Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 64: Spain 1, The Netherlands 0

It was, as one announcer said on ABC, "an ill-tempered final."

Blame it on the Dutch, mostly, who were trying to do what Germany, Paraguay, and others had failed to do: beat Spain by playing ugly soccer.

Spain becomes the first team to win the World Cup after losing its opening match, and perhaps the Swiss have to share a portion of the blame for the strategy of teams that followed, since they laid the blueprint for how a team with inferior talent could hang with, and ultimately beat, the mighty Spaniards.

If I was not surprised that some followed suit, color me a bit surprised that Germany and Dutch appeared to go away from what got them to where they were. I wouldn't think they would concede to themselves that the Spaniards were THAT much better than them. Spain has only lost twice in its last 26 matches, and the other team to beat them, The United States, laid out a different plan (in last year's Confederations Cup) taking the fight to them and scoring early. Traditional logic says that the later the game goes to 0-0 the more the edge tilts towards the lesser side since penalty kicks are a toss up. Yet when a team plays to get to penalty kicks, they also minimize the mistakes they can make. They need to be near perfect.

Holland did have a good chance in the first half with a ball split down the middle (glad to see that doesn't only happen against the U.S.), and the goalkeeper made a solid play diving one way but getting his feet out to deflect the shot that went the other. Spain also missed a golden opportunity late in regulation when an unmarked header went wide.

FIFA was spared controversy on the scale that had marked some of the games, but there were stretches, especially in the second half, where tactics became to dive to the ground at any contact and hope that the attrition of yellow cards would culminate in someone being sent off. The Dutch did lose a player early in the second overtime for a pull just outside the box. The player was unimpeded to the goal, so it pretty much had to be a mandatory yellow (and since it was the second, a man down for The Netherlands), but it was ironic that the foul itself was garden variety given the chippy stuff that had been played all game long.

We've seen a few brilliant strikes of the ball in this cup, but this was one of those very nice (if a little ragged) build ups with multiple players touching the ball as it went from end to end and side to side. The goal itself was a crossing strike off the bounce, and while it was not quite as spectacular as Forlan's similar strike in the 3rd place game, given the time in the game and the stakes, it was a pretty impressive goal.

A couple of other notes. Spain set the record for fewest goals scored by a champion. The previous lowest cumulative goals had been 11 or 12, while Spain found the back of the net only eight times in seven games. an average of 1.14 goals per game. To put that in perspective, that's actually LESS than the U.S. average of 1.25 goals per game and doesn't extrapolate for the fact that the U.S. had a goal disallowed and Spain scored two of its goals in bonus time in the knockout stage (which wouldn't be played in pool play).

It's tempting then to suggest that the U.S. needs to focus on better defense despite the fact that it had trouble settling on strikers and had no goals by strikers. Really, though, teams of Spain's level can make chances (albeit fewer ones) against the best defenses, so its more about not giving away chances. Some of that may be communication, and it was telling to me to hear that seven of Spain's starting 11 players play in the same city. It's the classic debate--break up players to help them develop talent at the highest level or derive the benefits of coherence and playing together.

Depth is another key difference. Having watched every game of the World Cup one thing I noticed was how on the best teams different players impressed in different games. In the final David Villa (tied for the golden boot) was quieter, but Xavi was relentless, controlling the ball and making probing pass after probing pass. Only Brazil seemed to have as many different players to step up.

Congratulations to Spain for its first ever World Cup title. They were the best team throughout and deserved to hoist the trophy.

Wow, watching every single game of the World Cup was harder than I thought.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 63: Germany 3, Uruguay 2

The third place games is one of those eccentricities of the World Cup that makes it what it is. There used to be a third place game in the NCAA tournament but it was discontinued twenty, thirty years ago under the reasonable notion that fans rarely cared and that forcing teams that were coming off staggering disappointments to play a somewhat meaningless game was just mean.

Picking a third place game is like betting on a professional sports preseason game or an NBA or NFL All-Star game. A lot depends on predicting who will care, who will show up, which coach wants to save his job or get momentum for the next meaningful part of a schedule.

