Tag Archives: Spain

Champions League Preview: Group G

The penultimate group in this year’s Champions League is upon us, with the final group to follow tomorrow (thankfully the latter half of the draw plays Wednesday). As we wrap up our previews, don’t forget to check out the rest: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E and Group F.

Followed by previews of groups where one team stood head and shoulders above the rest followed by teams competing for second, we reach the ‘Group of Death‘.  Every international soccer competition has one and Group G is this year’s version.  With three former Champions League winners (A.C. Milan, Real Madrid, and AFC Ajax), and a relative newcomer from a top 5 league (AJ Auxerre), this group is tough from top to bottom.

Zlatan Ibrahimović will look to find his scoring touch with AC Milan. In his last stint in Italy, he scored 57 goals in 88 appearances for Inter.

A.C. Milan – The second team in the competition from Milan, A.C. Milan are a fixture in the Champions League.  Milan have won the title 7 times (2nd most all-time), the most recent in 2007.  Since that win, Milan haven’t made it past the round of 16.  Milan are looking to make a deep run in the Champions League, and certainly have the roster to make that a reality.

Milan, a team that hasn’t won the scudetto since 2004, made a determined effort this summer to add new talent to an already talented squad.  Joining the Rossoneri were Robinho (from Manchester City), Zlatan Ibrahimović (from Barcelona), Kevin-Prince Boateng (from Portsmouth), Mario Yepes (from Chievo Verona) and Marco Amelia (from Genoa).  To add this many players with much talent is almost unheard of.  By adding Robinho and Ibrahimović to an attack that already boasted Alexandre Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Ronaldinho, Milan have one of the best forward lines in the competition. Ibrahimović even suggested that Milan should play as many as 5 forwards because there is “[n]o need to track back if you score plenty of goals.” While I don’t see this happening the thought of those five players running around the offensive half of the field is exciting.  The other summer additions, add depth to the defense and midfield and by adding Amelia, Milan got much stronger between the posts (though for some reason incumbent keeper Christian Abbiati has started both Serie A games thus far).  The biggest departure from the club was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who joined Schalke.  His departure, after a lackluster time at the San Siro, will not impact Milan very much and was addressed by the additions of Robinho and Ibrahimović.  Also, there needs to be a quick mention that Milan have Oguchi Onyewu, one the U.S.’s best players currently on their roster.

With the threat of a player strike in Serie A looming, Milan are currently 1-0-1 in domestic league play.  Following a 4-0 demolition of U.S. Lecce in Milan, the Rossoneri suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss to newly promoted A.C. Cesena.  The most interesting fact about the loss to Cesena, is that the plucky side from Emilia-Romagna had been in the Italian third division just two season ago.  For Milan, 7 time European champions and 4 time world champions, to lose to a club of that stature is shocking.  Perhaps Massimiliano Allegri should listen to Ibra’s suggestion and play 5 forwards.

Milan certainly have the talent to make noise in this group, but if the team has too many uninspired outings like their recent match against Cesena, they will be playing in the Europa League (or worse not playing in Europe at all).

The 'Special One' will look to guide Real Madrid to the Champions League title after guiding Inter Milan the last season's hardware.

Real Madrid C.F. – The all-time leaders in Champions League victories (9) haven’t won the competition since 2002.  Despite their best efforts to collect as many soccer superstars as possible, the Blancos continue to come up short in Europe.   Real Madrid have not been past the round of 16 since 2004 when they were ousted by A.S. Monaco in the quarterfinals. Typically known for their splashy additions, they made one of the biggest moves of the summer by adding José Mourinho as manager.  Mourinho is a master tactician and led Inter to the title last season.  Will he have the same success in at the Bernabéu? Club president Florentino Pérez certainly hopes he does.

Like fellow group-mate, Milan, Real Made made several high-profile signings over the summer.  Apparently whomever makes the personnel decisions for the Blancos was watching the World Cup, as Real Madrid went out and signed several players who burst onto the seen in South Africa.  Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira both proved their worth for Germany this summer and joined Real Madrid from SV Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart respectively.  Also joining the Spanish side were Ricardo Carvalho (from Chelsea) and influential, Argentine winger Ángel di María.  Adding these players to the other Galácticos already at Real Madrid gives the team the appearance of a fantasy soccer league team.  The amount of attacking talent rivals that of Milan, with the added bonus of having arguably the world’s best goalkeeper (Iker Casillas) between the posts.

On the domestic front, Real are continually locked in a battle with Barcelona for the top spot on La Liga.  Fans in the Spanish capital will certainly be hoping that the Special One can deliver another La Liga title, but Real Madrid are off to a lackluster start.  Thus far Real Madrid has played to a 0-0 draw with RCD Mallorca away, and a narrow victory over Osasuna 1-0 in Madrid.

Despite the slow start, Real Madrid remain a co-favorite to win this group.  With the amount of talent they possess (I didn’t even mention the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kaká) Real Madrid should easily secure a spot in the knockout round.

Ajax will look to recapture the success they enjoyed in the early 1970s when they were led by Johan Cruyff.

AFC Ajax – The Dutch side have by far the most Champions League titles of any team not from the big 4 (sorry France) leagues.  With 4 titles to their name, Ajax are tied for the 4th most titles.  Three of those titles came during a dominant stretch in the early 1970s when they were led by the inimitable Johan Cruyff.  Over the past several seasons, Ajax seem to have lost their grasp on Dutch football, having not won an Eredivisie title since 2004.  While they have been titleless, Ajax have been near the top of the league.  Due to the odd method (a 4 team playoff between teams 2-5) the Dutch use to determine their Champions League representatives Ajax, despite finishing 2nd for several season, has not been in the Champions League since 2008.  This season marks their first appearance in the knockout round since 2006.

Despite a strong showing last season, and the promise of Champions League soccer, Ajax have seen several players exit the Amsterdam Arena.  The most notable are Marko Pantelić and Dennis Rommedahl (to Olympiacos), and Kerlon (to Inter).  On the positive side, Ajax brought in some of the top talent in the Dutch league, signing Andre Ooijer (from AZ Alkmaar) and Mounir El Hamdaoui (from PSV Eindhoven).

Clearly the departures has not affected Ajax, as they currently top the Eredivisie standings.  Through 8 games, Ajax have a 6-2-0 record and a +18 goal differential.  Already three points clear of their nearest competitors, it looks like Ajax could recapture the league title this season.

With Ajax in fine form entering their first Champions League match (against Real Madrid in Madrid), the Dutch side merit watching.  They have a history of winning this tournament, and while their recent history hasn’t been as bright, they are not a team to underestimate.

AJ Auxerre will look to crash the former winners' party in Group G.

AJ Auxerre – Not among the “name” teams in the Ligue 1, Auxerre enter this campaign a relatively unfancied side.  When I was researching for this post, I came across an interesting tidbit which said that Auxerre is the only team to have never been relegated from the French first division.  I found this shocking, but I found the fact in multiple sources. Relative upstarts in this group, Auxerre finally return to the Champions League after an 8 year absence.  Their last trip to the Champions League in 2002-2003 saw them finish third in a group behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, but ahead of PSV.

The Burgundy side saw stability reign over the summer with few players coming or going, none worth noting.  The current squad is a mix of French players and players from Francophone Africa, with a few other European players included. Valter Birsa made a name for himself at the World Cup, by scoring against the U.S. in the controversial draw with Slovenia.  An interesting roster note is that Auxerre are the only team I have ever seen to have a player from Madagascar (forward Anicet Andrianantenaina).

Auxerre have gotten off to a slow start in Ligue 1, drawing 4 times in five games.  While they have only lost once, it is clear that the Champions League is on their minds.  Auxerre will need to step up their game if they intend to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

As far as their prospects go this season, I think Auxerre are the weakest team in this group.  That said, they could knock off a complacent Milan, or take some points from Ajax.  If Auxerre replicates their performance in the 2003 Champions League, where they went 2-1-3, the Burgundians should be happy.

Predictions: Real Madrid win this group, with Ajax pulling an upset to finish 2nd.  I feel that A.C. Milan are a tad too dysfunctional to make a run, despite their talent.

