great chance with the keeper at his mercy but volleying off the crossbar, Mark van Bommel's shot just diverted away by keeper Ricardo Pereira, Kuyt was played through but could only reach the ball to touch it as Ricardo came out to smother. Kuyt was just short of getting on the end of balls that one suspects VNR would have relished, and it was a surprise Marco van Basten did not bring him on.

What appears to have made the headlines in regard to this match was the bookings, sixteen yellows, eight of which led to four dismissals, it made for some unbelievable viewing. Personally I have no problems with the bookings as I felt referee Valentin Ivanov followed the rules, for they were for challenges that were not warranted. Deco's petulance in holding onto the ball as Cocu tried to prise it for a quick free-kick was right, for time wasting. The Barcelona man should have behaved better being on a yellow already. Even the second booking of Khalid Boulahrouz with the Dutchman's left forearm coming across Figo's face as Figo knocked the ball past him was right, albeit the contact was minimal.

The one gripe I have about this game is the diving happenig from both sides, perhaps more so from the Dutch, and that Figo should have gone with a straight red if Mr Ivanov had knowledge of his minimal headbutt on van Bommel. I cannot believe he did see it, his back faced the incident at the time, and the booking Figo received had to be for something else Mr Ivanov believed he had done, or for something said. FIFA have already stated they cannot investigate into the incident as it had, in their estimation, been dealt with by Mr Ivanov, but a spokesman did say the official match report from the referee had not yet been read. That report cannot detail the incident and must report Figo's booking for another matter, therefore FIFA can investigate and ban Figo. Italy's Daniele de Rossi will have a say on it, I imagine.

Francisco Costinha, the former Monaco, Porto and now Dinamo Moscow midfielder, was the first to go on 45mins with a late tackle on Cocu then a blatant handball which made me wonder what the blazes he was thinking of. Boulahrouz followed in the second half on 63mins, booked for a scraping of the studs on Ronaldo's thigh and the Figo moment. Deco was booked for a scything hack at Johnny Heitinga out of frustration that Portugal were not returned the ball after kicking it out for a Holland player, and then for time wasting on 78mins. Finally Giovanni van Bronckhurst went for a booking for a tackle on Simao Sabrosa, and later in late injury time for trailing his leg behind sub Tiago as Tiago turned the ball away from him. Wesley Sneijder should have gone in the 73rd minute, as following the melee that ensued Deco's hack on Heitinga, players from both sides gathered up and Sneijder jogged up and pushed over Armando Petit.

This was a repeat of the Euro2004 semi-final between these two, Maniche scored an excellent goal then and he made another good finish last night. Despite the absence of Costinha and Deco for the quarter-finals, and this should also include Figo but I sense FIFA will wish to bypass any more sensationalism connected to the match, the likes of Maniche and Nuno Valente make for a big threat. Pauleta had a great chance to score denied by van Der Sar's right boot but otherwise he was a spectator. If England are yet to produce their best, something which Sven-Goran Eriksson assures us will come, I hope it manifests well in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday. But we can do it.


England make the WC2006 quarter-finals

This is about the minimum of what we expected from England, the quarter-finals. Some will say we were not that good, others say we have won and that counts. I say we could have held Ecuador accountable for a number of goals, while they had two chances. Another uncharacteristic move by John Terry misheaded the ball in the path of Carlos Tenorio and he took long enough for the impressive Ashley Cole to run up and stick his leg in the way, deflecting potentially a goal onto the crossbar, Paul Robinson with little chance.

Playing the 4-1-4-1 left Wayne Rooney so isolated it was equally as frustrating to see him amongst four defenders as it must have been for him. A number of passes he couldn't make in time, other times he had the ball and on the turn was content for a tackle to come in and the ball go off for a throw or corner. Other than to speak of Tenorio's chance, England held good possession and having Michael Carrick encouraged more passing forward and movement in the Ecuadorian half. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard had gotten forward but not enough to support Rooney.

The second half brought Rooney to life, and the more he came onto the ball the more productive he became, and it gave some vigour back into our play. Beckham had taken a freekick earlier in the first half and missed the near post by some inches. So when the opportunity arose again, via a foul on Lampard, England lined up. You could see Gerrard at the back of the pack, arms in the air gesturing to Beckham, and it was as if Cristian Mora spotted this and expected Beckham to bend it over to Gerrard. Instead Beckham went for goal and curled it towards the near post, with Mora spotting the change a fraction too late and diving to his right, only getting a palm to the ball before it bounced in.

It is questionable whether Beckham was right in not mentioning ill-feelings within himself, he could have collapsed out there in the heat. This may explain the corners that did not make it past the first man, though he was there in presence when England went forward.

Lampard went close with a left-foot low shot after Gerrard set him up across the penalty box and then he picked up on a lapsidaisal pass across the back by captain Ivan Hurtado and ran at the only nearest defender Giovanny Espinoza, with Rooney free to his right but the pass came a fraction late and caught out Rooney, Hurtado recovering to clear. Clearly Rooney was building up his determination, running for a high ball that appeared to head for the touchline but as Hurtado gave up on it, Rooney didn't and controlled it before it went off. Touching it once and then poking it through Hurtado's legs, Rooney went on to gather the ball and cut it back finely for the advancing Lampard, who unbelievably skied the ball from some 10 yards.

It was as if it was not to be for Lampard, adding to his chances in the first half but in this mood that ball must go in much sooner than later. We lack the killer instinct, Rooney must be that instinct when he drops off in a 4-4-2. A reminder that we were not to get relaxed at all came through Ulises de la Cruz gaining the ball on the England right and then passing to Luis Valencia, who aimed a drive at Robinson's near post, the Spurs keeper touching away for a corner.

The formation bode well for this game but I wouldn't employ it against the Portuguese. I hope for Gary Neville back though I felt Owen Hargreaves was again a better player since Sweden. Michael Carrick did little wrong holding but it was meant to encourage a rampant surging from Gerrard and Lampard, which was hampered by passes that were just not accurate enough. Other than the header that put through Tenorio, Terry was good and so was Rio Ferdinand, no re-occurrence of injury there. Terry's booking was for nothing, and while I'm for sticking to the rules but the bookings of Robinson and Jamie Carragher for time wasting were unnecessary, Carragher's came five minutes after coming on! Ludicrous. Couldn't the referee whistle and indicate for them to hurry up?

So onwards and upwards, it's a return to the Euro2004 quarter-final with Portugal. This time it must be personal.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

England v Ecuador: The quarter-final itself

We have the same keeper, Owen Hargreaves plays at right back instead of Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole as usual, Michael Carrick in the holding role, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard between David Beckham and Joe Cole, while Wayne Rooney is up front alone. 4-5-1. I don't like it but we'll see after 90mins+ has expired. Hargreaves gets the nod as he is expected to attack and cross more than Carragher. It may give option for Aaron Lennon's introduction again and Beckham goes right back later on. Given that Lampard and Gerrard like to get forward, it has the ability of being very positive, depending on how the players start from the kick-off, how their attitude is from the outset. The difference between a desire to play and a desire to win.



Saturday, June 24, 2006

WC2006: Germany v Argentina Quarter-Final

Germany started hard and knock the wind out of Sweden's sails, but the Swedes were as dozy at the back as England were previously. Michael Ballack played a touch to Miroslav Klose, who controlled the ball between Olof Mellberg and Teddy Lucic and broke into the box. Keeper Andreas Isaksson came out well and blocked the ball but it came away to Lukas Podolski, who side-footed the ball which cannoned off Lucic's head into the net on 4mins. The thing is Erik Edman was present and at left-back he only reacted the moment Podolski gained the ball, so he was merely ball-watching. Klose touched the ball and turned at the same time between Mellberg and Lucic with ease, and how Podolski wasn't closed down is another question.

Eight minutes later Podolski linked up with Klose again, passing to him on the edge of the box. Klose then went left, dragging Lucic with him and drawing the attention of Mellberg and Niclas Alexandersson, THREE players in defence, and then played to the right for Podolski, who had carried on running unmarked. Podolski shot right footed before Edman could get to him to score his and Germany's no.2. Sweden were rocked, understandably. Lucic was booked for a needless challenge on Klose and then picked up a second booking for holding onto Klose as the striker pushed the ball past him. Alan Hansen judged the second booking harsh but Lucic knew what he was doing and he had seemed so lost in defence the dismissal came as a godsend.

The Germans didn't press to make the advantage count and Sweden make note of the ease by coming forward, nonetheless. Christoph Metzelder came at Henrik Larsson come behind in the penalty area, and while it may seem innocuous with Larsson going down easily, it makes the mind up of the referee. However, justice appeared to be served as Larsson inexplicably sent the spot-kick over and high, and that was Sweden's best chance to get back into the match. Who would have put money on Larsson missing such an opportunity? To no avail did Sweden carry on, and Germany go throgh to the quarter-finals, pleasing the home support, their real test having been their opening game with Costa Rica so far.

