29 June 2010

On Roy Hodgson

Well, the Echo says it's official. Roy Hodgson will be Liverpool's next manager.

It became apparent earlier today that it was only a matter of time. When the various hacks who couldn't wait to stick the boot into Benitez are tripping over each other to praise the hiring (see here and here, among others), finalizing the move is a mere formality. It seems as if D-Day is July 1st, probably so Standard Chartered can have their name all over the press conference when the new sponsorship deal kicks in. Just so you know where priorities lie.

No, it's not who I wanted, not that it matters. And the fact that it took nearly a month, despite Hodgson being the odds-on favorite the entire time, makes me even more annoyed. I'm tempted to think that the rumors about Woy waiting to see if Capello was sacked/resigned are true – it can't just be because of his BBC World Cup gig – and that's beyond depressing. But that's Liverpool these days.

Nothing personal against Uncle Woy. When he takes the job, he deserves our support simply for being Liverpool manager. He's not Phil Brown or Iain Dowie or Sven Goren Eriksson. The club could have done worse, and 'could have done worse' is probably the best the Liverpool can do thanks to Hicks and Gillett.

But it's settling for mediocrity, at best solely in the short term, and it's partly at the behest of the British media. It's Purslow picking their current flavor of the month in the hopes of getting in the hacks' good graces. Were this 2006, it might well be Steve McClaren. 2007? Sam Allardyce. Hence my skepticism of the tabloids' darlings. No offense, Roy.

To be fair, Hodgson ticks a lot of boxes. Pity they're not necessarily boxes we want ticked.

I don't mean to cut him off at the knees before he even begins. I will do my utmost not to let my appreciation for Benitez or my abhorrence of the owners color everything I write. I don't think this blog will change much, although it'll take me some time to get used to Hodgson's style, especially if there are substantial squad changes this summer (not saying there will or won't be, also that's clearly the fear). And the priority is still getting the owners out, although it looks like fan reaction to Hodgson will help catalyze that movement if various internet forums are anything to go by. Maybe this hire at least helps arrest last season's downward spiral on the pitch. Because that was supposedly the point, even though I've written my suspicions otherwise.

First, the positives, in the hope there's some optimism to be found by scouring under rocks.

• He's proven capable of working with a small budget, and getting the best out of players available to him. See: the last two and half seasons at Fulham. That team was bound for relegation when he took over. Andrew Johnson is the only player who cost more than £5m, and he was Fulham's record signing at around £10m. And given what we know about Liverpool's finances, Roy's not gonna have much of a budget unless the worst-case scenario happens and there's a mass exodus of big names.

• He's English... and the media love him! I absolutely detest that this is a "qualification" – especially the latter part – but it's horrifically true. It's a hiring that's already being lauded by Fleet Street, and if you don't think that's important to Hicks, Gillett, Purslow, and Broughton, well, I've got a club to sell you. Got £800 million?

• He's experienced in England and Europe. It may not be title-winning experience outside of Sweden and Denmark, but Hodgson's managed 16 (now 17) teams in eight countries, including the national sides of Switzerland, UAE, and Finland. That he's helmed clubs longer than I've been alive makes me feel young for the first time in a while. Out of 20 Premiership gaffers, only Ferguson's managed longer.

• It's "semi-permanent." Maybe I could phrase it more delicately, but Hodgson is 62. Even in the best of situations, which this isn't, I don't think he'll be managing more than two or three seasons, no matter how long his contract ends up being. Maybe even as few as one if the owners finally find some sucker to take the club off their hands. And I'd imagine Hodgson's okay with that – or he wouldn't have taken the job. No matter what's been said, I still don't think anyone's signing a long-term deal until Hicks and Gillett have been hit by the doorknob on the way out. Hodgson's had a rolling one-season deal in each of his campaigns with Fulham.

• He's not Eriksson or O'Neill or Klinsmann, etc. Just saying.

Now, the worries.

• It's not exactly an impressive hiring. I still think Benitez is, at worst, one of the top ten managers currently working in world football. The likes of Pelligrini or even Deschamps (surprisingly suggested in the last few days) would have seemed like less of a step down. At least with Dalglish, we would have seen the fans happy, with a man who lives and breathes Liverpool at the helm of the club. But now we've got a journeyman manager – again, no disrespect meant – who seems like a big step down from Rafa. And I'm deathly afraid the players will see it the same way.

• He's been at exactly one "big" club. And I'm almost positive Paul Ince was the biggest player he managed at that big club in his one permanent stint with Inter. His second, two years later, was as caretaker for the last month of the 1998-99 season (interestingly, Inter had four managers in the two years between Hodgson's shifts). Sadly, this worry is contingent on Liverpool still being a big club.

• His signings at Fulham are, um, somewhat dubious. 1) Eddie Johnson. 2) £10.5m for Andrew Johnson. 3) A fairly heavy reliance on the underwhelming Scandinavian market. 4) Nearly every transfer is either a free or a loan, although there are a lot of "undisclosed" fees (for example, Duff was rumored to cost £4m). 5) He actually paid money for Eddie Johnson! Eddie Johnson!

• Hicks and Gillett are still here. Needs to be said again. And again. And again. Until they're gone.

At the end of the day, Liverpool paid £6m to send the previous gaffer to the reigning European Champions and then hired Fulham's. But when some of other names discussed are those of Martin O'Neill and Sven Goran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson looks more than acceptable. If I had to list my favorite candidates out of all those leaked to the media, he wouldn't be far from the top, although not number one. To paraphrase one of the most overrated basketball coaches on these shores, Bill Shankly is not walking through that door. And this stage, it's about survival – yes, I just wrote that about Liverpool Football Club – and that's something Hodgson's proven capable of.

Over to you, Roy...

Spain 1-0 Portugal

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Iniesta Xavi Villa

Costa Carvalho Alves Coentrão
Ronaldo Tiago Meireles Simão

Villa 63'

Villa, Villa, Maravilla...

Outside of the opening ten minutes, with Torres' early strike reminiscent of his goal of the season against Sunderland and two from Villa cutting in from the left saved, Portugal made Spain work incredibly hard in the first half. There's a reason they were one of two teams to make it through the group stage without conceding.

As has happened often this tournament, Spain were narrow, with Iniesta often on top of Xavi, leaving massive gaps for Coentrão. Conversely, the charging Portuguese left back, as well as Ronaldo and Simão, used the flanks well, limiting Spanish possession, even though la Roja still had the clear edge.

