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1st round over, now comes the real shit.

Yesterday I saw on the ESPN ticker that US midfielder Claudio Reyna announced his international retirement. No! God dammit no! Pavel Nedved I was ready for. Zinedine Zidane I could handle. I'll miss both of them terribly. But Reyna too? This is just too much for me to handle all at once. I'm not made of stone dammit.

But seriously, this announcement is like some lame joke. Claudio F-ing Reyna retired. Big fat hairy deal. We don't have any players good enough to care about if they retire or not. Why not just retire his jersey while we're at it, like we're gonna do for AJ?

Italy 2, Czech Republic 0

So my pick to win the whole thing crashes out of the first round. Such are the dangers of being placed in the "group of death." Those who survive are rewarded with a second wind, a feeling that if they can take on anyone. Those who don't, well they just look stupid, despite the fact that the teams they succumbed to aren't any better than the ones they would have faced in the latter rounds. The fact is that Ghana was the only team here that didn't feel the weight of the crushing expectations of their national media. They could just play loose and easy. All credit to them for advancing.
In the end the Czech's proved to have every weakness their critics said they'd have. Too old, too brittle, too slow. Jan Keller's hamstring injury in the U.S. game absolutely killed them, and when his backup, the slightly shorter Vratislav Lokvenc also had to miss the Italy became, because of yellow cards, it took away their aierial game. But really, they didn't play THAT badly vs. Italy. The Azzuri were in the driver's seat the whole time, knowing all they needed was a simple draw to qualify, and when the Italians aren't that interested in attacking, it is very difficult to score on them. The Czech's swam against the tide as best they could, but goalie Gianluigi Buffon made all the saves.
Where they really lost the WC wasn't here but in their second game with Ghana. They simply underestimated them and weren't ready to play. They gave up a goal in the 2nd minute and just couldn't get any breaks to claw back into the game. Much like how the U.S. team acted against the Czechs, they just unraveled after the early goal against.
Italy's performance here was considerably better than in their second game vs. the Yankees, but still, not as dominating as the 2-0 score suggests. Neither was their win by the same score against Ghana. Just like in that game they scored their second very late, in this case with reserve forward Filippo Inzaghi finishing off a 2 on 0 breakaway by faking a pass and rounding the keeper. They'll have to really put a complete game together vs. the Socceroos to establish themselves as a serious threat, but right now they rate no better than the 5th best team to me, behind Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Spain. Their draw really helps them though, they won't have to play anyone of consequence until the semis.

3 Stars

  1. # 10 AM Francisco Totti - His best game so far, with four shots and an assiston a corner, finished off by defender Marco Materazzi's header. It's worth noting that Italy benched forward Luca Toni and played a 4-4-1-1 here, with Alberto Gilardino as the lone striker. Toni wasn't hurt and didn't have yellow card problems. Did manager Lippi Marcello go to this defensive lineup for just this game, because they needed only a draw, or is it going to be a sign of things to come?
  2. # 1 GK Gianluigi Buffon - Made six quality stops on Pavel Nedved and Milan Baros and dealt with a lot more workload than an Italian keeper in the WC is accustomed to.
1. # 11 CM Pavel Nedved - If this is truly the last game of his career, he really did himself proud. Played his absolute heart out and was by far the best man on the pitch. Had four hard cracks on Buffon and could have scored on any of them, against a lesser keeper. Some nice set-ups to Baros as well. They just couldn't find the net. His early exit here is the soccer world's loss.

