Friday, June 09, 2006
Here We Go Yo, Here We Go Yo
So what, so what's the scenario?
With the Braves' season circling the toilet drain, the World Cup cannot arrive at a better time. As I type this, we're four hours away from the Nationalmannschaft (gotta love the Germans' ability to smush concepts together into one, unpronounceable world) and the Ticos, the Mayhem crew are arguing about the merits of soccer, and, to quote Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding, I'm so excited, I can't keep a thought in my head. So naturally, it's a perfect time to blog my remaining incoherent thoughts in advance of El Mundial.
Let's start with a prediction on a winner. Every time I think of a contender, I think of reasons why they can't win.
Brazil? A number of their players are off form and I don't know how they're going to respond as the favorites. Plus, their fullbacks are an appetizing target for opposing offenses. I just don't see Roberto Carlos and Cafu holding up over an entire tournament, which is going to put too much pressure on Dida, Lucio, and Juan.
Argentina? A very good team, but I suspect that Riquelme is going to disappoint because he does well at Villareal where everything revolves around him, but he failed at Barcelona when he was surrounded by great players and had to fit in. Argentina is far more like the Blaugrana than the Yellow Submarine. I like everything about their team, but nothing jumps out at me, except for Leo Messi who, if he's healthy, could be the player of the tournament.
France? Despite a good forward line, they cannot score goals. They didn't score a single goal at the last World Cup against Senegal, Uruguay, and Denmark. You would think that they would respond by kicking ass in World Cup qualifying, but they scored a grand total of three goals in six matches against Switzerland, Israel, and Ireland. The World Cup simply isn't the time for a team to start scoring when it hasn't scored in ages. I used to think that the cause was Thierry Henry being an overrated player, but watching him this year has disabused me of that notion somewhat (although he's still not an equal of Ronaldinho). My latest theory is that the French do not have any width. Their starting midfield consists of two engine room defensive midfielders (Makelele and Viera), a formerly sublime attacking midfielder who has become inconsistent in his old age (Zidane), and one winger (Malouda, spelled by Ribery). I don't think that that's enough of a midfield to stretch an opposing defense and punish them from packing the middle. Thus, Henry doesn't have the space that he does at Arsenal when Ljungberg, Pires, and Reyes are stretching opposing back lines out. Plus, France is making a terrible decision playing Barthez over Coupet and I sincerely hope that they are punished for their insouciance.
England? I think I've covered this one. No defensive midfielder, no ability to win in penalty kicks, out-of-form strikers, and a history of flattering to deceive. Honestly, who was the last big name country that England have beaten in the World Cup? France in the group stage of '82? I guess the Argentina win in '02 counts, despite the fact that it was achieved on the backs of a dive by Owen and a down-the-middle penalty by Beckham (the last one he's seemingly converted for the Three Lions), not to mention the fact that that Argentina team turned out to be way overrated.
Germany? I'm honestly tempted. Ballack is fighting with Klinsi, but that's only part of the fine German tradition of the star player and coach not seeing eye-to-eye (or do we need to ask Beckenbauer about his relationship with Helmut SchÃ¶n. The Germans fit together as a squad, they have an in-form keeper (Lehmann) and two in-form strikers (Klose and Podolski). All that said, I'm not sold on their defense. I can't get 2-2 against Japan or 1-4 against Italy out of my head and I don't think that Metzelder, Mertesacker, and Huth are going to cut it in central defense. They'll make the semis and then get knocked out.
Italy? They were my pick six months ago, but a number of things have changed. Aside from the giant question mark that is their match-fixing scandal and the fact that a number of their players must be wondering whether they're going to be in Serie B next year, taking buses to Albinoleffe and Pescara, there are injury problems on the back line and the team's signature player - Francesco Totti - is coming off of a broken ankle and has a lousy history with the Azzuri. I'm also not sold on their midfield, which doesn't have much offensive spark. I am sold, however, on the fact that they'll be much better under Marcelo Lippi than under the certifiably insane Giovanni Trappatoni. Nothing would surpise me from this team. They could fail to win a game or they could win the whole thing.
Spain? Call me when they find a striker who can score a goal.
Portugal? See: Spain.
When in doubt, I throw up my hands and pick my favorite team:
Why am I taking the Dutch?