And despite those very early chances, Portugal had the better opportunities to open the scoring. In the 20th minute, Tiago found space with the Spanish defense awkwardly retreating, with Casillas making the save and punching the rebound clear under pressure from Almeida. Eight minutes later, Iker spilled Ronaldo's deep, swerving free kick, thankful to see Pique clear the rebound.

Too often, Spanish possession led to naught, and I've been massively impressed by the way Quieroz has organized his defense. They were happy to sit deep, negating Torres and Villa's pace as well as limiting the space for shrewd operators such as Xavi and Iniesta with Pepe tackling everything that moved.

Once again, Torres will come under a lot of scrutiny, anonymous and off the pace after his first-minute shot, and it was little surprise to see him go off before the hour mark. Portugal again nearly snuck a goal after the interval – breaking down the field, Almeida turned Pique and centered, with Puyol almost redirecting into his own net, watching the ball luckily bounce just wide of the far post with Casillas stranded.

But Spain finally broke loose after the substitution, with the target-man Llorente replacing the Liverpool striker. The substitute nearly scored seconds after coming on, his first touch a diving header on Ramos' whipped cross, only to see Eduardo again equal.

Then came Villa. He curled a shot a foot wide of the far post less than a minute after Llorente's chance, then finally got his fourth of the tournament in the 63rd. Finally, the Xavi-Iniesta axis paid dividends, Iniesta to Xavi at the top of the box, with a lovely backheel putting Villa in on the left, aided by Simão watching the theatrics instead of marking the striker. Eduardo saved the first shot, but had no chance when Villa sent the rebound into the roof of the net. At long last.

And a goal to the good, Spain's tiki-taka attack was the absolute best form of defense, with Portugal unable to get the ball back, let alone threaten the Spanish backline. Eduardo saved excellent efforts from Ramos and Villa to prevent a game-killing second, giving Portugal the chance to frazzle nerves in injury time despite Costa's sending off for an elbow that Capdevilla rightfully played up.

But neither Ronaldo, prancing and petulant as usual, nor his minions, could test Casillas, and Spain's now one of the three European sides in the quarterfinals having beaten back the younger brother in the Iberian derby. Portugal scored seven goals this tournament – two more than Spain – but all of them came against North Korea. Cote d'Ivoire, Brazil, and Spain – three tough teams, to be sure – all shut them out. I hope Nike still has the receipt for that Ronaldo statue.

All headlines will focus on Villa, and rightfully so. Yet again with the winner, having tallied four of Spain's five goals and providing the assist on the other. There are still worries – Torres' fitness, the defense's susceptibility, Casillas still shaky at times, and a lack of width. But Portugal, with Ronaldo, Simão, and Coentrão, as well as Danny off the bench, were unable to test that lack of width or punish gaps left by Spain's attacking fullbacks and narrow midfielders. That bodes well.

Next up is Paraguay, who dawdled through an absolutely awful match to win on penalties this morning. But as Switzerland frighteningly proved in the first match, Spain simply cannot rest on its laurels.

28 June 2010

Word Salad

At Liverpool, colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Absolutely nothing makes sense anymore, and I can't help but believe that's the point.

Liverpool hasn't had a plan for a new manager since sacking Benitez, evidenced by the wildly widely disparate names discussed during the month that the position's been empty. But from their personal point of view, having no plan is Hicks and Gillett's best possible policy. It buys them more time to have no plan to sell the club, and it keeps the fans focused on more trivial matters. Sadly, in this case, the trivial matters are the manager who decides the team and tactics for the game that we're all here to watch, the man who will try to make our summer of discontent somehow glorious. But because we're big business, the football takes a back seat so our loving custodians can make a buck off our love of football, selling snake oil with a Liverpool logo. Round and round in circles we go and where we'll stop, nobody knows.

Make sense? Good. It shouldn't. That's exactly how it's supposed to be. We of the Internet are a minority when considering the millions upon millions of fans worldwide. And there's a minority in our minority with heads still in the sand. Ignorance gives our enemies a large range of probabilities, and it is worse still to be ignorant of our own ignorance. Get the word out any way possible, wherever you are. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies, and then the club dies. Those trivial matters will truly be trivialities, no matter the future manager, if Liverpool continues on its winding, wayward path.

Picture the larger picture. Recognize what's nonsense and hold who's responsible accountable. Sleep furiously tonight, but be sure to dream in red.

Holland 2-1 Slovakia

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
De Jong Van Bommel
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

Pekarik Skrtel Durica Zabavnik
Kucha Hamsik
Jendrisek Stoch Weiss

Robben 18'
Sneijder 84'

Another efficient, workman-like win, with individual moments of brilliance leading to both goals. And again, the Dutch conceded after going two-up with the last kick of the game, conceding a penalty when the defense fell asleep in the 93rd minute. I don't know why anyone expected Holland to change their stripes after the group stage. It's not Cruyffian Total Football, but it's still clockwork.

Robben replaced van der Vaart (with Kuyt shifting to the left so Robben could play on his preferred flank), one returning from injury while the other picked up a calf strain in the previous match, and it was the unlikable genius who opened the scoring in the 18th minute. A brilliant over the top pass from Sneijder deep in his own half found Robben steaming down the right, and Durica allowed him to cut onto his preferred foot to slot low inside the near post.

With the Dutch looking more than comfortable, Slovakia did well to keep hold of the ball starting around the half-hour mark, finding that possession limited Holland's ability to punish them, but they were never able to truly threaten. Van Persie had opportunities to extend the gap in the 41st and 44th, first shooting tamely at the keeper then shinning wide, unable to turn on van Bommel's center after lovely work from Robben.

The Dutch had two more excellent chances soon after halftime, with Mucha saving Robben's shot from the same position as his goal and preventing Mathijsen from side-footing in Robben's clever low cross. At this point, Holland had five shots to Slovakia's zero.

But with the Netherlands increasingly casual, Slovakia finally hit their stride in the 67th, with Stekelenburg making two crucial saves within a minute. First, Stoch cut across the top of the box, only to see his shot tipped over, before Vittek was open 16 yards out, played onside, but the keeper was equal to the strike which could have seen him become Slovakia's all-time top scorer.