Ghana 2, USA 1

I can't believe my friend was right about how this group would finish. I will NEVER hear the end of this. Obviously I was wrong about Ghana and they deserved their place here. They beat the stuffing out of my pick to win the whole thing, and outlasted the Americans to book their spot for the second round. All the whining and bitching from the American press really did Ghana a huge disservice. They outplayed the US team, badly, for most of the game. Maybe the penalty kick call was weak, but certainly the Black Stars played well enough for a tie, which would've knocked the US team out just the same. For the record, midfielder Stephen Appiah scored it, going high and left. Keeper Kasey Keller just missed it, diving low and left. His left.
The good news is that any day now the broadcasters here will shut the hell up about them and focus on the teams that are left. You know, the good teams. I just found it upsetting that all the analysis after the game focused on a penalty kick call (an officiating controversy in soccer? That never happens!) and what the US team did wrong instead of what Ghana did right. Nobody hardly even mentioned them. One would think that a team that just beat the Czech Republic and USA consecutively could get some respect. I for one feel like a loser for saying they shouldn't be here. Like Ecuador, they've changed my mind. Sorry, Senegal.
Between the behavior of the Dallas Mavericks and the US soccer team/coach/media, it's been an awful week for American sportsmanship. We just can't seem to handle it maturely when we get beat. It's always somebody else's fault. All I know is that in a must win game, the Americans registered a whopping three shots on goal against a defense that was hardly a juggernaut. Furthermore, they finished with four shots on goal total in the three games, easily the worst total of any of the 32 teams here. Their impotent attack validated all the criticism that the foreign press heaped on this team and proved that their 5th overall ranking was a joke.
The single biggest disappointment in the Cup was Landon Donovan. He must have meant it when he said he's a lot more comfortable playing in the States than in Europe, because he left his game in America. His signature moment was in the game's 90th minute when he shook a defender and had the ball, wide open about ten feet from goal and looked to pass into a crowd instead of shoot. He just looked scared out there. His biggest problem is that 5'8, 140, he's a tweener. He's too short to be an out and out striker and too small to be a durable midfielder. Still, if he's any kind of competitor at all, he'll get his butt down to Europe. It doesn't matter if it's as a reserve on a 2nd division French team. He has to find some serious competition, work his way up over there, develop his skills, and look to redeem himself for '08. There are other countries out there besides Germany in which to play.
Unfortunately for the Black Stars, they now face a match-up with Brazil. Winning that game would only be the biggest upset in the history of soccer, so there shouldn't be much stress involved. Still, like most people, I wish Ghana could have their best player, Michael Essien eligible to play. It wouldn't make much of a difference on the scoreboard, but he certainly deserves to. Even Bruce Arena said he though the yellow card Essien received in their game was a terrible call. Still, just getting his team to the playoff stage has to be a huge accomplishment for the Chelsea man.

3 Stars

  1. # 3 RB Carlos Bocanegra - Actually played pretty well and joined the attack as much as he could. Snuffed out a number of Ghanese forays into the box on the other end.
  2. # 8 CM Clint Dempsey - Scored America's only real goal of the tournament on a great one-touch crack from DaMarcus Beasley's feed. I get the feeling HE wouldn't turn down any offers from Europe.
  3. # 23 CM Haminu Draman - Stole the ball from U.S. captain Claudio Reyna and scored easily on Keller, despite telegraphing where on net he was going to shoot it the whole time. Still, his play effectively decided the game since it was asking too much to expect the Yanks to score twice.
Australia 2, Croatia 2

The most contentious game of the tournament so far, and it's not even close. I might not be alive the next time these two decide to play a friendly after how one ended. Twice the Croatians, needing a win, had the lead, and twice they couldn't hold it. It was already going to be an emotional game, just because of the ethnic connections between the two sides, but with a birth into the second round on the line, it turned into something of a bloodsport. It didn't help matters any that Lt. Frank Drebin was the referee. He missed calls for both sides the whole game, missed off-sides, missed handballs, gave cards that weren't warranted and vice versa, and was such a bumbling fool at the end that he gave Croatian Josip Simunic a second yellow card in the 89th minute but LET HIM KEEP PLAYING. Shortly afterward Simunic got a THIRD yellow and finally ejected. Like the US-Italy game, the match ended 10 on 9.
For some reason, Australia's manager Guus Hiddink started backup keeper Zeljko Kalac over the incumbent Mark Schwarzer here, and I can't figure out why. Neither of Brazil's two goals against Schwarzer were soft. Far be it for me to question the wisdom of Guus, but this move almost turned out to be disastrous for Australia when Croatian midfielder Niko Kovac scored in the 56th minute on a slow roller from out side the box that inexplicably went through the Socceroo keeper. I mean, even Kasey Keller would have made that save. I would expect Schwarzer to start (and lose) against Italy.

