June 21, 2014

Ghana 2, Germany 2: Best game of the Cup, and the most exciting half of the World Cup since the second half of Italy-Brazil in 1982. Maybe if FIFA just allowed Ghana and the Ivory Coast to send two teams to each World Cup all of my complaints against African football would be answered.

Also, Miroslav Klose became the all-time leading goal scorer at the World Cup when he tied the game at 2-2 with 20 minutes to play. For those who wondered how much they should be celebrating a US World Cup win when the winning goal was scored by a German who has never lived in the US, please take note that Klose was born and raised in Poland, and who has said that his nationality should properly be referred to as "European".  This is international soccer, folks; in the end, we're all from somewhere else....
Argentina 1, Iran 0: A charter member of Bush's Axis of Evil heartbreakingly loses to one of Thatcher's...Messi scored in his second consecutive game, after having been put in shackles for 90 minutes, with a blast in injury time.  Iran played a brilliant, frustrating defensive game (Argentina had 77% of the possession), and for the first hour was not afraid of pressing the ball forward to take chances .  The final fifteen or so minutes were almost entirely played within the final thirty yards in Iran's half, but Argentina never really threatened to score until they actually did so.
Ecuador 2, Honduras 1: Honduras became the second team in four days to end a 500+ minute World Cup scoring drought that started in the 1980's against Northern Ireland, only to blow the lead and lose.  The only buzz going into this game was the fact that the coached for both teams had coached the other team at their last World Cup, and what resulted was 90 minutes of fearless, balls-to-the-walls soccer.  Enner Valencia scored his second and third goals of the tournament for the winners, and perhaps caught the attention of one of the manydozen or so scouts for Wigan Athletic at the match.

In spite of losing, Honduras became the first team in 2014 to lose two games and not be eliminated.  Barring two obscene blow-outs next Wednesday, France has booked its place into the next round, and will clinch the group lead if it can somehow avoid losing by four goals to Ecuador.  Speaking of which, the South Americans now have a goal differential lead on the Swiss team that beat them Sunday, and although the Swiss are the more likely team to advance in that they get to play winless Honduras, one needs to remember they were in the identical position in 2010, and instead drew with the Hondurans.  The Central Americans need to beat the Swiss by 2+ goals, and hope France does the same with Ecuador for their miracle to occur.

June 20, 2014

France 5, Switzerland 2: In spite of missing the first penalty kick of the tournament, Les Bleus routed the Swiss, taking a 3-0 halftime lead, extending the lead to five goals with fifteen minutes to play before allowing two cheapies at the end. First team to win their opening two games by 3+ goals since...Les Bleus in 1998 !!!
Costa Rica 1, Italy 0: A stunner.  A country without an army or navy beats a nation whose army has been an historical joke and its navy better known for training cruise ship captains.   For the second time in 25 years, the Ticos advance out of the group stage.  Whereas in 1990 they surprised two B-List teams in their first trip to the World Cup, this time they knocked two of the sports' powers, with a combined six World Cups between them, and now stand on the verge of clinching the group lead.  The Azurri seemed overconfident, almost stunned with the notion that they play soccer in tiny Central American countries.  Costa Rica scored late in the first half right after the ref swallowed a whistle that should have given them a penalty kick; far from defending at all costs the rest of the way, they came closer to scoring a second goal than the Italians came to tying.

The Costa Rican victory officially eliminates England, the earliest it has been knocked out since 1958; the Three Lions would be excused if they were to hope FIFA never again scheduled another World Cup for Brazil.. A win or draw against England clinches Group D for the Ticos.  Italy and Uruguay face off in the other game Tuesday, with the winner advancing; a draw would eliminate Uruguay. 

June 19, 2014

Japan 0, Greece 0: Playing even more boring and defensive than usual, thanks to a first half red card that left it shorthanded for most of the match, the Greeks held on for a scoreless draw, the third of the tournament, and the 7th time in 8 games that Greece has been shut out in its World Cup history.  The Blue Samurai had almost all the scoring chances and more than two-thirds of the possession, but couldn't put the ball in the back of the net.

Because of the evening result, Group C is the first group for which we know for certain that all four teams have a shot of advancing to the next round entering the third game next Tuesday.  Columbia has clinched a spot in the next round, and seems almost certain to have won the group barring an out-of-character collapse against Japan.  The Ivory Coast will advance with a win against Greece, or a draw combined with a Columbian win, draw, or one-goal loss.*  Greece advances with a win over les Elephants and a Columbian win or draw; Japan has the mixed blessing of getting to play a team, Columbia, that has already punched its ticket, but needs a win and some help from a floundering Greek squad.

*provided the one-goal loss to Japan does not also feature a lot of goals....  

