Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Some Summer Games…

The World Cup has been and gone, Wimbledon went like a flash and the 150th Anniversary Open Championship went past with no last day pyrotechnics.  All of which leaves us with two sporting events (bearing in mind the Commonwealth Games will be held in October) left before we can contemplate the beginning of the domestic Football season (and after that winter).  Firstly, there’s Athletics version of the European Championship’s, which is held this year in Barcelona and started yesterday.  After that though will be the four test series between England & Pakistan, which begins tomorrow.

Normally I'd be excited about the prospect of another test series coming around.  However an element of excitement has been sucked out by the Test’s only appearing on terrestrial television via highlights on Channel 5.  The majority of the laziz faire attitude to this series though comes from the fact that, like the West Indies, the current Pakistan team is not really the same as the great  Pakistan side’s of yesteryear.  The all conquering side of 1992, who arrived as World Cup winners the previous winter, who contained the twin spearheads of Waquar Younis and Wasim Akram, coupled to the leg-spin of Mushtaq Ahmed. In 1996 this was supplemented by the stellar batting talents of Aamer Sohail, Saeed Anwar, Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam Ul-Haq, as Pakistan won convincingly 2-0.

Four years ago, Pakistan subsided to a crushing 3-0 series loss (could have been 4-0 but for their no-show on the fourth afternoon).  Since then they have lost Inzamam and Afridi to retirement and Youssuf to fights with the Pakistani Cricket board.  Pakistan could easily resemble a car crash waiting to happen.  Except they inexplicably won the second test last week at Headingly against Australia, in Salman Butt’s first match as Pakistan captain.  Alongside Butt, the players to watch are Kamran Akmal, their explosive batsman/wicketkeeper and paceman Umar Gul (above, celebrating scoring the winning runs at Headingley against Australia on Saturday).  Their new ball pairing of Asif & Aamer have been much hyped, especially after their display’s against Australia.  Pakistan still posess the guile and spin of Danish Kaneria, who still resides in the second division of test spinners, behind contemporaries Warne, Muralitharan & Kumble.  Despite this, Kaneria is this squad’s leading wicket taker, and most prolific wicket taker among Pakistan’s spinners.

England though will start as favourites.  They have home advantage, and have had two notable test results in the past year, they regained the Ashes a year ago and also drew the away series in South Africa.  However they were so so against Bangladesh with two series wins which have been comfortable rather than crushing.  There is a vacancy in the England middle order, with Bell being injured.  Pieterson is still to find his form, while England are still auditioning for pacemen to supplement James Anderson.  With Pakistan having drawn a test series against Australia, and England due to tour Australia just before the World Cup, this will be an intriguing series.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

World Cup 2010: Winners & Losers

Anyone who followed the last Westminster Election will know that alongside the election itself, there were dominant trends that emerged and winners and losers outwith the eye of the storm. This is even more true at this World Cup where there are victors outside the sporting paddock, and trends appearing…

Winner: The Broken Midfield: This World Cup was the tournament where 4-2-3-1 became the formation of choice for many of the leading teams, indeed the author of “Inverting the Pyramid”, Jonathan Wilson, claimed in his article for the Sunday Herald at the weekend that the World Cup saw the “death of 4-4-2 as the universal default”. Perhaps of more significance is that this has had the effect of breaking up the midfield into attacking and defensive components, the defensive component has been as importaint to Spain’s win as has the attacking component’s ability to hold onto the ball until the opportunity arises. As a result, we may have seen the genesis of the next tactical shift. Germany were officially credited with playing the 4-2-3-1, but on the attack it looked more like a 4-2-1-3 with the attacking midfielder Ozil playing more like a withdrawn striker of old, playing behind Muller, Klose & Podolski.

Looser: 4-4-2: Solid, dependable with little room for flair, the “two banks of 4” had a tournament to forget as all of the main contenders operated with broken midfields and players operating between the lines. The one high profile team to operate 4-4-2 (lest we forget, England) flopped dismally.

