World Cup so far

  • So far, the football’s been rather good

According to most experts, there hasn’t been a decent World Cup in terms of the quality of football since 1986 (in other words in my football-watching lifetime).  This is a little unfair, as I think the 1998 tournament was pretty exciting, while 2006, in particular the group stages, had its moments, but it does mean that people of my generation have been deprived of the chance to go misty-eyed over the footballing nirvana that occurred in say 1970 or 1982.  With the gradual homogenisation of playing styles, what should be a month long feast of football often turns into a damp picnic where everyone’s only brought crisps and dips.

This year, however, the quality of play has been almost unremittingly excellent.  Most teams have attacked with the clear purpose of trying to score, rather than trying to kill a few minutes while the other team chases the ball.  The sheer speed and incisiveness of counter-attacks means that some matches have resembled a basketball match in the way play has fluctuated from end to end (in particular the last 10 minutes of both Switzerland v Ecuador and Colombia v Ivory Coast), and, although as any football purist knows a lack of goals doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of entertainment, there have been an average of 2.93 goals per game, which, if such a scoring rate continues, would be the highest average since 1970.  Dud games have been very few and far between – Iran v Nigeria, Russia v South Korea, England v Costa Rica – and serve almost as a palate cleanser within some rich Heston Blumenthal taster menu.

  • The big name players haven’t disappointed

The pressure to perform well must be greater at the World Cup than at any other stage in a player’s career.  The status of the tournament means that a good performance is likely to enhance your reputation in perpetuity (Toto Schillaci is still fondly remembered despite doing nothing of note in his international career outside Italia ’90), while the fact it occurs only every four years means that you only have very few chances to make your mark.

Lionel Messi has, over the last 6 years, been the best footballer in the world.  His performances for Barcelona have been ludicrously good – at times it has seemed unfair on the opposition.  Yet he was merely adequate in 2010, and some have said he can’t be considered a true all-time great until he shines at a World Cup.  This time round he has scored four goals, including a sumptuous last minute curler against Iran and an insouciant free-kick against Nigeria, embarked on a couple of improbable dribbles, and looked like the player we have drooled over at club level.

Arjen Robben has been mesmeric, almost impossible to shake off the ball; Neymar, with the added pressure of being the poster boy for the host nation, has dragged an otherwise mediocre Brazil team to a higher lever; James Rodriguez, Colombia’s main man after Radmael Falcao’s injury, has lit up the tournament with his wand-like left foot;  Karim Benzema has led France’s attack beautifully;  Luis Suarez (penchant for biting aside) won Uruguay’s match against England with two deadly pieces of finishing.  The only two high-profile players who arguably haven’t shone are Cristiano Ronaldo, who is suffering with a knee injury and his teammates’ fear of passing to anyone else but him, and Wayne Rooney, who has been perfectly decent, but now surely cannot be called a world-class player ever again.  As exciting as it is to find some hitherto unheard of gem who plays blindingly well before fading into obscurity, there’s nothing like watching the best in the world play to their potential.

  • The defending’s been a little bit crap

Having praised the exciting football we’ve seen, it must be said that the standard of defending hasn’t been particularly high.  Each of the potential winners has a defensive weakness.  Brazil?  David Luiz is a blunder-in-waiting, whilst whenever Dani Alves and Marcelo bomb forward from full-back, there is a huge amount of unattended space behind them.  Colombia?  They looked very vulnerable against the Ivory Coast, and there is alarming lack of pace at centre back, although the 38-year-old Mario Yepes has so far been probably the best defender of the tournament.  Holland?  Their defence struggled against Australia.  Argentina?  Both Iran and Nigeria created several clear chances against them, and Marcos Rojo doesn’t instil much confidence.  Germany?  They don’t have any proper full-backs, and were cumbersome against Ghana.  France?  They have looked the strongest defensively so far, with Raphael Varane in particular strolling through matches, but neither Mahamadou Sakho nor Laurent Koscielny alongside him are particularly reliable.  There just don’t seem to be many calm dominating centre-backs a la Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta or Rio Ferdinand in 2002 around any more.