3 Stars

  1. # 3 RM Darijo Srna - Scored from the corner of the box on a great free kick in the 3rd minute, giving Croatia a dream start - and their first goal of the WC.
  2. # 4 CM Tim Cahill - Consistently started Aussie runs into the Croatian third that the forwards wasted, but was the man who earned a penno that tied it up the first time when his shot was handballed by defender Stjepan Tomas. Centerback Craig Moore, an interesting choice for the honor, converted from the spot.
  3. # 10 LF Harry Kewell - After missing on so many chances throughout their three games, he finally scored when his country needed him most, nodding down John Aloisi's header with his chest and lifting it over Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa's shoulder in the 79th minute.
Brazil 4, Japan 1

Uh-oh. The sleeping giant may have gotten woken up. Their attack has gotten progressively better through their three games, although one could argue that the defenses they faced have gotten progressively worse. But it's kind of scary to contemplate that in their seven goals they have six different scorers, and that Ronaldinho's production thus far has been one measly assist (though he's played much better than that). They're back on track as being at the very least co-favorites, along with their South American brothers Argentina, to lift the trophy once again. Their first serious threat should come in the quarters against Spain, after they finish off the Black Stars.
One thing I noticed is that the forward tandem of Ronaldo and Robinho was a lot more dangerous than Ronaldo and Adriano the two previous games. Actually, Robinho looked pretty good with Adriano too. I don't think having two big forwards works for them. It's better to have one big and one small quick guy. Also, the offense looked a lot more fluid with Gilberto and Cicinho in as the fullbacks instead of old men (and ballhogs) Roberto Carlos and Cafu. I'm kind of hoping manager Carlos Parreira doesn't figure any of this stuff out.
For Japan, keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi was facing a firing squad, and he would've had to come up with a legendary game to keep Brazil at bay forever. He held the fort for 45 minutes, but once there was a crack, the whole dam burst. Juninho's knuckleball from 30 yards which made the game 2-1 was tricky, but it could've been stopped. What did him in was that Japan needed to win by two goals, so even with an early lead, they couldn't put everyone behind the ball. It probably wouldn't have helped anyway. Japan didn't lose out on the final 16 because of this game. They lost by missing out on five very attainable points against Australia and Croatia.

3 Stars

  1. # 20 LF Keiji Tamada - Accomplished what not many can claim, giving his country a lead against Brazil. He got it in the 33rd minute, off a left foot strike, set up fittingly by Alessandro Santos, the Brazilian born left back.
  2. # 10 LM Ronaldinho - The more I see him, the more I appreciate him. Only had the one helper, on LB Gilberto's bender in the 59th minute, but could have easily had a couple more if Ronaldo wasn't wasteful with the chances. He's involved someway in seeming every goal, usually making the secondary or tertiary pass.
  3. # 9 LF Ronaldo - Fat bastard is definitely finding his way. He still can't run or dribble, but a scorer is a scorer and he knows how to find his way to the open areas inside the box. It doesn't hurt any that he's surrounded by some of the best players in the world to get him the ball. He scored twice, to tie German Gerd Muller's record of 14 WC goals. The first one was on a header right before half on a cross from right back Cicinho, and the second was on a give and go with central defender Juan that he struck fiercely from the edge of the box.
Spain 1, Saudi Arabia 0

In the ultimate show of chutzpah, Spain manager Luis Aragones decided to rest his entire starting eleven here and played a completely new lineup against the talentless Arabs. They created plenty of chances to score just the same, but just couldn't finish as well as the starters. Oddly both David Villa and Fernando Torres were brought in at half, but neither seemed to be all that into it. The real pressure for longtime underachiever Spain starts now, and unlike some of the other contenders, they don't get a chippie to warm up with. Right off the bat they face France, a team that still boasts six starters from the '98 Cup winners. Their offense isn't much, but they're solid at the back. Can the Iberians keep Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira from dominating the ball at midfield? Along with Netherlands-Portugal, this is the only other 2nd round game I could see going either way.

3 Stars

  1. # 21 GK Mabrouk Zaid - Made several nice stops, and was the main reason why the scoreline flatters Saudi Arabia.
  2. # 20 CB Gutierrez Juanito - Nicely headed home the only goal his side would need. Actually they didn't even need that one. His reward will probably be a trip back to the bench.
  3. # 10 RF Jose Reyes - Ditto for Reyes, who got the helper on well struck free kick. I doubt all the missed chances on net will convince Aragones to give him another shot.
Ukraine 1, Tunisia 0

The Ukraine was fortunate to not be called for a hand ball in the box in the first half and needed a dubious penalty call to score at all in the second half. And this was with Tunisa playing with ten men. I understand they were being very careful about not being scored on, but man was this game boring as piss. Still, they advance and face those heathen Swiss next, so I have to root for them. I don't foresee a goalfest in that one. Let's say Ukraine prevails 1-0. Dammit, a game against Korea would've been a much more fun matchup.