Winner: Chris Waddle: The most interesting and thought provoking of the analysts on the broadcast media. It’s no coincidence that Waddle was the only one of the English born pundits who has actually played overseas (and for Falkirk – Boom Boom). His experience of how football is played on the continent shone through, especially during the commentary for the Germany V England game. Honourable mention should go to Clarence Seedorf for asking Alan Hansen & Lee Dixon how they defended at set pieces.

Looser: ITV Sport: It’s an obvious target, but even this World Cup, they surpassed themselves for jingoistic stupid o’clock coverage. Both Left Back & Two Hundred Percent have posted blogs lamenting ITV’s tabloid (and quite frankly, tabloid doesn’t quite describe how lowest common denominator ITV’s coverage was) coverage. Rumours that they had signed Alan Partridge were sadly unfounded.

Winner: Radio 5 Live: Despite being burdened by the British Media’s version of Statler & Waldorf, and a crop of steady but not stellar commentators (no Champion, Hawthorne or Drury yet, and they should have drafted in Radio Scotland’s David Begge, how come Pat Nevin gets to be the “token Scot”?) 5 Live made the World Cup a much more interesting experience than it could have turned out. Having to listen to games during my lunch hour at work probably helped.

Looser: BBC Sport (Television): Despite trouncing ITV in the ratings, and there being a couple of features which worked very well, the BBC’s coverage has not been exactly the quality informed broadsheet to ITV’s tabloid coverage as has been the case in previous tournaments, this time it was more Daily Sexpress. Partly down to an element of resting on their laurels, partly down to some weird choices as pundits (Mick McCarthy?), and partly down to the BBC’s inability to identify a worthy (and lets be honest, a one nation) candidate to replace John Motson. But lets be honest here, the BBC are still to get round to replacing Barry Davies in their football coverage so maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Winner: Possession Football: When I was growing up, the difference between football played on the continent and football played here was that the teams that tended to come and play here on European and International duty were more adept and more comfortable with keeping the ball. This seemed to have died out in the mid 1990’s as the pressing game took hold of European football. Since 2008 though we have seen the evolution of the first post-pressing teams schooled in the art of keeping possession of the ball. Barcelona’s European Cup triumph was a throwback to old school European football, but Spain’s twin triumph’s in the European Championship’s and here in the World Cup has seen a revival in possession football.

Loser: Seire A and the English Premiership: Twenty years ago Serie A was at the zenith of it’s powers, its stadiums were hosting the 16th World Cup finals, while all three European trophies were held by Italian clubs. Crucially all of Italy’s squad which reached the semi final were playing in Italy, and for the big teams. “Foreign” players were there, but were not the roadblock to the progress of young Italian players – of course at that time there was the 4 Foreigner rule. Now, there are hardly any indigenous players playing for the top Italian clubs.

At least Italy has experience of recent International success. The English Premier League was set up with the aim of assisting the England national team. In nearly 18 years of its existence, it has had the opposite effect, acting as a roadblock to the evolution of the English national team, this became evident at this World Cup. Most of the England players looked lethargic, and tactically looked lost. Yes, Manchester United, Chelsea & Liverpool play 4-2-3-1, but the default formation for EPL sides is still 4-4-2, where the pace is frenetic, the play is very direct and no emphasis is placed on possession of the ball. Not conducive to World Cup winning football. The EPL didn’t do any favours for the foreigners plying their trade in England either, Van Persie was a virtual passenger for most of the Netherland’s games, Torres was injured and Fabregas only got on from the bench a couple of times (even though one of those times was to provide the assist for the goal that won the World Cup). The rest, forget it. The English failure is a subject we will come back to.

The biggest winner though was South Africa, who put on their smiley face and were excellent hosts for this tournament. You certainly can’t blame South Africa for the failings of this tournament. FIFA on the other hand certainly come out as one of the biggest losers. The first World Cup not to properly sell out since 1978 (attributable to the commercial deals FIFA did with travel agents, which led to extortionate prices for travel & lodgings), the failure to take seriously & clamp down on cheating footballers, their handling of the twin refereeing blunders in the Germany v England and Argentina v Mexico second round ties and their luke warm support for the World Cup final referee(who lost control of the game very early on and failed to take control as a result – Super nanny would have been better suited). Overall, the best phrase I can think of is must do better for Brazil 2014.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Is That What You Do In The Face Of Skill?