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Champions League Preview: Group D

Today’s post marks the mid-point of our Champions League previews.  If you haven’t already (and if you have, take another look), check out the previews for Group A, Group B, and Group C.

Group D consists of champions from four leagues, though only FC Barcelona has the name recognition outside of hardcore soccer fans.  Joining Barça are: F.C Copenhagen, Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan.

The addition of David Villa makes Barcelona even more dangerous than they have been in past seasons.

FC Barcelona –  Barça, three-time Champions League winners and two-time defending La Liga champions, are one of the most well-known teams in the world.  With fans on every continent, Barça is also one of the wealthiest clubs in the world.  This has allowed Barça to put together an impressive collection of talent, including 8 members of the World Cup winning Spanish side.  Barça last won the Champions League in 2008-2009 and are looking to make it back to the finals, after losing last year to eventual champs Inter.

While Barça hasn’t been overly active in the transfer market, buying just 3 players, those players will have a huge impact on both the La Liga and Champions League seasons.  Barça was able to land prolific striker David Villa from fellow Champions League competitors Valencia, defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano from Liverpool, and defender Adriano from Sevilla.  The addition of Villa and the emergence of Pedro made Thierry Henry surplus to requirements.  Villa’s signing also allowed Barça to send misfit,  Zlatan Ibrahimović, to AC Milan on loan.  Others leaving the Catalan side include: Yaya Touré (Manchester City); Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, and Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls).  Barça opened La Liga play with a 3-0 victory over Racing Santander in Santander with Lionel MessiAndrés Iniesta, and Villa scoring goals.

Interesting tidbit: this season marks the 2nd straight year they have been drawn into the same group with Russian champions, Rubin Kazan. Rubin upset Barça 2-1 at the Camp Nou and drew 0-0 in Kazan.  No doubt, Barça will not take Rubin lightly this year and will be looking for revenge.

Barcelona are the clear favorites in this group, just as Manchester United and Inter Milan were in their groups.  It would be a shock of epic proportions if Barça finished in any other position than 1st.

Copenhagen

Can Copenhagen knock off Barcelona? If so, they will replicate their 2006 upset of Manchester United.

F.C. Copenhagen – Copenhagen are currently the class of the Danish league, having won 4 of the last 5 Superliga titles, including the last two. Of the teams in Group D, they were the only team to play in the qualifying rounds (entering in 3rd qualifying round).  Along the way, the Lions beat Belorussian champions FC BATE Borisov and Norwegian champions Rosenborg; not exactly a difficult path out of qualifying.

This season marks their first appearance in the group stage since the 2006-2007 season. That year they finished last in their group but did manage 2-1-3 record, which included a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in Copenhagen.  Last season, the Lions lost to surprise group stage entrant APOEL in the play-off round.

The Copenhagen squad is made up of mostly Scandinavian players, with several players representing the Swedish and Danish national teams.  During the transfer window, Copenhagen brought in Costa Rican international Christian Bolaños, and Brazilian midfielder Claudemir.  Copenhagen doesn’t have any player that would qualify as an international start, but like the Danish national team, they win with good team tactics and chemistry.

Copenhagen, while certainly not a pushover (especially at home), will likely be happy if they qualify for the Europa League.  Competing with Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan for the 2nd spot might be asking too much of the plucky Danish side.

Panathinaikos F.C. – The Superleague Greece champions, Panathinaikos benefit from the Greek league gaining an automatic group stage qualifying spot at the expense of the Belgian league.  Last season, Panathinaikos entered in the 3rd qualifying round, ultimately bowing out in the play off round, losing to Atlético Madrid. Panathinaikos’ league win broke a string of 6 consecutive titles by rivals Olympiacos. Thus far, Panathinaikos have played a single game this season, drawing with Skoda Xanthi 1-1.  The next game they play will be against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

The addition of Sidney Govou will give Panathinaikos a more potent offense. And the most French forwards in the Greek League.

Panathinaikos has been active in the transfer market over the past few seasons, showing a particular interest in French internationals (obviously, they hope to avoid the drama of the French national team). Prior to the 2009-2010 season, Djibril Cissé joined the club, and Jean-Alain Boumsong and Sidney Govou followed this summer. Both Govou and Boumsong moved from, fellow Champions League entrants, Lyon.  The addition of Boumsong and Govou, as well as Luis García, make Panathinaikos a better team than the one that qualified for the Champions League.  The only major subtraction was Greek international forward Dimitris Salpigidis, who returned to former club PAOK.

Panathinaikos certainly have the talent to make a run in the Champions League.  In addition to their French contingent, Gilberto Silva and several Greek internationals occupy the roster.  Second place in this group isn’t out of the question, and will likely be a battle between the Greeks and Rubin Kazan.

FC Rubin Kazan – The two-time defending Russian Premier League champions are making their 2nd appearance in the group stage.  As mentioned above, this will be the 2nd straight year Rubin Kazan will be in the same group  as Barcelona.  Last season, they finished 3rd in their group, qualifying for the Europa League where they lost to Wolfsburg in the Round of 16.  This season, Rubin currently sit 2nd, 6 points behind Zenit St Petersburg after 19 games.

Rubin signed Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins during the transfer window. His goal scoring should help the Russians in the Champions League.

Rubin has been very active in the summer transfer window, with a dozen players both coming and going.  The biggest signing of the summer was Obafemi Martins, wh moved from Wolfsburg.  The Nigerian international should give Rubin more fire power up top and help replace the departed Aleksandr Bukharov (now with Zenit). Rubin have benefited from the new wealth that has poured into the Russian Premier League over the past few seasons.  Teams that had previously consisted of primarily Russian and for Soviet players are now true multinational teams. Rubin have players from countries all across the globe, and have pieced together a team that can compete internationally.

With Rubin’s 4 points from 2 games against Barcelona last year, this team cannot be taken lightly.  The competitiveness of the Russian league has skyrocketed over the last several seasons.  Rubin have the tools to finish 2nd in the group.

Prediction: Barcelona take this group with little effort.  They have too much talent and will overwhelm the rest of the group.  With the talent brought in over the summer, Panathinaikos finish second.  Though, it wouldn’t surprise me if Rubin nabbed that spot instead.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.  The Group E (Bayern Munich, Roma, FC Basel and CFR Cluj) preview will come after the Labor Day holiday.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group E
Group F



Champions League Preview: Group C

With Group A and Group B previews already in the books, we turn our attention to Group C.  Group C has the biggest collection of internationally known clubs out of the groups already previewed.  Three-time winners, Manchester United headline the group, which also contains Rangers F.C., Valencia CF, and Bursaspor.  Interestingly, none of the members of this group had to go through the qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage.  Manchester United qualified by finishing 2nd in the EPL.  Valencia earned their way into the group stage by finishing 3rd in La Liga.  Rangers were the Scottish champions, and Bursaspor won the Turkish League.

Alex Ferguson has Manchester United primed for another run in the Champions League.

Manchester United F.C. – Easily one of the most well-known clubs in the world, Manchester United have to feel they are the favorites in this group.  United are looking to rebound from, what was for them, a sub par showing in the Champions League last season.  The Red Devils were bounced from the competition in the quarterfinals by eventual runners-up Bayern Munich, their earliest exit since 2005-2006 (when they failed to make it out of the group stage).

Last campaign saw Manchester United relinquish the EPL title to Chelsea after three consecutive league championships.  In an effort to bring youth to the team and regain the title, United signed young defender Chris Smalling from Fulham, 20-year old forward Bebé from Vitória de Guimarães, and Mexican international forward Javier Hernández from Chivas.  Adding these three promising young players to a squad that already contained some of the best players in the world makes United even more dangerous this season.  With no major departures, United has the roster to compete and potentially win multiple competitions.

Unlike many of the teams already previewed, United has not stumbled out of the gate in their domestic league.  Through 3 weeks, the Red Devils are 2-1-0, with 3-0 wins over Newcastle United and West Ham wrapped around a 2-2 draw with Fulham.  I expect the group stage to go similarly well for United.  No team in Group C can hang with United.  With players like Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov (who is in fine form this season), Edwin Van Der Saar and Rio Ferdinand, United clearly have both the talent and star power to easily win this group.