  • The referees have been lenient

At the time of writing (20 minutes from the end of the Portugal v Ghana game) there have been an average 2.59 yellow cards per game, compared with an average of 3.77 per game four years ago.  This suggests one of two things – either the players are committing fewer caution-worthy fouls or the referees are being more lenient.  I would suggest it is the latter.  In previous tournaments there have been several unjust red cards – Zola for Italy v Nigeria in 1994, Lucic for Sweden v Germany in 2006 and Cahill for Australia v Germany (again) in 2010 spring to mind – but other than Claudio Marchisio against Uruguay, none of the 8 red cards shown this time round could be deemed unjust by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, there are several occasions when a player has been rather lucky to escape a sending off, such as Paul Pogba against Honduras or Neymar in the opening game against Croatia.

It’s not as if the players have been any less robust in their tackling – Honduras’ brutal battering of France was hilarious to watch (if not to be on the receiving end of presumably), while Ghana are giving the Portuguese players a bit of a kicking at the time of writing, and the leniency of the referees seems to have led to less diving.  Other than Thomas Muller’s playacting that led to Pepe’s red card (although Pepe’s brainless idiocy was a factor), and Luis Suarez, who is a special case, I can’t think of any obvious examples of a player feigning injury to get an opponent into trouble.

  • The knockout stages have a lot to live up to

There are many more reasons why this World Cup has been particularly enjoyable – Greece’s last minute penalty winner to qualify for the second round was a moment of high drama, Robin van Persie’s diving header was the high point in Holland’s astonishing and empire-toppling thrashing of Spain, Tim Cahill gave two outstanding performances for Australia, culminating in his crashing volley against Holland, France’s squad contains some of the worst haircuts ever seen this side of Shoreditch (Sakho, Pogba, Griezmann and Sagna being particularly objectionable), Costa Rica have proved that solid teamwork will always beat a collection of seemingly more talented individuals, Mexico and Holland have resuscitated the 5-3-2 formation, and Igor Akinfeev has proved that Fabio Capello is incapable of selecting a goalkeeper that can catch the ball.  In the last few tournaments, the high stakes nature of the knockout rounds has meant they have been less enjoyable than the group stages, with far more cagey football being played.  Let’s hope that isn’t the case this time.

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World Cup 2014

The FIFA World Cup kicks-off today and what better way to enjoy the next month of summer than cooped up in your sitting room glued to your TV for six hours a day?  Nope can’t think of one either.  The nation has been gripped by World Cup fever.  Will Wayne Rooney play?  Should Raheem Sterling start?  Can Joe Hart fit in another commercial before the opening ceremony?  All these questions and more will be answered in thealternativesportsblog’s comprehensive guide to the world’s greatest football tournament.

 

Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico)

I am going to put my non-existent mortgage, my as yet unborn child, and basically everything I own on Brazil winning the group.  The question is who will come second?  Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico will all feel that they have a good opportunity to progress to the round of 16 and they are all capable of beating each other on their day.  I’m plumping for Croatia however.  They have a genuinely world-class playmaker in Luka Modric, a formidable striker in the shape of Mario Mandzukic and an experienced defence featuring the one-time Tottenham and Manchester City full-back Vedran Corluka.  Cameroon have an experienced squad too featuring such talent as Samuel Eto’o (playing in his fourth World Cup), Barcelona’s Alex Song, hairdressing’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto and last, and definitely least, Aston Villa flop Jean Makoun.  An all-to-familiar disagreement between the Cameroonian FA and the players has disrupted their preparations somewhat.  Could spring a surprise but I doubt it.  Mexico’s golden generation of Gerrado Torrado, Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (who apparently retired from football yesterday at the grand old age of 41 – the World Cup will be a lesser tournament without him) has passed and in their place is a team with no real stand-out individuals, save for Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez.  Rafael Marquez, 74, is still knocking around but his best days are well and truly behind him.  Expect professional flatter-to-deceiver Giovanni Dos Santos will do a few step-overs and then give the ball away a lot.  Fallers at the first hurdle I’m afraid.