Suarez 2, Rooney 1

Uruguay 2, England 1: Who could have foreseen that Luis Suarez would end up being really important to the fortunes of La Celeste?  In a 180-degree reversal from their result on Saturday, when they looked bad in being dominated by lowly Costa Rica, the return of Suarez to the front was all Uruguay needed.  England, probably the only team in the Cup that is clearly using the tournament as a rebuilding exercise, got a rare international goal in a game that mattered by Wayne Rooney, only to blow it with inept defending in the final five minutes which allowed Suarez to score his second goal of the game.  England's chances of remaining in Brazil past the second week depend on something they never thought they would need: Costa Rica to lose twice.*

* Which is to say, England advances if
  1. Costa Rica loses both of its remaining games by an aggregate of at least three goals, and
  2. Italy beats Uruguay  
Columbia 2, Ivory Coast 1: All the terrible things I said yesterday about Cameroon, and about African soccer in general, most assuredly don't apply to Les Elephants.  This was pedal-to-the-metal action, and Ivory Coast could have easily won this game, but in the end it was the depth of Columbia that proved the difference.  A victory or draw by Greece in the late game will book Columbia's ticket into the second round.

June 18, 2014

Croatia 4, Cameroon 0: Another one bites the dust.  The "Indomitable Lions" looked inept, dropping their sixth straight since 2002, and have won only one game in fifteen attempts since they reached the quarterfinals in 1990. Mario Mandzukic, who sat out the opener with Brazil, scored twice for the Croatians. With one player red-carded for an unprovoked punch to the back of a Croatian, and two other Cameroonian players head-butting each other in the final minutes, this was a true debacle.

At some point, it needs to be said that the continent of Africa is getting no favors by having five teams in every World Cup.  Invariably, two or three of the teams will stink up the competition, finishing last in their groups, and one or two teams will play competitively only because they use eleven defenders.  The exceptions, Ghana and Ivory Coast, are genuine world class teams, but having to compete in a region that makes CONCACAF seem like the Group of Death assures them little benefit.  And of course, in every Cup there will be at least one squad (ie., Togo (2006), and Cameroon every Cup since 1998) that goes out on strike whining about the non-receipt of "bonuses" (ie., kickbacks) beforehand, which inevitably leads to that team going three-and-out once the competition starts. Cameroon has several terrific players, including Samuel Eto'o, but no leaders, no one like Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, who can bind his team together against a common adversary for the greater good.

But of course, Africa is the continent with the most countries, and therefore the most football associations, which under the archaic, "one country, one vote" rules of FIFA, mean it has a say on matters way out of proportion to its ability to send out world class teams to the Cup.  It is a simple quid pro quo; FIFA gives Africa five spots, and the African soccer federations provide the votes that allow the upper hierarchy of FIFA to maintain the corrupt status quo.

So one team is eliminated, and three teams are left to decide who advances out of Group A.  Brazil leads Mexico right now on goal differential, and will place at least second with a draw.  Mexico will also advance with a win or draw; Croatia needs a win to advance, and a Brazil loss to win the group outright.  Interestingly, Brazil will probably be eliminated (!) if it somehow loses to Cameroon and Mexico and Croatia tie.
Chile 2, Spain 0: The defending champs go bye-bye after only two games !!  It is the fourth time the incumbent has been knocked out in the first round; Brazil (1966), France (2002) and Italy (2010) at least managed to stay alive until the third game, and each of those teams were handicapped by the loss of their star (Pele, Zidane, Buffon) for almost the whole tournament.  Spain had no such excuse, and it is unlikely the core of the team that sandwiched the 2010 World Cup between back-to-back Euro titles will be around to defend their continental title in 2016.  There will also be questions about the tiki-taka style that seemed so unstoppable since 2008 could allow Spain to dominate the possession statistics and still get wiped out on the scoreboard.

Chile now plays Holland for the Group B lead next Monday, with the loser getting a likely face-off with Brazil in the second round.*  Spain's game at the same time with Australia will be for pride only.

*If the teams draw, Holland will win out on goal differential.  
Holland 3, Australia 2:  The Socceroos became the first team to be eliminated from the Tourney, but not before throwing a scare into everyone's fashionable World Cup pick.  Tim Cahill, playing what was probably his final World Cup game (he drew his second yellow card today and will have to sit against Spain), scored a fantastic opener, and a hand ball penalty in the box set up a go-ahead goal ten minutes into in the second half. The Orange, however, never lost their composure, drew even almost immediately thereafter on a blast by RVP (who will also have to sit out the next one), and won on a long-distance blast by Memphis Depay with just over 20 minutes left.

By far the best opening week to the World Cup I can recall....