Following the losses of David Villa and David Silva, Valencia will need Éver Banega to have a great season.

Valencia CF – Valencia are making their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 2007-2008.  That season, Valencia finished last in their group, behind Chelsea, Schalke and Norwegian club, Rosenborg.  If Valencia are going to have better luck this season, they will have to do so without the services of their two most influential players from last campaign.  Prolific striker, David Villa, has left for Barcelona, while Spanish international winger, David Silva couldn’t resist the lure of Manchester City’s spending spree.

The departure of two such important figures leaves Valencia with one massive question to answer: where will the goals come from?  In his time with Valencia, David Villa scored 129 goals in 212 total appearances. Looking at their rosters, I don’t see a player on the club who can even come close to matching the scoring prowess or sheer genius of David Villa.  They will also need to replace the pace, vision and (in 2009-2010) scoring of David Silva on the wing.  He scored 10 goals last season (in all competitions), good enough for 2nd on the team.  Valencia responded to the loss of Villa and Silva by signing Roberto Soldado, who scored 20 goals in all competitions for Getafe last season, and Aritz Aduriz, who led RCD Mallorca with 12 goals.  While both signings were shrewd maneuvers, neither will truly replace Villa.  Valencia are also going to need big seasons from Juan Mata and Éver Banega to help soften the blow of losing your top two scorers. Thus far, Valencia have played 1 game in La Liga, notching a 3-1 victory over Málaga.

Despite the departures of Villa and Silva, Valencia does have a talented team.  While they will clearly not push Manchester United, 2nd place isn’t out of the question.

Rangers are hoping James Beattie can add some firepower to the frontline.

Rangers F.C. – Another of the well-known teams in this group, though a team that is increasingly resting on its former international glory to carry its name.  The Scottish Premier League is one of the most top-heavy leagues in the world, with Rangers and Glasgow rivals Celtic F.C. accounting for every title since the SPL came into existence in 1998-1999.  As a result, the Scottish champions (an runners-up) do not play enough top-level soccer to truly compete, on a yearly basis, at the international level. Every year lately, it seems that the Scottish Premier League places one team in the group stage of the Champions League, only to see that team finish 3rd or last in their respective group.  Not since 2006-2007, when Celtic finished 2nd in their group, has a Scottish team advanced to the knockout rounds. Last season, Rangers were the Scottish champions and finished last in their group, with a 0-2-4 record and a -9 goal differential.

Rangers come into this season having won the last two SPL titles and looking to prove something following their rather meek performance in last season’s Champions League.  To that end, Rangers have imported attacking power from Austria and the EPL.  Joining the Gers are: James Beattie from Stoke City, Nikica Jelavić from Rapid Vienna, and Vladimír Weiss on loan from Manchester City.  As one would expect, Rangers are off to a flying start, having won each of their first 3 games.

Rangers are clearly the class of the SPL (along with Celtic) and will likely have a spot in the Champions League for as long as the current format remains in place.  Beyond gaining this place each season, it will take a major step up in competition, domestically, for Rangers to compete consistently.  Perhaps this team has enough attacking talent to make a push for 2nd, but Rangers will have to steal points from Valencia to do so.  A repeat of last season’s performance could be on tap.

Bursaspor represent, perhaps, the biggest unknown in this season's Champions League.

Bursaspor – Another team that I knew little about prior to my writing this preview.  As with Hapoel in Group B, Bursaspor hails from a league on the geographic fringes of Europe.  While the Turkish league has a history of placing competitive teams in the Champions League (usually in the form of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray) this will be Bursaspor’s first appearance.  As a matter of fact, Bursaspor are the first team outside the “Big Four” (the aforementioned three teams from Istanbul, and Trabzonspor) to win the Turkish title.

Bursaspor’s team consists of mainly Turkish players, with several Argentinians, and a smattering of players from across Eastern Europe.  Bursaspor’s best known player (at least to Americans) might be Sercan Yıldırım, who made a 2nd half appearance in a friendly against the U.S. just before the World Cup.

The most successful season for a Turkish team in the Champions League was in 2007-2008 when Fenerbahçe made an unlikely run to the quarterfinals, eventually falling to Chelsea.  I don’t see Bursaspor making a similar run, though I believe they will surprise people (maybe even Valencia) and could secure a sport in the Europa League at Rangers’ expense.

Prediction: Manchester United win this group with ease, potentially nabbing all 18 points if they play their first choice squad throughout the group stage.  Valencia finish second, but not as easily as most might expect.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group B
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group A

With the Champions League group stage draw announced yesterday, The Rally  Cap is bringing you a series of previews (1 for each group) over the next several weeks (prior to the first matches on September 14/15).  Stay tuned and check back often for updates.

The logical place to start is with Group A made up of Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente .

F.C. Internatiozionale Milano – The current Champions League holders and 5-time reigning champions of Serie A, Inter Milan, are a team that face one huge question mark entering the season.  Can they replace manager José Mourinho? Who left for Spanish giants, Real Madrid.  Mourinho’s class was on display as he out managed the rest of Europe and led Inter to its first European title since 1965, and the first treble (league, domestic cup, and European cup) in Italian history.  His brand of soccer might not be the flashiest, but it produces results.  With Mourinho at the Bernabéu, defending their titles will be tough.

While Rafa Benetize be able to replace the Special One and lead Inter to glory?

To replace the Special One, Inter brought in Rafael Benítez. The oft-maligned former manager of Liverpool F.C. will still have plenty of top class players at his disposal in his effort to win his 2nd Champions League trophy (he won his first with Liverpool in 2005-2006).  The core of the team that won last year’s title remains, with no major additions and only the loss of Mario Balotelli (to Manchester City) and Ricardo Quaresma (to Beşiktaş J.K.) qualifying as even semi-important.  The subtraction of Balotelli might be an addition, as his moody attitude will not be missed in the locker room.

With Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and World Cup star Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, Inter should have a potent offense.  One thing that is troubling is the lack of forward depth behind Milito, Eto’o and Pandev.  If one of them goes down with an injury, Milan will have to rely on David Suazo or unproven Jonathan Biabiany. The defense and the midfield remain solid, with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso holding in the middle of the park just in front of some combination of Lúcio, Wálter Samuel, Maicon, Thiago Motta, Iván Córdoba, and Cristian ChivuJúlio César will once again be between the wood work.

Inter is certainly primed for a run in the Champions League, and certainly should advance from this group.  I don’t see any team in this group being able to trouble Inter.  Perhaps a team might steal some points when they play Inter at their respective home stadiums, but Inter should coast to the top spot in Group A.

SV Werder Bremen – Werder Bremen sneaked into the Champions League by finishing third in the Bundesliga last season.  They entered the competition at the play-off round and needed some late game heroics to make to the group stage.  If not for Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 93rd minute (which sent the game into extra time) and Claudio Pizarro‘s goal in the 100th minute, we’d be talking about Sampdoria in the group stages instead.

If Werder hope to advance, they need to find somebody to replace Mesut Özil.

Like Inter, Werder lost one of its most influential figures to Real Madrid this summer.  World Cup breakout star, Mesut Özil, followed Mourinho to the Spanish capital and left a huge whole in the Werder midfield.  Werder Bremen made a move to fill the gap, signing Brazilian midfielder Wesley from Santos and  Felix Kroos from Hansa Rostock, but I just don’t think is enough.  With no other major additions how can Werder think Wesley (who has scored 13 goals in his entire career) and Kroos (who hasn’t scored any goals in the top flight) will replace Özil (11 goals last season)?  Beyond Özil’s goals, will Kroos or Wesley be able to replace his creativity in attack?

Werder does have veteran leadership in the form of midfielders Torsten Frings (USMNT fans love him!) and Tim Borowski and in defender Per Mertesacker.  If the veterans can lead the show the youth how to play in Europe, Werder has a shot of advancing from this group.  That said, they have already lost to TSG Hoffenheim 4-1 to start the Bundesliga season and need to right ship if they hope to advance.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. – Spurs enter their first Champions League campaign with high hopes.  Spurs finally broken into the top four in the English Premier League, thanks to a late season 1-0 victory over Manchester City.  Spurs opened the EPL season with a 0-0 draw against Manchester City, a team that has spent has spent £325 million over the past two years to bring in new talent.  Following the draw, Spurs defeated Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium.