3 Stars

  1. # 20 LF Hamed Namouchi - Two of their three shots on net, and a fun to say last name.
  2. # 10 RF Andriy Voronin - Had a bunch of chances to make it 2-0 late and generally combined well with Shevchenko.
  3. # 7 LF Andriy Shevchenko - Earned himself a PK more on his name than his effort, but at least he finished it off. They'll need more effort from him against ze Swiss.
Switzerland 2, South Korea 0

If you think I'm going to give the Swiss any credit you're expecting entirely too much from me. They were fortunate to catch France in their first game, before they had a chance to get revved up. Also, David Trezeguet didn't play in that game. In this one both teams had an equal amount of chances, but the Swiss were allowed to play more carefully since they had the goal differential advantage coming in. Also, they had the height advantage on those headers. I'm not at all convinced that they're the better team. They get Ukraine next and their luck won't be able to hold up forever.
Korea played their asses off as always. What doomed them here was giving up the one goal to Togo in their first game. If not for that, then they could've played behind the ball and made the Swiss come to them. They certainly had their chances here, but just couldn't find the magic goals in the 2nd half that came for them previously. Their small consolation has to be that they're unquestionably the best team in all of Asia.

3 Stars

  1. # 9 RF Alexander Frei - The team's one constant scoring threat was buzzing around the Korean net all day, attempting seven shots, but only two of any consequence. The Koreans were protesting that his goal was offsides, and it certainly looked to be at first glance, but it was proven to be the right call at the end as the ball was deflected to him off the foot of a Korean defender.
  2. # 1 GK Pascal Zuberbuhler - Made several nice saves to bail out his backline in a contest where the score could've just as easily been 2-0 for the Koreans. The Swiss are the only team that haven't conceded a goal yet, so he must be doing something right.
  3. # 4 CB Phillipe Senderos - Bravely headed in the winner off a Hakan Yakin cross, and got a bloody nose for his trouble. He knocked head with Korean defender Dong-Jin Kim and not only scored but forced Kim to wear this makeshift hair net with an ice bag attached for the rest of the game. Unfortunately for Senderos, he later dislocated his shoulder and is most likely done for the rest of the tournament. Normally I'd have no sympathy for any Swiss player, but it was a courageous goal, and he does play for Arsenal, my favorite club, after all.
France 2, Togo 0

Finally manager Raymond Domenech, in complete desperation, saw the light and started David Trezeguet alongside Thierry Henry. The resulting combination resulted in a boat load of chances for France and a dominating performance over miserable Togo that could've just as easily been 5-0 if not for some miss-hit balls. I'm very happy for them because the WC deserves as many good teams in the knockout stages as it can and it would've been almost tragic for Zidane to retire without even playing in the game.
Eric Wynalda did raise an interesting question though. Should Zidane even play the next game? The offense looked a lot more dynamic today, perhaps because nobody felt the pressure of trying to funnel the ball to Zizou in the middle. The answer is that probably Togo's ineptness was the reason the French looked so good, not Zidane's absence. But Patrick Vieira did look pretty fucking comfortable as an attacking midfielder instead of his traditional holding role. We'll see if they play all their best players against Spain and how well it all meshes. Should be a hell of a game and I'm looking forward to it more than any other in the 2nd round.

3 Stars

  1. # 20 RF David Trezeguet - Was a 90 minute terror for the Togolese, teaming up with Henry once again and hopefully putting aside concerns that he's not a good fit. His finishing was a bit rusty as none of his four shots on net went in, but he certainly seemed capable of working with others. The question will be how he, Henry, and Zizou, along with Vieira and Franck Ribery can manage to play together. They'll need everyone pulling on the same rope to get by frightening Spain.
  2. # 12 LF Thierry Henry - Along with creating several chances for Trezeguet, Henry got the goal that gave France breathing room when he settled Vieira's header pass and smoothly turned and fired into the bottom left corner of the net. Perhaps a goal in his second consecutive WC game will quiet some of his critics, but I doubt it. He's going to have to get it done against the big teams.
  3. # 4 CM Patrick Vieira - I know it's a difficult concept for Spurs fans to fathom, but really there are a bunch of Frenchmen out there who love to pass and reluctant to shoot. Vieira's wonderful turn and curl, off a pass from Ribery (who should never, ever take a shot) gave the favorites their long awaited goal in the 54th minute, when it was looking like it may never come and enabled their supporters to let out a sigh of relief that could be heard all the way from Paris. Perhaps these guys aren't dead yet.