Friday, June 27, 2014

World Cup - Gloves off as we move to the knockout stage

In the World’s largest tournament has sorted through the rubble, rescued the survivors, and has moves into the knockout stage. Needless to say the final 16 countries left standing weren’t what anyone would have expected, and for the second time in one year no brackets are left in tact. It’s because of this that the 2014 may go down as the best ever. In addition to records being set for comebacks, goals, and late game scoring, the upsets have this tournament starting to resemble another American tournament that takes place in March that we’re quite fond of. So to try and predict where the tournament could go from here we have to look at where it came from. As we mentioned in some previous post, one of the things that always stands out for me is the mental game, which sides have it together enough upstairs to handle the stage and who is a time bomb waiting to destruct? We’ve seen examples mental lapses by individuals that have directly cost their country an opportunity to escape the group stage let alone hoisting the trophy, and I’ll pose the same question again, how can you train for 4 years only to get to he pitch and leave your brain at home? Given Portugal’s performance in the final two matches of the group stage will forever raise the question, but for not Pepe’s ‘headbutt’ on Thomas Muller which left “A Seleccao” one man short for the lion’s share of the match resulting in a 4 goal defeat, the goal differential tie-breaker which was the decider in sending the USA through rather than Portugal will live in infamy for years to come on what could have been. Ironically, as egregious as it was, it wasn’t the worst mistake of the first round. That dubious honor goes to Luis Suraez whom brought out his inner Mike Tyson against Giorgio Chiellini by biting his shoulder, and leaving his mark not only on his shoulder but on Uruguay’s world cup as well. FIFA handed him a 9 game/4 month suspension and baring the possibility of a Winter long tsunami, should signify the end of his world cup as well as his countries’ chances. The fact that he is a tree-time offender not only justifies the sentence but leads you to believe as catastrophic as this is for his team, he may have more problems personally. On a team level, that prize goes to the Ivory Coast for basically going to sleep during the entire extra-time period against Greece and allowing them to continually attack without retort, and eventually earing a penalty kick goal when a tie would have sent them through. This collapse is particularly sad as it was the final WC match for Didier Drogba whom deserved to go out much better than that. This was an example where although the manger can’t get out there and play for them, but one with the personality of challenging his players either through enthusiasm or confrontation would have fit really well as now rather than working for four minutes they’ll have forty years to remember what could have been. That said, let’s get to the countries that are still playing and the matchups in the knockout phase. Group A – Probably the only group where there weren’t any surprises. We knew the host nation would go on as the winner of the group. After Brazil, you had to think Mexico would put it together despite literally getting into the tournament because of the good graces of their rivals from the North. They are playing like a team of cancer survivors with a new lease on life which makes them very dangerous. It was either they or Croatia that would advance and it was clear in their head-to-head who the better side was. So from that group we get Brazil vs. Chile – What else can you say? When you look in the dictionary under “home court advantage” there will be a picture of the 2014 World Cup. I don’t know how they actually manage to get to the games as the infrastructure is a mess and God forbid it rains but the fans are there and they are loud. Chile has one shot in this match and that’s to get out first with a goal, and park a bus the size of an unused subway train in front of goal. Oh yea, and stop the poster boy for this year’s world cup from scoring. I know, a lot of correlation and analogy but you get the point that this may be a forgone conclusion with a betting line of +550. But before you lay all of that juice don’t forget the type of Tournament we’ve had so far and the countries we expected to be playing this week that will on be in Brazil if they’re on vacation. True, Spain may have been living on reputation but it was the 2-0 loss to Chile that opened the eyes of the world to that fact. Also true they didn’t look good against Holland but hindsight might prove that no one did and if that is the litmus test of the prowess of this side then don’t be surprised if they pull of their second upset of a world power in one cup. Nigeria/France – France the Group E winner with a 2-1 record but the draw came against Ecuador a side with a similar make up to Nigera in regards to speed throughout the lineup which is rare as that is usually a distinction that Le Bleu holds. The tournament got off to exciting start with the last second win by Switzerland over Ecuador, as it turns out a win that pushed Schweizer Nati through. The knockout match between Nigeria and France should be one of the most exciting we see in this round and will certainly send a shot across the bow to Germany who is heavily favored in it’s match against Algeria, as either one these sides presents a plethora of matchup problems for the Germans. We’ve said from the start that Germany would be better served if they finished as the runner up in the group but that remains to be seen, we’ll either be prophets or punks. Germany/Algeria – Germany comes into the knockout round with the honor of being the winner of the ‘Group of Death’ with the strength of that win coming off their opening blowout win over Portugal, aided by the stupidity of the Pepe red card, leading to the 4-0 win and taking all pressure off of losing the tie-breaker. However much like France, the Germans came into the knockout phase with 7 points, and their tie coming at the hands of an African nation, Ghana, a side laced with speed at every position and it took a late 2nd half goal to produce the result for Die Mannschaft a position they don’t want to find themselves in this match or the next. They should get through this one but we think they pay the piper in the next. Belgium/USA – Belgium came into the tournament ranked 11th in the world according to FIFA but pretty much everyone views them as a much bigger treat than that. Winners of Group H with 9 points, going 3-0, reinforced those perceptions. A collection of stars from some of the best club teams in the top European leagues, The Red Devils have the pedigree of a side that could be still playing in two weeks. The USA meanwhile as already exceeded expectations of even their coach by escaping the group of death despite losing their top striker, could mean there’s more surprises in the cards for The Stars and Stripes. The conflict in this match will be the better team vs. the team with the better players. No doubt on paper the Belgians have more talent, but they haven’t really played a cohesive game yet in the tournament despite their 3 wins, and the quality of their group had the lowest rating 67.5 of all eight (Group G was 36.75). The US has shown better team play than any side they’ve sent to the cup in recent memory and they hope that will prove to be the difference in this match however they are notorious for horrendous starts and egregious mistakes defensively that lead to matches that didn’t yield results despite outplaying their opponent. If that happens on Tuesday, they will be headed home as the margin for error is zero at this level and the question facing this squad is are they ready for a match of that intensity?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