Gio Dos Santos hopes Spurs can make it out of the group stage the way Mexico did this summer at the World Cup.

The team has many names familiar names, including forward Peter Crouch (he of the robot goal dances), Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios, and forward Jermain Defoe.  Spurs also have a couple of my favorite players to watch: Aaron Lennon, who uses his amazing pace to make defenders look foolish, and Luka Modrić whose play making ability is world-class but gets little recognition for his stellar play (sort of like when a player like Hanley Ramirez puts up huge numbers in relative obscurity with the Marlins)

Tottenham’s only major addition over the summer has been William Gallas, meaning the team goes into this season with a measure of stability that is unusual in top flight English soccer.  I expect this familiarity to work to their advantage, and would not be surprised to see this ambitious team advance to the knockout round.  However, in order to do this, Spurs will need to play more like the team that beat Young Boys 4-0 at White Hart Lane (securing a spot in the group stage) than the team that lost 3-2 in Bern.

F.C. Twente – A recent fixture in the Champions League qualifying rounds, having made it the past three seasons, Twente finally broke through this season.  Twente will make their first appearance in the Group Stage, and hope to have better luck than last year’s Dutch entrant (AZ Alkmaar, who finished with 0 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses).  Twente have made a steady climb up the Eredivisie table over the past 5 or 6 years and finally won the title last season, pipping Ajax. Former English national team manager Steve McClaren led Twente during its resurgence, but has since left for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga, taking over at Wolfsburg.

Who will replace the scoring of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz if he makes a move to Liverpool or Sevilla? Twente's chances may rest on the answer.

How well Twente will compete in this group is anybody’s guess.  They should certainly not be written off, but with McClaren gone, all-time leading scorer Blaise Nkufo now playing for Seattle Sounders FC, and last season’s leading scorer, Bryan Ruiz the target of clubs such as Liverpool and Sevilla there are many questions surrounding the team.  With Nkufo gone, if Ruiz leaves, who will score?  Can new manager Michel Preud’homme continue the run of success started under Fred Rutten and continued by McClaren?  Will keeper Sander Boschker stand up to international competition?

I expect Twente to be a tough game when they play in the Netherlands, but not trouble the bigger clubs when they play on the road.  Twente would do well to qualify for the Europa League out of this group and might be happy if they do.

My prediction:  Inter easily wins the group.  Tottenham finish 2nd, edging Werder.

Check out the previews for:
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

¡España – Campeones del Mundo!

Spain celebrate their World Cup victory.

Congratulations are in order for La Furia Roja!  Spain defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in a match marred by poor officiating, brutal tackling and missed chances.  The game will likely be remembered more for the record 14 yellow cards than for any single act in the run of play.

The game had a cracking start, with Sergio Ramos narrowly missing a header in the 5th minute.  Unfortunately, that proved to be the highlight of a half that was at best lackluster and at worst downright boring.  Ramos was probably the most dangerous player during the first 45 minutes, consistently getting forward as he did in the game against Germany. Despite Ramos’ adventurous runs down the wing, the game had no flow.  Midfield destroyers, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, both received yellow cards for harsh tackles before the game hit the half-hour mark.  Nigel De Jong was lucky to not receive red a card for his karate kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest.  As in virtually all their games, Spain held the ball for more of the 1st half than the Dutch.  They passed the ball well, but just couldn’t break down the Dutch defense.  Mercifully, half-time came with the promise of tactical changes.  Sadly, those changes did not come and the second half was more brutal than the first.

While there were more goal-scoring chances in the second half, the tackling got harder and referee Howard Webb handed out more yellow cards.  Some of the cards were deserved, some of them were harsh.  The Dutch chose to play a cynical style, fouling the Spanish midfield in an attempt to break-up their passing and possession.  The two clearest chances were from Arjen Robben and David Villa.  Robben had a break away, a result of a brilliant pass by Wesley Sneijder, stopped on a miraculous save by Iker Casillas.  Villa had an open shot that forced Maarten Stekelenburg to make an equally brilliant save.  The Dutch looked much more dangerous after Robben replaced the ineffective Robin Van Persie at the top of the Dutch attack.  As the game got closer to full time it became apparent that we were headed for extra time.  In extra time there were some chances, with Robben and Cesc Fábregas looking the most dangerous.  Anyone watching the match knew that a red card was going to appear at some point.  That card was given to John Heitinga following a crude tackle on Iniesta.  It was Heitinga’s second yellow card and left the Dutch scrambling with only 10 men to finish the remaining 11 minutes.

Ultimately, it was a typical Spanish play that led to the game winning goal.  Fábregas controlled a cross by Fernando Torres and played it to an open Andrés Iniesta.  Iniesta was kept onside by Rafael Van der Vaart who had dived in an effort to stop Torres’ cross.  Iniesta made no mistake, slotting the ball past a diving Stekelenburg.  To Stekelenburg’s credit, he got a hand on the shot but was unable to prevent it from hitting the net.  With that shot, the result was all but sealed as the Dutch had a mere 3 minutes and any injury time to score the leveler.  During that period the Dutch pressed, but were unable to get any true chances.  After 3 minutes of injury time, referee Howard Webb blew the whistle ending an ugly match for him and both teams.

The Dutch really have nobody to blame but themselves for the loss.  The played a negative style and never seemed interested in attacking (with the exception of Arjen Robben).  Perhaps the best criticism I’ve read of the Dutch style was from Jonathan Wilson of Sports Illustrated.  In his column on the final he wrote, “Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else.”

After watching the entire game, here are some facts/observations:

  • Maarten Stekelenburg is better than I thought.  He was massive in this game, stopping virtually ever shot that came his way.  He made a great effort on the Spanish goal and kept the Dutch in the game.  This game showed that he is a worthy successor to Edwin Van Der Sar.
  • Spain had several wasted chances.  Ramos missed two open headers.  Fabregas wasted a breakaway attempt and another shot that came at the end of a marauding run through the Dutch center.  Villa had his shot saved by Stekelenburg and several Spanish free kicks were put either wide or over the net.
  • The Netherlands (particularly Arjen Robben) had several wasted chances as well.  Robben could have chipped Casillas on his breakaway but instead tried a driven shot that Casillas caught with his outstretched leg.
  • The Dutch played intentionally rough soccer according to defender Gregory Van Der Wiel, “Yes, we did that intentionally.  It was not the idea to let Spain play soccer comfortably. They can play fantastic soccer, and if you let them, you doom yourself. We tried to apply pressure wherever we could and tried to make the game hard on Spain.”  While this makes sense, it led to a game that never really had the flow many had hoped to see.  It also proved that any vestige of Total Football is gone from the Dutch team.  Its death will be mourned by fans of the beautiful game.
  • The goal, in the 116th minute, led to Spain’s 4th straight 1-0 victory and their 5th 1 goal victory of the tournament.
  • Spain scored only 8 goals in winning the tournament, easily the fewest for any World Cup winner.  The previous record was 11, shared by three teams: Italy (1934 in 4 games), England (1966 in 6 games) and Brazil (1994 in 7 games).
  • The Dutch have now lost 3 World Cup finals (1974, 1978, 2010).  The only team to have finished 2nd more often are the Germans (1966, 1982, 1986, 2002).
  • The Dutch have appeared in the most World Cup finals without winning one.  The only other teams to appear in multiple finals without a win are Hungary (1938, 1954) and Czechoslovakia (1934 and 1962).

As for the awards handed out following the game, I can’t really argue with any of them.  Casillas was the best goalkeeper of the tournament.  While Stekelenburg played better than I expected, Casillas came up huge in the games that mattered most. Thomas Müller won both the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player award.  The Golden Boot is awarded o the player that scored the most goals in the tournament.  While Müller tied with Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder, and David Villa for the most goals (5), Müller won the award due to his three assists (the first tie-breaker).  Forlan shouldn’t be too upset at not winning the Golden Boot, as he won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s MVP.  Forlan is deserving of this award, despite playing for the 4th place team.  Forlan was classy throughout the tournament.  Take Forlan off the team and Uruguay wouldn’t have even made it out of the first round.