Argentina v Mexico was a great match, arguably the best so far. While this game had Argentina all over it, it didn't start that way at all. Mexico kicked off and from then they launched at Argentina. From a freekick over on the Mexican right, Mario Mendez delivered, Pavel Pardo flicked on and Gabriel Heinze simply left Rafael Marquez to move around to the back and strike the ball while slipping towards goal on 5mins. Argentina were shaken but they restabilised themselves and took charge. Juan Roman Riquelme took the corner, Hernan Crespo was marked goalside by Bolton's Jared Borghetti but as the ball came in, Crespo slipped Borghetti to be goalside of him. Borghetti then panicked, saw the ball come in and aimed a head at it as Crespo raised a foot, the ball going in off Borghetti's head. German TV gave it to Crespo. That's one for technology.

Roberto Abbondanzieri rolled the ball out to Heinze and the Man Utd defender had another lapse of concentration, Jose Fonseca capitalising by getting to the ball first, but was brought down unceremoniously by Heinze. Roberto Ayala was in vicinity and the referee considered Ayala was enough to dissuade any notion of a professional foul, so he booked Heinze. Again, i disagreed with the BBC panle and commentary. I reckon Ayala could have had enough time to get to Fonseca as a presence, pressure him, and I was not convinced it was a clear cut goal scoring opportunity. Yet the game during both halves never failed to keep you wondering, Mexico came forward, defended well, so did Argentina. There were almosts', could-have-beens' and if-onlys', it was a well fought close match, so much so it went into extra time.

Let me clear up for the BBC that while Jose Antonio Castro was booked for what the commentary felt was a mistaken identity issue regarding Gerardo Torrado, as Torrado fouled Maxi Rodriguez, the referee was fine with the freekick but booked Castro for kicking the ball away. Nonetheless, the game was in such competitive spirit that it would take something special to separate a winner and a loser. Fortunately it was not penalties, it was another contender for Goal Of The Tournament. Argentina attacked, 98th minute, Juan Pablo Sorin picked up on the left and then swung a curling deep ball over to Rodriguez. Rodriguez then chest-controlled the ball and then unleashed a left-foot volley that went up and over Oswaldo Sanchez's right hand and straight into the net. Coming off the same conveyor belt as Joe Cole's effort against Sweden, it was simply a stunning goal and worthy of being a winning one.

Germany v Argentina, the first established quarter-final on June 30th, 4pm in Berlin. It should be a cracking match, a repeat of the 1990 final, in which West Germany won through a dubious penalty decision. I'm certain Jurgen Klinsmann was present at the time, and a penalty decision could be the only thing to seperate the two sides again. It would be very nice if England would attack from the kick-off equally as Mexico did, hit Ecuador quickly before they know what's going on. The Germans managed to do it too, like a sucker punch that needs to be followed up before the opponent can recover.


France emerge as South Korea's chance expires

Switzerland and France it is to meet with the Ukraine and Spain respectively, two good matches for analysis. France v Spain is on June 27th in Hanover, the Swiss face the Ukraine in Cologne on the 26th.

Spain changed their enitre eleven - Santiago Canizares, Michel Salgado, Carlos Marchena, Antonio Lopez, Gutierrez Juanito, David Albelda, Antonio Reyes, Andres Iniesta, Joaquin, Cesc Fabregas, Raul - to face Saudi Arabia and made excellent work of the Saudi keeper Mabrouk Zaid, who denied on several occasions. Spain's only goal, that of the game too, came via a Reyes freekcik that curled for Juanito to head in. I suppose with the Ukraine's thumping of the Saudis', Luis Aragones was confident of another stern performance from a second string yet on balance of the result could have come stuck. The coach is at least aiming for the kill and that has to be applauded when you compete amongst the best in the world.

Tunisia held a slim chance of qualification and almost provided a fighting finale to threaten the Ukrainians, but throughout the match they generally failed to show the necessary touch near goal to take the lead. Crucially Radhi Jaidi was becoming susceptible at the back though at one point came in with a great tackle to deny Andriy Shevchenko. Yet when you seek a win and no less to progress, one must remain sensible and, more importantly, on the pitch. Within nine minutes Ziad Jaziri was booked for a blatant dive while being watched by Andriy Rusol, superb decision made even more so through the replay, but Jaziri may feel he was harshly sanctioned for a challenge on Anatolii Tymoschuk that occurs readily in the Premiership. Tunisia down to ten.

The Ukraine never pressed their numerical advantage in the second half and the game turn slightly droll with either side not producing quality passing and possession to entertain the watching numbers. Tunisia did win a freekick yards from the Ukrainian box, and as it was taken by Ania Yari the ball deflected off an raised arm from Andriy Voronin for a corner, quite a clear change of direction that was overlooked. That could have been a telling moment. Shevchenko went on to challenge for a long ball missed by Jaidi, leaving the Ukraine front man with keeper Ali Boumnijel and defender Karim Hagui. Shevchenko bustled through the confusion and then tripped over his own leg, the decision given was penalty. Shevchenko converted the kick, Ukraine went on to earn their meet with Switzerland.

The Swiss went light work of their qualification with a 2-0 win that sunk South Korea's chances of going through, provided Togo beat or drew against France. Park Cho-Young pulled back on Tranquillo Barnetta that allowed Hakan Yakin to deliver into the box, Phillippe Senderos making a colossal thump of a header to gain the lead, and a gash on the forehead. At times I feel Senderos panics and becomes rash or overeager to challenge, but he has the tenacious energy at times where he refuses to let anything get by him, and this header showed he meant business. Textbook defender header, like John Terry. I can forsee Tomas Rosicky delivering such balls, one to watch out for.

Switzerland increased their lead on 77mins, through slight controversy. Sub Xavier Margairaz aimed to pass across but the ball was intercepted by the foot of Seol Ki-Hyeon into the path of Alexander Frei, who was in an offside position. As the ball came off a South Korean player, Frei was within the laws and went on to round the keeper to score. It can be argued that the South Koreans stopped playing after the linesman flagged offside but they should have played to the whistle. The decision was 100% correct. The sad news is Senderos is likely to miss the clash with the Ukraine with a dislocated shoulder injury.

France needed to win, no less. Had the South Koreans drawn, France would need two clear goals to supersede into 2nd place via goal difference. As it turned out the French made strenuous work against Togo. Franck Ribery and David Trezeguet missed excellent chances to score while the Togolese keeper Kossi Agassa was in inspiring form with a number of saves and catches from corners and crosses. The anoying thing was Togo were eager to get forward and then labour on the ball as France regained numbers, at one point of attack there were three Toglese players and at first three France players which then quickly increased to six France players. You had Abdel Kader Coubadja then Moustapha Salifou trying to bustle their way through into the box but Togo didn't look like scoring. It was only a matter of time before France did, albeit they had the respite to re-think their efforts.

Patrick Vieira was excellent, far better than before, hassling his way through from midfield, regularly feeding Florent Malouda or Ribery, Thierry Henry made a number of bursts at the Togo defence, Ribery himself ran from left and right to creat panic. It was his run that emerged into the box to find Vieira forward, the former Arsenal captain gathering then turning to hit a 55th minute lead. Henry made it the requisite two six minutes later, the current Arsenal captain picking up from his former colleague Vieira's head-on and turning to cut across Agassa. After the initial panic and concern from the first 45mins that made for a potential 0-0 draw, France exuded their class. They will have Zinedine Zidane and Eric Abidel back if need be, to rekindle a Euro2000 flame they blew out against Spain.


Friday, June 23, 2006

End of the World Cup group stage

We have seen the Germans mark off Group A with 100% wins against an Ecuador side reduced by five the number of first team players. Costa Rica finish off with 100% defeats as Poland eventually register a win. England threw away a potential win to gain the minimum to leave Group B as leaders to Sweden's 2nd, Trinidad & Tobago lose the slim chance of qualification by losing to Paraguay. Holland and Argentina play a respectable yet dull no-score draw that disrespects neither side as they both qualify from Group C, the Ivory Coast gaining that much needed boost of a first World Cup win in their first World Cup, against Serbia & Montenegro. Mexico were under threat from Angola's lead against Iran, but eventually made it playing with 10 men against Portugal, as another African side bows out of the competition, not without admiration. Yesterday concluded Groups E and F. In Group E, as Italy topped the group, even they were not certain of qualification and it was Italy I stated would struggle into the quarter-finals, as their side looked unsettled from the outset. Nonetheless they emerged with a victory over 10-man Czech Republic, as Ghana became the only African side so far to qualify into the 2nd round with a win over the USA, somewhat controversially. In Group F, Brazil conceded on their way to their biggest win in the group, while the Croatians and Australians fought out an intense thrilling encounter, one the Australians only needed to draw to go through. Today sees the conclusion of the qualifiers from Groups G and H.

Portugal sealed their qualification with a 2-1 win against Mexico. Maniche Ribeiro (Daniel Bedingfield doppelganger) struck in the opener on 6mins after linking with Simao Sabrosa. Mexico captain Rafael Marquez handled in the box, for some silly reason, to grant a penalty that was scored by Sabrosa. Five minutes later Jose Fonseca flicked a Pavel Pardo corner into a loop, bouncing down into the net for 2-1. A scramble in the Portuguese box found Luis Miguel judged to have handled the ball when challenging Luis Perez and the penalty was given. Two-goal Omar Bravo was not so bravo, his spot-kick sailing high into the crowd for what should have been a great advantage to cement qualification. Perez was challenged in the box again and went down, judged to have simulated and was booked, his second and therefore his dismissal. Many deemed it harsh, I thought it was correct. Portugal face Holland in Nuremberg on Sunday, Argentina meet Mexico in a Latin American contest tomorrow.