I assumed, on one hand, that the game would be a little looser on defense and that would favor Germany. It is just human nature to have a little less concentration on defense, to not be able to trick your mind into thinking its like the "real thing" and bear down. Since Uruguay's game is a little more defensively minded, I figured it would be harder to change on a dime.

On the other hand, Uruguay would have a couple players coming off suspensions who would be eager to play, and that might make the effort a bit more on their part. (Germany, for instance, didn't even play Miroslav Klose, who had an opportunity to set a career mark in World Cup goals).

The game itself was pretty typical of a third place game, which is to say atypical of a World Cup game. There were lead changes (Germany scored first, Uruguay took a 2-1 lead out of the half, and Germany scored the last two for the win). The field was rained on and pretty sloppy, so that didn't make for pretty soccer. But it was worth watching for Diego Forlan's goal that could (depending on what David Villa does) earn him a part of the Golden Boot and should earn him a permanent YouTube home in some thread of pretties World Cup goals. Typically called a scissors kick, Forlan's shot was a perfectly timed strike in which he managed to get his leg over a crossing ball by throwing his legs in the air. That a player can just not whiff on such a play is extraordinary, that he can hit the goal (that is, aim) is astounding.

Plus, that play had one of my favorite replays of the World Cup. Next time you see the highlight, keep your eye on the German goaltender. He never even moves until the ball is in the net.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 62: Spain 1, Germany 0

The game was a little boring, actually. Disappointingly so, unless you had a rooting interest. Not that Spain, or its fans, will apologize. This was one of those games where the teams played less to win than to not lose. Each had enough respect for the other that they did not want to give away a key mistake to put themselves in the hole.

That was a game recipe that, I think, played into Spain's hands, as they have been playing that style all World Cup, while Germany had been playing more wide open, up and down. In some ways, I was a bit surprised. I thought Germany would have--and play with--more confidence, and be able to play at Spain, using its offense not just to counter punch but to control the time of possession and thus put less stress on its defense. Instead Germany looked a little too tentative.

I think I may have underestimated Spain's defense. Granted, like Brazil, Spain's defense always looks better because the offense holds the ball so the defense is fresher and has less opportunities to defend. Still, Spain has played the two teams (Germany and Portugal) in the last three games that have scored the most goals in the world cup and both teams were held scoreless. In between those two was a grind it out game against a Paraguay team that was the soccer equivalent of the Baltimore Ravens or '85 Chicago Bears. As such, Spain has won different kinds of games, and it got its bad break out of the way against Switzerland.

I also think I undervalued Spain because of its loss a year ago to the United States in the Confederations Cup. I now suspect in that game the United States played loose because like the underdogs they were, they had nothing to lose, and like the team from another conference in the NCAA they didn't necessarily know to be cowed. In some cases, teams like that are dangerous because they are used to the other team being better and to playing games where they know they have to maximize potential, whereas more prestigious teams are not used to experiencing that and have trouble adjusting when they play an elite team.

It should be a great final.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 61: The Netherlands 3, Uruguay 2

Not much to add about this game. It was a more talented side against a game, scrappy, undermanned side. I almost felt like I was watching the U.S. again.

The Netherlands scored early with what the announcer called an absolute firecracker, and it was. Because camera distances are used to show broader parts of the field in soccer, the casual observer often doesn't realize how quickly the ball moves with some of these kicks.

Uruguay got level on a goal by star Diego Forlan on a play in which he took a pass, thought about shooting from distance and then noticed he wasn't be closed on and so used some dribbling to set up a cleaner shot. The ball bent and deflected off the keeper into the net.

This goal, too, reminded me of watching the U.S., and it was nice to know that even a team like Holland has some defensive lapses during the game. I'm used to hearing American defenders say about such goals that on this level players can "make you pay" for not closing soon enough. Forlan did.

Even so, the Dutch never looked shaken. This was a team that trailed Brazil, so there isn't panic in them. They scored two quick goals in the second half and the game was effectively over, although Uruguay got a late goal to make the closing few moments a Maalox masher.

