Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thoughts on Weekend WC Matches

Uruguay 2:1 South Korea -- actually a pretty good match. Uruguay took the game over in the 8th minute with a crazy play. Forlan sent a low cross through the penalty area behind the Korean back four, who all turned around and watched as the ball drifted through. The keeper thought about coming out for the ball, but then seemed to hesitate and half-slid at it, hoping, I guess, that one of his defenders would kick it out for a corner. And then, of course, Suarez got on the end of it and sent a beautiful strike back across to the far post and in the side netting for 1-0. To their credit, the Korean's didn't fold, and they actually looked like the better technical side for long stretches, making some nice quick, triangular passes around the area. When they finally got the equalizer in the 68th minute, off a busted-play header, it was relatively deserved. But Uruguay's finishing was of a much higher quality, and in the steady downpour at the end of the match, Suarez avoided extra-time (where the Korean's fitness would have been an issue for Uruguay) with one of the goals of the tournament. He took the ball on the left side of the area, took a terrific touch toward the center and clear of the two Korean defenders, and curled a perfect ball in off the far post. That's how you win World Cup games, boys and girls.

Ghana 2:1 USA (AET) -- there are a lot of ways to look at this one, but for me, beyond the personal disappointment of not seeing them play to potential, there were three keys: 1) another slow start by the USA, suggesting that Bradley wasn't able to bring his team back to earth after the thrilling 1:0 over Algeria; 2) a dismal performance by Donovan and our strike force, who were insipid in front of goal; and 3) a defensive shambles on both the Ghanian goals, first from Ricardo Clark who should never have been on the pitch in the first place, and then from Boca and DeMerit in extra time, and let's be honest, from Tim Howard on both goals. I thought Dempsey was the real bright spot for the USA in this match -- it felt like he created a half-chance every time he got a hold of the ball around the area. His nutmeg on Mensah which drew the penalty was fantastic football. Feilhaber was also very bright and should have started every match. But credit Ghana and their coach. They played very well in midfield with their dynamic 4-5-1, particularly in the first half and in extra time when they were trying to kill off the match. Very poor in the final third, where they seemed content to just fire long shots after nice spells through the midfield, except, of course, on the break, where they got both their goals. But the bitterness comes from the fact that this was a winnable match for the USA, as the second half evidenced. Ghana collapsed against our pressure, and without some inspired play by Ghana's keeper, this would have been 2:1 USA in 90 minutes. We may never get as clear a shot at the semi-finals in my lifetime.

Germany 4:1 England -- it was curious that, pre-match, the England media were so full of confidence. England had played poorly against USA, really poorly against Algeria, and then edged a pretty dodgy Slovenian team they should have thrashed, leaving them brimming with inexplicable brio. Both teams started very well. The opening goal from Klose was good -- very similar to the Gyan goal that sunk the USA in extra time. Long ball right up the middle, Klose muscled off the defenders, who were not entirely in the play, and finished well. The second goal 20 minutes later was magic. Incredible movement off the ball by Klose and Podolski, the latter ending up with the ball on the left in acres of space and finishes clinically. Then, just six minutes later, it looked like game-on, as Upson headed in a Gerrard cross off a short corner. And a minute later Lampard unleashed one of his insane 30 yard strikes that hit the bar and bounced in, clearly, unarguably, over the goal line, but the referee signaled otherwise and it was 2-1 at the half. A gutted England team came out for the second half and just got run off the field, first dropping a goal on a three-on-two break finished by Muller, and then on a truly amazing play in which Ozil beat Gareth Barry to a through ball on the left wing and then just blew by him -- maybe 10 meters -- into free space to create a chance for Muller to make it 4-1. Well deserved win by Germany, but shocking that the officials missed the England goal. I don't think it would have changed the outcome, but it wasn't even a close call.

Argentina 3:1 Mexico -- speaking of god-awful referee's decisions, how about Argentina's first goal? Again, not sure it changed the outcome, although it did discombobulate a Mexico side that looked pretty bright in the first few minutes, with an ambitious 30 yard strike from Salcido rattling the bar and a dangerously close one from Guardado that just curled wide of the far post. But 25 minutes into the match, Messi found Tevez at the top of the box, who tried a shot that bounced off a Mexican defender; it came back to Messi in the air who headed it forward to Tevez for a tap in. Great, except for the fact that Tevez was miles offside when Messi played the second ball. Not even close. A row ensued, and after it was clear that Mr. Rossetti wasn't changing the call, the Mexican's started fouling with real venom, drawing a card for Marquez and several cautions. Seven minutes later, a sloppy pass in defense by the Mexicans ended up at the feet of Higuain, who juked off a strong challenge and scored his fourth goal of the World Cup. Tevez removed any doubt in the 52nd minute, when he launched a rocket strike past the Mexican keeper from well outside the area, clearly one of the goals of the tournament so far. Javi Hernandez pulled one back with a deadly turn that left him clear of two Argentine defenders for a wonderful finish. But it was too late, and frankly, Argentina had too much quality in the final analysis.

On this evidence, Germany-Argentina is going to be one of the great matches of this tournament. They are really quite different, but both have a lot of attacking flair and a tendency to press forward in numbers. Both have trouble at the back. Argentina will attack and Germany will counter-attack. Should make for a wide open match with potentially lots of goals. Uruguay-Ghana is going to be a grind. I think Ghana have gotten as far as they are capable, and Uruguay will be through to face probably Netherlands or Brazil in the semi-finals.

One final note: I think that this World Cup could spell the beginning of the end of the gnomish FIFA president Sepp Blatter's crusade against "monitored officiating." His position has been that referee fallibility is part of the game, and further that a technology solution or goal-line referees wouldn't "scale" -- i.e., wouldn't work for my kid's U10 club competition, which is governed by the FIFA laws of the game. However, there's little clamor for video replay or more officials in my kid's league. At the f'ing World Cup, on the other hand, where HD cameras are revealing just how bad the FIFA officials really are, and where horrific calls -- not marginal ones, but absolutely terrible ones -- are changing the outcome of games with the highest possible stakes, it's no longer defensible to hide, ostrich-like, from the future.

I actually think that an NFL-like challenge system would be great for the World Cup. Each team gets one challenge per game; once a challenge is made the clock keeps running and if the challenge is unsuccessful, the opposing team gets the time added on, if the ref's decision holds, the time is lost. This would add a bit of gamesmanship, and prevent the match from degenerating into a slippery slope of reviewed decisions. I'd even take a fifth official in a box with video technology, miked up to the ref, who could at least inform crucial decisions.

There's no chance at all of FIFA adopting anything like this -- might as well hope for TV timeouts, or on-field cheerleaders. More likely, we'll get more referees along the goal lines, and in fact FIFA has been experimenting with something like this in the Europa League competition. It is still open to mistakes, and the social pressure of the referee's hierarchy on the field. But it's marginally better than nothing.

The status quo is simply unacceptable, and is undermining the integrity of the game. It's one thing to feel gutted by a result that knocks you out of the competition; it's quite another to get bounced by a missed call.


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