Monday, June 28, 2010

What to Watch For in WC Quarter-Finals

I got four things very wrong in my pre-tournament predictions.

First, I vastly over-estimated the quality of the old European powers outside Europe (even though I explicitly discounted for their tendency not to travel well). I guess I thought that they would ultimately suck it up and perform on the big stage. I picked 6 European teams to make the Round of 16, and in fact 6 made it. While I got the trend right, I missed that France, Italy and England were far weaker than I suspected, and the youthful Germany far stronger.

Second, I under-estimated the Asians and over-estimated the USA. I really thought that the Koreans (both North and South) and the Japanese were decent technical sides, but had little chance of advancement. Both Japan and South Korea made the last 16. On the other hand, I had two CONCACAF representatives, Mexico and USA, both winning their groups and advancing to the last 16, with the USA going all the way to the quarter-finals. USA did win their group -- I got that right -- but both are now gone from the tournament.

Third, I over-estimated South Africa as a "home advantage" for African teams, and I thought Nigeria was the in-form African side who would make a deep run to the semi-finals. Instead, the African teams played mostly poor football, and it is Ghana who are making the deep run.

Finally, I did not believe that, other than Argentina, there was as much quality out of South America as there proved to be. While I did correctly pick 4 of the CONMEBOL sides who made the last 16 (I missed Uruguay, who was the fifth), I was kind of dismissive of Dunga's Brazil going beyond the quarter-finals.

How do I feel about my Holland-Argentina finals pick? It doesn't look all that crazy. We are looking good for a Spain-Argentina semi-final on one side of the bracket; it feels like the Brazil-Holland quarter-final is going to determine the other finalist.

So, on to the quarters, in ascending order of interest (to me, as a mostly-neutral):

Spain-Paraguay. I think that Paraguay are lambs to slaughter against Spain. The only reason Spain won't run up the score to embarrassing levels is because Paraguay play so negatively that Spain's game will be massively slowed down. The Japan-Paraguay match was dreadful. Japan were ok in possession but couldn't finish; Paraguay didn't even try to score and won it on penalties. Ugh. Meanwhile Spain's 1-0 win over Portugal didn't really capture just how great Spain look from back to front. Portugal played very negatively against them, and Portugal's defense is really good, but Spain still had the chance to score three or four goals.

Let's take a minute to acknowledge what the Paraguayan team have gone through to get here. In late January, their in-form striker Salvador Cabanas, leading scorer of Paraguay's qualifying campaign, was shot in the head in the bathroom of a Mexican bar. He was in that lunatic asylum of a country playing football for Club America, and though the case is still unsolved, it appears to be football-related. (BTW, if you haven't seen it, you must watch the ESPN 30-for-30 "The Two Escobars" when it re-airs; it's one of those documentaries that changes the way you think about something you experienced -- the '94 World Cup -- and further reveals some very disturbing aspects of Latin American narco-futbol). Paraguay drafted an Argentinian, Barrios, who happened to have a Paraguayan mom, to replace Cabanas. And they made it to the quarter-finals, first time in the country's history. It's an awesome story of overcoming adversity, but the story ends here.

Ghana-Uruguay. This one is set up nicely. Ghana have an advantage in midfield; Uruguay in the final third and probably in defense, too. Uruguay have had an extra day of rest, while Ghana went to extra-time against the USA. Giving Ghana full credit -- they've done pretty well in this tournament -- I think this one goes to Uruguay by a goal, either 1-0 or 2-1. The key for me is whether Uruguay can get service to their fantastic strikers Suarez and Forlan with Ghana potentially dominating possession in the midfield. Wouldn't be shocked to see Ghana win this one, possibly again in extra-time.

Netherlands-Brazil. This is potentially one of the best matches we will see in the tournament. I thought both of these teams looked great in the Round of 16. The 2-1 scoreline in the Holland-Slovakia match really, really flattered Slovakia. Holland dominated the match and had at least six great chances beyond the two goals. Robben was awesome for 70 minutes; Van Persie and Sneijder up front, Van Bommel and Kuyt in midfield, were brilliant. Their keeping was good, but their defense a bit shaky -- I guaranty that Brazil won't miss two chances like Vittek missed in Slovakia match. Brazil have been explosive, although my pre-tournament concerns have not been totally assuaged. They were awesome in their counter-attack, which will be a threat to Holland, who like to get numbers forward.

To me, this could come down to Brazil playing up the middle, while Holland play an inverted wing strategy, where Robben and Kuyt come into the middle from their respective sides, with Van Persie and Sneijder lurking for a quick through ball or rebound. I thought Brazil looked vulnerable on their left (where Robben plays) even against Chile. Brazil are just plain great, and there's a chance that this one is not even close, particularly if the Dutch come out and try to play negative. Everybody is picking Brazil, but I still think that Holland can gut it out if they go at Brazil, maybe taking it all the way to penalties.

Argentina-Germany. This is going to be sick. Argentina have been one of the most fun teams to watch in the tournament. Tevez, Messi and Higuain have been frightening up front. They are just running at everybody, winning by sheer force of will. They've scored 10 goals so far, the most in the tournament. Germany are just as potent. They've scored 9 goals, one more than Brazil. Klose and Podolski have looked clinical, as have Muller and Ozel out of midfield. Both teams have the ability to flood the final third with quality finishers. Both teams have looked a little thin at the back. Both teams can run the counter-attack with pace, although perhaps Germany has a slight advantage here. I like this one to go 3-2 to Argentina, maybe also in extra-time.

I can't finish without a hat tip to Diego Maradona, the much-discussed, much-maligned coach of Argentina. I felt that pre-tournament, it wasn't clear whether he'd be a help or a hinderance to his team and country. He's been a big, big help. Ok, accepting all the rumors that he doesn't have a tactical brain in his head, and that his managerial direction to players has been poetically cryptic at best, he is undeniably the heart and soul of Argentina football, sweating blood out there on the sidelines. He looks as if he's about to run out on the pitch as a substitute at any moment. He cries, he cheers, he complains theatrically whenever Messi gets fouled, he hugs and kisses his players in long, meaningful embraces. He threatens to run naked through Buenos Aires. He disses Pele in the post-match interviews. It's absolutely batshit crazy. But I love every fucking minute of it.

Go Diego, Go!


Skirmish said...

And now, four matches later, there are three "old European powers" in the semis. I guess they weren't completely without quality outside Europe after all, huh?

Mitch said...

I disagree somewhat, Skirmish. Only Germany could properly be considered in that category of Old European Powers and they are a new-look team. But, lots of quality and tradition. Their run has been a surprise to many, too, even in Germany itself.

I'd argue that Holland and Spain don't fit in that "Old Power" category at all -- traditional underachievers, never won a world cup. Holland hasn't been a contender for 30 years. It would be like calling Uruguay a traditional power -- ok, maybe 50 years ago, but that's a couple of generations removed from today.

Skirmish said...

Yeah, I guess you're right -- the "Old Power" categorization can be discussed, especially for Holland. :)

While Germany is definitey new-look, and the old cliché of the "German football machine" no longer fits perfectly, I think they still build around the old values of discipline and teamwork.

In some ways, the German team feels more like a "club team" than the other national teams. Perhaps a byproduct of the way the German league is structured?

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