 

Group B (Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia)

On paper, the Spain squad looks formidable and it is no different in real life.  They could probably have named three squads and still be a pretty good bet for the Jules Rimet trophy.  Their only area of concern is up front where one would expect monkey lookalike and new Chelsea signing Diego Costa to start, but he has hardly any international experience and is coming back from a hamstring injury that curtailed his appearance in the Champions League final.  Fernando Torres is still finding a banjo with which to attempt to hit a cow’s backside and Pedro has featured sporadically for Barcelona this season.  Nevertheless Spain won Euro 2012 without a recognised forward (instead they employed a false 9) so they should progress without breaking sweat (incidentally they have my kiss of death to win the tournament).  The Netherlands are the logical choice to qualify as runners-up but I don’t particularly like the look of their defence or midfield.  Star midfielder Wesley Sneijder hasn’t had a stellar season for Galatasary and any nation that selects a Norwich City player (Leroy Fer since you ask) must be lacking in quality personnel.  They will be relying on Robin Van Persie to fire them into the second round, but it might not be enough.  Chile are my tip to spring a surprise and pip the Dutch to 2nd place.  They have real quality throughout the team in Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez and Juventus duo, Arturo Vidal Mauricio Isla.  Let’s gloss over the fact that recently relegated Cardiff City defender Gary Medel and Championship stalwart Gonzalo Jara of Nottingham Forest make up their defence.  They deservedly beat England 2-0 at Wembley last November and are lethal on the counter-attack.  I am delighted to announce that the whipping boys of Group B will be Australia.  With such infamous luminaries as, for example, Ryan McGowan of ‘Shandong Luneng Taishan’ and Bailey Wright of Preston North End, they will be totally out of their depth and may be on the end of some heavy tonkings.  Fingers crossed.

 

Group C (Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan)

This is possibly the most wide-open group of the entire tournament.  Colombia were the favourites to progress until mercurial striker Rademel Falcao was ruled out through injury.  His goals will be a huge loss to Los Cafeteros (which means ‘The Coffee Growers’ apparently).  Nevertheless Porto’s Jackson Martinez has been banging them in for fun and with Monaco’s James Rodriguez and Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin pulling the strings in midfield, he should have a plentiful supply-line.  Experienced duo Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes will be marshalling operations in defence so Colombia could be stingy too.  In goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, they have the tournament’s oldest player who will turn 43 during the tournament.

What of the others?  Ivory Coast have a handy attacking threat in the shape of the evergreen Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.  However in defence they have the lethal own-goal expert Kolo Toure on duty who, if own goals counted, would be a solid bet for top goalscorer.  Greece are one of those teams who really are more than the sum of their parts.  They seem to turn it on in major tournaments and don’t count them out from pulling a few rabbits out of the hat (and surprise results too) this time around.  Fulham’s new Steve Marlet, Konstantinos Mitroglu will be hoping to prove his doubters wrong alongside veteran poacher Theofanis Gekas, who will put away anything given the slightest sniff.  Led by the effervescent gorgeous Giorgos Karagounis and organised by the try-and-say-that-after-a-few-pints Sokratis Papastathopoulos they are always very difficult to beat.  Hellas may not be pretty but you can bet your bottom drachma they will be effective.  Which leaves Japan.  Traditionally a disciplined and hard-working side, the Samurai Blues have a smattering of creative talent in AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa which makes them somewhat of a dark horse.  A tough group to call.

