WC 2006: Now That the Americans Are Gone, The Tournament Can Really Begin
by Mark T.R. Donohue
I've watched every single game of the World Cup so far save two -- the TiVo fritzed out on Mexico-Iran and the way the rerun schedule on ESPN Classic worked out during the days of the simultaneous third games, I only got to see bits and pieces of Croatia-Australia. However, it's fair to say I've watched a lot of soccer the last two weeks. Whether this qualifies me to make predictions for the Round of 16 or not is up to you the reader to decide. Here's some other previews: ESPN's Michael Davies, Fox Sports' Bobby McMahon, SI's Mark Bechtel.
Saturday: Sweden over Germany. It's rare for host teams to go out this early, but Germany didn't beat anyone special in their group and their defense looked very weak against the one really skilled attacking player they saw in the opening round, Costa Rica's Paulo Wanchope. Their big win over an Ecuador team resting all of its key players is misleading. The real warning sign is the 1-0 result against Poland. The Germans were very lucky not to end up with a draw against the Poles, which is an issue since the three or four best Polish-born players in the world play for the German national team. Sweden's results in Group B look way less impressive on the surface of things, but they seemed to get their offense in gear in their last game against England and Fredrik Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson are...somewhat better than Paulo Wanchope. I like Sweden's balance over the Germans' dependence on a couple of stars, particularly midfielder Michael Ballack and goalie Jens Lehmann. The Swedes have the size in the back to deal with Miroslav Klose, who ran wild against Group A but will find the going in the air much more difficult against the quality teams in the knockout stages.
Argentina over Mexico. Based on the games played so far, Argentina is without a doubt the favorite to win the tournament. Their 6-0 thrashing of a well-regarded Serbia & Montenegro team was the most shocking result of the World Cup so far. They've scored twice as many beautiful goals as anyone else and the way their subs have played, their second choice side might be able to win the cup all by itself. Perhaps the best indicator of the great form the Argentines are in is their goal distribution -- they've scored eight times but no one player has more than two. Many of the other teams in the knockout stages play in rigid formations where an injury, ejection, or poor outing for a single link in the chain makes it seemingly impossible for them to score. The swarming, quick-passing offense of Argentina is more like a smothering web. Lionel Messi looks ready to explode on the world stage, but unlike, say, the English and Wayne Rooney, if Messi doesn't show up, Argentina has six other valid options. Mexico has drawn a very tough matchup for their first game of the elimination round. If they were playing a more defensive-oriented team like Italy, their chances of going forward would be much better. However, the Argentines try and do many of the same things the Mexicans do, only they do everything better. While both teams are offense-minded, ball-movement sides, the talent gap in their midfields is extreme. Argentina can seem to be playing five strikers at once sometimes without any increase in their vulnerability to the counterattack. Mexico can't match that. If they fall behind early, this game could be more one-sided than the Argentina-Serbia & Montenegro game.
Sunday: England over Ecuador. Ecuador is one of the surprise teams in the knockout rounds, and England despite its relative ease of advance has seemingly already folded its tents to go home in shame. Well, at least their fans have. English soccer fans are never happy. Watching the English team so far in the World Cup reminds me very much of watching my club side, Liverpool, struggle at times during the last two Premiership seasons. England is world-class on defense and in the midfield, but the nation seemingly can't produce goal-scorers to save its life. That's why there's been so much handwringing over young Rooney, a talent, and his controversial foot injury. Despite the fact that he has enough great midfielders to field two sides, Sven-Goran Eriksson seemed fatally married to the 4-4-2 formation, pairing Rooney with either the creaky Michael Owen or the lumbering Peter Crouch, who's essentially useless in open play. Sure, there's always a chance that if the 6'7" Crouch stands stock-still in the box someone like David Beckham will be able to use him backboard-like to ricochet one in from distance, but that hardly makes up for playing 10-on-11 the rest of the time Crouch is on the field. However, Owen got hurt, and that improves England's prospects greatly. Rooney isn't 100% healthy and Crouch simply isn't in good enough physical condition to play 90 minutes a game. Eriksson will be forced to play a substantial amount of the time with five midfielders, letting England's two best players, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, attack. Either one of those guys 20 yards out is a better bet to score than Crouch point-blank, so England might still have a nice little run in them. To the disappointment of their fans, I'm sure. I don't have much in the way of a scouting report for Ecuador. They beat Poland and Costa Rica handily, but that proves little. They basically conceded their meaningless game against Germany (possibly because they fancied their chances against England better than a potential round-of-16 faceoff with Holland), so we can't draw any inclusions from that result either. I don't think Eriksson is enough of a fool to let Crouch drag England down to defeat, but I could be wrong. I was wrong about Bruce Arena, for sure.