But Elia replaced Robben, Huntelaar replaced van Persie, and Holland finally got the much-needed second six minutes from time thanks to excellent work from Dirk Kuyt. Van Bronckhorst's quick free kick caught Slovakia unaware, still complaining about the foul, Kuyt's clever header completely took the on-rushing Mucha out of the picture, and the Liverpool man cleverly held his nerve, unselfishly waiting to center for an easy Sneijder tap-in.

Once again, the Netherlands were caught sound asleep after the crucial second, once again to an unnecessary penalty. In the third minute of injury time, Kucha's long-range shot was fortuitously deflected to an onside Jakubko, who was brought down by Stekelenburg when Holland couldn't clear. Vittek stepped up to get his deserved goal with the last kick of the game.

I know everyone assumes I'm biased, but I truly think Kuyt was the man of the match. He was just as effective on the left, popping up in both defense and attack, and protecting the aging van Bronckhorst. His assist for the goal was spectacular no matter whether Mucha should or shouldn't have come for the ball, and he could have had a goal of his own in the 73rd, forcing a save when he cut in from the flank to test the keeper. I still cannot fathom why people continually underrate him. He is crucial to the way Holland (and – sigh – Liverpool under Benitez) play. And yet again, some wonderful individualism from Sneijder and Robben opened up the scoring and made the critical difference.

That's four wins from four for the Netherlands, and an eight-straight victory for Oranje, breaking their all-time record. No matter whether Brazil or Chile win the afternoon match, the upcoming quarterfinal is going to be a tremendous spectacle.

27 June 2010

England 1-4 Germany

Johnson Terry Upson ACole
Milner Lampard Barry Gerrard
Defoe Rooney

Lahm Friedrich Mertesacker Boateng
Khedira Schweinsteiger
Müller Özil Podolski

Klose 20'
Podloski 33'
Upson 37'
Müller 67' 70'

Isn't football fun?

Thanks to those two second half goals on the break with England over-committed, Germany are deserved winners, but let's still get 1966 out of the way now. 1966's "Wembley-tor" was a decision by inches. Today's strike was a yard over the line. 2-2 at half-time could have completely changed the game, but yes, that's football. Let's thank Sepp Blatter for keeping our game pure as driven snow by refusing video replay or Hawkeye technology.

And yes, were Terry and Upson able to defend in the first third of the game, it might be moot. "Schoolboy defending" is offensive to schoolboys everywhere. Upson looked shell-shocked to be there (and redeemed himself with his very good header), while Terry was stupidly caught up-field on both goals, evidently under the impression he was a midfielder. Until England pulled one back, they all looked every bit the tactically inept, overpaid wankers everyone loves to portray them as.

But then Upson scored from Gerrard's cross on a short corner, and England should have been level seconds later when Lampard's chipped shot hit the crossbar and bounced three feet over the line. But with the linesman 30 yards up-field and the referee with his head up his ass, Neuer was able to collect as if nothing happened. England righteously huffed and puffed for the rest of the half, but were unable to recreate the heroics which should have seen them level as the Germans admirably regrouped.

And in the second half, after Lampard again thumped the crossbar in the 52nd minute, Germany punished them like unruly teenagers who stole the family minivan when England sent men forward in an attempt to equalize. Within a span of three minutes, it went from 2-1 to 4-1 after Müller scored twice. First, Schweinsteiger found the Munich striker open on the right after Barry was undressed just outside the German penalty box, thundering a near post shot that James couldn't keep out. Then, after a long punt forward, Özil ran at, then past, Barry – the only defender in the England half until Ashley Cole attempted to sprint back – before centering for an easy tap-in. Game well and truly over. The final 20 minutes were a mere formality; the only question whether Germany could mirror the 5-1 scoreline from World Cup qualifying in 2001. When your response to a three-goal deficit is to replace Defoe with Heskey, you shouldn't even bother.

There's little point discussing tactics in a match like this, but it was further proof that England's 4-4-2 does not work on the big stage. Gerrard on the flank left massive gaps exploited in the first two goals. England were flat, unable to pick up Özil, and easily beaten in defense. Rooney looked lost whether partnering Defoe or Heskey. Gerrard should have been behind Rooney as a lone striker, Joe Cole should have been in the team from the beginning. But I may be biased having sounded that note for weeks now.

The question is where England goes from here. The majority of this generation – Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Terry, James, Joe Cole, Heskey and potentially Ashley Cole, among others – will probably be too old for the 2014 tournament. A few won't even make the next Euro squad. I'm tempted to suggest Capello's gone as well, but that's probably more in the hope England hires Hodgson so Liverpool doesn't.

Needless to say, there will be questions asked, both of England and of FIFA, and deservedly so.

Ze Germans. It's always ze Germans.

26 June 2010

United States 1-2 Ghana aet

Cherundolo DeMerit Bocanegra Bornstein
Donovan Bradley Clark Dempsey
Altidore Findley

Paintsil Mensah Jonathan Sarpei
Boateng Annan
Inkoom Asamoah Ayew

KP Boateng 5'
Donovan 62' (pen)
Gyan 93'

Well that wasn't how it was supposed to happen.

The 90 minutes of regular time were fairly true to form. The first half was standard USA when favored: unsteady and soon behind thanks to individual errors. In this case it was an awful goal conceded in the 5th, with mistakes from Clark, DeMerit, and Howard. Clark feebly gave the ball away in midfield, Boateng charged forward while DeMerit strangely retreated too far into his own box, and Howard was beaten at his near post.

The US was outnumbered in midfield but still tried to play through the center given Donovan and Dempsey's proclivities to cut inside. Ghana played at a higher tempo, clearly boosted by the "home" crowd. To his credit, Bradley quickly changed matters, taking off Clark (who picked up an egregiously petulant yellow right after the goal) on the half-hour mark, and slowly but surely, the US started to blunt Ghana's domination in the middle; the Africans had two-thirds of the possession in the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the US had one first-half chance after a Ghana giveaway put Findley through, only to see his tame shot too close to Kingson.

But, just like against Slovenia, the US responded after the interval. Just start every USA game with 45 minutes off the clock and a deficit, and tell Bob Bradley he's got to make a change. This time, he took off the underwhelming Findley for an additional midfielder in Feilhaber, who ostensibly went out left with Dempsey moving up as a second striker. And it could have paid dividends immediately with the USA's best move so far: Dempsey to Altidore to Benny, only to see Kingson come out well to block Feilhaber's attempted close-range chip.

