"The Azzuri will score their winner from the spot. There will be much complaining." - Me.
"Ukraine on pennos. Because I said so." - Me again.
Now please folks, don't be sending me letters asking for the winning lottery numbers or hoping for me to give you a bigger winky with a snap of my celestial fingers. It won't happen.
And no, I cannot make Jessica Alba fall in love with you either.
If I had the power to do any of these things, believe me, I would have done them for myself first. Um...after bringing about world peace and ending hunger of course. And I don't need Jessica Alba. I'd rather have Sarah Silverman. I want somebody I can talk to.
(But yeah, on the weekends, I'd still have threesomes with Rachel Nichols and Rachel Nichols.)
Anyway, despite yesterday's forecast, rest assured, I am not a fruity little wizard. I don't have the power to bend time and space to my whims. I don't even own a cauldron. I'm just very, very, very, super-duper smart.
(Except when I picked the Czechs to win it all and when I declared the Spurs-Mavs series "ovah" after game 1.)
(Oh, and except for writing that the winner of Portugal-England will play Italy. Actually, they'll play the winner of Germany-Argentina.)
(And also, when forming my HBO 1 hour drama "fucking, killing, and swearing" theory, completely forgetting about `Big Love.' That show rocks, but it doesn't have too much killing or swearing.)
But yeah, except for those and a googolplex other things, I'm a genius.
Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to avoid 213 minutes of mind-numbingly bad football. I'm starting to take it personally, I really am. I'm thinking I'm being punished by dull football because I'm watching it as an American, and team USA isn't even involved. My Cubanesque conspiracy-addled mind is telling me that these teams are playing this way on purpose, so nobody in "the States" will ever be curious about soccer again. Or maybe karma is punishing me for dropping out of summer school. Or for not exercising. One could go crazy trying to figure it out. I'm gonna play some hoops tomorrow, I swear.
Anyway, here is the grim rehashing of whatever it was that took place on the pitch this afternoon.
Italy 1, Australia 0
Never a good sign when two games are played and future soccer historians refer to the 1-0 game as "the exciting one" but I'm afraid that is how it will come to pass. The Italians had three regulars missing from their line-up: backfield stalwart Alessandro Nesta was out with a groin strain, midfielder Daniele De Rossi was suspended for his elbow to Brian McBride's face in the USA game, and attacking midfielder Francesco Totti was benched in favor of Alessandro Del Piero, because manager Marcello Lippi felt Totti the former wasn't showing enough effort on defense.
The Socceroos benched keeper Zeljko Kalac, as expected, and went back to steady Mark Schwarzer. Also, they were missing their hero in the Croatia game, forward Harry Kewell. Apparently he showed up to the stadium in crutches.
Both sides head one solid, "Oooh that could've been a goal" chance, and they both came within six minutes of each other. In the 23rd, Italian forward Luca Toni collected a ball in the box with his back toward goal, and despite his momentum seeming to go for the far post, he managed, at blinding speed, to swing his left leg all the way around and slam a shot near post in hopes of getting Schwarzer to lean the wrong way. He came very close to doing just that, but Schwarzer managed to stick his back leg out just in time. Then in the 29th minute, Australian d-man Scott Chipperfield found a loose ball at his feet after it pinballed all around on a free kick, but he panicked and drove it straight at Azzuri keeper Gianluigi Buffon, despite having either corner to shoot at.
And that was basically it. For the last hour all the shots either missed the net entirely or were taken very weakly. Most of the blame has to lie with the folks from down under, for two reasons:
1) From the 50th minute on Italy was playing with 10 men, after defender Marco Materazzi (Nesta's replacement and a surprise goal scorer in the Czech game) got whistled for a straight red card for tackling left wing Marco Bresciano from behind. Personally I think this was a harsher call than anything that came out of yesterday's Netherlands-Portugal game. It should've been a yellow at worst.
2) Italy always plays this way. The later they go in the WC, the more close to the vest they get. It's their God forsaken tradition. The Socceroos on the other hand have no such mandate.
Anyhow, despite dominating the ball for the next forty minutes, the Aussies could do little with it in the final third, and in the end the experienced Italians capitalized on their one chance. Maybe Australia let up in the 93rd minute, smelling extra time. Maybe they were surprised that a defender, of all people, was the one that charged into their box when the Azzuri had shown no inclination to take a risk all game. Whatever their malfunction was, the penalty call at the end, with Craig Moore tripping Fabio Grosso, was I think the right one, and a fitting punishment for the Socceroos not being able to take advantage of a half's worth of power play.
They should be neither proud nor ashamed of themselves; the Aussies played exactly on par to their potential. The Italians - not so much. Alvin Corneal, a member of something called the "Technical Study Group" on FIFA's website deemed the match a 'Tactical masterstroke by Marcello Lippi." Mr. Corneal is from Trinidad & Tobago, not exactly the Mecca of offensive football. While I wouldn't go quite that far, they did play pretty good defense down a man and should have no problem getting by the Ukranians in the quarters.
3. # 23 RM Mark Bresciano - Drew the foul on Materazzi that gave the Aussies a realistic chance to win the game. The fact that he they didn't do so is not his fault. Well, it's not as much his fault. I mean, he was 100% responsible for drawing the foul, but only 1/11th responsible for not scoring afterward. So he comes out ahead, right? Also, he took a team-high four shots. One of which actually required a save!