The Netherlands over Portugal. Boy, this is going to be a great game. Portgual's group was very weak, but you can hardly hold that against them, as they did everything they had to do in getting through 3-0-0. Portugal has more stars than the Dutch. Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luis Boa Morte are all capable of winning games all by their lonesome. Then again, Arjen Robben and Ruud van Nistelrooy (love those extraneous Dutch vowels) are proven difference-makers in their own right. The Dutch have the better goalie, the better uniforms, and were far more tested in the group stage. Their overall goal differential of 2 is misleading because it's not the Dutch style to run it up. They were completely in control against both Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast (that latter team, by the way, would have advanced had it been in any but one of the seven other groups). My ethnic rooting interest is with Holland as well, since I'm one-sixteenth Dutch. (And 15/16 Irish, but that's neither here nor there -- they failed to make it out of European qualifying. Again.)
Monday: Italy over Australia. I think Italy already survived its early scare by hanging in there to tie against an American team that looked more aggressive and more hungry even a man down in the second half. Australia's huge three-goal burst in the final minutes of their first game certainly caught a lot of fans' attention, even if it did come against one of the weakest teams in the entire field, Japan. The Australians actually played their best game in their one loss, when they managed to at least appear as if they belonged on the same field as Brazil. The win against Japan and a draw against Croatia are not much to brag about. I don't think that the Australians are as talented top to bottom as the U.S. team was, but they have benefited hugely from having their stars, guys like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill, play major roles for Premiership club sides. Not to mention reliable veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The Australians have a lot of guys who can put the ball on the goal, which should at least keep them around against Italy. It won't be a blowout, but the Italians have huge advantages in talent level, experience, and proximity to home soil. A lot of observers have been waiting for the Italians to crumble under the background stress from the Juventus scandal, but it's not going to happen against the Socceroos. Socceroos! What a terrible nickname. It sounds like a brand of children's underwear.
Switzerland over Ukraine. Boy, this one seems like it should be a battle for third place in Group H, not a knockout-stage game. The Swiss won Group G almost by default thanks to dysfunctional France, overmatched South Korea, and the unfathomable Togo soap opera. I'm not really sold on any of their players, but they could make it into the final eight entirely on good scheduling fortune. Ukraine is a one-man team that got absolutely shellacked by Spain in their first match then qualified for the second round basically by remembering to show up for their fixtures against Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. (Hey, it's not as easy as it sounds. Just ask Togo!) I'm already anticipating the nap I will be taking in front of this game.
Tuesday: Brazil over Ghana. The heavy-handed officiating that ruined practically every game Group E played continues to cast its shadow over the round of 16, as the Cinderella Ghanians will be completely handcuffed against the defending champs thanks to the suspension of Ghana superstar Michael Essien. It's a shame because the Brazilians have yet to really get it going the way we know they're capable of and the tough, physical Ghana team could really pull off a shocker if Essien was available to them. As it is this one will probably be over fairly soon, giving Ronaldo ample garbage time to score the one goal he needs to establish an all-time World Cup career record. If he gets it, this game might mark his final international match, as the Brazilians will be sorely tempted to go to the far fitter Robinho in the upcoming games they actually have a chance of losing if they're not careful.
Spain over France. Some countries have all the luck. The French arguably played worse in their first two games than the U.S. did in theirs, but after drawing Switzerland and South Korea all they had to do to advance was beat a Togo team that only showed up at the pitch because FIFA was shoving a pistol between their shoulder blades. You may have heard that the Spanish are legendary for their World Cup collapses. Not this time. The Spanish completely dominated their shoddy group. They're one of only four teams in the draw to win all three of their group stage games, along with Germany, Brazil, and Portugal. The Germans and the Brazilians were expected to dominate and actually were less impressive than many fans would have liked to see them. The Spanish, on the other hand, looked pretty good. I doubt they'll be able to beat either of the South American powers if they get that far but other than that they look primed for a good run. The French seem surprised to have survived. They won't have to worry about it much longer. With Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, and Claude Makelele, they're as talented as any European side but they've spent far more time complaining about officiating/coaching/crop circles than playing anything resembling team football.
Of course, I could be wrong about everything. Except Argentina over Mexico. That one I'm pretty sure of.