But after increasing US dominance with Ghana retreating, lovely feet from Clint Dempsey won a penalty which Donovan duly converted, sending the keeper the wrong way and his shot nestling in off the post. From there, you'd expect the US to take advantage of the momentum and tiring Ghanaian legs, but it wasn't coming. Bradley shot too close to the keeper in the 76th while Altidore's slipping shot curled just wide of the far post five minutes later. Unlike the stereotype (and regularly seeing Kingson, Mensah and Paintsil play in England, there usually truth in the stereotype), Ghana's defense was excellent, and it was probably the best game I've seen Kingson play. Usually unsure on crosses and bouncing shots, the keeper made absolutely no mistakes today.

Given the drama that surrounds US matches, extra time wasn't exactly surprising. Gomez came on for the disappointing Altidore, who did little other than use his strength to hold up play; he provided next to no threat in front of goal, and comparisons to Heskey look increasingly valid. And it was Ghana's lone striker who struck less than three minutes in, splitting the center-backs on a punt forward, with DeMerit again partly culpable when caught too high up the field. Gyan held off Bocanegra and slotted past Howard. Unexpected to say the least.

Seemingly trying to replicate Ghana's go-ahead goal, although also very tired, the US was limited to hoofing it toward Dempsey and Gomez, few of which came anywhere near threatening. In the heat of the moment, I'm struggling to this of any US shots in extra time until the 120th minute, when Gomez headed Cherundolo's cross towards Dempsey, only to see his volley quickly closed down. As infuriating as it was, Ghana's time-wasting had to be expected – you see it time and time again in situations such as this. And thus, the US is on their way home after being one of the darlings of the tournament. I'm interested to see how ESPN will spin this one.

Work ethic and a never-say-die attitude will only take you so far, especially when the star of the team disappoints outside of his equalizer from the spot. You can only make so many stupid first half mistakes without paying for it.

But the post-match criticism of Bob Bradley is already annoying me. Admittedly, I'm as baffled by his love of Clark as the rest of you, but other than the starting XI, he did nothing – nothing – wrong today. He took Clark out earlier than almost any other manager would and made the right substitution during the break to fix the first half problems. For those calling for his head: can you name me any other US-based manager who's better? And, unlike England (or Ghana, for that matter), the US needs a homegrown manager because of the national team's continuing reliance on MLS players.

More important were mistakes on goals (DeMerit involved in both, albeit far less on the first), Donovan's invisibility and pout worthy of Gerrard on his worst day, and the US' lack of an out-and-out goalscorer (Hi Charlie Davies!). Say it quietly, but Ghana deserved to win. They won the tactical battle in the first half and the fitness battle in extra time. This was easily their best match of the tournament so far.

I'm sorry to see my countrymen out – they had an excellent tournament, exceeding (my) expectations, especially Michael Bradley – but they've only themselves to blame today.

England v Germany 06.27.10

Live in the US on ESPN at 10am ET

Guess at the line-ups:
Johnson Upson Terry ACole
Milner Lampard Barry Gerrard
Defoe Rooney

Lahm Friedrich Mertesacker Badstuber
Khedira Schweinsteiger
Müller Özil Podolski

Ze Germans. It's always ze Germans. Yes, 1966, but Germany's knocked England out of the World Cup in 1970 and 1990, and had a hand in their elimination at the second group stage in 1982. Then there was Euro 1996, which England hosted. It's always ze Germans and it almost always ends with penalties and tears.

It's hard to see anything other than the same England XI as last time out. Rarely do teams change a winning formula in the middle of World Cup, and there have been few other players who've made a case for starting. As I wrote in the comments of my England/Slovenia match review, I'd rather see 4-2-3-1, especially given Germany's probable line-up, but I've also wanted that formation from the beginning.

With the amount of possession Germany usually has (compared to England so far, at least) and with how dangerous Özil's been, it seems more likely than against Slovenia or Algeria, where – in theory – England looked to take the game to their opponents. England will have to counter-attack much more than in any group game, and will need Barry to shadow the likes of Özil and probably Kroos between the lines. Still, I doubt Capello's going to change his stripes now, and individual roles will be more important than the ostensible formation.

What England really needs is for the big names to play to their potential. First and foremost, Rooney and Lampard need to finally show up. Neither has scored since the 5-1 win over Croatia last September, and both have been anonymous at best so far. An improvement in Gerrard's form similar to his step-up between the Algeria and Slovenia matches, replicating his first half against the US, would also be nice. In addition, I hope Upson, impressive against Slovenia, remains in the line-up even with Carragher returning from suspension and news that Ledley King's supposedly fit.

Germany hasn't impressed since demolishing Australia in the first match, losing to Serbia after a harsh red card before narrowly beating Ghana, but I find it hard to believe anyone could consider England favorites after their three group matches (although I'm sure the tabloids, which I haven't read, are chock full of 'we'll bomb their asses' jingoism). And that should work in England's favor.

Schweinsteiger's injury could be crucial, although I still expect him to start. Surely Germany wouldn't exaggerate his injury just to play mind games. Either of his potential replacements – Toni Kroos or Piotr Trochowski – is a more attacking option, which will put more pressure on Khedira. It could also be Jerome Boateng, a utility defender, if he recovers from a calf strain, but I expect Löw to go with the more attacking option. Typical Germans. And if Löw really wanted to throw caution to the wind, he could start Gomez, converting to a diamond-like 4-4-2, but I've almost always seen this version of Germany play 4-2-3-1. Regardless, if Bastian can go, he will.

This is a intriguing match-up regardless of the history between the sides or the massively out-of-date war metaphors. Two historic European "powerhouses" (okay, I know that's pushing it in England's case); two of the names always most discussed when the World Cup comes around. That's what this tournament's all about.


I hate this summer, these owners, and Purslow so much. This is why I keep doing World Cup match reviews, and why there have been few posts about Liverpool. Because there's been no news from Liverpool – just obfuscation, smokescreens, and unfulfilled promises.

It's Dalglish. No, it's Hodgson. No, it's Pelligrini. No, it's Hodgson. No, wait, we're after Rijkaard or Deschamps, we promise. Ugh.

Wake me up in August.