1. Hubris. Barca won the Champions League, so naturally, my team will win the World Cup, as well. Right?
2. Form. The Dutch drew a difficult qualifying group (Czech Republic, Finland, and Romania) and didn't lose a game, while conceding only three goals.
3. Homefield. Next to Germany and possibly England, the Dutch are going to be the best-supported team at the tournament. And if you think that doesn't matter, please note that Holland won the European Championship in Germany in '88 and lost the final to West Germany in the '74 World Cup. Their record on German soil is as good as Patton or Zhukov's. (There I go again.)
4. They're healthy. And not just that, none of their key offensive players should be especially tired. Rafael Van der Vaart missed the second half of the season at Hamburgwithh an ankle problem (and was a revelation in the first half of the year). Wesley Sneijder was in a similar boat at Ajax. Ruud van Nistlerooy got onto Alex Ferguson's bad side and found himself with time on his hands at the end of the Premier League season. (Ruud is looking for a new team and pissed off, two good factors for a key player.) Mark van Bommel, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie didn't play in all of their team's games for rotational reasons (not to mention that fact that Robin can be a little testy at times).
5. Marco van Basten is a Dutch god, which means that the players will listen to him (thus preventing the traditional Dutch bugaboo of infighting bringing the team down) and the media will not overanalyze every one of his decisions. OK, the media will overanalyze his decisions, but they'll be respectful about it.
6. They're due. Finalists in '74 and '78, semifinalists in '98, they've been knocking on the door for years. Like France, Dean Smith, Tom Osborne, and Bobby Bowden, that door has to come down eventually.
7. They fit well together as a team. Van Basten has picked a relatively young group of players who aren't necessarily the 11 best Dutch players, but are hungry and play well together. If there's one thing that Greece's run in 2004 taught us, it's that a team that fits well together can beat a more talented opponent. The difference is that that Greece team didn't have van Nistlerooy, Robben, and van der Vaart.
8. Because it'll make this guy happy:
So give me the Dutch over Argentina in the finals with Brazil and the Ukraine (I totally bought LD's reasoning on them and I think they'll upset France in the round of 16 and then beat Australia [who will have upset Italy] in the "one of these teams is going to be a semifinalist" in the quarters) rounding out the semis. The other quarterfinalists will be Germany, Australia, England, and Spain.
A few other thoughts on the tournament:
1. I have no idea what to make of the US. The teams in their group are such wild cards. I've mentioned Italy, but what's going to happen with the Czechs, who are talented, old, and injured, or the Ghanaians, who are talented, young, and somewhat unknown, is also up in the air. I have tremendous faith in Arena to come up with tactical plans for each of the opponents in the first round. He's never failed as a coach, not at UVA, not at DC United, and not with the National Team. This team is strong up the middle with Keller, Onyewu, Reyna, and Donovan. All that said, we probably have the least talented team in the group (laugh if you want, but we don't have a player with the European pedigree of Mikel Essien or Stephen Appiah, let alone the Czech and Italians) and we have a dreadful record in Europe. We also have questions at striker that would have been answered by Eddie Johnson before his injury. My guess is 1-1-1 in the group stage, just like last time, with everything coming down to goal difference.
2. I'm also interested to see if this is a form tournament or if we have a bunch of surprising names in the latter stages, as we did in Korean/Japan '02 and Portugal '04. There were a lot of articles written after both tournaments about how the major countries no longer had advantages because their players were worn out and unlikely toexpendd the sort of effort for their countries that they would for their paying employers. Those articles have been forgotten and possibly with good reason, as the European World Cups tend to be form affairs: West Germany/Holland/Brazil/Sweden were the last four in '74; Italy-West Germany-Poland-France in '82; West Germany-Argentina-England-Italy in '90; and France-Brazil-Holland-Croatia in '98.
3. Pay attention to the officiating. FIFA, with their customary incompetence and political correctness, has repeated their mistake of four years ago by appointing refs from such soccer hotbeds as Benin and Singapore who will be completely unable to handle the pressure of making calls in front of 60,000 baying fans at speeds far different from those they've seen before. This factor will make the games a little random and it will also help the Germans, first and foremost, and the other well-supported teams (especially England and Holland). Also, pay attention to the assignments in certain games. If the Germans keep getting third world refs for their games, as South Korea did on their run to the semis in '02, then that'll be another sign (beyond the incredibly cushy group) that FIFA wants the Germans to advance.