Monday, June 26, 2006

Götterdämmerung, World Cup Edition

The U.S. flamed out, the Dutch are history, and now I can eagerly wait for France to bore Spain out of the tournament and we'll have a quarterfinal completely free of my three rooting interests. It's been a while, so let's take these in order:

USA 1 Ghana 2

It's fun to get mad at a ref, especially when surrounded by dozens of belligerent fans drinking at ten in the morning at Brewhouse (great decision by the local soccer bar to serve drinks only in plastic cups; that'll come in handy when England gets knocked out) and especially when that ref is German. (Trust me, the "still mad about Dresden?" jokes were flying fast and furious at halftime.) Merk's decision to gift Ghana the winning goal was an atrocious call, given that: (1) refs have not been calling anything in the box other than fouls that deprive opponents of clear scoring chances; and (2) Onyewu didn't even foul Pimpong (a sentence that surely rivals "Tatupu tackled by Tuiasosopo" in sports history). That said, the U.S. was CLEARLY the inferior team on Friday and did not deserve to get a result. The bad call might have deprived us of momentum and made the hill to high to climb, but what does it say about the U.S. that they responded to adversity by quitting instead of getting angry and playing their asses off. Actually, quitting might be too strong a term. The U.S. seemed to play hard and for a five-minute stretch from minutes 65 to 70 created a lot of pressure, but they were devoid of ideas. Beasley can't really be blamed since he created the U.S. goal, although he didn't play well for the rest of the game, but Landon Donovan was useless. He fluffed a good shooting chance in the first half and refused to attack the box in the second when he cut in from the right. My biggest concern about Bruce Arena right now is that the young players who should be the heart of the team - Donovan and Beasley - played worse in this tournament than they did four years ago. Convey was also useless when he came on in the second half. This is what concerned me about Mike Woodson and the Hawks when Josh Smith and Josh Childress were regressing during the season and it's my concern about Arena now.

Actually, that's not true. I'm also concerned about excessively defensive tactics, namely refusing to play more than one striker in a game the U.S. had to win. A 4-5-1 isn't necessarily a bad formation when you have good offensive midfielders who can get forward and take chances created by a holding forward. Portugal showed this last night, as Maniche, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Deco all played well in tandem with Pauleta. However, when your offensive midfielders are slumping as those of the U.S. were, you need to provide more direct targets and that's where Eddie Johnson would have come in. I couldn't understand why the U.S. spent most of the second half with one relatively ineffective striker when they needed two goals to save themselves.

Holland 0 Portugal 1

How is it that the Dutch did so well in qualifying because Marco van Basten emptied the team of its older, more egotistical players and replaced them with young, hungry guys who worked well in tandem with one another, and yet they're going home because of a selfish performance by all of its attacking players? The Dutch had the lionshare of possession yesterday and put themselves into scoring positions throughout, but they never bothered to try to pick one another out in the box. Robin van Persie was the most glaring offender when he beautifully freed himself in the box, only to shoot with the outside of his boot at a tight angle rather than simply lofting the ball to the far post for Wesley Sneijder to finish. Van Persie was hardly the only offender, as Mark van Bommel decided to shoot every time he got within 35 yards (although one of his shots almost found its way in off the keeper) and Arjen Robben continued to take on multiple defenders without getting help from his teammates. The team's selfishness, combined with two instances of very poor finishing - Cocu hitting the crossbar from six yards out and Kuyt hitting the keeper on a breakaway when it would have been very easy to lift the ball over him or round him - are the reasons why they were KLMing it back to Amsterdam after the game. (OK, that and the Russian ref's novel interpretation that Arjen Robben getting kicked in the chest three yards from goal while going for the ball was not a foul. Robben's reputation as a diver has really hurt him, as he gets fouled all the time now and gets no calls. It's really his own fault. Deco, to a lesser extent, is similar.) Despite all the talk of a new Dutch side, this was the same old thing: great individual skill and questionable ability to use one another. The contrast between the Dutch efforts to score and Portugal's goal - a wonderfully-worked interplay between Ronaldo and Deco on the right and then Pauleta and Maniche in the box - was telling.

A word on Kuyt: he played poorly and I was wondering along with John Harkes why Ruud wasn't brought on, but let's not pretend that Ruud would have been a panacea. He played very poorly throughout the tournament and it's quite apparent, in retrospect, that Alex Ferguson knew something when he demoted Ruud from Manchester United's starting lineup. Alex didn't get that "Sir" before his name by benching in-form players.

As always, I managed to find a new villain other than the team that knocked my team out. In this case, it's England. The English played their usual crap style, getting a goal from a free kick and otherwise creating relatively little. Their overrated defender du jour John Terry nearly gifted Ecuador a goal with a terrible header back to his keeper. (He made a similar mistake that allowed Liverpool to take a 2-0 lead in the F.A. Cup semifinal, and don't get me started on his errors against Barca in the Champions League tie.) Nevertheless, they advanced and will now play Portugal minus their best player (Deco), a second midfielder (Costinha), and possibly their second best attacking player (Ronaldo). They might make a semifinal without playing a side of genuine quality, and that will just continue to build the excessive hype that swirls around their players. Must be nice.

Actually, I found Luis Figo to be the other villain, as any good Barca fan would. He celebrated the fact that he got away with headbutting Mark van Bommel by taking a complete dive upon the slightest contact from Khalid Boulahrouz. Since Cocu didn't get the chance to kick the crap out of him, it falls on Owen Hargreaves to realign my cosmic sense of justice. And the most galling thing is that it turns out that Figo is still pretty good.


Fox said...

I wasn't sure if you'd be able to stomach writing about the Holland game so I'm impressed you gave it such attention. I found the game incredible enjoyable but for many of the wrong reasons.

Yours might be the only blurb I've read on the game that didn't focus entirely on the refs. Nice work. Strangely, most Holland fans are blaming the ref for this one even though the reffing hurt Portugal more (they were down a man twice) and actually was fairly even-handed.

That said, the refereeing was terrible. The ref let things get out of control early and then had no way to rein it back in. The fact is that just about every card was deserved, and many more could have been handed out but it should never have gotten there. (I do have to say that i found the Deco ejection unfortunate since he earned the first card chasing down a play that never should have happened and the second was just stupidity on his part.) The bottom line is that Holland had a ton of chances and was unlucky on some and blew the rest. Of course I'm biased because I picked Portugal as one of my teams in my pool so take what I said with a grain of salt.

Kanu said...

Excellent writeup.

Figo was a joke, but to be fair so was Van Bommel. Figo's "headbutt" was closer to a lovetap, and MVB waited a good 4 seconds before suddenly grabbing his face and falling to the ground. I don't care if he just got bumped in the head, I would have carded his ass. I also would have carded that early foul on C Ronaldo that injured him. Amazing to think with all those cards that they actually could have been more (the karate kick to the chest in the box by Nuno Valente comes to mind -was it really Robben? For some reason I thought it was Kuyt. No matter).

Kanu said...

One last word on the refereeing in that match: although it was out of control, at least it was consistent. He started card crazy and stayed card crazy. Contrast this with the Italy-US match, where the ref was uber card crazy for 60 minutes, then made a massive overcorrection and completely swallowed his whistle for the last 30 minutes. Both were frustrating, but I think the US-Italy ref was even moreso because he was so inconsistent. This is like an UMP in the World Series calling a ridiculously generous strike zone for 6 innings, then switching to a ridiculously small strike zone for the last 3 innings.