Well, the first round is all over. Let's recap a bit.
First off, there's the goal scoring. Or lack there of. Once again, I'm largely disappointed with the barrenness of many of the games we've had. A team gets up 2-0 early, and they take their foot off the gas. A team clinches their spot in the knockout rounds after two games, and they don't even put anyone out there who can score in the third. As ever, the refs call too many off-sides, and not enough penalty kicks. They'll assess yellow cards to everyone and his mother in neutral territory, but won't man up where it counts. Like every World Cup, there were too many 1-0 games, too many scoreless games, and too many uninteresting teams with weakass offenses.
The 48 group games produced a paltry 117 goals, for an average of 2.44 per, the lowest output since 1990. We desperately need an exciting knockout stage for this WC to redeem itself.
To that end, there is good news. Now I couldn't be prouder of the Turkish team accomplished in '02, finishing 3rd in the WC. But I'm not a homer, either. I realize that their road was ridiculously easy. They beat China and tied Costa Rica to make it out of their group, got by Japan and Senegal to make the semifinals against Brazil, and then outlasted South Korea in the 3rd place game. They didn't have to face one European team the whole way, and the only great team they played, Brazil, beat them twice.
What I'm trying to say is the '02 World Cup had a playoffs filled with way too many weak teams. Argentina, France, and Portugal didn't make it past the 1st round. The Netherlands didn't even qualify for the tournament. This time they're all still here, along with England, Italy, Spain, Germany, and of course, Brazil. So, excluding the Czechs, nine of the top ten teams in my book are still alive, compared to five in '02. So the rest of the tournament can't help but be good, really.
But what's the final tally for the 11 teams that I said shouldn't have been invited? Three of them advanced to the knockout stages: Ecuador, Ghana, and Switzerland. I didn't think more than one would, honestly, so that's a bit surprising.
Still, the 11 combined for a 9-19-5 record in their 33 first round games.
When you take away the matches vs. one another, it's a much less sparkling 5-15-5. So for the most part, I feel justified writing what I wrote, and I still think the Swiss were awful lucky. The other two, my bad.
Anyway, without further adieu, here is the All-Group Stages Team...
GK Joao Ricardo Angola
LD Phillip Lahm Germany
CD John Terry England
RD Giovanni Van Bronckhorst Netherlands
LM Joe Cole England
LAM Figo Portugal
CM Patrick Vieira France
RAM Juan Riquelme Argentina
RM Maxi Rodriguez Argentina
LF Fernando Torres Spain
RF Miroslav Klose Germany
GK Shaka Hislop Trinidad & Tobago
LD Rafael Marquez Mexico
CD Phillipe Senderos Switzerland
RD Bartosz Bosacki Poland
LM Bastian Schweinsteiger Germany
LAM Pavel Nedved Czech Republic
CM Steven Gerrard England
RAM Michael Ballack Germany
RM David Beckham England
LF Thierry Henry France
RF Robin Van Persie Netherlands
Yes, nobody from Brazil or Italy. Sorry, nobody stood out. Blame them for having so much depth.
Now, to today's games...
Germany 2, Sweden 0
Went about the way I'd figured. Germany jumped on them early through more brilliance from Miroslav Klose, then sagged noticeably in the second half, perhaps because Sweden were only play with ten men so there was a let down, or perhaps because they wanted to save some in the tank for their next game with Argentina. But let there be no doubt, they thoroughly dominated this game from beginning to end, and only some great work from their keeper kept the game from having a really lopsided scoreline. Their defenders have tightened up considerably from the awful first game against Costa Rica to now and their midfielders, collectively are probably playing better as a foursome than any other side at the moment. The Germans really look like they have no weaknesses. I'm kind of surprised to be saying this, but I would make them clear favorites against Argentina.
However, it wasn't a perfect game, by any means, and a large measure of the blame for that falls on the referee Carlos Simon. First he sent off Swedish defender Teddy Lucic for a second yellow in the 35th minute on a play that was hardly even a regular foul, when the Germans were already up 2-0. Second, maybe as a make up call he totally let go Bastian Schweinsteiger being forcefully run into and shoved a minute later, not even a foul in what would have been a dangerous free kick area. Third, in the 39th minute he was far too behind the play when Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic skillfully caught up to a long ball and got pushed in the back in the box. Finally, in the 52nd minute, another make up call, this time awarding their other forward, Henrik Larsson with a spot kick despite hardly being touched by Christoph Metzelder.
Larsson never did look right kicking it, and if I were the manager, I would have had Ibrahimovic take it. The effort went high and wide, much like the one Omar Bravo of Mexico bungled against Portugal. Another decision Lars Lagerback made that I didn't agree with was not starting forward Marcus Allback. In a game like this, you have to figure out a way to get all your best talent on the field at once, and benching Allback, who had clearly been one of their best players in the group stages in favor of Mattias Jonson was plain stupid. Also, Christian Wilhelmsson and his Obe Wan Kenobi haircut would've been a better choice at right midfield than Kim Kallstrom.
3 Stars... Nothing to German forward Podolski. Both his scores were set up on a platter and hundreds of forwards in the world would've done just as well with them. Not Landon Donovan though.
3. # 1 GK Andreas Isaakson - By my count he had 11 saves, and five or six could've easily been goals. He was just under siege from the get go, the whole first half really, and he should be really proud of his performance. Frustrated the hell out of Michael Ballack.
2. # 13 CM Michael Ballack - Had two through-balls to Klose early on that turned into goals, and spent the better half of the second half peppering Isaakson's net from outside the box, only to be repeatedly denied. Thoroughly controlled the game from the middle.