World Cup - All on the Line in Second Match for Many Favorites

As we reached the end of the first round of games and some have played two things are starting to take shape, and as always there’s no shortage of story lines. The biggest has to be the Spain not just exiting but being the first defending world champions to lose their first two matches and not qualify to move on as a result. No bad calls, no red cards, no excuses. They simply looked too slow, too old, and unprepared to compete in a tournament of this magnitude despite knowing that they would have a target on their back coming in as the defending champs. In that regard Vicente del Bosque has something to answer for as not being prepared to play solely rest on the shoulders of the coach, and he will as the end of an era comes down. It only took to games to send Holland and Chile to the next round out of group B which could have made a case for the real “group of death” and now you can see why. England and Uruguay find themselves in a must win situation in their second game of the group stage after losing game 1. England was a toss-up against Italy in the their first match but Uruguay was a heavy favorite against Costa Rica in their first game as the general census was they would be ‘sacrificial lamb’ of Group D but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Now what was already a must see game of the cup has added drama as the loser will surely be eliminated if not mathematically but realistically. CONCACAF so far has made a statement for gaining respect as it’s representatives have gone 3-1-1 in their first 5 games. The US, Mexico, and Costa Rica all won their first games while Honduras fell easily at the hands of France. Then Mexico drew the host nation in one of the most exciting matches of the tournament thus far even though there weren’t any goals scored. For a team than needed a miracle followed by a playoff win Mexico sure doesn’t look like a feeder fish that won’t be around for the knockout phase rather a contender that if/when they do play for blood, are capable of making a deep run. The US are still viewed as underdogs despite their top 15 world ranking and perhaps why they can still sneak up on people. As Ghana was still walking off the bus the US took the lead inside the first minute then refused to give it back. Now they control their own destiny but even with the win they’re still no lock to move own as the teams waiting for them are the number 2 and 4 sides in the world respectively. Lastly, if I see one more player get ‘red carded’ for doing something stupid I’m going to turn the tele off. Seriously, there truly is no other event in sports where you can say you’re on the “World Stage” like you can at the World Cup. Literally the entire world is watching and the stakes for the country you represent are biblical, and you’re going to lose your head, get tossed and at least cost your team the match, goal differential in a tie-breaker, or at worst the tournament. You build up to this for four years and then get out on the pitch and head butt a player just outside the penalty box as if no one will notice? As a result of Pepe’s bone head play Portugal was down a man early to the second ranked team in the world whom immediately took advantage and dropped a 4-spot on them, sending them to last place in the group and giving them a huge goal differential to make up. Now the cup may not be over for A Seleccao but they have a mountain to climb and must win their next two matches in the group of death (the next one without the services of Pepe) or their world cup is over before it started and he’ll have to explain his actions to a country that has never made it further than 3rd in 1966. Alex Song of Cameroon was almost as egregious chopping the arm of a defender in mid field while on the break, earning him an instant red while the match was still in doubt, but the end result was the same, a 0-4 loss to Croatia, sending them down to the bottom of the group. There have been two other players which have accumulated reds as a result of two yellow, Wilson Palacios of Honduras and Kostas Katsouranis Greece, and both teams couldn’t muster wins although Greece did save their cup chances with a draw. So perhaps now the excitement that often accompanies the end of anticipation is over, perhaps we can see why these players are the best in the world at what they do, on the pitch, not in the stands.