In the end, this World Cup was compelling.  The officiating was questionable and perhaps will spur FIFA to make some changes (INSTANT REPLAY PLEASE!).  New stars emerged (Müller, Mesut Özil, Asamoah Gyan, Siphiwe Tshabalala) and veterans rose to new heights (Forlan, Luis Suárez, Stekelenburg).  Here’s to World Cup 2010! Only 1432 more days until kick-off.

World Cup Final: Spain vs. the Netherlands

I’m not even sure that I need to write this post because Paul the Octopus has predicted a Spanish victory.  As far as I know, he hasn’t also broken down the match-ups.  Don’t worry Paul, I’ll do that for you.  It can be tough blogging with 8 arms, suction cups, and no opposable thumbs.

Not since Red and Orange fought over who would be first in the rainbow (red won that fight and will here too) have we seen an epic match between those two colors.  La Furia Roja (the Red Fury) take on the Oranje (the Orange) on Sunday for the World Cup title.  Spain and the Netherlands are almost universally recognized as the two best teams to never win a World Cup.  One team loses that status on Sunday, while the other will carry that mantle for at least 4 more years.  Both are dangerous sides and have been historic underachievers.  Despite their collective, historic skill, neither team has had the success to match.  The Dutch have contested two finals (1974 and 1978), have won 1 European championship (1988) and been close several other times.  Both near misses for the Dutch involved playing the host country in the final.  Both times they lost.  South Africa has happily obliged the Dutch in not making the final, so at least they won’t have to face a team with the home field advantage on their side.  Spain’s best showing at the World Cup, prior to this year, was way back in 1950 when they finished 4th.  The Spanish have also won two European championships (1964 and 2008) and have been ranked 1st or 2nd for he better part of the last 2 years.  While the match may not include Brazil, Italy, England or Argentina, this is a heavyweight fight.

Goalkeeper – This match-up is almost a no-contest.   Iker Casillas is head-and-shoulders better than Maarten Stekelenburg.  I know that many have been talking Stekelenburg up during the tournament, but I just don’t see it.  He was shaky against Uruguay, letting in a Jabulani goal by Diego Forlán.  Granted, Stekelenburg has made some great saves, but to call him the best keeper at the World Cup is certainly hyperbole. His time on the club level at Ajax would seem to confirm that he is a good keeper, but not of the same class as Casillas.

On the other side of the pitch, Casillas has rebounded nicely from early tournament drama.  He looked distracted during the group stage, perhaps as a result of his girlfriend calling him out , or perhaps it was due to a long season backstopping Real Madrid.  Whatever the reason, Casillas has rebounded to look like the man who earned the moniker St. Iker.  I expect Casillas to perform up to his usual standards.  If Stekelenburg can regain the form he showed earlier in the tournament, the Dutch will be in a good position.  If plays like he did against Uruguay, the Dutch are in trouble.  Advantage: Spain

Defense – This match-up again favors Spain.  The Spanish fullbacks get forward better than Netherlands, especially Sergio Ramos, who was a monster in attack against Germany game.  Joan Capdevila doesn’t get the same kind of press as Ramos, but he has done well on the left.  The Dutch will have Gregory Van Der Wiel back and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst did unleash what might be the goal of the tournament (watch the highlights), but the Spanish fullbacks are still the class in this game.  Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué are both better than the Dutch center back tandem of Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga.  Puyol was a beast in the Germany game, scoring the game winner in the 73rd minute.  Pique has also been solid.  The will have their hands full with the Dutch attack, but I also thought they would have difficulty with Germany and they shut down what had been a prolific German attack.  Mathijsen and Heitinga are both good defenders, but I question their ability to consistently stop the Spanish attack.  David Villa should find some room to run against the Dutch D, which is definitely not a good thing.

Midfield – This is where the game will take place.  The match in the middle of the park is the marquee portion of the World Cup finals.  The Dutch midfield will likely consist of  Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong.  I like the team better when Rafael Van der Vaart is on the pitch, but I suspect Bert van Marwijk will go with what has worked for the entire tournament (match against Uruguay not included due to De Jong’s suspension).  The Spanish will have to stop Sneijder and Robben from making dangerous runs out of the midfield.  Sneijder has been electric the entire tournament.  He is tied for the Golden Boot with David Villa and doesn’t look like he is going to slow down.  Robben has been excellent since his return from injury and provides the Dutch with the necessary width to attack the Spanish defense.  Kuyt has done the dirty work in attack and has been underrated this tournament.

The Spanish will likely deploy XaviAndrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets with David Silva and Cesc Fábregas off the bench. The Spanish are spoiled for choice in their lineup and having Fabregas on the bench as a super-sub is an ace in the hole for them.  David Silva or Fabregas could start in the place of the ineffective Fernando Torres, or Vicente Del Bosque could go with Pedro up front as a compliment to Villa.  I think the Spanish will need to attack down the wing in order to avoid the Van Bommel and De Jong.  It will be interesting to see if Van Bommel and De Jong can disrupt the Spanish midfield with their hard tackles.  It isn’t too had to imagine a hard tackle by one of the Dutch enforcers altering the game in their favor.  Both teams hold the ball well, but Spain’s game is more predicated on possession and short passing than the Dutch.  I hope that we will see the flowing soccer that has been a hallmark of the Dutch and Spanish sides in their past.  Advantage: Push

Forwards – Based solely on this tournament, this would appear to be another no-contest.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot, while Robin Van Persie has disappeared for long stretches.  Van Persie’s disappearing act belies his skill, one need look no further than his campaign with Arsenal this year.  In just 2o appearances, he scored 10 goals and had 8 assists!  Not a bad ratio if you ask me.

Villa, of course, has been superlative at this World Cup and internationally for Spain.  He has been prolific for La Furia Roja, making 64 appearances and scoring 43 goals.  This past club season saw him score 28 goals and dish out 10 assists in 45 appearances for Valencia and led to a move to Barcelona.

Beyond the obvious starters, Spain has greater depth than the Dutch.  Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is not on par with Fernando Torres when he is playing his best.  Right now, the argument could be made they are much closer (given Torres’ slump), though Huntelaar has seen only 49 total minutes of action in South Africa.  Beyond Huntelaar, the Dutch don’t have any strikers on their roster, as Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia are wingers and generally play closer to the midfield.  Neither has seen much playing time (Babel has not gotten into a game, and Elia has played a total of 89 minutes).  As mentioned above, Pedro could also play a role in this game.  He was dangerous against Spain and could come off the bench or start in place of Torres.  Beyond Pedro, the Spanish have Fernando Llorente and Jesús Navas on the bench.  Llorente is more of a striker, while Navas is a winger.  As with their Dutch counterparts, neither has seen much time in South Africa.  Llorente has played 32 minutes, while Navas has started one game (against Honduras) and played 29 minutes in another.  Neither of Navas’ games have been since the group stage.  Advantage: Spain

If Spain can keep possession the way they did against Germany and find Villa making runs through the Dutch defense Spain will win this game.  If the Spanish allow the Dutch midfield space, especially Robben and Sneijder, Spain will be in trouble.  Robben and Sneijder are creative enough to conjure moments of glory out of nowhere and the Spanish must be mindful.  Ultimately, I think the Spanish will prevail in a close game.  The top-to-bottom quality of the Spanish side will overwhelm the Dutch, despite the Dutch having a world-class midfield.  Final score: Spain 2 – Netherlands 1.

I hope that Paul the Octopus approves of this post.

¡Viva La Furia Roja!

Carles Puyol scores the game winner for Spain!

Looking at my predictions, I just can’t seem to ever get more than 50% correct (except in the round of 16, I went 5-3).   An octopus is better at predicting the winner’s than I am! While my prediction for the Spain-Germany game turned out to be incorrect, the team I wanted to win took care of business. The unlikely goal scorer, Carles Puyol, was an injury doubt but had a massive game in defense and his header in the 73rd minute propelled Spain to its first ever World Cup final.