 

Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica)

Ah, England’s group.  I’m sure the Italian and Uruguayan squads are having sleepless nights at the prospect of facing a team, who, in their most recent internationals, gallantly drew to two powerhouses of the international game in Honduras and Ecuador.  Unfortunately my patriotic side has completely deserted me and, although it pains me to say it, England will do very well to (and probably not) progress to the knockout stage.  The turgid, slow, predictable attacks will be cannon-fodder to Luis Suarez and co. against Uruguay.  Likewise the Italians will use their superior technical skill to pass England to death just like in Euro 2012.  A solitary win against Costa Rica and two unlikely draws against Uruguay and Italy are the best The Three Lions can hope for.  I expect the Italians to be at their usual miserly selves at the back – this will be captain Gianluigi Buffon’s fifth World Cup – a remarkable achievement.  Going forward my favourite player Andrea Pirlo will be pulling the strings in midfield allowing the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti to roam forward.  Maverick duo Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli will lead the line (thealternativesportsblog guarantees that one of these two will get sent off at some point).  They can even afford the luxury of naming Liverpool legend Alberto Aquilani in their squad.  Uruguay of course rely heavily on Luis Suarez and if he can return to full fitness, they have a real chance of progressing from the group.  Los Charruas are by no means a one-man team though.  La Liga, Serie A and Primeira Liga winners Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and Maxi Pereira respectively are certainly no mugs at the back.  Uruguay do play a counter-attacking game and with the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Cristian Rodriguez and PSG’s Edison Cavani joining Suarez going forward, they will be a danger to all and sundry.  Costa Rica’s chances of qualification are slim but at 34 in the FIFA rankings, they are not to be taken lightly.  Playing for Olympiakos, on-loan Arsenal forward Joel Campbell scored a cracker against United in the Champions League this season and on his day, Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz can dictate play at will.  Their defence does seem slightly suspect and if they aren’t organised at the back, they could be on the end of a few cricket scores.  Uruguay and Italy to qualify.

 

Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France)

One of the weakest groups this one – France are obviously favourites to win the group, with an inexperienced, but very talented squad.  Franck Ribery’s absence through injury is a blow, as is Didier Deschamps’ refusal to call-up Samir Nasri, but in Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba they have two stars of the future.  As much as the rest of the world loves nothing more than a hilarious Gallic implosion, as in 2010, there is sadly no Raymond Domenech or Nicolas Anelka to spread discord, and I rather fancy them to make at least the quarter-finals.  Switzerland are the seeded team in this group, but I don’t think they’ll qualify here.  The Swiss have an established solid team, with the odd sprinkling of star quality in the X-Men Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, but may struggle with the conditions, and I feel Ecuador will grab second place.  Yes they were embarrassingly held to a 2-2 draw by England’s second-string, and their defence is weak, but they have some exhilarating dribblers, such as Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia, and such ability will be crucial in breaking down stubborn defences.  Honduras, as they showed against England, are tough but limited, and will struggle to get more than one point.

 

Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria)

Another weak group, once you look beyond Argentina.  The attacking potential within the Argentina squad is simply frightening – they could well play a front five of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and Lavezzi.  However, further back they look vulnerable.  Pablo Zabaleta has been the most consistent full-back in the Premier League over the past few seasons, but Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay are both prone to brainfades, and Fernando Gago, whose calming presence in the centre of midfield is crucial to the way the (wanky show-off football term alert) albiceleste play, has been struggling for fitness.  Nevertheless if they don’t win this group I’ll eat my hat*.  As for who will join them, none of the other teams make a particularly convincing case.  Nigeria, the African Champions, are probably the most obvious candidates – they have in Vincent Enyeama a world-class keeper, and a pacy attack – but they are in poor form, and needed a last minute goal to draw with Scotland.  Bosnia have several outstanding attackers – Edin Dzeko will be their main man, ably supported by Roma’s little gem of a playmaker Miralem Pjanic, the Bundesliga star Vedad Ibisevic and potentially the strolling Zvjezdan Misimovic (think Tom Huddlestone without the dynamism) – but their defence is at best weak, and at worst a complete liability, with the captain Emir Spahic coming off a horror season at Bayer Leverkusen.  Iran are defensively solid, but have no experienced goalkeeper, and very little in creative talent, although, to be honest, my knowledge of the Iranian league is a little shaky, so there may be a potential star in there somewhere.  It seems their most potent creative force is Fulham’s Ashkan ‘moves like’ Dejagah, which isn’t a ringing endorsement.