25 June 2010

Spain 2-1 Chile

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Iniesta Xavi Villa

Medel Ponce Jara
Isla Estrada Vidal
Sanchez Beausejour Gonzalez

Villa 24'
Iniesta 37'
Millar 47'

Disappointing, but not entirely surprising, to see the game end not with a bang but a whimper after the first 50 minutes. 2-1 suited both sides just fine, especially with Switzerland and Honduras unable to conjure a goal between them.

But the first 24 minutes couldn't have been more frightening for the Spanish. After Torres missed two early chances – an awkward header well over and unable to take advantage of Jara letting a long punt bounce, only to see his shot deflected – Chile began to beat Spain at its own game, keeping possession with some lovely touches and perpetually driving towards goal.

And at the same time, Chile stormed into tackles, ensuring Spain had little possession, but also seeing three players incur yellows (including one reminiscent of Beckham's infamous 1998 sending off) before Villa scored a wonder goal against the run of play. Alonso's perfect long-range throughball nearly put Torres in, requiring a Bravo charge outside his box to dive in and clear. But Villa picked up possession 50 yards from goal, looked up, and somehow hit a pinpoint shot with his weaker foot into an empty net. There's a reason he's nicknamed Maravilla.

The strike knocked Chile back and further frazzled tempers, and Estrada should have seen a second yellow three minutes later for a petulant tackle on Iniesta. Chile nearly equalized on the break, with Pique ultimately getting back to deflect Beausejour's shot into the side-netting before a fantastic, finally Spanish move involving Torres, Iniesta, and Villa led to the second. Iniesta dispossessed Jara and found Torres, to Iniesta, to Villa, to Iniesta to pass low into the far corner. 2-0, and Spain had barely looked like a coherent side. Sometimes a coherent side isn't necessary when you have individuals like this team does.

To make matters worse for the Chileans, Estrada was sent off for a "foul" on Torres in the build-up when he clipped the striker's heels. Harsh to be sure, and maybe even accidental, but it's hard to feel bad for a player that should have marched 10 minutes earlier. At that point, commentators began to break out "Battle of Santiago" references, and it seemed a matter of time before Chile lost more men.

But credit to Bielsa for changing it up at halftime, replacing the ineffective Gonzalez with Paredes and attacking pivot Valdivia with midfielder Millar, shifting to what seemed a 3-3-3 formation still in line with Chile's usual strategy. In addition, they cut out the stupid, acrimonious fouls after I was taking bets at halftime as to who'd be sent off next. And it paid dividends immediately. Spain, complacent with a two-goal lead and man advantage, gave Millar time and space at the top of box in the 47th, and saw his shot deflect off Pique to wrong-foot Casillas.

Torres, ineffective and limping, was soon replaced by Fabregas as Spain returned to its usual tiki-taka possession and set up a couple opportunities for Villa, only to see the striker twice unable to control in the box around the hour mark. From there, both sides were increasingly content with matters as they were due to news from the other game. There was little chance of Switzerland scoring one, let alone the two they'd need to overtake Chile on goal difference. Alonso finally needing to go off in the 73rd is the only thing worth mentioning, and honestly, they shouldn't have bothered with the final 15 minutes.

Once again, it's a less than fluent Spanish performance, but it's also two wins from two after the embarrassment against Switzerland. Villa's joint-top scorer after the group stage, scoring three of Spain's four goals and assisting on the other. Iniesta looked far fitter, but the midfield was still narrow and disjointed; they looked to have caught the English passing disease in the first half, although a lot of that was down to Chile's pressing. And the defense still has its moments of madness, evidenced by Millar's soft goal.

So now Spain will face Portugal in an all-Iberian match-up, while Chile meets Brazil. Both look infinitely tantalizing: Spain's possession style versus Portugal's defensively solidity; Chile's fluency against Brazil's counter-attacking brilliance. Both know their opposition fairly well. Chile will see both Estrada and Medel miss the next match, but Carmona and Fernandez will return from suspension, while Spain are the first team to finish the group stage without a booking since 1986. Yet while both of today's teams can be fun to watch, they'll both have to improve to progress further in this tournament.

24 June 2010

Holland 2-1 Cameroon

Boulahrouz Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel De Jong
Kuyt Sneijder Van der Vaart
Van Persie

Geremi N'koulou Mbia Assou-Ekotto
Nguemo Makoun Chedjou Bong
Eto'o Choupo-Moting

van Persie 36'
Eto'o 65' (pen)
Huntelaar 83'

It may have been an enjoyable, open game, but there's not a whole lot to divine from this match. Which isn't all that surprising given that Holland had already qualified while Cameroon's exit was assured. It wasn't quite friendly pace, but it didn't look like most of the matches so far this tournament either.

With the pressure off, Cameroon finally played to their potential, controlling the ball and threatening through Geremi and Eto'o. And despite the tame performance, conceding their first goal in this World Cup, the Dutch will be happy as well. Van Persie got on the scoresheet, Robben looked impressive off the bench, and it's three wins from three to ensure qualification and a round of 16 match-up with Slovakia. Admittedly, it's somewhat strange watching Holland grind out results, but it's also something the country's rarely been able to do.

Outside of Boulahrouz for van der Wiel, it was the same starting XI for the Netherlands, with the right back likely protected from picking up a second yellow that'd lead to his suspension. Cameroon started the brighter, with the shackles off and the side better balanced in a 4-4-2 due to Bong protecting the oft-beaten left flank that Assou-Ekotto had been left alone on in the first two matches.

Despite some lax defending from Mathijsen and Heitinga and some dubious moments from Stekelenburg, Holland still looked the more dangerous, almost always through Sneijder. Kuyt should have opened the scoring in the 32nd, put through on the right by Boulahrouz on a move unsurprisingly started by Sneijder, only to shoot narrowly wide of the far post. But van Persie struck minutes later on a lovely flowing move – Kuyt to Van Persie to van der Vaart back to van Persie, with the striker deftly beating Souleymanou with a right-footed shot between the keeper's legs.

But Cameroon responded, with Geremi's crosses from the right a constant threat, and were even stronger after the interval, although some of that was down to even less Dutch pressing and possession after taking the lead. Eto'o deserved his equalizer from the spot, given the chance by a needless van der Vaart handball from on Geremi's free kick (I can never understand why players put their arms in the air when in the wall).

