Friday, March 5, 2010

World Cup Barometer

After watching the games during the last international break before the World Cup, it’s becoming clear who the front runners are. Spain are the decided favorites, apparently refocused by their shock setback to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup last summer. The Brazilians, who showed a good combination of classy passing and team depth, remain a close second, though they do have their fair share of issues to work out. After that, the ranking becomes more blurred and where, coincidentally, it becomes interesting.

England’s tale of two half’s against the Egyptians showed both their best and worst traits. Their inability to retain possession, even at home in Wembley during the first half, was disturbing for Fabio Capello (England’s coach and mastermind). The response he got in the second half, coupled with the performance of the substitutes that came on served to put both the game and England’s general mood back on track. Peter Crouch, an interesting candidate for the final roster, spearheaded the comeback by firing two goals past a packed Egyptian defense. On top of this, England settled down and started generating scoring chances like they were an assembly line. They’re clearly a favorite and trouble for the U.S. in the group stage.

Argentina, the great enigma during qualifying, grinded out a win against Germany, but are far from top form. There does seem to be some method to coach Diego Maradona’s madness though, as the team reflects the Argentina teams that Maradona starred in during the 1980’s. They’ve surrounded a superstar (Leo Messi) with one forward and then essentially eight defensive players. Such a negative strategy would be more subtle if Argentina weren’t also blessed with so many good attackers who were riding the bench during Wednesday’s game. Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito (guys who always play for their clubs) did not start while Jonas Gutierrez (who plays in the equivalent of the British minor leagues with Newcastle) was a starting midfielder. I’m sure El Diego’s reasoning is that Gutierrez balances the team as an extra midfielder, but his teams do play decidedly negative, it’s just that now they’re getting good at it.

Germany was almost an optical illusion. On paper they did not appear to play that poorly. Firing off almost two times as many shots as the South Americans, the statistics convey a false impression. While German consistency in the World Cup is almost a given, it is worth pointing out that their group will be tough and they aren’t exactly a veteran team. Though core guys like Ballack, Lahm and Klose are still around, Germany’s success or failure will depend on younger guys like playmakers Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and forward Thomas Muller. Defender Jerome Boateng also may find himself in the picture.

Unless those guys step up, the Germans maybe headed home prematurely, though as Germans they will undoubtedly fight to the de…ok bad example.

The Dutch looked a little underwhelming against a U.S. team that was, with all due respect, missing their best defender and four other players all of whom would factor in when healthy. It’s tough to dislike Holland and their style (where they willingly decide to not play defense), but without Robin Van Persie leading the line they seem one-dimensional. If there’s one thing America is good at, it’s defending as a unit. And Coach Bob Bradley has molded an effective (if not aesthetically pleasing) style. The U.S. is adept, especially against more slick-passing opponents, at clogging the middle of the field and squeezing the passing lanes like a pulp. This they did against the Dutch with limited effect. It definitely means their outside backs need to play better (Heath Pearce could have a future on the left) and their center midfielders (Michael Bradley and a player to be determined) have to work in perfect tandem. If those things don’t happen, then fatal gaps open in between the defense and the midfield (both Dutch goals stemmed from this flaw).

The French continue to be a sleeping giant, still with their heads in the sand thanks to eccentric manager Raymond Domenech and his never-ending ability to turn a powerful team in a mediocre mess. They were outclassed by Spain, showing just how far the once mighty national team has slipped. That said, they do have the potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a run if for no other reason than their in South Africa’s group (with no other five star team to cancel them out).

The defending champion Italians are still organizing themselves after tying Cameroon 0-0. That’s not a good sign for a team that relies so heavily on proper organization. Part of the problem is that they can’t find a successful formula for scoring goals. For all their defensive solidarity, Marcelo Lippi’s team has scored one goal in their last three games. The last time they scored more than two was against Cyprus (the same island that’s about half the size of Connecticut). If they don’t find their goal scoring shoes soon, it won’t matter that the rest of their group sucks.

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