I am not sure but yesterday's football could be marked as the best yet so far. I switched between both final Group E games. The Czech Republic managed to gain Milan Baros' services as their goal threat but he was a lone one. The Italians lost Alessandro Nesta with injury and replaced him with Marco Materazzi. Ten minutes later the Czech displayed almost exactly the same defensive set-up as England, facing a corner. I counted SEVEN Czech players in the box at the time, five of which were on the edge of the six-yard box in a line, three Italians waiting to attack further out. As Francesco Totti delivered, Materazzi simply jogged up and leapt up to head in, unmarked, unchallenged. Then to compound their fortunes, the Czech had Jan Polak stupidly tackle Totti from behind to earned his second yellow ten minutes within his first. Marcello Lippi looked tight-lipped as Italy made more work of their one-man advantage, the Czech having Baros isolated up front but Pavel Nedved spearheading a vigorous attack. Alberto Gilardino came off for Filippo Inzaghi, which I found bizarre as Italy could afford two main strikers with a man extra on the pitch. Andreas Pirlo broke into the box and managed to chip to the unmarked Inzaghi by the penalty spot but somehow he missed with just Petr Cech to beat. But 3mins from time the Czech were playing with three at the back and once the ball was intercepted in midfield, Inzaghi was played through into a one-on-one with Cech, rounding the Chelsea keeper for 2-0.

In the Ghana v USA game, Claudio Reyna was dispossessed by Haminu Dramani near the goal and Dramani finished well round Kasey Keller in goal. The USA fought back as DaMarcus Beasley equally dispossessed Derek Boateng's pass to run on and curl over for Clinton Dempsey to fire first time for the equaliser. Dempsey looks impressive to me and one I would consider for Liverpool on the right side. The winning goal came through a controversial decision. A high ball was being watched by USA defender Oguchi Onyewu and Ghana's Razak Pimpong, Onyewu judged to have stooped over Pimpong. Pimpong hadn't actually challenged why I felt it was harsh but it was given, Stephen Appiah stepping up to convert the spot kick.

In Group F, Brazil rested some players but the overall feel to the side still had Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Dida with Robson de Souza (Robinho), Cicero Joao de Cezare (Cicinho) and Juninho Pernambucano brought in for Adriano, Cafu and Ze Roberto. Japan took a stunning lead with Alessandro Santos (Alex) collected on the right in space amongst uncharacteristic Brazil defending to feed the advancing Keiji Tamada, who was clear to fire a left foot drive into the roof of the net past Dida at near post. Had it been a Brazil goal, goodness had it been an England goal, it would be repeated between now and next year. The goal stunned Brazil into life, when we finally saw a brighter glimpse of their renowned play. Ronaldinho picked up the ball outside the box and with eyes on him, he picked out Cicinho on the right with a chip, the right-back heading across to Ronaldo to head in for the equaliser. Second half, the floodgates were opened. Juninho smacked a trademark shot from some 30-35 yards that should have been dealt with but Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi marred a great first half display by misjudging the shot and seeing it fly off his gloves into the net. Hertha Berlin's Da Silva Gilberto ran down the left and drilled a sweet low drive that had accuracy and power for 3-1, and Ronaldo then controlled a pass from Robinho to carve out an opening for a curling 2nd goal for him to not only win the match 4-1, but equal Gerd Muller's World Cup goals record of 14.

I said we have not yet seen Ronaldo at his best, forget about overweight, underweight, wobbling free, if he is in the mood to play, Ronaldo moves. Croatia's Robert Kovac called marking him "easy", that was because Ronaldo was not in the mood. Perhaps Japan's marking allowed him more freedom but Ronaldo is football. Two goals away from equalling the greatest scoring record in World Cup history, he would not be deterred from scoring.

With Croatia v Australia, things not only turned to the thrills and spills, it also turned to a Graeme Poll spectacle. A draw would suffice for Australia while Croatia needed the win. For some reason Mark Schwarzer was dropped for Zeljko Kalac and the replacement showed some glimpses of why such a change was bewildering. His first touch was to pick the ball up from the net. Mark Viduka brought down Nico Kovac near the edge of the box and Darijo Srna curled in a superb freekick cleanly with no chance for Kalac. Australia came back to attack and should have won a penalty with Josip Simunic clearly holding onto Viduka, straight out of WWE but it was not given. Australia did win a penalty in the end through the needless handball by Stjepan Tomas, the spot-kick converted by Newcastle's Craig Moore. After the break, Croatia went on to lead again. On 56mins, Kovac went left and right before shooting from 20-25 yards, but instead of getting down and comfortably gathering it as a competent World Cup keeper should, Kalac misjudged his hands and the ball cannoned off into the net. If Australia were to lose, a chunk of the blame would be directed at the keeper and Guus Hiddink for picking him. But Australia, led well by the inquisitive Harry Kewell, kept coming. Some twenty minutes later sub Marco Bresciano, influential winger on for Mile Sterjovski, counted again as he chipped over a left foot cross that eluded two challenges and bounced for Kewell round the back. The Liverpool winger controlled with his left and volleyed with his right from close range past keeper Stipe Pletikosa. Australia were some ten minutes from qualification.

Which was time enough for a change in the ordinary, to be expected from Mr Poll. He booked Dario Simic for the second time on 85mins for bringing down Kewell, he was off, nothing wrong with that decision. Brett Emerson, booked on 81mins, received another six minutes later when he stupidly stuck out his arm to prevent a Srna ball reaching Ivan Klasnic down the line, so he was off, nothing wrong with that decision either. But then within the end of normal time, Simunic brought down Kewell and was booked, his second in the game. Instead of Poll sending him off, Simunic engaged Poll in an exchange of words that distracted the official from realising the second caution. Simunic kept quiet, everyone kept quiet, I think no one realised it at all due to the drama. Then to mark the match with an amusing ending, Kovac and Tim Cahill tackled for the ball in the Croatian left corner. It looked very much a Croatian throw, initially given, but then Poll gave it to Australia, with two balls on the pitch adding to the confusion. From the throw-in, a Croatian challenge in the box looked a stalwart penalty and the whistle blew just as Cahill scored. Poll looked to have granted the spot-kick and was greeted with more dissenting words from Simunic, at which the Hertfordshire referee showed he had had enough and brandished a third yellow card at the defender, then the red. Then he immediately blew for the end of the match!! I lost my ginger nuts in my tea!

It was an enthralling game, Croatia leading, Australia battling back, Viduka is such a giant fighter upfront, Kewell is coming on much more, Bresciano is influential on the wing, Lucas Neill practically everywhere like a sweeper at the back. I said Australia could show great potential in the World Cup and last night went on to show some of that potential. I think Hiddink can do it again, lead an assumed unfashionable side far into the competition, but I suspect they need someone like John Aloisi on from the start with Viduka, Kewell on the wing with Bresciano. That maybe too many eggs in the basket but now the risks may have to be taken with the 2nd round. Most certainly Hiddink should keep with Schwarzer. Brazil face Ghana on Tuesday as the Australians are rewarded with meeting an Italian side on Monday, some of whom are currently unsure of their football futures.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

England v Sweden - review

As has been the case with the previous two games, England had done that which was expected - they have qualified for the 2nd round. The next expectation is they should beat Ecuador but again we have pundits and presenters who will say Ecuador can be beaten and so we should bear in mind the quarter-finals. Terry Venables said not to underestimate the Ecuadorians, and quite rightly too. Ecuador rested five players for the match with Germany and it made a difference as Ecuador forgot to defend in numbers and man-mark but that's immaterial.

The Ecuador of yesterday won't be the same come Sunday 4pm in Stuttgart. Captain Ivan Hurtado, defender Neicer Reasco, midfielder Segundo Castillo, and forwards Augustin Delgado and Carlos Tenorio will return. I said we will be tested by Sweden, we were and we should analyse ourselves and Ecuador for we were exposed. Set-pieces enormously but it was a big contrast of the two halves that featured significantly. England had a neat structure, Steven Gerrard on the bench allowed Owen Hargreaves to hold back, Frank Lampard going forward. The passing was neat, chances were being created well, they only lacked that 'killing instinct', that execution, putting the ball on target, but nonetheless we were the better in the first 45mins.

Michael Owen has had a personal turmoil of a World Cup performance. He has not been as sharp as before, he has been in good positions but could not make the most of them, and yesterday he suffered a tweak of the right knee that looked very serious. I fear a torn ligament. He was passed to on the right and went to pass onto another, and having done so his left foot did not move accordingly to help his balance therefore he was overstretched with his right foot and caused an awkward stance. Immediately Owen went into a freefall to cushion the tweak and not have so much weight on his right knee, and then rolled onto his knees afterwards to crawl over the touchline for immediate treatment. Under some discomfort, Owen was assessed and taken away on a stretcher, replaced by Peter Crouch.