The win was a workman like effort for Spain.  Unlike what I predicted, Spain was the better team in this game.  They dominated possession and kept the Germans from counterattacking the way they did against Argentina and England.  Vicente Del Bosque benched Fernando Torres in favor of Pedro, who was deployed on the wing opposite Andrés Iniesta. This turned out to be a smart move, as Pedro played much better than Torres has been playing.  Pedro had some chances, but did make a mistake in not passing the ball to an open Torres for a game clinching goal.  Clearly Cesc Fábregas must not have been completely healthy, as he did not feature in the game at all.  He would have been the logical choice to replace Torres in the starting eleven if he had been able to go.

An interesting match-up took place between Iniesta and Jerome Boateng.  Boateng was clearly out of his depth against the Spanish right-side of Iniesta and Sergio Ramos.  Ramos and Iniesta continually made overlapping runs in attack with Iniesta pinching into the center of the field as Ramos streaked down the touchline.  From very early in the game, Ramos was extremely high in the attacking zone.  Joachim Löw attempted to protect Boateng in the first half by switching him to the right back position, only to have Iniesta follow him across the field.  It took Löw until the 51st minute to realize that Boateng was over matched and make a substitution.  Why Löw waited this long is anybody’s guess.  If he was thinking of making a change it should have been made at half time.

On the whole, the German team just did not look like the same team that scorched both Argentina and England.  For the first time since the loss to Serbia in the opening round, Germany looked like a team that didn’t know what to do.  Perhaps it was their youth running up against a more experienced Spanish team.  Or perhaps Germany missed Thomas Müller more than anyone could have expected.  Müller’s replacement, Piotr Trochowski,didn’t play up to his level.  Mesut Özil, who received a lot of attention after his performances in the early rounds, just couldn’t get anything going against the Spanish defense making Müller’s absence all the more glaring.  Without Müller, Germany was out shot 13 (5 on goal) – 5 (2).  You just aren’t going to win many games like that, especially against a team the caliber of Spain.

The final between the Netherlands and Spain should be fun to watch (I intend to post an in-depth preview closer to the game) and will come with some added drama as we will have a first-time winner of the World Cup.  Spain or the Netherlands will become just the 8th team to win the tournament.  This stat is incredible, given that this is the 19th World Cup.  Whether the Dutch or the Spanish win, the winner will become the first first-time winner since France in 1998.  The last team to win their first World Cup prior to that was Argentina in 1978 (against the Dutch).

Third Place Game (Saturday July 10 at 2:30pm Eastern) – Very briefly, I wanted to discuss the third place game between Germany and Uruguay.  I think this game should be fun to watch, as both teams possess top class attacking talent.  Luis Suárez will be back from his red card for Uruguay and will likely pair up top with the ever-present, Diego Forlán.  Müller will also return from suspension for Germany.  With Lukas Podolski, Özil and Müller reunited behind Miroslav Klose, Germany should make a return to the attacking form that made them so fun to watch earlier in the tournament.  Ultimately, Germany just has more talent than Uruguay at virtually every position.  It would take a massive game from Suárez and Forlán for Uruguay to win.  Germany wins this game to finish 3rd for the second straight World Cup.

Clash of the Titans

Before I launch into my preview of the Germany-Spain match, let’s look back at today’s game between Uruguay and the Netherlands.  The game turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, with 5 goals being scored.  Two of the tournament’s best performers (Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán) were again on display.  Sneijder bagged his 5th goal and is tied with David Villa for the Golden Boot.  The Dutch’s first goal was a great shot from distance by veteran left back,  Giovanni Van Bronckhorst.  The ball was a great strike into the top corner, Fernando Muslera could do little to keep it out.  Uruguay equalized through a goal by Forlán just before the half.  The Dutch pushed for a good portion of the second half and finally got a goal when Sneijder’s shot from the edge of the box took a funny bounce off of Maxi Pereira.  There is a question as to whether the goal should have been allowed, as Robin Van Persie (who has been less than stellar this World Cup) was narrowly offside.  Perhaps the referee saw him as being in a passive position (most definitely not) or perhaps he called him onside due to Maxi Pereira’s “playing” of the ball.  Either way, the goal counted.  THe Dutch scored again through a sublime build up and cross by Dirk KuytArjen Robben finished the cross from Kuyt to put the Oranje up 3-1.  Uruguay pushed in the final 5 minutes with Maxi Pereira scoring a goal off a well-played free kick that was laid off to him at the top of the box. The win propelled the Dutch to their first World Cup final since 1978 and assured an all European final.

An interesting thing about the Dutch win is that it eliminated the last South American team from the 2010 World Cup. South American teams had been dominant up to the quarterfinals, with 4 out of the 5 entrants making it to the final 8. Uruguay was the only South American team to make the semifinals.  Europe, on the other hand, has had a shaky Cup, until now.  Three European teams made it to the final 8.  All three advanced to the final 4 and we will have 2 European teams in the final.  Which team will be the second European team in the 2010 World Cup final? Let’s break down the match.

This is a match of a team that classically overachieves versus a team that is trying to permanently shed its underachiever label.  Spain went a long way to shedding that ignominious label by beating Germany in the Euro 2008 final. The win propelled Spain to the #1 spot in the FIFA rankings, but a series of less than stellar outings allowed Brazil to regain the top spot.  Spain’s loss to the US at the 2009 Confederations Cup combined with an opening game loss to Switzerland at this World Cup made the Euro 2008 victory seem like a thing of the past.  Spain has rebounded nicely to make it to their first ever semifinal at the World Cup.  Germany, on the other hand, are in their 4th semifinal in a row and are seeking a shot at their 4th title.

Goalkeeper – Captain, and arguably best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas is in net for Spain, while relative newcomer, Manuel Neuer will again backstop Germany.  Initial reaction from most fans would be the this is a no contest victory for Spain; however, Casillas has seemed a bit distracted throughout the tournament.  That said, a distracted Casillas is still better than most goalkeepers, and he rose to the occasion against Paraguay.  His save of  Óscar Cardozo’s PK was clutch!  The save kept Spain in the game and allowed David Villa to score the game winner.  Neuer has been playing very well and has only conceded 2 goals the entire tournament.  He is still untested in truly big games (and this one is massive).  Will he rise to the occasion?  Advantage: Spain

Defense – Here too, many fans might see Spain has having a much better defense than Germany.  Look past the glitzy names like Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué and this match up is much closer than it initially appears.  Spain certainly has the name recognition, but Germany’s defense has been excellent throughout the tournament.  While they are susceptible to the counter attack, as show by England, they bend but don’t break.  Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker might not have the name recognition of the Spanish center back tandem, but they have played every bit as well.  They worked tirelessly to keep Argentina’s potent offense off the score sheet, making Lionel Messi look a bit lost.  Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm have also done well at the full back positions, both in defense and going forward in attack. There has been some speculation that Puyol may miss game due to injury, which would likely mean Carlos Marchena or Raúl Albiol would start in his place.  Both replacements are solid, but Puyol marshals the back line very well, and his presence would be missed.  Advantage: Spain (by a small margin if Puyol plays).