But Robben's entrance minutes later reinvigorated Holland. He replaced van der Vaart, but that he went to the right (with Elia, who had come on for Kuyt not long before, going to the left) might not bode well for the Liverpool "winger." Still, I find it hard to believe van Marwijk will leave Kuyt out despite Robben's preferred position cutting in on his stronger foot. Today's not the best game to judge from, but I think Sneijder and van der Vaart are too similar to truly succeed in the same side, while Kuyt's work ethic and tracking back are important to a Dutch side that still defends tentatively, especially when the attacking van der Wiel is in the side.

And it was Robben's excellent work that led to Holland's winner after a jaw-droppingly delicious pass from Sneijder, easily turning Song before cannoning a shot off the post, which fell fortuitously to Huntelaar to slot into an empty net. Good work from the Munich winger could have led to a third had the referee been so inclined, smartly setting up Huntelaar, who was barged over by Mbia, only to see the referee shrug and turn away. Were there more riding on this game, the referee probably would have given it, but by this point, it would have been more nails than the coffin needed.

Once again, I'm tempted to write that it was almost an anti-Dutch performance. Even considering circumstances, you wouldn't have expected Cameroon to have more possession that Holland. The Netherlands didn't have a corner kick until the 82nd minute, compared to six for the Indomitable Lions. And the only goal conceded during the group stage was an unnecessary penalty in today's game. As ESPN repeatedly pointed out, Holland has never kept clean sheets in all three group games. They easily could have today if not for van der Vaart's moment of madness.

Regardless of Holland's new-found ability to win ugly, I think we'll see a more familiar side in the knockout rounds, especially with Robben back in the team. The shape will remain the same, with two holding midfielders in contrast to the Clockwork Orange of old, but Robben will make a massive difference. Even considering my bias in favor of Kuyt, I'm hoping van der Vaart makes way, which should lead to a more balanced side with better positional discipline, instead of Sneijder and van der Vaart playing in the same spaces far too often. There's a reason Kuyt's started 31 consecutive games for Holland – the longest streak for a Dutch outfield player in 49 years – and it's not because others were injured or he has naked pictures of every manager he's ever played for.

And despite the narrow scorelines in these group matches, Holland has to be considered one of the favorites going into the next round. They've always coped well with that label, right?

23 June 2010

England 1-0 Slovenia

Johnson Terry Upson ACole
Milner Lampard Gerrard
Rooney Defoe

Brecko Suler Cesar Jokic
Birsa Radosavljevic Koren Kirm

Defoe 23'

Thank whatever God you believe in.

It's hard to focus on England, despite my priorities, after seeing the US snatch a very deserved winner in injury time, but let's soldier on.

For 70 minutes, it was arguably the best England performance since beating Croatia, even though a narrow 1-0 lead is rightfully terrifying no matter how comfortable England looked, especially with how this side's reacted to pressure. But Capello's revamped 4-4-2, with Defoe in place of Heskey and Milner for Lennon bore early fruit.

Having Milner stuck to the right touchline, with Defoe's pace far more of a threat than either Heskey or Rooney, is what led to the 23rd minute strike, with Milner's inch-perfect cross shinned past Handanovic. That England failed to get a second when clearly in the ascendancy – Lampard ballooned over, Handanovic saved Gerrard's low, placed shot – obviously fostered fears. But Upson and Terry were heroic in defense, throwing themselves across the pitch and keeping Ljubijankic and Novakovic mainly under wraps, with almost all of the Slovenian threats coming from right-winger Birsa, who took advantage of Gerrard's propensity to cut in and Ashley Cole's repeated charges up-field.

The pattern repeated after the interval. Defoe had a second chalked off when Rooney was ruled offside on Lampard's through before setting up a wide-open Defoe in the 49th. Soon after, Rooney and Gerrard – England's two biggest disappointments – fouled up an excellent chance when over-intricate just outside the box, followed by Handanovic making enormous stops on Terry's header and Rooney's shot – the fingertips save tipping Rooney's shot onto the post when he was narrowly ruled onside and one-on-one with the keeper most impressive.

But from there, the pressure clearly set in. Slovenia could have been level in the 68th when Barry gave the ball away and Birsa countered. Kirm found Dedic, flicking on to Novakovic, but first Terry then Johnson were there to make preposterous blocks. Rooney, who couldn't find the net for love or money, was replaced by Joe Cole in the 72nd, which coincidentally was also when Slovenia began to truly frighten.

No matter how poorly Rooney was playing (and it was pretty poorly), neither Defoe nor Cole – who played behind the striker with Gerrard remaining out left – can hold up play like the United striker, neither provide his willing, non-stop running, and the opposition increasingly saw more of the ball, undoubtedly aided by England shrinking back to defend with the tension indescribably intense.

Heskey's entrance for Defoe with five minutes to play helped England's ability to keep the ball, with Slovenia's lone late chance again blocked by a diving Englishman, this time Upson on Dedic. Milner and Joe Cole did well to keep the ball at the Slovenian corner flag for the totality of stoppage time, and England, thankfully, were through, despite only looking like a coherent side for approximately 75 of 270 minutes so far.

Credit to Capello for making those questioned changes, and Milner, Defoe, Upson, and Terry were England's men of the match. I was admittedly surprised by both the line-up and the continuing use of 4-4-2, but it worked, and England are through. That's why Capello makes the big bucks. This will almost assuredly be the England XI going forward.

Still, no matter how surprisingly decent Slovenia were – and going home is truly harsh on them, but that's the World Cup – there are still clear problems with this team. The "big names" again haven't found their feet. Gerrard, under the weight of the captaincy and relegated to a left-sided berth, has been largely anonymous since his 4th minute goal against the US oh so many moons ago, although he was more influential (if still out of position) today. Rooney still contrives to miss chances he'd score for the Mancs with his eyes closed. Lampard took one shot today, and I'm surprised the ball stayed in the stadium. This team will struggle to progress, especially if they face Germany in the next round, with those three misfiring.

Despite my various allegiances, I'm glad the US finished first in the group with Donovan's 91st-minute goal. It's deserved after how resilient that team's been and the dubious refereeing decisions that the media can finally let go of. But I'm even happier than England's through despite their constant struggles. Insert standard line about 'winning ugly,' but more important is how it'll be a release valve for all the frustration built up over the past couple of weeks. And that the lone goal conceded in group play came from a fluky mistake is a massive positive as well.