Credit an understaffed Uruguay team for making the semifinals and staying level for a half, but the better team went through today.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 60: Spain 1, Paraguay 0

Immovable object, meet irresistible force.

Paraguay had given up a total of 1 goal in this World Cup, and no team had scored in the last four games.

Spain had the most offensive, attack minded squad of the World Cup and had, in its last game, figured out a way to crack a Portugal defense that had also not given up a World Cup goal.

In a World Cup of bizarre referring blunders, goalkeeper errors, last minute goals and extra-time handballs, what else was left? How about two saved penalty kicks and yet another disallowed goal.

The key sequence started with a Paraguayan being pulled down in the box on a set piece--somewhere Michael Bradley must be thinking, "I knew that was a foul"--getting a penalty kick which was saved by the goalkeeper. Video shows three players inside the box when the ball is struck, a clear violation that was not called. Spain immediately broke on a counter attack and when their striker was tripped moving towards the goal, the referee awarded a penalty kick to Spain but inexplicably gave only a yellow card to the defender (a foul to stop a clear goal scoring opportunity is supposed to be an automatic ejection). Spain buried the penalty kick and was finally on the board against the stingy Paraguayan defen...

Not so fast. The referee waved off the goal, claiming a violation...that Spain had put people inside the box to rush a possible rebound. He made them to the penalty kick again, and this time, amazingly, the goalkeeper stopped the kick. Yet the referee nightmare was not yet over. As is common on a penalty kick, several players are rushing the box to try to get a rebound. The goalkeeper pretty much tackled one Spanish player to stop him from getting the rebound, yet this was not called a penalty nor even a foul and Paraguay had dodged its bullet.

If ever a game seemed destined for penalty kicks, this one was it. But Spain kept pressing forward and around the 80th minute had a clear shot that beat the goalie and...deflected off the post! David Villa took the rebound and curved a shot to the far post which again hit the post but this time spun bounce in.

Spain now moves forward for a match with Germany. It has plenty of practice with teams playing defensive minded soccer, but now they get a team that has put the ball in the net 13 times this World Cup, a feat Spain has accomplished only six times. Yet because of Germany's pressing attack, Spain may find more room to operate and the semi-final could be an up and down, more open game that suits the Spanish well. In the end, the question may be how good is the Spanish defense?

World Cup 2010 Game 59: Germany 4, Argentina 0

In my World Cup pool I had picked Argentina for this game all the way until the morning of, when I did a 180 and switched my pick to Germany.

Sometimes it helps to have a few hard games out of the way, to be challenged and forced to elevate your game. Argentina had looked very impressive, but its competition had yet to include a Top 10 ranked team (Nigeria-21, South Korea-47, Greece-13, Mexico-17). Also, people forget that Argentina was up and down during qualification and actually, until the last game or two was in danger of missing the World Cup altogether or having to play the play-in series against Costa Rica. Which is to say, I kind of felt like Argentina was a bit inconsistent and would have a bad game somewhere.

Germany, after it's 4-0 win over Australia was a bit undervalued because of its loss to Serbia. They had to play most of that game with 10 men, however, so that result was misleading. Mostly, though, Germany was scoring goals. I was concerned about it giving up a 2-0 lead to England (even though the second goal wasn't counted), but having strikers who put shots on goal is very important at this stage. Opportunities are fewer, so you have to finish them.

Argentine star Lionel Messi made a record for the most shots on goal in a World Cup without recording a goal. Perhaps because of the history of Maradona in 1986, Argentina was waiting for an individual to have a transcendent goal, to run through four or five defenders and laser a picture perfect shot on goal. Germany seemed to spread it around more, and that brought up the classic question of whether you want to have a go to guy in the clutch or whether you want to have a "balanced" team. This appears to be a year, in sports, for the latter, with the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl and Duke winning the college basketball championship. (Neither of the two seniors from that team was drafted in the NBA.)

Miroslave Klose might not have his name bandied about with Kaka, David Villa, and Messi as the best in the world, but he's closing in on all time goals at the World Cup. Even so, I'm sure he'd give up the Golden Boot (for most goals scored) to get the team trophy.