Midfield – Spain, once again, has the star power in midfield with the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fábregas (who will likely start, if healthy, in the place of the slumping Fernando Torres).   If Spain elects to sit Torres, they will employ a 4-5-1 formation, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso playing behind the aforementioned trio.  Keep in mind that Fabregas appears to be nursing a leg injury, suffered during practice on Monday.  The Spanish midfield typically has a lot of possession as they like to use short passes to cut open defenses.  This, however, has allowed some teams to shut them down (see the US at the Confederations Cup, Switzerland and even Paraguay in defeat).  Their reliance on short passing can make them one-dimensional in their attack.  It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that Spain finally broke through against a tiring Paraguay (remember Paraguay had just played a game that went to PKs against Japan).  Germany has shown that it is a master of counterattacking in this World Cup.  Manager, Joachim Löw, has used his talent to the best of its abilities.  Thomas Müller has been a revelation, but will miss the semifinal due to yellow card accumulation.  Finding his replacement could be tough given how well he has been playing.  Even without him, Germany are strong with emerging holding midfielder Sami Khedira, attacking starlet Mesut Özil, and veteran playmaker/free kick specialist Bastian Schweinsteiger.  This match up shuld be fun to watch, as the Spanish try to break down the German back line and the Germans counterattack. The emergence of Özil, great play from Schweinsteiger and Khedira, and the potential injury to Fabregas make this an even match up.  Advantage: Push

Forward – As with every other area of the pitch, the Spanish have more star power up front.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot with 5 goals and Fernando Torres has been prolific for Liverpool since joining the EPL.  Torres, unfortunately for Spain, has not been able to translate that form to the international stage.  He has looked tired, lost, and just plain bad most of the tournament.  This is likely to prompt Spain into a tactical switch, leaving Villa as the lone striker.  Germany has Miroslav Klose, a man who knows how to score goals for his country, particularly in the World Cup. Klose (14 career goals at the World Cup) is 1 goal from tying Ronaldo for the most World Cup goals scored by a player in his career.  He has been his usual, solid self all tournament.  Lukas Podolski has been excellent setting up the attack and has found the back of the net twice himself.  Germany has more depth than Spain, being able to bring Cacau and Mario Gomez off the bench.  Both players are dangerous.  Spain has Fernando Llorente and wingers Pedro and Jesús Navas.  All are good players, but none have the finishing ability of Cacau or Gomez.  Advantage: Germany

Germany is a classic example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts.  They have several excellent players, but none are as flashy as their Spanish counterparts.  While Spain, on paper, has a better grouping of players, Germany has a better team.  For this reason, and Löw’s tactical superiority over Vicente Del Bosque, Germany will win this game.  They have looked much better throughout the tournament than Spain, but I still want to see Spain win.

World Cup Quarterfinal Preview and Predictions

Having taken a vacation to recover from the US’s crushing loss to Ghana, it’s back to the World Cup.  Despite the lack of both England and the US, I am still enamored with the quadrennial football fiesta.  The one thing that is missing is a team to support.  At the beginning of the tournament, as with Euro 2008, I was into the Dutch.  What’s not to like?  They play flowing soccer that is beautiful to watch.  Yet, as the tournament has gone on, the in-fighting in the Dutch camp has left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I just can’t bring myself to root for Brazil or Germany.  I almost likened cheering for them to cheering for the Yankees, but the Brazilians are eminently more likeable, the Germans marginally so.  For obvious reasons Ghana is out.  Paraguay just doesn’t do much for me.  They don’t play exciting soccer and they don’t have any superlative talents to seduce me.  Uruguay has some appeal.  They are a plucky country with a strong World Cup tradition (they won in 1930 and 1950).  They also sport Luis Suarez, the best forward many people have never heard of.  Check him out, he was prolific with Ajax and will be the target of a big money move this summer.  There is something about Argentina that I like.  Is it their crazy manager?  Their diminutive talisman?  Or those spiffy uniforms?  I’m not sure, but they are a close second for me right now.  In discussions at work, I think I’ve settled on Spain.  They are fun to watch.  Their midfield picks teams apart and David Villa is a striking dynamo.  Can Spain win?  Yes.  They are the #2 team in the world and thankfully, they are on the opposite side of the bracket as Brazil.

Now on to a preview of the quarterfinals and my predictions.

Netherlands (#4 in the FIFA World Rankings) vs. Brazil (#1) – 10am, Friday 7/2:  It is truly a shame that this match is happening at the quarterfinal stage.  This match pits one of the best teams never to win a World Cup against the only team to win on 4 (hoping to make it 5) different continents.  Brazil has looked like a machine during the tournament.  They easily finished first in the supposed “Group of Death”, never really having a problem.  They then dismantled a Chile team that was playing some excellent soccer coming into their round of 16 match.  While Brazil may not have their traditional flare, they are still fun to watch.  They are a tough squad that mirrors their manager and if it is possible with a Brazil team, they are greater than the sum of their parts (which is substantial).

The Dutch marched through their group and swept away Slovakia in the round of 16.  Arjen Robben returned to provide the spark the Dutch needed and should be a greater contributor against Brazil.  (As an aside, does anyone think that Robben is soccer’s Greg Oden, a man who despite being a relatively young age looks like he’s about 50).  The Dutch have played excellent defense and but have lacked a little of their traditional attacking flare.  What they haven’t lacked is their traditional in-fighting.  Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder just can’t seem to bury a hatchet that has been around since Euro ’08 and this tension has spilled over to the rest of the team.  Another question mark is Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch keeper.  He has played admirably thus far, but can he withstand the Brazilian attack?

This match should provide some fun soccer.  Ultimately, I think that Brazil’s strong midfield and defense (captained by Lucio) will clog the field and prevent Robben, Van Persie, Sneijeder and the rest of the Dutch attacking talent from truly opening up the game.  I also believe that Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Kaka will conjure enough magic to break through the Dutch defense.  Prediction: Brazil

Uruguay (#16) vs. Ghana (#32) – 2:30pm, Friday 7/2:  The late game tomorrow pits a team that has been to the top of the mountain (albeit 60 years ago) against Africa’s last hope.  Uruguay has looked impressive thus far, easily winning its group (thanks in part to an imploding France and a not ready for prime time South Africa).   It took a late winner from the aforementioned Luis Suarez to defeat South Korea in the round of 16, but Uruguay had the better of the chances in that game.  Uruguay has displayed an attacking style that is fun to watch, and they have two top level forwards in Suarez and Diego ForlanFernando Muslera, who plays his club soccer with Lazio in Italy, has been great in goal.  Uruguay will be missing defender Diego Godin, due to injury, and will have to find a replacement.

Ghana, as well know, defeated the US in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals.  Prior to that, they finished 2nd in what I thought was the toughest group at the World Cup.  They were able to make it out of a group that consisted of Germany, Serbia and Australia.  Ghana is the lowest ranked team left playing in the World Cup and was the lowest ranked team in their group.  The Black Stars have taken advantage of home-field advantage and are receiving the support of the entire continent of Africa.  Ghana hadn’t scored a goal in the run of play prior to the US game, so scoring for them could be difficult.  Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng will provide the attacking impetus.

This match could be fun, though I doubt it will be as exciting as the early game tomorrow.  Ghana’s defense and goal-keeping has looked shaky (the US game notwithstanding) and I think that the Uruguayan front line will be able to pick its spots.  I also think that Ghana will find it difficult to break down the Uruguayan defense and get a shot past Muslera.  Forlan and Suarez will lead Uruguay to its first semifinal appearance in 40 years.  Prediction: Uruguay

Argentina (#7) vs. Germany (#6) – 10am, Saturday 7/3:

Would you want to mess with this guy?

This match has generated the most off-field buzz, as one might expect when the match includes Diego Maradona.  A war of words has erupted between Germany and Argentina that stems from bad blood created at the 2006 World Cup.  Germany defeated Argentina on penalty kicks in that game, which was followed by some unsportsmanlike conduct (punches were thrown).  Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of Germany’s most important midfielders, admitted that he has been thinking about the 2006 match and expects Argentina to try to stir things up.  Diego Maradona, of course, replied to Schweinsteiger’s comments by donning a mock German accent to taunt the midfielder.  Maradona is crazy, who knows what the guy will do next.  It is part of Argentina’s appeal.  Carloz Tevez also got in on the war of words stating that he believed Mexico were better than Germany (a statement that is clearly false, my US fan credentials aside).

On the field, Germany has been its usual efficient self.  Apart from a 1-0 loss to Serbia (partially thanks to a dubious red card), Germany has looked every bit a contender.  Disallowed goal or not, Germany demolished England in the round of 16, dismantled Australia in the group stage and eased past Ghana.  The side is a mix of new and old, and features some up-and-coming talents that will surely be targets in the summer transfer window.  Mesut Özil has been a revelation, for Germany in the midfield and Thomas Müller has been his equal.  These World Cup rookies have been guided along by veterans like Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Lucas Podolski, and Philipp Lahm.  Germany was once again unfancied coming into this tournament but have (as is usual for German teams) stepped up when it matters most.