We have four days until the Ecuador match and if we win that, the quarter-finals is July 1st, ten days from now. I hope Owen's reaction was just cautionary, that it is a twisted knee and develops slight swelling that will go down within 3-4 days, therefore Owen would be out of Sunday's game but he would have 6 days training to be fit hopefully for the quarter-finals. I sincerely hope.

Seeing a major player go down like that would have affected the players so for awhile our play was one during shock but it was not for long. Joe Cole and Frank Lampard laid assault on the Swedish goal, Wayne Rooney was busy getting himself about, David Beckham delivered superb crosses. Sweden almost gained the advantage from a corner with Teddy Lucic creeping behind the play unmarked and his shot was blocked by Lampard. We should have heeded that moment. On 34mins, a Beckham cross was headed back by Crouch but out and away by Niclas Alexandersson, Joe Cole picked it up some 35 yards out with chest control and then volleyed across the ball to send it high and spinning towards goal, looking ambitious. But the ball took its dip and although keeper Andreas Isaksson got a hand to it, it was too late to stop England taking the lead. It was a superb effort and big contender for Goal Of The Tournament.

As the first half ended, I was expecting more of the same from England, for we could only go further and increase the lead, keeping Sweden pegged back, reducing their chances to virtually two through Lucic and a great tackle by Rio Ferdinand to stop Freddie Ljungberg in the box, Ljungberg still playing his theatrical 'that's a penalty!' stumbles. Yet six minutes into the second half spelt for an uncomfortable 45mins. Sweden came back at England, which should not have been allowed, with Ljungberg down their left causing problems to Jamie Carragher, cutting inside and shooting for John Terry to head away for a corner. Tobias Linderoth delivered and Marcus Allback jumped unimpeded at near post and glanced a header over all, including Ashley Cole on the far post for the equaliser, the 2000th goal in World Cup history. Beckham was the nearest but Allback had moved at the last moment in front of him. Panic had settled in.

Sweden began to up their tempo and England had gone down in theirs. The Swedes sensed we were not alert and poured forward, gaining again another corner. Beckham took the position behind Henrik Larsson with Carragher behind Beckham but as the corner swung over, Carragher bumped slightly into Beckham as Larsson glanced his header that came off Carragher's arm on it's way to Paul Robinson, who instinctively parried it away from goal. Would have been harsh to give a penalty when the ball was moving too fast to register. Ferdinand went off for Sol Campbell, probably due to a little twinge that should be OK come Sunday, but defensively there was no improvement. Another corner, this time it went far post, Lucic headed it back and captain Olof Mellberg of Aston Villa hit a half volley off the cross bar. We were leading a charmed life.

We were being exposed from the type of corners the EPL endure countless of times yet we found it very difficult to defend them. Gerrard came on for Rooney on 69mins, much to Rooney's frustration on the bench, chucking down boots and ripping off tie-ups, mostly, if not solely, due to not having more of an influence on the game when we needed it. The defensive frailties continued. A long ball from defence went over all to Larsson and he was onside, to be denied by a timed intervention. The resulting corner came across and was headed out, yet Kim Kallstrom struck a low shot that went past all with Robinson beaten, but for Gerrard's positioning on the post that allowed him to kick the ball out.

After eventually riding the storm, we began to hold possession, thus cutting Sweden's attacking impetus and we gained from it. Beginning to thread passes to control the play, Crouch collected to return to Joe Cole, Cole moved towards the right looking to release someone, the eyes on the play allowed Gerrard to jog behind the defence. Cole looks up and then chips a sweet ball over to Gerrard and the Liverpool captain headed over Isaksson for the lead. That was 86mins and I still did not feel comfortable about it, I know Sweden never give up and if we were to sit back and ride the storm again, we could be found susceptible. We had defended leads before, recently the 1-0 against Argentina in 2002, but this was different. The Swedes were determined with Paraguay. I was right.

Under attack, Carragher headed out for a throw. Erik Edman went to take it and the moment he did, you could see Beckham on the edge of the box focusing on Edman. Carragher and Lampard were to the right of Beckham, almost by the near post. Campbell and Terry were marking, Hargreaves by the penalty spot, Ashley Cole near far post. As the ball came high and into the box, Lampard remained stationary, not marking, Carragher was catching a breather with hands on knees. The ball was challenged by Kallstrom and Terry with Terry looking the winner but he missed. The ball then bounced over Campbell, who turned to aim a foot at it and missed and at that point Mellberg and Larsson came to make contact, the ball directed off Larsson's studs, away from Robinson's dive. Cole moved to defend on the line but was positioned acutely behind Robinson, the ball bouncing past him to the inside of the far netting.

For the first time since May 1968 we were close to beating Sweden. Yet again we have thrown it away, literally. The onus is fine as we won the group, avoiding Germany who seem in good conquering form but I do not fear the Germans. If we are to be world beaters we face up to whoever we meet, otherwise there is little point in playing. You cannot make claims if you fear stepping up and proving them. We are good, good enough, but twice now we have had second halves in negative contrast to our first. Once the job is done, it is fine but the job is not done during the second 45mins, one cannot foresee England prospering until the final whistle. The point is we keep the opposition busy thus preventing them possession and time to create, we put the fear into them. If we don't get a grip on the play and dispossess quickly, we continue to run the risk of being caught out while back-pedalling.

We need the 'killer instinct', more accuracy on goal. Practice it, think it, do it, but we need it. The chances we create, we should be ahead by three goals before the opposition can know it. We have to try harder, making the effort to be in position is not enough, focus on keeping the ball accurate is key. We cannot afford to squander chances. If we are accustomed to sitting back then we should do so as a backdrop when we are ahead by two or three goals, IF need be. Sven-Goran Eriksson now should play the 4-4-2, Gerrard and Lampard deciding between themselves to does what. They both should interchange, and for me Gerrard is key when England break forward, more so than Lampard. Joe Cole is on great form, Beckham is standard despite not being so good in last night's second half. Rooney was frustrated and can take it out on the Ecuadorians.

I don't think Ecuador can expose us at set-pieces, more so from quick movements into the box like throw-ins as they did against Poland and Costa Rica. We keep them out and break them up on the counter, we can hit them quick. Keeping Crouch deep upfront means Rooney will drop off, therefore high balls for Crouch to nod on will not work. Crouch will need to hold up and pass quickly and then move into the box for a cross. Ecuador will look for us to use Crouch at all times, therefore a contingency should be our movement off the ball, making good use of our set-pieces, our height and heading ability, and our shooting as Cristian Mora is not that good a keeper while we have in Gerrard, Beckham, Joe Cole and Lampard four good shooters.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

England v Sweden - preview

Wayne Rooney starts in place of Peter Crouch. Can be seen as one way to evade Crouch receiving another booking and missing out on the 2nd round, another way is it brings in Rooney to start, practically what most of the nation wants to see. Not alone upfront, Rooney does not like that either, so he's with Michael Owen. Owen said England will not play the longer balls as he and Rooney are not that tall. Ridiculous. He also said once there is someone behind him or someone in midfield looking up he comes alive. Ridiculous. While Owen hasn't been receiving ball after ball, pass after pass, he has had some moments of good opportunity, plus he hs been known to practically break into spaces to be passed to. Rooney likes to sit back and hold the ball, or turn and take on players. Owen likes the person behind him to drag at least one player out of defence, so we will see how comfortable he is tonight. Nonetheless, Rooney and Owen is ideal, Crouch not to play.

Steven Gerrard is withdrawn to protect his booking, which leaves the central midfield spot for owen Hargreaves, presumably. There must be something wrong with Michael Carrick, for me better to play there than Hargreaves at the moment. I would use Carrick behind a three of David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. If Gerrard is to be protected, what about Lampard? We need him to help win the game, but we are in the 2nd round, should we not protect him too? Carrick behind Hargreaves in the middle?!?! OK, Hargreaves behind Carrick in the middle?!?! [Scratches head] Well, it's not unheard of for a player to look something of a stinker but then go on to play a blinder. I hope Hargreaves can prove that tonight. Other point with midfield is Rooney could drop and be an ad-hoc central midfielder, depending how Sven-Goran Eriksson wishes to use Rooney, given the preference to bring him through gently following his recovery.

The other change is of no surprise when you hear Gary Neville is still injured, that of Jamie Carragher at right-back. I have already mentioned of Sweden's attacking prowess, hindered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's injury. Marcus Allback and Henrik Larsson are capable of damaging sides, though they failed to score in both matches but nonetheless they are capable with a backing midfield of Kim Kallstrom, Freddie Ljungberg and Christian Wilhelmsson, also the defensive qualities of Tobias Linderoth. It will be an interesting test, which will depend on how England choose to attack from the kick-off and how they use pace in their attack.


