Thursday, June 15, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Day 6/7/Reprise

The football then. We’ve seen all 32 teams by now, and while it’s still probably too early to properly judge the contenders and separate the future national heroes from the soon-to-be ignominious failures (the next round of games should give context to compare and contrast and, with the rain due in, will provide a second chance for those who complained about the heat) we can have a try.

Time, space and inclination mean we can’t look at all 32 teams now, so here’s a top ten ladder as things stand on day 7.

They can’t can they? Next thing you’ll be saying we can write off the Germans! (Well, about that…) The ability of the Spanish to flimsily implode remains lurking in their psyche, but the 4-0 destruction of Ukraine was easily the most impressive performance of the tournament so far, and the fourth goal is destined to be featured in World Cup highlights reels for years to come. Their squad is youthful, at the same time with plenty of top-level experience, but will they have the mental resolve and belief for the psychological obstacle course of the knockout stages?

The standard ratcheted up a few notches at the end of Day 2 when Argentina and the Ivory Coast played out a gripping Group C opener in Hamburg. Others may have had more comfortable wins, but the Argentines were playing a stronger side than the likes of Italy and the Czech Republic. Without even calling upon Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez, Argentina still looked very potent, with Messrs Crespo, Riquelme and Saviola in fine fettle. Although they will be worried at how the Africans got in behind their defence in the fraught latter stages, their squad looks absurdly strong.

As with Argentina, they overcame a robust African side, but importantly for Italy there was a real sense that they knew what they were doing, organisationally and offensively. They looked lethal in counter-attack, breaking almost in formation at times, and not many defences will relish dealing with the muscular presence of Luca Toni. Ghana got some joy from running at the Italian defence, but one suspects the return of Gennaro Gattuso will help plug any vulnerability in front of Nesta and Cannavaro.

An impressive scoreline, and as the match in Gelsenkirchen on Monday went on the Czechs gained ever more control as the Americans heads went down; however not a performance without its worries. For long spells in the first half the USA controlled the midfield, with the not exactly fearsome pair of Claudio Reyna and Bobby Convey helping themselves to a fair amount of possession. However, the magnificient interjections of Tomas Rosicky showed that a bit of class always will out.

Their opening day defeat of Poland was a tactical master class and a flawless display of counter-attacking football. Strong at the back and with plenty of pace and guile in wide areas, and real South American brio to boot. Having just seem them play the most enjoyable football of this World Cup yet in beating Costa Rica, they could pip the hosts to the top spot in Group A.

The first team to six points and almost certain qualification, the Germans have had the benefit of a very weak group, and the standard of football in last night’s clash with Poland was at times more Dalymount than Dortmund. However, a bit of momentum is a great thing in a World Cup, as Jurgen Klinsmann undoubtedly understood when he chased the victory by bringing on the attacking substitutes Oliver Neuville and David Odonkor. That this pair combined to score the winning goal last night will have raised Klinsi’s stock no end. Looked a bit stronger at the back, albeit against a pretty limp Polish side and will have come on a lot by virute of last night’s result.

The strongest of the African qualifiers went toe-to-toe with one of the genuine trophy candidates and did not look in the least bit out of place. Like the Spanish, they have plenty strong, young athletes playing in top leagues, and Drogba, the Toures, Eboue and Kalou would grace any side here. Unfortunate to be in such a tough group in which recovery from an opening match defeat will be difficult, their game against the Netherlands should be a humdinger.

A scorching afternoon in Leipzig was a difficult environment to begin with, but notching up an opening win in such conditions against a dogged Serbian side sets them up nicely. In Arjen Robben they have a player bang in form, and looking fresh after a less than taxing club season. A big worry remains about their lack of experience at the back and they are sure to get a proper examination from the Ivory Coast.

Played some nice stuff against a surprisingly feisty Angolan side, but the old fear remains that for all their ability on the ball and capacity for nice football, they still lack a true killer instinct. In all the years since their ‘Golden Generation’ first emerged they have never had a real top class centre-forward, and Pauleta is not that man. They have Big Phil’s wiles on their side however, and course and distance is always good form.

Ok, they were pretty rotten really. Croatia more than deserved a point from their meeting with the World champions and the sad deterioration of Ronaldo is taking on near-Elvis proportions. But as Kaka’s fine winner proved, they have so much ability in that attacking division that for all their weaknesses it’ll take a big punch to put them down. Still, at this juncture the Hexa seems a long way off.

Trinidad & Tobago, Australia and Mexico all had reason to smile during the first week.

England looked rudderless and limp, France looked decrepit and lacking ideas (although both sides had the excuse of playing in oppressive heat in their favour) and Ukraine must be in a state of national mourning after that Spanish spanking.


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