Just as Germany has looked dominant in their run to the quarters, Argentina has been clicking on all cylinders.  Following an uninspiring 1-0 victory over Nigeria, Argentina then scored 9 goals while conceding just 2 over its next three games.  Destroying South Korea 4-1, Greece 2-0 and Mexico 3-1.  Gonzalo Higuain, has been in fine form, and the defense has made a minimum number of mistakes.  Lionel Messi hasn’t scored yet, but his presence is almost worth as much as his goal scoring.   Argentina’s mercurial manager has actually made some shrew managerial decisions, and hasn’t impeded a stacked team’s progression.

Whether Argentina’s defense can hold is a question that must be answered.  They will face a difficult task against Germany, but I think they are up to it.  Argentina will get some revenge for the loss in 2006 and advance to the semifinal.  Prediction: Argentina

Paraguay (#31) vs. Spain (#2) – 2:30pm, Saturday 7/3:  The last of the quarterfinals might also be the least intriguing.  Spain should dominate this match, at least on paper.  Paraguay has played well throughout the tournament, winning a group that included Italy.  Looking back, Paraguay may have won the easiest group in the tournament.  New Zealand were up for a match, but certainly aren’t that dangerous and Slovakia were never able to regain their qualifying form.  Paraguay’s victory over Japan was a scoreless affair that required penalty kicks to decide the outcome.  Thus far, Paraguay has only scored 3 goals.  On the other hand, they have only conceded 1 goal.  Paraguay needs to play amazing defense to shut down the Spanish midfield and a great game from Roque Santa Cruz or Óscar Cardozo if they want to advance.

Following a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game, Spain has looked like the team that won Euro 2008.  They have passed the ball beautifully through midfield, defended well, and David Villa has been his usual goal-scoring self.  The one negative thus far has been Fernando Torres inability to find the form that made him one of the most feared strikers in the EPL and all of international soccer. I don’t think that Spain will need Torres to find that form to win this game.  Will they need it to win the tournament?  Yes, they will.

My guess is that Paraguay will try to sit back on defense and then counter-attack.  This could lead to a rather drab game.  I, ultimately, see Spain winning this game after they break down Paraguay’s defensive shell.  Prediction: Spain

If my predictions are right, there will be three South American teams in the semifinals, an incredible stat when you think that South America only sent 5 teams to the World Cup.  The match-ups would be Uruguay-Brazil and Argentina-Spain.  Both games should be fun to watch and the possibilities for the finals are tantalizing.  I can only hope that my support of Spain doesn’t jinx them the way my support of the US and England contributed to their respective downfalls.  Viva La Furia Roja!

Putting Things in Perspective

Joe Gaetjens scored the game winner in the US upset of England at the 1950 World Cup

The US pulled off an amazing victory yesterday that has been covered in this space.  In the last day, I’ve read a lot of reaction to the win and many people are classifying the win over Algeria as the biggest or most important win in US soccer history.  I just don’t think that is true.  While the win goes a long way to create new soccer fans and gave the US their first group win since 1930 (the US finished third that year), it wasn’t the biggest or most important victory.  I would argue the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup was more important and a bigger win.  The win propelled the US to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930 and was a win over out most bitter rival on the world’s largest stage.  One could also argue that the 2-0 victory over Spain (then ranked #1 in the world) was a bigger victory, as it propelled the US to its first international tournament final outside of its region.  Some argument can also be made the the shocking 1-0 victory over England in 1950 was bigger.  All that being said, I think yesterday’s win could move up in the rankings depending on what the US does in the rest of the tournament.  The match-ups are actually favorable to the US.  They play Ghana on Saturday and if they are victorious would play either Uruguay or South Korea.  Neither team scares me.  If the US could beat the Uruguay-South Korea winner, they would advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1930.  At that stage things get trickier (a likely match-up against the Dutch, Brazil, or Spain could be in the cards depending on outcomes from the rest of group play), but a trip to the semifinals would be considered a huge success.

In other World Cup news, Italy lost its final group game to Slovakia, knocking the defending champions out of the tournament.  The last champion to lose before the knockout rounds was France in 2002.  As written before, it is the first time both teams from the previous final have failed to advance out of the group stage.  Paraguay drew with New Zealand, in a listless showing, but secured top spot in the group.  Slovakia, by virtue of its victory, also advances.  Slovakia is likely to play The Netherlands in the round of 16, while Paraguay looks set to face Portugal (mea culpa, misread the bracket) Japan.

Has Parity Come to International Soccer?

This World Cup seems to be, at least through most of the 2nd games in the group stage, signaling a new-found parity in international soccer.  The traditional European powers, England (8), Germany (6) , Spain (2), Italy (5), and France (9), home to the 5 biggest and supposedly best soccer leagues in the world (FIFA rankings in parentheses), have been dreadful thus far.  The records through 2 games (for Spain 1) are:

W D L Pts. Goal Difference
England 0 2 0 2 0
France 0 1 1 1 -2
Germany 1 0 1 3 2
Italy 0 0 2 2 0
Spain 0 0 1 1 -1

As you can see, Germany is the only team to win a game (a 4-0 drubbing of Australia (20)), though they have also lost as well (1-0 to pre-tourney dark horse, Serbia (15)).  Italy and England have had to settle for a pair of draws each. One could argue that the first draw for each wasn’t a bad result with England drawing the US (14) and Italy drawing Paraguay (31).  However, the second draw for each team has no doubt caused widespread panic in each country.  England drew unfancied Algeria (30), and Italy can thank a dubious PK for their draw with New Zealand (78), one of the lowest ranked teams at the World Cup.  New Zealand’s squad consists of players that mostly play in the A-Leauge, Australia’s top league, with a smattering of players plying their trade internationally.  They have 2 players who play in a top European league, Ryan Nelsen who plays in defense for Blackburn in the English Premier League and Chris Wood who plays forward for newly promoted West Bromwich Albion (also of the EPL).   A team with this makeup has no business drawing the defending champions.  Italy’s entire squad is made up of players who play in Serie A, probably the 3rd best league in the world (after the EPL and La Liga), with the exception of captain Fabio Cannavaro who has just left Juventus to play for Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates.  This is another example of a team taking an opponent too lightly.  New Zealand was playing with house money and were able to cash in with a well deserved draw.

England controls their own destiny.  A win and they are through to the next round.  A draw coupled with a US loss would see the English through as well.  If England loses to Slovenia (25), their tournament is done.

Italy is also in position to advance, they are level on points with New Zealand.  Italy plays Slovakia (34) in the final group game, and based on rankings alone Italy should win.  Though, they should have beaten New Zealand too.  An Italian win sees them through to the next round.  A draw could also advance them, as long as New Zealand doesn’t pull off a stunner against Paraguay (who have taken care of business) in their last group game.

France’s struggles have been the subject of two previous posts, however, the most pressing problem may be that they are likely to miss the knockout rounds because of a loss to Mexico (17), nothing to be ashamed of, and a draw with Uruguay (16).  The French face South Africa (83) in their final game and need a massive win and some help to advance.

Germany is in the best shape of the teams that have completed two games.  By virtue of their big win over Australia they provided themselves with a large goal difference cushion (goal difference is the first tie-breaker used to determine which team advances to the next round in the even the teams are level on points).   For Germany, a win over Ghana (32) secures their spot in the next round.  They could also advance with a draw as long as Serbia does not win their game over Australia.

Spain has the most time to recover from their lethargic display against Switzerland.  With two games to play against inferior competition (Honduras (38) and Chile (18)).  Spain can right ship and advance to the 2nd round with a pair of wins.

While none of the teams are totally out of it (France is on life support), this has not been the cake walk most were expecting.  Also, an interesting tidbit is that if both France and Italy fail to make it to the knockout stage it will be the first time since the World Cup took on its current format (1986) that both teams from the previous World Cup final will have failed to make it to the knockout stage.  In fact every team since 1986 that has been in a final has advanced at the next World Cup with the notable exception of the 2002 French squad.

Several surprising names lead groups – Slovenia, Ghana, Uruguay, Paraguay – and there have been several upsets, as noted above.  Could this be signaling a change in international soccer?  Only time will tell.  There are still a lot of games to play but so far the little guys are making names for themselves in South Africa.