Switzerland v Togo, Saudi Arabia v Ukraine, Spain v Tunisia

With France held by South Korea, both sides of Switzerland and Togo needed the points to take advantage. Togo emerged from a row over payment to take their place on the pitch, thankfully, but their efforts went in vain. At times they would go on the attack but moved too slowly, Swiss numbers coming back and thwarting any chances. Defending became a weak area too. Ludovic Magnin made great progress down the left and crossed deep. Tranquillo Barnetta, my MOTM, was not tracked by Cherif-Toure Maman, and allowed Barnetta to head back across goal and between two defenders Alexander Frei tapped in. But Togo were very unlucky not to have been granted a penalty when Emmanuel Adebayor danced down the left and cut inside Patrick Muller, Muller then stuck out a reverse leg that impeded Adebayor, but the referee waved play on. I thought it was a silly challenge and deserved to be punished.

In the second half, Togo earned great points for their determination to get forward and attack Switzerland's goal but they did not comprehend that you need players in the box if you wish to cross the ball in front of goal. Players leapted for balls they could not get and did not for balls they could reach. Their rate of pace in attack just wavered between wantign to get there and preference to take it easy. While they did come close to scoring, Togo just did not seem to have the balance and focus to actually threaten Pascal Zuberbuhler. Switzerland ensured they too placed pressure on Togo, Hakan Yakin came on for Daniel Gygax and responsed with a long range shot and one at close range that was blocked by Kossi Agassa. However, despite Togo's keenness towards goal, their failure to punish emanated from Switzerland grabbing their second.

Mauro Lustranelli crossed over towards the right where Barnetta was lurking, and despite a defender in his way Barnetta shot, the ball just deflecting off the defender's studs and the post on its way in. Two-nil to the Swiss, who now top the group with none conceded, followed by the surprise of South Korea. The Swiss appear to be more astute at the back and their captain Johann Vogel is a terrier in midfield, so it will be interesting to see how the South Koreans fare in that last game.

The table now looks with France in third place with 1pt and nil goal difference. Without Zidane and Abidel, I expect Mikael Silvestre to come in at left back, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira in the middle between Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery, Sylvain Wiltord with Thierry Henry upfront. France have to score, they should do as they need nothing less than a win. theyprobably will win if Togo continue to play with no one coming forward in attack, that is how Togo generally looked against Switzerland. Then again, could France fare as they have done so far, without Zidane, and continue to draw, which would simply be catastrophic.

In a nutshell, which is where I wish to leave this match, Saudi Arabia are another side that is taking up space more worthy for another team who will play to win. They were brave and very unlucky against Tunisia but yesterday evening they capitulated. Keeper Mabrouk Zaid made a hash of his goal kick and the ball came back to go for a corner, which Maxim Kalinichenko curled in and Andrei Rusol touched with his knee, for the ball to go through Zaid's legs. You score a goal like that then the keeper is having a bad day. The Saudis' rolled their luck with Andriy Shevchenko havign an effort off the line and then just failing to get at the end of a cross. But 10mins before the break Ukraine struck again, Anatoliy Tymoschuk squared across for old West Ham and Spurs striker Sergei Rebrov to hit a shot over the keeper.

After the break, Saudi Arabia went further behind, as the two Chenkos', Andriy and Maxim, combined, Kalinichenko crossed for Shevchenko to head in. Ten minutes after Omar Al Ghamdi broke into the Ukraine box and went down from a challenge but was booking for simulation, rightly so, by Graeme Poll. Ukraine received their fourth after 30mins when the two Chenkos' combined again, this time Shevchenko squared across goal for Kalinichenko to side foot in.

Spain made a lot of work of their game against the Tunisians. Zaid Jaziri ran down the right past Carlos Puyol and then proceeded to withstand three Spanish tackles to pass across to the advancing Joahar Mnari, who should have been watched by Marcos Senna. Mnari's first shot was blocked well but he followed up to score. Spain came forward seeking the equaliser and they made a number of routes to goal through the work rate of Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Luis Garcia and David Villa, but to no avail. As the Spaniards went in a goal down at hlaf time, Luis Aragones needed to inject more spark into their strategy. That didn't occur until the second half, with the introduction of Cesc Fabregas and Raul for Senna and Garcia, and then later with Joaquin on for Villa. There was no break up of Spain's rhythm but with the poring of Tunisia's defence, the North Africans hardly looked able to break out and score, laying siege instead to Spain's attacks.

But inevitably there came a breakthrough. Joaquin squared to Fabregas for the Arsenal midfielder to hit another shot to match one earlier, which was parried by keeper Ali Boumnijel into the path of Raul for the equaliser on 72mins. Four minutes later Tunisia began to crumble, Fabregas again threading a pass for Torres to run onto, Boumnijel coming out of goal despite the ball going across away from goal, and Torres tapped the ball a little further then cut it past the keeper for no.2. A rush of blood from Boumnijel when at 1-1 all level heads were definitely needed. As Tunisia hadn't fared well in attack, Spain made them pay even more through Torres in the box, judged to have been held by Alaeddine Yahia. Torres took the kick that Boumnijel got across to well but the ball went under him.

A good result for Spain, no doubt, when it look ed as if the game would drift into a defeat or perhaps a 1-1 draw. With Saudi Arabia and Tunisia on 1pt each, Spain are clear through to round two. Now, the implications are the Ukraine need to win against Tunisia, Tunisia need to win too. That is if Saudi Arabia beat Spain, which, frankly, I cannot forsee. Tunisia are capable of holding Ukraine provided they play as they did for 70mins and up their tempo, for they cannot sit back on anything. But with the Ukraine on jubilant form with their win yesterday, I think they can beat the Tunisians.


Japan v Croatia, Brazil v Australia, France v South Korea

The Japanese played a very good game against the Croatians, as I expected they would lose. The very message for defenders in the box defending their goal is to be extra careful when making tackles and ensure you make contact with the ball more than the player. That is straightforward and at a professional level you would expect a defender to have integrated that message into his play but when captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto stuck out a foot on Dado Prso in the box, the penalty was given and I did not disagree. But it produced a splendid left hand save by Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi from Darijo Srna's spot-kick. Both sides looked dangerous in scoring but unexpectedly the game ended in a no score draw.

The implications of that result were none on the other Group F participants Brazil and Australia. Once again Brazil seemed slightly comatose in their play, not the Brazil we expect to see given their multi-talented faces. One spark for them was Kaka and Ronaldinho, to a degree, and also to a degree Dida keeping goal well. Australia were expected to suffer from the Brazilians but they played a much better game than that against Japan, from the start. Australia had numbers behind the ball, much like Trinidad and Tobago against England, which stifles the space needed to create chances. There were strong challenges from Lucas Neill while Jason Culina and Mile Sterjovski were on the flanks that faced the attacks of Roberto Carlos and Cafu, and Brazil were kept out until after the break, when Ronaldinho pass through to Ronaldo, and following a few stepovers Ronaldo squared across the box to Adriano. Adriano controlled with his left, as he is well known to do, to touch the ball forward and struck it low past Mark Schwarzer. Scott Chipperfield was suspect in not closing him down.

Australia came at Brazil with renewed determination. Harry Kewell came on for Tim Cahill and injected more flair into the Aussie attack. A Brett Emerton cross was not gathered by Dida and in doing so he spilled it to Kewell, who hit the ball over the bar with the goal open. Kewell went further to hit a 40 yard shot that dipped just over the bar with Dida off his line. Mark Bresciano made personal his aim to sting Brazil with a volley that Dida had to touch away but Brazil had their moments too. Ronaldo was off for Robinho, the substitute running on and touching the ball over Schwarzer but on to the roof of the net. A Ronaldinho corner was met by a superb Kaka header onto the crossbar. With Adriano off for Fred, Brazil made another goal. Fred passed along to Robinho, who aimed and fired off the post, the ball fortuitously rebounding and slowing just in front of Fred, who tapped it in.

Australia showed a good account of themselves, especially against the expected winners and current holders, but Brazil seemed reserve in their attacks as if they were holding back. A lot is made of Ronaldo but we have yet to see the best from him and I think we will. He was slightly better in this game and Ze Roberto and Juan played well defensively. Australia hold 2nd place and they are prepared to hot up for the Croatia final group game. Croatia will need to score two goals more than Australia to go through. The Japanese are energetic and very willing to get at the opposition, so if Brazil wish to enter into that game the same way, they could find themselves hit from nowhere. The likes of Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura and Alessandro 'Alex' Santos are prepared to strike at goal from distance, so any Brazilian slacking could be punished, perhaps temporarily.

Now we come to France v South Korea, and again I expected France to come better and overcome the South Koreans in style. After their debacle play against the Swiss, Franck Ribery was dropped and Florent Malouda brought in. I actually expected Ribery to remain and on the wing, Zinedine Zidane on the other, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira central allowing Vieira to come forward, Sylvian Wiltord and Thierry Henry upfront, but it was a 4-3-3 and still looked good. Nine minutes in and Wiltord took a shot at goal that deflected off Jin-Cheul Choi and rolled, as if by destiny, to Henry to touch once with his right to control and then scored with his left. Henry's first in the tournament, France's first since Emmanuel Petit's in the 1998 final. And from there France looked in some control as the South Koreans simply continued to come forward, their fans still jubilant and chanting, which I thought was excellent, reminding me of the LFC fans when Liverpool were 0-3 down at half time and were chanting "We will beat you 4-3!!"