Friday, July 02, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 58: Uruguay 1, Ghana 1

In the first 56 games of the World Cup, the team that scored first lost once. In the quarterfinals, the first team to score has yet to win. And this was a game that, years from now, will be remembered for how it ended rather than how it began.

Ghana broke through at the end of the first half on a curving, rolling shot that caught the goalkeeper leaning the wrong way. Uruguay got the equalizer early in the second half, then both teams settled in.

The end of overtime looked a bit like a reverse of the end of regulation between Ghana and the United States. In the earlier game, Ghana looked gassed and was saved by the whistle, getting enough of a second wind to score early in overtime. Here it was Uruguay that looked out of energy, hanging on by a fingernail against a younger, pressing side. Even so, the penalty kicks looked inevitable.

Then a foul let to a free kick that landed in the box. Shot...saved by goalie. Rebound for another kick which was kicked out by a defender on the goal line. The second rebound was put on goal and Ghana was going to the semi-finals.

Except Uruguayan Luis Suarez, standing on the goal line, deliberately handed the ball away. He got the compulsory red card (ejection, suspension for next two games), but Uruguay was technically still alive.

Then, incredibly, Ghana missed the penalty kick as the player hit the top of the goal post and the kick sailed away.

I've mentioned earlier in this series of blogs that one problem with eliminating diving and other forms of cheating is the cost/benefit analysis. Here was a classic example. Suarez deliberately cheated to prevent a certain goal in a situation where the game would have been over. In such a situation, anything that keeps the goal off the board is better than taking the loss, and so he took the 1% chance over no chance at all.

Once the penalty kick was missed, it seemed inevitable that Ghana would lose in the shoot out, and they did.

Uruguay may find itself in the position of villains after a sort. Yet what Suarez did is what anyone would do...and he accepted the penalty. Perhaps people will look at this the same was as an American fan might view fouling a player on a breakaway layup to concede two freethrows or tackling a receiver and getting a pass interference call rather than giving up a touchdown. One difference is, of course, that this was that here the outcome was certain. (A player can miss a breakaway dunk, a receiver can drop a pass.) I seem to recall that in baseball or softball, if a player used an illegal means to stop a home run that the home run would be awarded. But the deliberate handball has a penalty in the rule book and rare, very rare is the instance in which that penalty is preferable to the outcome of the play.

Will any of this matter to FIFA? Probably not. The Maradonna "Hand of God" goal was deliberate cheating and they did not change the rules. This is the most puzzling aspect of the sport for Americans. To be sure, nothing could be done here since the rules governing the game were in place, but American sports generally move to ensure such instances won't happen again.

Will it matter to Uruguay? Nope. They will be underdogs against The Netherlands, particularly with Suarez serving a suspension, but they live to play another game.

World Cup 2010 Game 57: The Netherlands 2, Brazil 1

I guess that's why they play the game.

Pretty much everything that happened in this game was not supposed to happen. Brazil got the first goal and yet lost the game, only the second time, I think, in this World Cup where the team that has scored first lost. (The other was Nigeria/Greece, a game where the balance was affected by a red card.)

Brazil has won five championships; The Netherlands is the consensus best team to have never won. When Brazil went up the early goal, The Netherlands was supposed to fold, one more time of being good but not good enough.

Not this time. A lucky break with an own goal in the second half (the first ever "own goal" in Brazil's World Cup history), and suddenly it was Brazil losing its composure...looking like a favorite that was feeling the pressure.

This game was absolutely earned. In retrospective, Brazil's final with the United States at last year's Confederation Cup said more about chinks in its armor than the arrival of the United States. One talking point--the field was in poor shape. Did that help The Netherlands? They scored one goal from a long volley and another off a set piece header. Was Brazil's precision passing hurt by the field? (It didn't look that way in the first half where the first goal was scored on a thirty yard diagonal pass up the heart of the defense.)

The Netherlands will likely be a favorite in the semi-finals.