Thursday, June 22, 2006
It seems a good enough time, just after half the matches have been played in the World Cup, to sit back and take stock of what's been gracing our televisions in the dead of night.
Argentina and Spain have been the highlights for me. The South Americans have played some truly scintillating football. Many, myself included, tipped them as finalists, but they have proved to be even better than expected. Despite only just returning from injury, Lionel Messi has been a delight to watch. His footwork, balance, and vision are of the rarest football beauty. Tevez and Riquelme have also shown what they can do, while Ayala and Heinze (the latter also only just returning from injury) have been reliable and miserly at the back. Their bench is frightening (Aimar and Crespo benched against Holland?) and they are really looking like world beaters.
Spain were, for once, mostly unfancied at the start of the tournament, and have duly surprised many with their quality. Torres is in fantastic form and Puyol is sharp as ever, but they have also played a pretty brand of team football where every player plays a vital part. Their passing and movement is sublime and they look as though they are really enjoying every minute on the pitch. If they can keep it up, they could go all the way.
Germany are also playing better than I, for one, expected. They haven't played any of the top teams yet but they have played a looser and faster game than in previous years. Klose can't stop scoring and they are playing out of their skins, obviously buoyed by the home support. Whether they can reach the finals is another question, but my original tip of Germany going out to Sweden in the round of sixteen is looking a little doubtful.
Three other teams carrying short odds - Brasil, Holland, and England - haven't hit their straps yet. Of the three obviously England look the least capable of lifting the cup. The loss of Owen is nothing short of a disaster and the weight of Eriksson's decision to take only four strikers is going to be a heavy burden on the rest of the squad. Rooney will be a massive factor but they will be needing goals from midfield to progress - Gerrard is obliging but Lampard is yet to find the net - and they will also need to sew the back line up tighter. They should beat Ecuador but the next round will be very difficult for them.
Brasil is cruising. I would guess they are doing only what is necessary to win, in order to build momentum and maintain fitness. Theie bench is also not nearly as strong as their first XI so they will hope nobody picks up any injuries or drops form.
Holland seem to be struggling a bit more and will need to find a bit extra if they want to reach the final. Robben and van Persie need to come under van Basten's control, while van Nistelrooy is bordering on invisible.
Of the less fancied teams, Ivory Coast have been the unluckiest. I will be missing their brand of fast but intelligent football in the elimination rounds. Drogba in particular was a very different striker than when he plays for Chelsea, showing how much he benefits from having a second teammate alongside him. Next season's partnership with Shevchenko will be terrifying.
As I've said before I'm quite impressed with Australia. Croatia is yet to come, and if we can make the final 16 then it'll be brilliant. (I predict 3-2 to us against the Croats). Our next opponents - probably Italy - are beatable, but it will be a very tough test. Very bloody tough. The group stages are not the same as the cut-throat eliminations, especially against a team like Italy who will hate to draw. Imagine if they got knocked out on penalties... for the 487th time.... by Australia. They sure as hell won't want that and will be up for it in a big, big way. So I'm expecting to go out in the next round if - and that's a big if - we do go through.
The less said about Italy, France, and the Czech Republic the better.
Overall it's been a fantastic World Cup with some entertaining games and brilliant goals. If things keep going as they have been the elimination rounds will be first class.
Here's to WC2006, let's hope it ends as well as it started...