19th World Cup Final, Soccer City – Johannesburg; Netherlands 0 Spain 1 (After Extra Time)

Sometimes the final of a tournament put’s the cap on a wonderful tournament, sometimes the final is a damp squib after a good tournament and sometimes like in 1990 and here, the final was as poor as the rest of the tournament.  Spain deserved to win the game and the tournament because they were the most skilful side, the best side defensively, and when it mattered the most incisive side.  My only criticism is that at times they pass the ball just for the sake of passing the ball even after the chance has appeared.

The game started with Spain keeping possession early on.  Ramos had a header early on which he should have scored with.  As the first half wore on though the Netherlands got back into the match, with less than fair means.  Van Persie picked up the first yellow after 14 minutes for going in late on Captevillia, Puyol then picked up a yellow a couple of minutes later for a foul on Van Persie.  Van Bommel picked up a yellow for a tackle from behind on Iniesta, while his midfield partner De Jong picked up a yellow 5 minutes later for a foul straight out of the Graeme Souness book of X-rated fouls (pictured left).  One of my childhood friends who i still see regularly,  had a phrase which perfectly describe’s the Netherlands tactics “Is that what you do in the face of skill?” .

The second half was not a great improvement.  Robben had a great chance to open the scoring, but his shot was diverted by Castillias foot, while with 9 minutes left Iniesta is thwarted by a Sneijder stop.  Robben had a golden opportunity minutes later when he was through and shrugged off a challenge from Pujol, but couldn’t recover from that challenge.  In extra time, the game opened up, but still failed to hit the heights.  Substitute Fabregas was put through on goal but saw his shot saved by Stelelenburg.  Minutes later Iniesta was put through but indecision cost him his moment, Navas saw a shot deflected by Van Bronkhorst, while just before half time in extra time Fabregas shot just wide of the goal.

Advantage Spain arrived with 10 minutes to go in Extra time, when the Dutch defender Heitiga brought down Iniesta going for a 1-2 from his Barca team mate Xavi.  The English referee Webb sent the Dutch defender off.  Webb it has to be said did not have the best of matches, but was not aided by the behaviour of the players.  With 4 minutes to go, Spain produced a passing movement which brought about relief more than excitement.  Substitute Torresput a cross into the box which found its way to Fabregas, who passed to his right to an advancing Iniesta who volleyed past Stekelenburg (picture right).  Four minutes later and the ordeal was over.

Iniesta’s goal, the two Robben chances and a couple of Spain chances are the moments which have saved this game from being one of the worst games I have seen.  South Africa 2010 has not been a successful World Cup, with a very poor standard of football played with a joke of a ball, and many games played in front of stadiums which were not full.  Everyone concerned with football needs to take a long, hard look at themselves starting with FIFA.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Best Team In the World?

Rather fittingly, the two sides that qualified for this World Cup with 100% records now face off for the title itself. While the Dutch have only suffered one defeat since the start of Euro 2008 (the quarter final loss to Russia), the European Champions Spain have suffered two, both in South Africa.

While they lost to the USA in last years Confederations Cup, the loss to Switzerland in Spain’s opening match of this tournament has revealed a vulnerable side to this much lauded side. Spain at times give off the air of a side more content to keep the ball rather than a side keen to force the decisive move, which is strange considering they have two of the deadliest fowards in the game playing for them. Indeed David Villa is the tournament’s leading scorer with 5 goals, and will be looking to add to that total in the Final.

Spain have taken their time in getting going. After the loss to Switzerland, they registered wins against Honduras & Chile to ensure that they avoided Brazil in the knock out phase. They did have to face Portugal and got through thanks to a 1-0 win against a side that might have won had they a decent forward in their side. In the quarter final’s Spain faced a Paraguay side that finished ahead of the defending Champions Italy in their group, and again struggled to a 1-0 win.