A Zidane corner from the French left was met by a Vieira header towards goal and the keeper Lee Woon-Jae got a palm to the ball to scoop it out but the ball looked very much to have crossed the line. Replays showed a strong indication of this, but the referee did not give it and the France players made no protest, perhaps the speed of it all made it inconclusive but it would be a first not to appeal for what looked like a legitimate goal. Players have appealed for everything before, penalties, offsides, fouls, even sighting Elvis in the crowd,but to their credit France continued with no fuss. It may be different when they see the replays. Their play from the second half kick off was much the same.

Ahn Jung-Hwan made an appearance for Chun-Soo Lee and eight minutes later the game was level. Seol Ki-Hyeon ran down the right and Eric Abidel allowed him to cross, which reached the head of Cho Jae-Jin. Cho nodded the ball down near the penalty spot and Park Ji-Sung came in to touch the ball up and over Fabien Barthez, the ball dropping down and into the net. William Gallas was clearly frustrated, nothing in comparison to the fans back home. The team held control for virtually the 80mins and then allowed poor errors to creep in and steal their thunder, with one goal to show for it. Abidel was booked two minutes before his error and Zidane too five minutes from time, both now out of the final match with Togo.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Italy v USA

The Italians now had their chance of topping the group and breaking away, much like Portugal. The USA were either fooder or were keen to stamp authority into their game. The expectations were Italy would roast the Americans but from the start it was nothing like that. Within five minutes Francesco Totti put in a challenge on Clint Dempsey, in for the ineffective DaMarcus Beasley, and was booked, harshly. From then the USA put in overtime with grit and a fighting spirit in their attack and the Italians were defending with some concern for some 20minutes. That is because after that a freekick on the Italian right was curled in by Andrea Pirlo and the USA defence went to sleep as Alberto Gilardino stepped up and directed a low header past Kasey Keller. I wasn't impressed with Pirlo in the Champions League but he has been excellent so far in the World Cup. Pity Brad Friedel has retired from international football.

But the attacking character the Americans displayed pushed Italy back into their half and worked its way to obtaining a corner from the Italian left. We had a glimpse of Christian Zaccardo with arms outstretched denying Brian McBride movement towards goal which seemed unorthodox and was pulled up by the Uruguayan official Jorge Larrionda. Zaccardo then kept eye on McBride and when the corner came across he spotted the ball coming to him at the last moment, automatically aiming a left foot to clear but instead slicing it to the bottom left corner. Just as it went right for Italy it went bad, and it then became dangerously worse in practically one of the most inexplicable moments of the World Cup.

A high ball was challenged by a big Claudio Rayna leap and missed. The ball then came down to bounce again, this time to be challenged by Daniele de Rossi and McBride. De Rossi proceeded, during the challenge, to clearly elbow McBride on the face with such clear intent you would need Johnney Cochrane for legal representation, and even then the best you could expect is a reduction from a Death Row sentence to life. Official Larrionda had a clear view of it from yards and produced the red card, to which de Rossi had the gall to protest!! I had my doubts until the replay as I only saw from open play a USA player go down, so the referee was spot on. Or was on the spot. McBride had to receive treatment for a bloodied cut and came back on, with no fuss or bother.

Midfield rottweiler Gennaro Gattuso came on for Totti with eagerness and instructions to hold and direct attacks from central. Then, would anyone believe it, the Americans were down to ten themselves on the cusp of half time with Pablo Mastroeni diving in on Alessandro Nesta's left ankle. It looked to me a one-foot challenge and therefore a booking, but the commentary team said it was two, therefore it's a straight red.

The second half began and two minutes later yet another dismissal, though I find no fault with Mr Larrionda. Eddie Pope, already booked for a tackle on Luca Toni in the first half, brought down Gilardino for a second. At the least the tackle was rash and clumsily, so even if it had little contact with the player, its rashness was costly, Pope was off. So I expected an onslaught of Italian waves of attacks as they now held the one-man advantage, and they did but couldn't apply the finishing touch. Zaccardo came off for Alessandro Del Piero on 54mins, followed 7mins later by Toni's substitution for Vincenzo Iaquinta, all three subs used for the Italians. The USA played as if they had no disadvantage, Beasley came on for Dempsey on 62mins, like for like. Three minutes later Beasley broke into the box and shot past Gianluca Buffon but it was cancelled for McBride being in an offside position, not interfering with play but I assume he was deemed to have impeded Buffon's sight.

The Italians surged forward and formed an opening as Pirlo chipped over for Del Piero to stretch out a foot and touch the ball towards goal, denied by Keller's equally stretched hand. A draw is how it ended and it was excellent for the USA to keep the Italians from scoring again. Slight desperation seemed to be in the Italians' attack why they failed to score again, the number of chances they managed to create, and I feel their fans back home would have expected a win in the end.

The draw opens up Group E, with any two of the four going through. The Italians can replace de Rossi with Gattuso, depending he remains fit, so I see no loss there, and Marcello Lippi could either push up Totti to form a straight three upfront or bring in Iaquinta to preserve Totti's booking. With Gattuso, Lippi could bring in Camoranesi if Simone Perotta isn't fit, as he pulled up clutching his thigh after a tackle but carried on because all three subs were used. The Czech Republic are to possibly contend without Koller, Baros and now Lokvenc after his second booking in the tournament. Also they will miss Ujfalusi, at least three influential players unavailable to face practically a full strength Italy side.

I wionder if Ghana will appeal Gyan's booking yesterday but they will miss Muntari after his second booking. Even so, with the Americans to replace Pope and Mastroeni, Ghana's pace and midfield could trouble the USA to an eventual exit.


Czech Republic v Ghana

The games then turned to the better. Ghana had withdrawn Sami Kuffour for his involvement in the Italian's 2nd goal (and, I would think, for his ridiculously unnecessary hack at Vincenzo Iaquinta during an offside-but-on-goal moment), Michael Essien and skipper Stephen Appiah took to the central midfield again, the tenacious and impressive Asamoah Gyan upfront with Matthew Amoah. The Czech were missing Milan Baros still and Jans Koller so Vratislav Lokvenc was the lone man upfront. Now, I said that, while Tomas Rosicky and Pavel Nedved utilised the space granted to them against the USA, which made Rosicky look impressive, it came against a lacklustre American side. With Essien and Appiah more attack-minded and of good defensive quality in central midfield, Ghana should give more of a test for the Czech two.

But from the kick off, something went wrong. Ghana rushed at goal and fashioned a corner. It rebounded to Appiah on the left, and his cross was meant to connect with a header from the usually reliable Fiorentina man Tomas Ujfalusi but he missed, allowing Gyan to control and and hit wide past Petr Cech. First blood. From then Ghana kept pressure on the Czech Republic and Cech in major employment. Rosicky and Marek Jankulovski went close but wide, Nedved shot at Richard Kingston in goal, and at the other end the Czech almost allowed Appiah a goal as he came forward and shot low but wide.

After the start of the second half, Nedved scored with a well positioned header but was flagged offside. Ghana still came forward to pressurise the Czech defence and in the 65th minute came drama. Amoah broke into the Czech penalty box but was professionally fouled by Ujfalusi. Why it is called 'professional foul' when there is nothing professional eludes me, but once again the referee, Argentinian Horacio Elizondo, took longer than necessary to deal the red card and usher Ujfalusi off, as if he wanted to be seen to be astute in his officiation. Because Ujfalusi failed to move, Elizondo blew the whistle for his attention, and with Gyan's back to all, the striker mistook the whistle as the audible indication to take the spot kick. Goal scored, Ujfalusi off, the referee then proceeds to BOOK Gyan for taking the spot kick when the referee was not ready. It was a ludicrous decision and the referee at that point was an ass.

The booking now couples with that from the Italy game to suspend Gyan from the last match with the USA, and I sincerely hope it can be rescinded otherwise it will add more bewilderment to FIFA's already crumbling stature, but I doubt any appeal will be upheld for that would open the floodgates. Gyan was permitted to re-take the kick, which cannoned off the right post and across goal away from danger. That may have been perceived as consolation for the Czech, they took go for broke with 4-4-1 or stay defensive with 4-1-3-1 but it was Ghana making the most of time with Gyan, Amoah and Sulley Muntari causing multiple chaos on Cech's brilliant handling.

But in the 82nd minute, the Czech resistence weakened, Gyan dragging attention by moving intot he box and then knocking the ball to Muntari, who stepped inside and smacked the ball hard past Cech. The game was over, and the group now opened to accompany Ghana's more prosperous hopes of qualification.