2. # 10 CM Francesco Totti - Came on in the 75th minute, had himself a peaceful walk on the pitch for twenty minutes, and then calmly buried a rocket in the upper left corner that Schwarzer was helpless to parry, even after correctly guessing which quadrant to dive at. It's like I've always said about Totti, if you don't give him the responsibility of running, passing, defending, getting open, or doing anything positive in a game during the flow of play, he can be a very dangerous player.
1. # 3 LD Fabio Grosso - Ran all the way down the field in the 93rd minute and totally faked Moore out of his boxers to draw the penalty. Also he must have been okay at his own end since they pitched a shutout and all. Mainly I'm giving him the MotM because his name is Fabio and I'm not a Totti fan.
Ukraine 0, Switzerland 0 (Ukraine 3-0 on PKs)
Not one but two historic feats for the Oompa Loompas to rejoice in. Not only did Switzerland become the first country in World Cup history to be eliminated despite not allowing a single goal in any of their games, but they were also the first, since the implementation of penalty kicks as the way of deciding deadlocked knockout games in 1972, to not make even one from the spot. You give me 10 minutes to practice and I guarantee you I could get one of three pennos by any keeper in the world. I bet you Matthew's life savings on it. You're kicking from really, really close, and the net is actually quite wide in person, I assure you. It's about as difficult as making a three foot golf putt. Or a free throw.
So once again, well done Switzerland, well done.
But in all seriousness, games like this make you question your sanity. It was as if the two teams didn't even have the dignity of pretending to want to score for the last hour of the game. I'm almost positive Ukraine was using a 9-0-1 formation. I would say this game set soccer back fifty years, but it would be an absolute lie. In fact, I WISH soccer could be set back fifty years. Switzerland has made one World Cup quarterfinal in their history, 1954. They lost to Hungary. You know what the score was?
These two teams could've played each other for a week without goalies, the referee, or the off-sides rule, and they still wouldn't have reached 7-5. It got so bloody unwatchable that I spent the last 45 minutes of the game talking to this old German man about how good soccer used to be "in the old days." To this day, some forty years later, he says England bought all the officials and cheated their way to their lone WC title in 1966. But he seems to enjoy my company since I agreed with him that David Beckham isn't all that great.
Basically, the only interesting part of the game was that the ref, Armando Archundia was so completely terrified of FIFA head Sepp Blatter and German football legend Franz Beckenbauer being in attendance, that he took the polar opposite tack in disciplining the players compared to how the Russian dude handled it yesterday in the Portugal-Netherlands game. Namely, he didn't discipline them at all. 40 fouls were committed in the game, and only one yellow card was given. Guys were flying all over the field, landing in crumpled piles, and being told to get up and play.
This new age method of letting the criminals police themselves had both positive and negative results. While both teams took liberties on each other's bodies for the better part of the first hour, eventually they got bored with it and stopped. It was as if they realized that hacking each other requires physical effort, same as running and passing and kicking the ball on net in some un-nuanced attempt to score. Maybe the players realized that since they'd long stopped trying to score, they might as well stop trying to hurt each other as well.
Besides, the Portuguese weren't involved, so there could be no real animosity.
More than anything, after this atrocity I'm more steamed than ever that the Swiss made the World Cup and Turkey didn't. Believe it or not, but my homies scored four goals in one game against this same team that hasn't given one up in 390 minutes at the WC. We beat them in Turkey 4-2 in our last qualification game, but thanks to some fuzzy soccer math, 4-2 in Turkey = 4-4 in a neutral site. And since we'd lost 2-0 in Switzerland earlier, a 4-4 aggregate was judged to be actually 6-4 Switzerland.
And Americans find the metric system odd.
Your 3 Stars
3. # 9 LF Alexander Frei - He had, I swear to God, their only real scoring chance of the whole game, in a 23rd minute free kick. His hard shot had the goalie beat (more on this below) but it hit the corner of the woodwork, where the post meets the crossbar.
2. # 7 CF Andriy Shevchenko - Ditto for Ukraine. Hit the post on a free kick header in the 20th. Just missed a couple other chances. Was left so alone up front - to the point where I wondered whether his teammates were resentful of his American model wife and his insane salary with Chelsea.
1. # 1 GK Olexandr Shovkovskiy - Here's my fancy scouting report on Shovkovskiy: Do not shoot ball directly at him. I noticed on Frei's kick in the 23rd that the Ukranian keeper didn't flinch at all. A shot two feet inside of the post would've beaten him easily. Unfortunately for them, I don't think the Swiss took heed of this object lesson. They kept aiming their shots, including all three PKs, directly at the middle of the net. The full repertoire was low middle, high middle (off crossbar), and low middle. The Ukranians on the other hand, being the clever, industrious people they are, took notice of the net's width and aimed accordingly.
This is why the Swiss should not be allowed to participate in sporting events. They're neutral in war, neutral in life. They go for ties in regulation and aim for the non-controversial "middle area" of the net in penalty kicks. Don't say I didn't warn y'all.
Spain by one, Brazil by many.