Thursday, June 22, 2006

Messi...Tevez...van der Vaart...van Nistlerooy...0-0

I suppose that we shouldn't be that surprised that the Dutch and Argentines drew 0-0 last night, despite the attacking talent on the field for both sides. Neither team really played with the passion they've shown for the first two games, and quite rightly, since they had very little to play for. There isn't a huge difference between finishing first or second. Portugal is a slightly tougher out than Mexico (although neither of them have a history of doing much at the World Cup), but Germany is a much tougher out in the quarterfinals than England or Ecuador. Thus, the teams didn't have their normal levels of aggression. Also, these teams are not on the short list of potential winners solely because of their offensive talent; they're both very solid in the back. John Harkes quite rightly pointed out the contributions of Roberto Ayala, who is as good as any central defender in the tournament. The Netherlands looked quite stout defensively, despite having rested three of their first choice starters. Bouhlarouz looked very good in central defense, his near-Escobar aside, and did nothing to dissuade my thinking that he would be an improvement at right back over Heitinga. The Dutch gave away ten corners and marked well on each of them, leaving Argentina with no chances from those corners, despite the fact that they were delivered by the ever precise Riquelme.

My impression of the Dutch didn't change too much after watching the game yesterday. On the one hand, they are a tighter bunch defensively than their Dutch predecessors and are therefore more likely to do well in the knock-out rounds. They allowed one goal in three games in the Group of Death and that goal was an absolute screamer from outside the area, the kind of goal to which you just tip your hat to the shooter and say "well done." The individual marking has been good, the positional play has been good, and the only real howler was allowing Cote D'Ivoire to break two-on-one when the Dutch were nursing a 2-1 lead in the second game. On the other hand, the Dutch midfield is not creating much at all. They're good defensively, but they aren't creating much through the middle and Ruud is absolutely starved for support. The only Dutch offense comes from the midfield kicking the ball out to the wingers and I worry that Scolari will figure out a way to shut down an outside-in attack. The other concern is that Ruud isn't playing very well. He has been somewhat starved for support from the midfield, but he isn't making many runs to make himself available. The lack of support has dispirited him. The best example was in the first half yesterday when Kujt robbed a defender on the left and broke towards goal. Ruud just floated towards the goal with him and made himself useless by positioning himself between the two defenders. If he takes two steps back (as Drogba did to set up the Ivory Coast goal against Argentina), then he has presented a passing target for Kujt. As it was, Kujt missed a chance to drop the ball to van der Vaart in a great shooting position, so Ruud might not have gotten the ball anyway, but it was a clear instance of failure to present for the ball. Generally speaking, I don't like Kujt in the winger role. He's a finisher by trade and that was evidenced by his reaction to getting free on the Argentine right. He also doesn't have quite the dribbling ability to be a winger. I might consider starting him over Ruud in between van Persie and Robben, but van Basten is unlikely to bench his "star" at this stage.

A couple preliminary thoughts on the match with Portugal. The Netherlands and Portugal having been crossing paths fairly regularly in recent years, twice in qualifying for the '02 World Cup (the Dutch blew a 2-0 lead in Lisbon, one of the main reasons they watched the World Cup from home) and again at Euro '04. My recollections from the Euro '04 match are that the Dutch were disorganized defensively (the first goal came from Ronaldo on a corner when the marking was non-existent) and the Portuguese completely marked Robben, the Dutch dangerman in the tournament, out of the match. (I think that Paolo Ferreira did the honors.) This Dutch team is more motivated and organized than the '04 version, so I don't worry so much about the defense, but I worry greatly about the wing play being shut down. Van Persie is going to be the key. The Dutch struggled in '04 at creating from the right wing. In '06, Van Persie has been pretty good and he'll need to be better for the Dutch offense to thrive against Portugal. Cocu versus Figo in the center of midfield will be interesting; I fervently hope that Philip kicks the piss out of the traitor (while the ref is looking the other way). The Dutch are due against this side and a win puts them through to a game against England, a real treat for the German polizei.

And a word on the Albiceleste. I've never been a big fan of Argentina. As I've mentioned before, the 1990 World Cup was a real formative experience in terms of my football preferences and Argentina's performance there was disgraceful, marked by little more than cynically playing for penalty kicks and harassing every ref who dared to call them on their thuggery. The '98 Holland-Argentina game is an all-time favorite in part because of Bergkamp's winner, in part because my brother Dan tried to destroy my Hup Holland flag unsuccessfully, and in part because Argentina tried their usual chicanery when Ortega dived in the box and were finally punished for it. They came into the game on the heels of having beaten England on penalties in a game that was terrific until Diego Simeone baited Beckham into a petulant little kick and then acted as if he'd been knifed in the groin. After going a man up, Argentina shut up shop, knowing that England would panic from the spot. (They did.)

I mention all of this only because I'm finding it hard to root against the Argentines this time. They play more attractive football than Brazil. They have Riquelme, a nod to a bygone era when players were judged on their ability to pass instead of their ability to run. They have exciting young players, including Barca's future star Leo Messi. They haven't resorted to their usual Fake Broken Limb Masterpiece Theatre (although I did find it funny last night that ESPN had highlights of the '78 final and the '98 quarterfinal ready and waiting for the predictable injury delays caused by Argentina on each side of halftime). And now, I find out that their coach and captain are both Members of the Tribe. With Israel having been pipped by Switzerland for the second spot in Group 4, does the Talmud require me to root for Argentina? I need a religious ruling on this one.


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