No matter how it happened, they're through. Phew.

22 June 2010

England v Slovenia 06.23.10

Live in the US on espn2 at 10am ET

Guess at the line-ups:
Johnson Upson Terry ACole
Lennon Lampard Barry Gerrard
Defoe Rooney

Brecko Mavric Cesar Jokic
Birsa Radosavljevic Koren Kirm

Group C Points Goal Diff Goals Scored
Slovenia 4 +1 3
United States 2 0 3
England 2 0 1
Algeria 1 -1 0

So, good World Cup so far, huh? England certainly know how to keep it interesting, and I clearly don't mean on the field.

First, there's John Terry, under the impression he's still captain. Capello cut that nonsense off in the bud. But the Chelsea player made a few surprisingly coherent points amidst his grunting, impromptu coup, most importantly about the need to bring his ex-teammate Joe Cole back into the squad – a drum I've been beating since the opening game.

My guess is it comes down to Joe Cole versus Jermain Defoe. 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. Either way, Heskey looks to be the player dropped, having been unable to get his strike partner into either match. But I'd be surprised if Capello went with Joe Cole after surprisingly ignoring him for the first two matches and now with Terry's ill-advised demand. Capello's not one for changing his mind or letting the inmates run the asylum. And there have been murmurs about Defoe's participation since the run-up to Algeria.

It's worth noting that Defoe scored – off the bench, mind you – against Slovenia in a friendly last September, with the other goal coming from Lampard's first-half spot kick. That day, Slovenia started the same XI which beat Algeria, while England were 4-2-3-1 with Rooney, Gerrard, and Wright-Phillips behind Heskey. And like tomorrow, Upson and Terry were the central defensive partnership, which will be the case now that England's on their fourth central defender following King's injury and Carragher's suspension.

If I had my way, it'd be Lampard making way for Joe Cole, with Defoe in place of Heskey, in the 4-4-2 Capello's seemingly preferred so far. Lampard's done little but get in Gerrard's way, adding nothing to either defense or attack. But Fat Frank's undroppable, and Capello will find a way to shoehorn both him and Gerrard into yet another formation.

Slovenia, meanwhile, will look a lot like they did against the US. Central defender Suler picked up a rib injury, likely to be replaced by Matej Mavric, but otherwise, I expect they'll stick with the 4-4-1-1 formation that saw them put two past the Americans in the first half.

The debate over tactics, however entertaining, is largely a red herring. England's current problem is England's usual problem. The team falls apart in the World Cup, unable to replicate the best moments from qualification with the pressure ramped up to 11. Rooney's been symptomatic of this: invisible for England, a shadow of the player that scored 34 goals for United this season, culminating with his TV camera tirade against the fans as he trudged off the Cape Town pitch last Friday. That, more than the line-up or tactics, is what needs fixing, and where Capello needs to prove worthy of his £6m yearly salary.

So much for an easy group, despite what that red-topped toilet paper announced oh so many months ago. Yet it's still easy enough that England can qualify for the knockout round with a win even though they've played maybe ten minutes of decent football during 180 minutes of World Cup action. Win, and all will be forgiven and forgotten. Win, and there's still a chance of completing heroics last seen more than 40 years ago.

'Just get through the group stage' is the mantra during every World Cup for a reason. It's a whole new tournament once we're down to 16 teams.

21 June 2010

Spain 2-0 Honduras

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Navas Xavi Villa

Villa 17’ 51’

Normal service has resumed. Sort of.

It was 4-2-3-1 again, with Alonso and Busquets “holding,” but the changes to the front four made a vast difference and the result was never in doubt. It was about as dominating a 2-0 win as you’ll see, but that was due more to Honduran impotence than Spanish supremacy. La Furia Roja wasted multiple opportunities to add to their haul, looking increasingly casual as the match went on.

It was little surprise to see Torres and Navas start after how Del Bosque tried to change the game against Switzerland, but that it relegated Villa to the left was a bit of a shock, especially with both Silva and Iniesta left out. Seeing the starting XI before the match made me expect a 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 but Villa manned the left flank, looking to cut in, while Torres stayed in the lone striker role he’s perfected at Liverpool.

Having Villa on the wing did little to nullify his goal threat, while Navas on the opposite flank helped stretch Honduras’ defense, creating space that wasn’t there last Wednesday. And it was evident from the opening whistle as Spain hit the crossbar – Villa, naturally – and had two penalties shouts – a missed handball and an ignored shove on Ramos – within the first ten minutes.

And it only took 17 to break the deadlock with an absolutely stunning solo goal. Villa cut in from the left and somehow split two defenders before bamboozling Chavez to find space for an unstoppable shot past Valladares despite losing his footing. Highlight. Reel.

From there, it should have been that man Torres extending Spain’s lead. But his lack of match fitness was evident, mis-hitting a free header into the ground and ballooning over after a clever run in the space of 60 seconds around the half-hour mark. Despite Honduras having next to no possession and even fewer chances, a 1-0 lead at the break gave Honduras the chance to snatch an undeserved equalizer, as we’ve seen a fair few times this tournament. But six minutes after the restart, El Guaje sealed the match, arguably lucky to still be on the field after a strange bust-up in the box on a 41st minute corner saw him pop Izaguirre in the mouth.

With Honduras throwing bodies forward the few times they were allowed possession, Spain counter-attacked with a 4-on-4 break. Xavi led the way before slotting in Navas, whose cutback found Villa in acres of space. Yes, he may have been lucky, seeing his shot deflect in off Chavez, but here’s where I resort to the usual clichés, this time reminding that it’s often better to be lucky than good, especially in knockout tournaments.

Yet Spain obstinately refused to increase the gap. Ramos shot narrowly wide seconds after the second goal. Villa missed a penalty, just wide of the post, after Navas was unnecessarily brought down. Fabregas was put through over the top, rounding the keeper only to see his narrow shot scooped off the line by a retreating defender. Mendoza dove in to prevent Villa’s hat-trick after Navas charged down the right on the break and set-up the striker.

Even considering those chances, Spain seemed content with the margin of victory as the match went on, taking off Xavi, Torres, and Ramos for Cesc, Mata, and Arbeloa, and were mostly content to counter. At the same time, both the passing and off the ball movement got lazier, in complete contrast to the first half. Over-intricacy in the final third was constant. None of these are good signs, despite how secure Spain were throughout.