Portugal v Iran

We have not reached the 2nd round and things are now turning to the better, in terms of entertaiment. With Mexico being held by Angola, Portugal had the opportunity to break away at the top. Iran were providing much resistence to thwart Luis Figo and co., his ball found Deco emerging and Deco's shot was superbly touched over by keeper Ebrahim Mirzapour, who proved on occasion his goalkeeping prowess. Christiano Ronaldo was his usual skilful self but his left foot effort just whistled past the post. In fact Portugal held the majority of the possession but failed to break through with the expected impact, which must have concerned Luiz Felipe Scolari. The way this game was running, it could turn into an unexpected 0-0 draw, something the Portuguese did not want. One baffling point was how the French referee Eric Poulat failed to spot the high foot of right-back Hossein Kaebi, the studs of which clearly caught Figo on the face and prompted treatment. Nonetheless, Kaebi had to handle Figo and Ronaldo, and at 20 years of age is considerably a talent in the reckoning, albeit I suspect he may have a slight temperament problem.

What ever was said at half time worked, as Portugal made more work of Iran. Figo and Ronaldo used the left wing often, potentially aiming at antagonising Kaebi's temperament or taking advantage of his naviety. Figo came down the right side and then, with Iran preferring to use numbers instead of watching the Portugal players in vicinity, Figo squared across to Deco, who struck first time across the ball to send it acutely inside the left post, Mirzapour unmoved. It was something of a reprieve on 63mins, for missing the chances in the first half. This sparked Iran into excellent play where they passed around and then dragged the ball down the right or towards the penalty box for a shot. The only thing iran lacked was that crucial final touch to execute the chance, whcih let them down terribly and often. The usually stern Ricardo Carvalho - Fernando Meira central defence was opened well but not made to pay.

Portugal gained further solitude through a penalty. Figo again down the left on the break came against Iran captain Yahya Golmohammadi and as the Inter man touched the ball past him, Golmohammadi came in with a rash challenge that didn't make contact with Figo but it's rashness cleared up any doubt instantly as Figo made the most of it. I thought Figo was the designated taker but it was Ronaldo who stepped up and with a blow of the cheeks deposited the penalty for his first. Iran came forward after that with chances they should have made the better of that could have pulled them level but it ended in elimination for them. Brave players they were and definitely a good team with potential.

Angola will have to win by four clear goals and hope for Portugal to win without conceding. Seems unlikely with Angola failing to score so far but anything's possible. The likelihood is Portugal v Mexico could be an open game if Mexico play how they did against Angola but this time finishing their chances. Portugal have Nuno Valente and Maniche Ribeiro who were excellent yesterday with their work rate and overall play, Ronaldo could be rested while on a booking.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Holland v Ivory Coast, Mexico v Angola

Arjen Robben shone for the Dutch against Serbia, Robin Van Persie took the reins against the Ivorians but it was short-lived. Emmanuel Eboue started where he left off in Paris in the Champions League final, tussling with Giovanni Van Bronckhurst in the box and then going down looking to the referee, Colombian Julian Oscar Ruiz Acosta, for a decision which was rightly ignored. Holland took the lead through RVP, after he had been stopped by a Kolo Toure leg just outside the box. This was ideal David Beckham territory and for someone like RVP and his dnagerous left foot shooting, it seemed ideal for himself or even Robben to convert. RVP simply lashed it with considerable force that curled round the wall and shot past keeper Jean-Jacques Tizie. Three minutes later Robben was on the ball, looked to feed Ruud van Nistelrooy who was offside so instead found Mark van Bommel, van Bommel returned the ball, by this time with RVP lurking on the right Arthur Boka came back to defend, playing on VNR, and Robben threaded through to VNR who coolly deposited the goal.

The Ivory Coast dont know about sitting back. Didier Zokora came forward and unleashed a ferocious 25 yarder that came off the post as a little reminder the game was not indicative through the goals. Robben then went on a run into the Ivorian box and then went down to be booked so he needed to tread carefully, but the threat then turned to Edwin van Der Sar. Bakari Kone constantly teased and ran at van Bronckhurst and as he picked up the ball from midfield he ran diagonally at the Dutch defence and unleashed a fierce drive himself past van Der Sar to pull one back on 38mins. Now it was thoroughly game on. Three mins later a Dutch attack was intervened by Didier Drogba and he ran on towards goal, with only van Bronckhurst in defence keeping level with Arouna Kone, two on one, but as the Chelsea man ran on, the Barcelona full back made an excellent move to close in on him and Drogba's attempted pass to Kone was blocked for a throw.

Both sides shared the chances on goal, but the score remained the same at the end, wrapping up the Ivory Coast World Cup campaign for 2006. Coach Henri Michel, former French international who has managed France, Morocco and Tunisia, was sad in exit but he has a squad of players who have tremendous talent, courage and battling tenacity and with some more time can forged them into a global force. African Cup of Nations runners-up, they have great spirit. Impressive for me was Bakari Kone, who must be up for consideration from a number of clubs with his burst of pace at defenders and Yaya Toure, of whom his brother Kolo speaks of in high esteem.

The expectations were Mexico would have enough to beat Angola, enough experience and playability following an impressive Iran victory previously. But they were left firing blanks as the Angolans offered enough resistence to gain an unlikely draw that now puts them within a chance of qualification for the 2nd round. Mexico should have been looking for three points going into the final encounter with Portugal, but this now puts Angola a win away from them. Portugal defeat Mexico and Angola go on to defeat Iran, mathematics will reveal the rest. Why was it that, in keeping out the Mexicans, Andre Macanga stupidly stuck out his arm to deny Mexico captain Rafael Marquez ten minutes to go??

Fortunately Angola still held firm, Joao Ricardo aiding to keep out Marquez, as Guillermo Franco and Omar Bravo failed to make any impact on the Angolan goal. Angola was stated to be a team mostly of part-time players against a Mexico side placed 4th in the FIFA World Rankings, again there is no sentiment via reputation. Ricardo doesn't even play for a team at all, so, with no disrespect to the other teams, I will cheer for Angola to beat Iran and Mexico to lose to Portugal. Then again, Portugal face Iran today and could end in an upset to render Group D into topsy-turvy mode.


Argentina v Serbia & Montenegro

My word, what happened to the Serbs, the team that went behind to Holland and formed a likelihood of equalising in that game? They were pulled apart with some force that simply outshone a super-nova. As early as the 6th minute, captain Juan Pablo Sorin linked with Maxi Rodriguez and then found Javier Saviola, who sent a pass through for Rodriguez to finish off. Twenty-five minutes later the Argentinians made double figures in passes without conceding possession before Juan Roman Riquelme passed to Saviola, who then passed to Esteban Cambiasso, Cambiasso thread another to Hernan Crespo in the box, who then back-heeled it into the path of the advancing Cambiasso and the Inter milan midfielder scored no.2. I counted something like 23 passes in total before that goal, and went up on the summit without argument as the goal of the tournament so far.

The build-up itself displayed sublime passing, control, movement on and off the ball, vision, awareness and a finish to boot. To encapsulate the 45mins, four minutes before the break Rodriguez gained his brace with Serb defender Mladen Krstajic not doing the necessary and clear away from danger. Thinking he could shepherd the ball out, Saviola tackled him coming round the player, and inadvertently nutmegged him, and shot at goal, parried by keeper Dragoslav Jevric into the path of Rodrigues to score from a tight angle.

We are aware of 3-0 comebacks in English football, except for the Serbs. Having another 45mins to play meant they were not coming off for good for a while and played with some resignation of a defeat. I would have thought they may have viewed the Ivory Coast approach of continuously coming at the Argentinians as one way of stifling them, but the game took no such turn. The game flowed on Argentina's possession, though Savo Milosevic had two attempts at goal, and then it changed horribly as a rush of blood pushed Mateja Kezman to commit a two-footed lunge on the solid Corinthians midfielder Javier Mascherano. What was the former Chelsea man thinking? he wouldn't have gotten away with that in the EPL.....well, 80% of the time, but in the World Cup under FIFA conditions?? Good thing the gallows had been taken down under Human Rights law.

Three goals and one man down, would call for the most miraculous of revivials. The Serbs could have scored and held 3-1 and still end with some credit. However, on 74mins, Lionel Messi came on for Rodriguez, and then from the 78th minute ensued ten minutes of a football carving Sweeney Todd and his henchwoman Mrs Lovett would have envied. Crespo appears not to be content in failing to score. Riquelme took a quick free-kick on the left to Messi, who broke down the flank and sent the ball across goal for Crespo to tap in. Six minutes later Carlos Tevez, a 58th minute sub for Saviola, dispossessed on the left and eluded two players before scoring the fifth and he then passed a through ball for Messi two minutes from time for the Barcelona player to round off the thrashing.

Only the single Argentinian booking of Crespo marred the performance, otherwise it would have been a 100% rout. Jose Pekerman had Cambiasso, Tevez and Messi to come OFF the bench, much less in the team, and each substitute went on to score, two of whom replacing scorers. I think the Serbs were not organised for this game and the Argentinians warned that they will reach for huge pickings if a team has no structure or game plan before them.