It’s only when the big games came along that Spain showed signs, showing some form to see off Portugal. Spain though hit form when they faced Germany in the semi final. They had to as Germany had been destroying sides en-route to the semi scoring four past Australia, England & Argentina. Spain kept hold of the ball and gradually wore Germany down. Germany though had their chances just before half time, and could have had a penalty. In the second half though Spain stepped up to 3rd gear, and the chances came. In the 5 minutes before the goal, Spain had about 4 or 5 chances to score, and eventually scored from the corner conceded after one of those chances. Puyol’s header from the corner was unstoppable. Germany then came to the party and managed to get themselves forward, creating space for Spain to counter attack.

Spain will be the number one ranked side in the world come Monday, they are favourites to emulate the West German side of 1974 in being European Champions who lifted the World Cup (The France side of 2000/02 were also European Champions & World Cup winners but won the European Championships as World Cup winners) . They know what to do to win, however i think that Spain at times are not direct enough. I think that Spain will win, but I'm not 100% certain that they will win, I certainly don’t think that its as inconceivable that The Netherlands can win as most observers are making out, if they score early i can see Spain having problems. Much depends on who score’s first, but i take Spain to win after extra time & confirm their place as football's dominant team.

Is The Future Here?

In all the obsessing about the World Cup & England’s performance, spare a thought for Scotland. In qualifying for the Last World Cup, they had to get past Italy for the automatic place. At the qualification process for Euro 2008, Scotland faced three of the teams who reached the Quarter finals of the World Cup, Italy (again) and France contested the final of that contest, while Ukraine were the fallers at the Quarter Final stage. For the qualifiers for this tournament Scotland had to get past the Dutch for the automatic place, but fell behind Norway. It doesn’t get any easier for Scotland for the qualifiers for Euro 2010, in their way are the other World Cup finalists (and current European Champions) Spain.

The seeds of this current Dutch side were sown, ironically enough, in a previous encounter with Scotland. 1-0 down after the first leg of the Euro 2004 play-off. The Dutch turned to the likes of Wesley Schneider, Arjen Robben and Van Persie (they also discarded Patrick Kluivert in favour of Ruud Van Nistelrooy for the second leg), and reaped the rewards as they blew away Scotland 6-0. The tone being set with Schneider’s turning of Cauldwell before shooting from distance. It would be the following European Championships under Marco Van Basten where the Dutch would adopt their current formation of 4-2-3-1, again the rewards were instant, they blew away both Italy & France to qualify for the quarter finals, but looked sluggish against an equally talented Dutch coached Russia. It should be pointed out that this was the Netherland’s last defeat in competitive football.

For this World Cup though, the Netherlands have been content to grind out the results. Uninspiring wins against Denmark, Japan & Cameroon saw them into the knockout phase and a half with only one of the heavyweights of football. After a last 16 win over Slovakia, the Dutch had a quarter final with Brazil to contend with. Not unlike the Dutch themselves, Brazil had adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation. Unlike the Dutch, Brazil had been heavily criticised back home for not being expansive enough. Despite the fact that they had been convincing winners in each of their games up to that point, I though that Brazil were maybe vulnerable. The Brazil game-plan was based around Kaka, but there did not appear to be any plan B/C… for if Kaka did not perform, or was nullified.

When Brazil scored (traditional manner for them, ball through the middle of the Dutch defence to the borderline offside forward – compare & contrast this goal to the Romario & Bebeto goals in the ‘94 Quarter Final or the Ronaldo Goal from the ‘98 semi or even Lopez equaliser in the Quarter final against Argentina in ‘98) it looked like a question of how many. The Netherlands buckled down, and in the second half equalised and then took the lead. The goals both came from fantastic, accurate, crosses from the Brazil left, Brazil were now under pressure and crumbled as a result.