June 17, 2014

South Korea 1, Russia 1: Methinks the Russian goalie is on his way to being a "rebel" on the Ukranian border in a few weeks.  His embarrassing muff of an easy shot led to Korea's goal, and the only thing that kept him sharing a bunk in Moscow with Edward Snowden was an equalizer three minutes later.  Not a bad game to watch; the only lemon so far was the Iran-Nigeria game, a consequence of Africa and Asia getting too many undeserving teams due to their control of FIFA....
Mexico 0, Brazil 0: Wide-open, back-and-forth battle for 90 minutes, but at the end both teams remain tied atop Group A with four points, needing only a draw in their next game to seem through to the elimination rounds.  This was the sort of effort fans of the sport have been anticipating from the Tricolores ever since they upset the Brazilians in the gold medal game of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it seems hard to believe that it required a last-minute goal by the US in what was for them a meaningless qualifier just to get Mexico into the tournament last year.

Also, apparently Gordon Banks came out of retirement to suit up for the Mexicans this afternoon:

Belgium 2, Algeria 1: Late rally by the Red Devils staves off an upset bid by the Fennec Foxes.  Algeria played almost everyone back from the opening whistle, content to keep the score down and occasionally mount a counterattack.  As a result, they were badly outshot, rarely had possession, but on one such foray they drew a penalty and attained a shock lead at halftime, their first goal in six World Cup games going back to 1986. Eventually, the 2-1 advantage Belgium had in possession took its toll, and two goals in the final 20 minutes averted the upset.

June 16, 2014

U.S.A. 2, Ghana 1: Our long national nightmare is over.  On the third attempt, over eight years and two agonizing defeats, Ghana is finally vanquished, thanks to a late goal by the heretofore obscure Berlin-born-and-raised John Brooks. More info from Wikipedia on the second half sub who played his first real international for the U.S. today:

Clint Dempsey put the USMNT ahead inside thirty seconds, and the team did the bare minimum to survive for the next 81 minutes, only to see perennial nemesis Asamoah Gyan set up the tying goal with a brilliant backheel to Andre Ayew.  Ghana has the youngest team in the Cup, so the opening jitters that allowed the early goal, and which manifested itself by the waste of numerous scoring chances that were shot wide, could be alleviated in the next two games.  Team USA, on the other hand, can effectively clinch a spot in the next round with a win over beleaguered Portugal on Sunday.
Iran 0, Nigeria 0: Move along, please. Nothing to see here.
Germany 4, Portugal 0: Bad opening week for Iberians playing in Salvador.  Mueller scores a hat trick, and Portugal, not a deep team to begin with, sees one defender sent off and two others injured.  The score does not begin to describe how one-sided the game was.  That the losers were the fourth-ranked team on the planet, acc. to FIFA, is perhaps an indication that the system the world body uses is yet another thing about it that should be reformed...fourth straight time, and fifth time in last seven, that Germany has scored at least four goals in their opener.
Argentina 2, Bosnia-Herzegovina 1: Gifted by an early own-goal and sparked by a second-half score by obscure journeyman Lionel Messi, the powder-blue striped juggernaut that is Argentina wins an opener well-played by both teams.  B-H played an exciting, end-to-end style that put constant pressure on the group favorites, a nice way to debut in their first-ever World Cup.  Through 11 games in 2014, there have been 37 goals scored, as opposed to only 18 goals scored at the same point in 2010, and only one game has seen fewer than three combined goals scored.

June 15, 2014

France 3, Honduras 0: Scoreless game til just before the half, as Honduras put everyone back to frustrate, then a nasty shove inside the box by Wilson Palacios led to both a penalty kick and red card, and the game was not in doubt thereafter.  First time goal line technology was used to award a goal (France's second). The initial decision was to call it an "own goal", since the shot hit the goal post, struck the Honduran goalkeeper, and trickled over the line.  I've seen enough hockey games, where there is no concept of an "own goal", to know that putting the ball in a position where an incidental tap by a defending player can knock it into his own net is an offensive skill.  I would just as soon see the term eliminated for all but the most obvious foul-ups, like this:

On the other hand, the first goal here, from the 1974 World Cup, really shouldn't be counted as an o.g.:

Switzerland 2, Ecuador 1: As close to a walk-off goal as you can get, the Swiss win deep into injury time, just moments after Arroyo passed on an open shot that would have flipped the result.  What may quickly be forgotten was a great non-call by the ref after a Swiss player got hacked moving the ball upfield; rather than taking a spectacular dive that might have drawn a red card, the player kept on his feet, dribbled forward, and set up the winning goal:
Again, continuing a trend that has lasted throughout the early stage of the World Cup, this was the fifth come-from-behind win, and all but one game has featured at least three goals scored.