Monday, June 9, 2014

World Cup Preview - Group by Group

No doubt the country hosting the world cup has a decided advantage besides the automatic entry bid. However this time around it may be more of a hindrance to the host country as in addition to expectations that hoisting the trophy is simply a matter of time, there are also concerns that the stadiums may not be 100% ready and outside those facilities there may be a bit of civil unrest. Fortunately they play in a group they should control so making the knockout round will be rather easy and might ease some of the tensions felt by both the team and the country. However things have not gotten off to a good start as striking subway workers in Sao Paulo needed to restrained with tear gas and several high traffic stations have been shut down. Union officials are threatening to maintain work stoppage through Thursday’s opening matches. So it appears there will not be a dearth of drama either on or off the pitch. That said, lets get to the afore mentioned and take a look at the Groups starting with the host Group. Group A (Group Metric Strength 62.25 – (Brazil #2 Fifa World Ranking), Mexico (25), Croatia (18), Cameroon (38) Brazil - We’ve already established the fervor that will be a tail/head wind for the host nation and no one questions their talent on the pitch itself, but just how Luiz Felipe Scolari will deploy the talents of Neymar, Dani Alves, and Oscar to achieve the maximum potential? They should win the group but beyond that all of the off the field distractions and the national pressure will determine how far they go. Mexico – Hard to believe this is a side that was on life support in regards to their chances of simply qualifying until they got a stoppage time gift from their neighbors to the North and now they’re in and moreover should make the final 16. After an impressive run over the last 8 national matches (barring the exception of an 0-2 result in their last friendly) the question for El Tri will be between their ears. Do they have the mental game to put together a solid string of games and build some consistency that we haven’t seen from them literally in years? Croatia – This is a balanced team with plenty of experience, nine players have 50-plus caps, led by captain Darijo Srna, Lika Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Rakitic, and striker Mario Mandzukic. They’ll need to blend some youth to go along with the experience if they’re going to get through the group stage and make it to the knockout stage where anything can happen. A place they haven’t seen since 1998. Cameroon – The wild card with enough athleticism to give the others a scare if they get a lead in the 2nd half but they’re best striker Eto’o has proven he can score at the highest level but at 33, he’s not what we’re used to seeing from the Indomitable Lions so they’ll need to unveil a secret weapon to assist him if Cameroon is going to shock the world and move on to the round of 16. The Smacchat take, Brazil and Mexico advance. Group B – (Group Strength 52.5) (Spain #1)(Chile 14)(Netherlands 15)(Australia 40) Spain – Top to bottom the best side in the tournament, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, it reads like an EPL all-star team, if they had one, and look to be the first repeat winner since the host nation Brazil in 1958 and 62 but it won’t be an easy as it may not be the toughest group in the eyes of many but a trip to the knockout stage is not guaranteed. If they do manage to pull it off they’ll go down as the greatest side ever. Chile – A sleeper pick to win the group as they have steadily moved up the world rankings and will be playing not too far from home. Under new coach Jorge Sampaoli the Chileans play an aggressive style of football that will cause incessant pressure and possibly force mistakes that could lead to easy scores. Netherlands – The Dutch have always been famous for a high scoring game and in years past have been a sexy pick to win the whole thing. That paid off four years ago and they’ve grown wiser after the heartbreaking lose against Spain in the 2010 cup but unfortunately they’ve also grown 4 years older and Arjen Robben and Wesley Sndijder will have to have to be creative to get good looks. A 3-point result against Australia is a necessity but not guaranteed, and in any of the top 3 slip then they’re going home. Australia is coming off their best showing ever in the last World Cup making the round of 16 but many of those players are still on the squad but their mental edge that comes with experience will come back to hinder them in the 2nd half when they need fresh legs to stave off the younger, quicker, compeers in the group. The Smacchat take, Spain and Holland advance in a surprise. Group C – (Group Strength 59.25 – 4th) (Columbia #8), (Ivory Coast 23), (Greece 12), (Japan 36). Columbia - Attempting to return it’s glory days of 1990 when they made the round of 16 Columbia has totally turned around a program that has been absent of the tournament all together let alone getting out of the Group Stage, which they didn’t do in their last two cup appearances in 98’ and 94’. Over the past 16 years the “Los Cafeteros” has made a youth movement literally starting at the beginning, and have come full circle. They come in as the group favorites in a tough group and should make a deep run including marquis matchups with England and Brazil where we thing the winner makes it all the way to the final. Ivory Coast – The “Post Dragba” era is still on hold as the 36 year old striker will still try to be a force in the middle but this time he has a very good supporting cast, perhaps the best in Africa, featuring a trio of dangerous forwards Yay Toure, Giovanni Sio, and Salomon