1. # 11 RF Miroslav Klose - Sorry, no easy MotM for the goal scorer here. Klose was the man who created both goals. On the first he made a great run on Ballack's through-ball, only to be clipped by Isaakson. If Podolski hadn't fired in the rebound, the ref might have given a penalty here. On the second, Klose dribbled to his left, took the entire Swedish backline with him, and slid it back to Podolski for essentially an empty netter. He had two other shots in the first half, but the keeper stretched out well for them.
Media Highlight: Apparently the German press has taken to calling the diminutive wingback Phillip Lahm "The Magical Dwarf." I love the European soccer media.
Argentina 2, Mexico 1 (OT)
Now this game on the other hand was a bit of a surprise. Mexico played a lot more competitively than I thought they could, and Argentina had a bit of a let down, perhaps still caught in the doldrums of their last game with the Netherlands. They just didn't control the middle of the field as much as I figured and Javier Saviola had a rather sleepy day up front. Things got more stabilized for them in the second half, and they pretty much owned the ball in over time, but Mexico looked much the better team for the first 45 minutes and Argentina was fortunate to have the game level at 1. They held the ball more, were much more of a threat in the air, and generally looked to be working together better.
Where the game turned was with Mexico's injuries. While Argentina manager Jose Pekerman (I love saying that name, I hope they go to the Finals so I can keep saying it) had the opportunity to deploy his lethal substitute tandem of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez for the final fifteen minutes of regulation, his counterpart Ricardo La Volpe could not counter as planned with Omar Bravo and Guillermo Franco. What happened was that midfielder Pavel Pardo and defenseman Andres Guardado both got hurt, so La Volpe had to replace them instead of his tiring forwards Jared Borgetti and Francisco Fonseca.
Still, Mexico has nothing to be ashamed of as they battled valiantly in the face of long odds. Borgetti in particular played very well for a man coming off what looked to be a serious hamstring injury suffered against Iran. I'm sure he wasn't planning on being on the pitch for 120 minutes when the day started. La Volpe probably isn't long for his job, and in a way that's a shame, as tactically and motivationally, he's a fine coach. His one failing might be an egotistical bent on relying too much on reserves to provide the magic spark late in games so that they can make him look smart. I think he would've been better off just playing his best lineups straight off and trying to take the game from the beginning. Bravo's benching especially strikes me as odd. He was their best forward in the group stages. He misses one penalty kick against Portugal and he's relegated to bench duty? It doesn't make sense.
Really, Argentina should have won straight in regulation. Reserve midfielder Pablo Aimar combined spectacularly with fellow reserves Tevez and Messi for a superb tic-tac-toe goal, with Messi tapping it in, but the linesman ridiculously called it off-sides. I have no idea what he was looking it, the play was perfectly fine. Right then it seemed to me that if Argentina went on to lose, it'd be an outright crime.
But they got their breaks too. Their defender Gabriel Heinze, who had a nightmare game, lost the ball to Fonseca at the edge of the box right before half and desperately hacked at him before he could go in alone on net. He only got a yellow for his mischief and could've easily earned a straight red, especially if you compare the tackle to the one USA's Paolo Mastroeni got sent off for against Italy or Ukraine's Vladislav Vaschuk ejected vs. Spain. Heinze also had a couple of other fouls that went unbooked. AND he was the guy who let Rafael Marquez slip behind him on Mexico's corner kick goal. Like I said, a nightmare game, and I'd be shocked if he started against Germany.
Can Argentina get by the hosts in the quarterfinal? Well after this performance, their status as tournament favorites has officially gone by the wayside. Of course they can beat Germany, but right now it's not the way to bet, as the two teams seem to be going in opposite directions. I'm not sure how much of the ball Riquelme will get to see against Ballack and Frings. Argentina held it way too long today and that quick, unstoppable one-touch passing clinic against Serbia & Montenegro seems like so long ago. They'll have to rediscover their form, toot-sweet!
3. LF # 9 Hernan Crespo: Didn't see a whole lot of the ball because of Mexico's hefty possession edge in the first hour, but he did tie the game in quickly in the 10th minute, before the underdogs could get too comfortable. He out-quicked Borgetti to get a foot on Juan Riqulme's corner and it deflected off the beleaguered Mexican's noggin and into the net. In the 23rd minute he had another glorious chance, timing his run with Estaban Cambiasso's through-ball perfectly, but his audacious chip over keeper Oswaldo Sanchez missed the net by a couple feet to the right.
2. CB # 4 Rafael Marquez: The captain scored a really clever goal to shock the stadium just six minutes in when he roofed midfielder Mario Mendez's backward headflick into the net while on the slide. The play started as a routine Pavel Pardo corner kick, but the precision choreography of it all makes me think that they planned it out that way ahead of time. Marquez also kept his boys organized in the back and helped to keep the game at a draw in regulation time against a much more talented opponent.
1. RM # 18 Maxi Rodriguez: Truthfully he didn't play all that well, but a game winning overtime goal in the World Cup is a game winning overtime goal in the World Cup. And what a shot it was! Juan Pablo Sorin crossed it all the way to Rodriguez, left to right, and Maxi collected on his chest and struck it on the volley right before it was due to hit the ground from just outside the box and bent it into the upper left corner of the net. Sanchez had no chance to stop it at all. Really, the goal was the mirror image of the one England's Joe Cole got against Sweden. The two were eerily similar, just taken from opposite corners of the box.
Tomorrow's games... I'll stick to my predictions before this shindig started.
England get one early and one late and struggle mightily in the middle to win 2-0, with a scoreline that totally flatters them and does nothing to ease the angst of their morbid supporters.
In the second one Portugal and the Dutch tie at one, with the usual suspects scoring - Van Nistelrooy for Holland and Pauleta for Portugal, and the game eventually gets settled in penalties. Portugal takes it.