 

Group G (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)

This is definitely the tournament’s obligatory ‘Group of Death’, containing 4 teams with realistic ambitions of going deep into the knockout stages.  Many Germans aren’t feeling particularly confident about their chances, pointing out that Bastian Schweinsteiger is in poor form, Sami Khedira is recovering from a serious knee injury, Marco Reus is missing entirely and there is no striking option other than the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, who hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees at Lazio this season.  Rubbish.  First of all they’re Germany, they always qualify.  Secondly they’ve been lining up like a Jonathan Wilson wet dream, playing a strikerless formation featuring Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze as a false nine (yes I have read Inverting the Pyramid), so Klose may not even feature that often.  Finally, they play with the confidence of a team that know each other inside-out, with many of the players having featured in the victorious European U-21 side of 2009.  Portugal aren’t quite a one man team, but Cristiano Ronaldo effectively won the play-off against Sweden on his own, and he often plays for Portugal as if he doesn’t trust any of his teammates not to screw up if he loans them the ball.  This sometimes works as he is the best player in the world and, if on song, unstoppable, but he is recovering from a slight knee injury, and the rest of the squad are nothing more than reasonable, although good things are said of Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho.  Ghana were famously unlucky in 2010, and bring a similar squad to Brazil, supplemented by the usual collection of talented youngsters.  Asamoah Gyan has been banging them in over the past season and a half, albeit in the UAE, while Andre Ayew (son of Pele – Abedi Pele that is) and Christian Atsu are both quick and skilful.  The USA have been beaten by Ghana at the last two tournaments, and Jurgen Klinsmann has made a bold call by omitting probably the highest-profile American player in Landon Donovan, but those in the know say this will aid team spirit, and Klinsmann isn’t convinced of the commitment of a player who took a few months of football to find himself in Cambodia in 2012.  German-raised winger Julian Green is an intriguing choice (he has been earning rave reviews for Bayern Munich’s B team), but any side that has Jozy Altidore as its main goal threat is going to struggle, and I’ll be very surprised if they make it out of the group.

 

Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

I find this group one of the toughest to call.  There has been a lot of hype over this Belgian squad, with so many people tipping them as dark horses that they can now no longer be considered as such (in the same way that so many people asserted that Paul Scholes was underrated that he eventually became overrated).  I’m not entirely convinced that they’ll even get out of the group.  I would love them to do so, as they play exhilarating attacking football, and are the most exciting group of talent to emerge unexpectedly from a country since the Denmark team of the mid 80s (incidentally look out for the Armenia team over the next few years – you heard it here first), but I worry about their lack of tournament experience and, more particularly, their lack of proper attacking full-backs.  Jan Vertonghen, as any Spurs fan will tell you, is nobody’s idea of a decent left-back, but he is first choice for the Red Devils.  However, with the attacking verve of, among others, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Defour, they will in all probability prove me wrong, and look rather good whilst doing so.  The question is, if Belgium don’t go through, who will?  Russia are a workmanlike side, with few stars, but qualified comfortably  ahead of Portugal, and in Fabio Capello have a manager with a proven track record at translating an impressive qualifying campaign into a successful tournament (hang on a minute…).  In all seriousness though, I expect Russia to grind out 3 drab wins, with any flair being provided by the impish Alan Dzagoev.  South Korea normally stroll through the Asian qualifying campaign without breaking sweat, but this time only edged out Uzbekistan by one goal.  However, they have an experienced but relatively youthful squad, full of smart technically-adept players, boosted by the presence of Yun Suk-young, the first QPR player to go to a World Cup since Paul Parker in 1990.  I think they will surprise a few people and make the second round.  Algeria are probably the weakest of the African nations and will perform rather like they did 4 years ago.  They will be disciplined, niggly and almost entirely ambition-free, although look out for El Arbi Soudani, the slippery Dinamo Zagreb centre-forward.

 

So there you have it.  We’ve provided you with all the information you could wish for, now to let the football do the talking.  Delight in spending the next month feasting on a banquet of the world’s finest players with a side order of controversy and, in England’s case, a huge dollop of disappointment.  We can’t wait.