Kalou. Cote D’ivoire should make it out of the group stage where it will probably face the consensus sleeper pick Uruguay who will end their cup run and send the legend into retirement. Greece – This side has played the same way since it won the Euro in 2004, but that defensive style doesn’t fit well in today’s game or particularly with this field. The midfield still relies on the team’s captain, Giorgos Karagounis, and others that have been on the pitch for the “Pirate Ship” for the past few years, whom couldn’t make a deep run and this won’t be any different. Japan – Although a strong team in Asia, very creative and dynamic they may fall short on the world stage. It’s pace of play is fun to watch, especially going forward. It had the best final-round differential in the Asian Football Conference thanks to 16 goals in 8 games so they can put the ball in the back of the net, and they’ll need to do it as they give up a ton and there will not be many shootouts in this group. Group D – (Group Strength 40.5 – 2nd) (Uruguay 7)(England 10)(Italy 9)(Costa Rica 28) This group easily could make a case for carrying the “Group of Death” scarlet letter around their necks but we also gave the nod to Group G, but this was a close runner up. If it were solely based on names and tradition then this would be the clear winner, but a couple of sides have lost a step and are not as strong as they’ve been in previous years. Uruguay – Let’s not bury the lead, we believe they will win the group and make it all the way to the semi-finals where they will face the defending champions and the winner will hoist the cup as the overall winner in a dramatic rematch of the classic 1950 final. How is that for anti-climatic? They are our not-so-sleeper but upset pick as they have the pace, finesse, and skill to beat the host on their home soil. They’re pace is relentlessly aggressive and this side has always had great defenders so it’s hard to score against them. They now have added strikers that are among the most formidable in the world Diego Forlan, Stuani, Luiz Suarez and Edison Cavani. Under the radar due having to qualify via a playoff but the strength of the CONMEBOL was the best in the world. England – The Lions have a history of oscillating between not qualifying for the cup and playing their best football on the biggest stage. They have only failed to get out of the group stage once since 1962 but have not qualified 3 times over that same span. This time around they bypassed the drama of sweating the qualification process and have looked strong. England will have to work to keep their streak of 16 appearances going as somethings gotta’ give between Uruguay, England, and Italy, someone’s going home. Italy – The Italians will be in every match they play because of how strong they are defensively. In qualification they were undefeated in 10 matches with only 9 goals scored against them. It may not be exciting but it gets results and that’s all anyone will remember if they move on. Age will be a factor and if they get behind will they have the firepower to make up a deficit? Costa Rica – Los ticos are proud of their stingy defense, so they’re not going to be embarrassed, but in the end they’re not going to create enough goal-scoring chances to make up for the ones that slip to the cracks. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto traditionally uses five players in the back line, but that often leads to a limited attack and still might not hold the likes of Suarez or Rooney. Pick your poison, and they will be 3 close matches but CR will be doing well if they can get even one result. The Smac take? Uruguay and England advance. Group E (Group Strength – 61.25 5th)(France 17)(Ecuador 26)(Switzerland 6)(Honduras 33) France – The French have been in damage control mode sine the 2010 World Cup were they were embarrassed more for their drama off the pitch than on it. Burdened with the task of repairing the French reputation in addition to making a run worthy of their ranking is quite a bit on their plate but lost in the smoke is the fact that this is a deep and talented side that could surprise the pundits and make a very deep run. Winger Frank Ribery and striker Karim Benzema can score from any situation, meaning they’ll be within striking distance in most matches. Ecuador – The offense is better than the defense although Ecuador scored only 20 goals in qualifying. Captian and man U. midfielder Antonio Valencia is the point of focus he’ll need to elevate the game of rest. However the team has struggled since losing striker Christian Benitez, who died of cardiac arrest last summer. The players my band behind his memory and put together a Cup for ages for them. Switzerland – A young side that is full of confidence at their high seeding in the group which has been the subject of some controversy but they will do their best to show why FIFA has such a lofty view of their skill enough to give them a #6 world ranking. They are capable of adapting to the style of their opponent and will poach goals when facing the upper echelon of the field, and against the rest they will try to take the match to them. Honduras – The Achilles heel for this side will be putting the ball in the back of the net, in the last Cup Los Catrachos game up only three goals in the group stage, which was among the best in the field, but couldn’t put any across the line for themselves, which is a solid recipe for an early ticket home. Their main attacking threat will come from striker Carlo Costly, who had seven in qualifying, but the team’s overall quality might not be there just yet. The young players are a little unseasoned while the veterans might be a little too old. View previews of every group here.