Facing the Dutch in the semi final were a revitalised Uruguay, who unfortunately for them were shorn of the talents of their defender Lugano and the forward Suarez. The Dutch did not get going until they switched to a 4-1-4-1 by bringing on Van Der Vaart for the second half. It was only then they were able to step up the tempo and put Uruguay out of the match, despite a late goal to take the match to 3-2.

The Future’s bright… the future’s Orange” was the old Orange mobile phone network’s slogan. For this type of orange to bring the future forward by winning, they have to make the most of any possession that they have, and also minimise any opportunities for Spain.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

World Cup 2010: The Last 8

56 games gone, 8 to go.  We are down to the last 8 of this World Cup, which lets be honest has not been a vintage World Cup.  Let’s hope the final 8 games provide enough drama and jaw dropping action to compensate for the dull, sterile, over tactical matches that have gone previously.

Brazil V Netherlands; Port Elizabeth: Friday 4pm (3pm BST)

First up is the fourth World Cup meeting between these two sides, the Dutch winning the first meeting in 1974, Brazil won the next 20 years later while both sides played out a 1-1 draw in the Marseilles semi final of 1998, with Brazil going into the final on penalties.

Brazil have been solid during this tournament, but they have shown very little flair.  North Korea were successful in keeping Brazil at bay for 52 minutes of their tie, Portugal managed to keep them out for the full game.  They have scored 3 goals twice, against below par Cote d’Ivoire and a very open Chile.  The Dutch will be a tougher test.  Like Brazil, the Netherlands have been solid but unspectacular this tournament.  However with Van Persie and Robben just back from injury, there are causes for this solid start.  Both teams play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the key being how the creative midfielders play/handle the attention, especially as Kaka replaced Schneider at Real Madrid.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the Netherlands will get through this one.

Uruguay V Ghana; Soccer City, Johannesburg: Friday 8:30pm (7:30pm BST)

Waiting for the winner of the first quarter final will be one of these two sides, meeting for the first time in World Cup finals.  Uruguay have been something of a revelation this tournament, with Forlan and Suarez floating up front, both were joined by Caviani for the 2nd round win over South Korea.  Uruguay will be hoping that they keep their form for their first Quarter final in 40 years.  Remarkably Ghana will be only the third African side to reach a World Cup quarter final (after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002), and the first African semi finalist should they make it.  I think that Uruguay’s diamond midfield might be too strong for Ghana and their flat midfield.

Argentina V Germany; Cape Town: Saturday 4pm (3pm BST)

Arguably the tie of the round.  These two have contested 2 World Cup finals between them, with Argentina’s coach Maradona taking part in both contests.  Their last meeting, at this stage 4 years ago, ended in a penalty shoot-out after Argentina inexplicably surrendered the initiative.  The loss, according to the book “Inverting the Pyramid” even sparked a nationwide debate in Argentina over the enganche (or playmaker position) in the Argentinean team.  In particular the debate was over Juan Roman Riquelme, who’s substitution after 72 minutes was seen as something of a turning point.

Both sides play variations of 4-3-3, with Argentina adopting a classical 4-3-1-2 formation with everyone’s favourite footballer Lionel Messi occupying the floating forward/trequartista position.  Germany have fallen into a 4-2-1-3 formation with Ozil exploiting the space behind a front 3 of Muller, Podolski and Klose.  I think Argentina’s experience will tell and see them through.  Hopefuly this one will be a classic.
See no mention of England…  Doooh!

Paraguay V Spain: Ellis Park, Johannesburg: Saturday 8:30pm (7:30pm BST)

The winners of the Argentina/Germany clash will play the winners of this match on Wednesday in Durban.  These two have met twice in the World Cup, in the group stages on both occasions (0-0 in 1998, 3-1 to Spain in 2002).  On paper the European Champions should go through.  Spain found some form and some momentum during their win against Portugal.  However Paraguay have been excellent this tournament, with Cardozo spearheading the attack.  If Paraguay neutralise Spain’s tiki-taki style of football, and score early, we will see how good Spain really is.  I think Spain will get through in extra time.

As I said at the top of this piece, lets hope the tournament really starts here…