Friday, June 16, 2006

England v Trinidad & Tobago

This was another important game, England v Trinidad & Tobago. Again, so much hype, 'how many goals will we score', 'will Wayne Rooney come on', 'who do we meet in the 2nd round', before we have even confirmed the three points. Prefer to talk when the job has been done, so now I'm talking. Frustration at first as Trinidad sat practically all behind the ball and used numbers to squeeze out the spaces England use in attack. Joe Cole was his busy self but it seemed he had little idea of where he would deliver or pass to, sometimes down the line to namesake Ashley, sometimes he would cut inside Phillippe Lahm for a shot that was blocked. Michael Owen certainly tried to get involved but was not, his sharpness is clearly not at tip top level. Frank Lampard going forward meant Steven Gerrard did the holding so we hardly saw Gerrard getting forward. Lampard shot on sight, which was good provided it was kept on target. Jamie Carragher covered well in Gary Neville's absence but it seemed he was not confident of getting forward and was hesitant to pass forward, opting instead to play back, so we lost an edge on the right-back attacks.

Some of the balls played lacked accuracy on occasion, several occasions. Peter Crouch went close with one chance but was denied by the intervention of Brent Sancho, then David Beckham played a sweet ball across the box Crouch was on hand with time and space to aim a volley wide. T&T came clsoe twice. A Dwright Yorke corner came over and was missed by Paul Robinson, Carragher doing enough to thwart Stern John's attempt at the far post. Then Carlos Edwards' ball from the right prompted Robinson to come out but it was headed across, with the keeper out of goal. John came between Rio Ferdinand and John Terry and his contact sprung the ball towards goal, Terry on hand superbly to deny the goal then came up again to clear the danger before being fouled. The kind of defending from a man in battle with just a fork and knife.

It was more of the same in the second half, T&T again in numbers, coming out on occasion to threaten the England goal but not making any progress. A telling point was that our rate of pace began to dwindle, as if our energy level began to go down, the urgency to get forward seemed lost on us, loose balls in midfield were not contested by two of the best in the EPL, Yorke or Kenwyne Jones made good runnings down the right. Co-commentator Gareth Southgate hardly said a wrong word throughout the game. He said we lost some impetus in coming forward and that a goal will come owing to the way we came and did expose the barrier. Owen was played a ball by Beckham inside the box yards from goal but couldnt steer it on target, which turned out to be his last piece of action as Sven-Goran Eriksson saw the need for pace and a sharp inject of attack and brought on Rooney for Owen, Aaron Lennon for Carragher.

Beckham now went into an ad-hoc right back slot, allowing Lennon down the right side and the Spurs winger showed the Trinidadians he was aiming to create danger, at times bursting down the wing and getting round Cyd Gray that pushed T&T into two men on Lennon when he got the ball but this didn't stop Lennon from crossing for Crouch to head over from a great position. Lampard had three chances yards from goal but couldnt convert them. Stewart Downing came on for Joe Cole, there was still little to nothing of Gerrard's presence because Lampard went forward, Beckham coming forward and more central made for a 3-5-2 and the pressure continued with Rooney causing some stir on the ball and releasing some great passes for Downing to meet. With the substitutions we broke up our mundane style and came with a different one, as if T&T had little knowledge of Downing and Lennon and three in the middle meant less loose balls. It also made for our breakthrough.

Downing came inside and sent a high ball over to Lennon, who chested it to Beckham. Beckham crossed over deep and finally Crouch got on the end of it and headed it in over Shaka Hislop. I noticed before it was released on German media Crouch had a grasp of Sancho's dreadlocks at their end. How significant this was in the goal is debatable but impartially Sancho was not in a strong enough position even without the grasp to deny Crouch the header, as he had not made an attempt to jump. I dread to await what FIFA will do as they are looking into it, but from England's point of view it was about time. The important thing now was focus, not to then sit and look to absorb their attack, for we could be easily caught out, Cornell Glen was on and he had the propensity to attack on goal, as we saw against Sweden. Yet as we entered into the last minute of normal time, Lampard sat back and this allowed Gerrard eventually to get forward.

Downing played to Crouch, Crouch touched to Gerrard, Gerrard then found Lennon and waited on the edge of the box. This is where I sensed Gerrard was back and up to his usual plotting self just on the edge of the box, just distance for him to set himself up for a give-and-go break into the box, a pass into the box or set himself up for a shot. Lennon passed to Beckham, Gerrard looks around, Beckham touched to Gerrard and as he did, you can see Gerrard give a quick glimpse and then go on the attack, he would what he would do. He then cut to the left past Gray and unleashed a left foot shot past Hislop. That was better, that was more of Gerrard we had failed to see for 180mins of football.

The dilemma. First, Lampard and Gerrard are two central midfielders who thrive on coming forward and do it best from their positions, and currently in 4-4-2 one is held back for the other and it is very restrictive. An alternative is a holding player, five in midfield, which renders one less up front or in defence, which is not suitable. Another alternative is dropping either central midfielder, not appropriate. We want four in defence, we want two upfront, we want Gerrard and Lampard going forward. We need someone like Lennon with the burst of pace, we want someone up front with the vision of Rooney, who will spot that through ball or wide ball as if he himself was on the end of it. My solution is Ferdinand dropping down as an ad-hoc sweeper, Neville, Terry and Cole behind. Ferdinand could look to stifle the attack until our midfielders get back and then he could join up again with Terry.

Owen has said he is prepared to start on the bench if need be. One argument says Owen's needs matches to improve, the other says he stays on the bench as he is not sharp enough. Alan Shearer says he would start Rooney with Owen, so he has little cheer for Crouch despite Crouch showing more for England than Owen at the moment. Looking at Owen yesterday I said to myself we should give him until the 60th minute before deciding on whether to sub hi or not and I was right. Yet I think Shearer is right, start Rooney with Owen against Sweden, we may see a different Owen and hopefully see a fitter Rooney. Crouch can come on to add an alternative line of attack for us, Theo Walcott even, if we are something like 2-0 ahead with 20-25mins to go.

As for the formation to accommodate everyone, including Lampard and Gerrard, I welcome any other suggestions.


Ecuador v Costa Rica, Sweden v Paraguay

Ecuador v Costa Rica would clearly decide if Germany would go through to the 2nd round, and who would follow them. Poland were out before the game and as Ecuador began, they did so in similar fashion to their first game. Agustin Delgado is showing form that he somehow didn't produce at Southampton, his shot was blocked but he picked up the rebound and passed down the right for the ever pressing Luis Valencia, whose perfect ball into the box was headed in by Carlos Tenorio on 8mins. Costa Rica were bit-parts. They came forward at times but never pressed Cristian Mora into any sweat, Ecuador were in control, were cool, were patient. In the second half, Ivan Kaviedes came on for Tenorio, and added more attacking flair that found Costa Rica in dire straits. Man of the Match for me was Edison Mendez as he constantly played and dragged down the right, this time he linked up with Delgado with one-twos' before he nodded the ball forward for Delgado to fire past Jose Porras for 2-0 on 54mins.

At this time I felt Ecuador would settle with playing the ball about, deny Costa Rica possession, and it was simple for the Central Americans played because they were there, not with any hope. This Ecuadorian superiority claimed yet another goal at the end of normal time when Mendez was involved again, crossing for Kaviedes to volley in. It was, in a sense, a complete round up of Costa Rica, my tip to qualify with Germany yet my colleague T stated that Ecuador had a stronger sense of play, so good call there, T. The only thing now is who goes in 1st and 2nd in Group A. Job done.

Sweden v Paraguay was the proverbial Germany v Poland, only that both sides were more or less in the same predicament and both played out of their skins last night. Little to point at in the game other than the amount of chances Sweden had to score through marcus Allbeck and Henrik Larsson, which had Paraguay clinging on by the fingertips. The game swayed in Sweden's favour but they endured the same lck in front of goal that theyhad against the Trinidadians and I was rooting for Paraguay to hold out for a draw, if not a win, as the underdogs. But eventually the South Americans caved in and just looked dejected when in the last minute of normail time sub Johan Elmander crossed over for Allback to head across and Freddie Ljungberg rushed in to head down past keeper Aldo Bobadilla, who had held off Sweden severals times prior. This was a scrap and it looked a draw but the concentration has to last until the final whistle otherwise tiredness sets in and mistakes can invariably happen.

Germany v Ecuador kicks off at 3pm on Tuesday to decide the winner of Group A, with England v Sweden later on at 8pm that evening. With Ecuador, they close down and are strong in tackles, the Germans may not enjoy the time and space they utilised before, whereas at the back the Germans should tighten up or risk a breakthrough they experienced against Costa Rica on a more dangerous level, with Carlos Tenorio and Augustin Delgado on form, along with Luis Valencia, Ivan Kaviedes may start and Edison Mendez. Crucially Michael Ballack and Bernt Schneider may be the key to the creativity for the Germans, and a better game from Bastian Schweinsteiger than that against Poland.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not that impressive last night and I wonder if the Sweden coach would be bold to drop him and allow Allback and Larsson to start. Christian Wilhelmsson and Kim Kallstrom are clever attack-minded players and we know of Ljungberg. In the Swedes' favour is their presence to come at you and carve and then wait to see what drops their way, so England should look to possession and sharp attacks to keep the Swedes on the back foot. We shouldn't afford too many missed chances as the Swedes are potentially able to snatch a goal under any lapse of concentration. They came at Trinidad and Paraguay, that's their style and it can open them up on a quick counter, something which Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney should look to thrive on.



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