There’s far too large a chance that Spain will rue not scoring more. Only tallying twice today, they’ve a goal difference of +1 going into the last group match. If they win on Friday, they're through. But if Switzerland beats Honduras by more than Spain beats Chile, Spain will finish second in the group. And that means a match-up with Brazil.

Make no mistake, it was a far better performance than against Switzerland. The attack was much more fluent despite the aforementioned concerns, and there was none of the Keystone Cops defending that led to Gelson Fernandes’ goal. Torres will find his feet in search of match fitness, while Villa continues to be able to create goals from nothing. Navas brought more balance to the side, while Fabregas was dangerous from the bench. But the way Spain tailed off in the second half invites some skepticism.

With Chile leading the group with six points and Spain and Switzerland level on three, everything’s still in the balance. It may be low scoring (outside of the inevitable North Korean collapse against Portugal), but it’s certainly ceased being a boring World Cup.

19 June 2010

Netherlands 1-0 Japan

Van der Wiel – Heitinga – Mathijsen – Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel – De Jong
Kuyt – Sneijder – Van der Vaart
Van Persie

Komano Nakazawa Tulio Nagatomo
Matsui Abe Endo Okubo

Sneijder 53'

Almost decided against writing a review of this one. Outside of Sneijder's goal and Holland at least being capable of passing the ball to each other, it wasn't that much more watchable than yesterday's English assault on the eyes.

I guess Japan should reap the praise for that, almost completely stifling Holland's attack, as they set out to do. They gave the Dutch possession in the less dangerous two-thirds of the pitch, but relentlessly closed down in the final third. Abe shadowed Sneijder absolutely everywhere, leaving little room to weave his magic. I lost count of the number of back-passes, and that's difficult for someone used to watching Liverpool intently. True to form, Japan were well-organized and diligent, and Holland, who were bereft of ideas or incisiveness for long stretches against Denmark, struggled to cope.

Outside of a two moments in 10th – where Sneijder's dangerous free kick narrowly rose over the bar and Kuyt's acrobatic bicycle kick was headed away – and one in the 45th – where van der Vaart's speculative (but on-target) shot was smothered by Kawashima – Holland rarely threatened. And Japan demonstrated their own minor threat on the counter, with Nagatomo shooting wide while Honda and Tulio headed set piece half-chances high and wide.

Thankfully, Sneijder broke the deadlock soon after halftime with a goal that'll be blamed on both ball and keeper. But more of the blame should go to how hard Wesley struck his shot. Van Persie laid off after claiming a defensive header down, and Sneijder nearly broke the goal camera with his ferocious strike. Kawashima could only palm the ball into his own net thanks to the swerve most likely aided by Adidas' delightfully-controversial Jabulani. It never looks good when a goal goes in off the goalkeeper, but there was little Kawashima could do thanks to how hard Sneijder hit the shot.

Forced out of their shell by the deficit, Japan put Holland on the back foot, with left-winger Okubo threatening with outside-the-box strikes and both fullbacks getting forward well. Strikers Okazaki and Tamada replaced midfielders Hasabe and Okubo with 15 minutes to play, but it was the Netherlands who should have scored next, with Kawashima twice denying efforts from substitute Afellay. Notably, both chances were supplied by the other substitutes. The first came on the counter, put through on goal by Elia, only to overrun and sees his close range shot saved. Three minutes later, Huntelaar cleverly turned his defender to set up Afellay, only to see Kawashima there again, with the ball subsequently scrambled off the line.

Just as New Zealand punishing Slovakia a week ago, Holland could have conceded a late equalizer as a deep cross was flicked on to Okazawi, only to see the striker blaze over an eight-yard half-volley. And the Netherlands escape with another anti-Dutch win, at least anti- the Dutch we're used to seeing romp in the group stage. But they'll qualify for the knockout round today with a Danish win or draw.

It may not be smashing stuff, as we hope for from Clockwork Orange, but the Netherlands only have to glance in England, France, or Spain's direction to see true difficulty. They're on pace to be the first to advance from the groups. And while I'm well aware it's a bit early for the mention, I can't help but reference Italy's stereotypical "slow starts" before coming together as a true tournament team. Also applicable are the old standbys about "winning ugly." Here's hoping we soon see similar.

18 June 2010

England 0-0 Algeria

Johnson Carragher Terry ACole
Lennon Lampard Barry Gerrard
Heskey Rooney

Bougherra Halliche Yahia
Kadir Lacen Yebda Belhadj
Boudebouz Ziani

NEWSFLASH (Dateline: Cape Town, South Africa) – England crumble under weight of World Cup pressure. Meanwhile, sky is still blue. Updates to follow.

Well, the mostly harmless England we saw against the US wasn’t an aberration. This is simply a disjointed side devoid of ideas and scared of the consequences.

Algeria’s unbalanced, defensive formation – 3-4-2-1, 5-4-1, whatever – baffled England. Rooney remained invisible. Gerrard seemed unaware he was deployed on the left, leaving poor Ashley Cole to try and man the entire flank. Heskey, the outlet on punts forward, couldn’t hold up the ball. England had little but innocuous shots from distance in the first half, and not many of them, despite an untested Mbolhi taking the place of Chaouchi.

In fact, after Gerrard’s cheeky chip almost caught Mbolhi unaware in the 4th (spooky!), Algeria were arguably the stronger side for 20 or so minutes. Belhadj and Ziani pushed back the attacking Johnson and Lennon. Neither keeper had much to do outside of Mbolhi’s nice save on Lampard’s 33rd minute shot, after the Chelsea man collected a cleared Lennon cross. It was as sterile and uninspiring as France/Uruguay, Slovenia/Algeria, or any other “standout” from this World Cup.

They could have played another 90 minutes and it’d still probably end 0-0. Yeah, England had better chances in the second half, and were improved by the Wright-Phillips and Defoe substitutions. Confidence was clearly lacking in Gerrard and Heskey’s chances in the 55th and 70th minutes: put through on the right in similar positions, both centered instead of taking the shot. Unsurprisingly, both "passes" were cut out by Algerian defenders. Gerrard and Lampard also combined nicely (once) through the middle to nearly put Defoe through in the 75th, only to see Bougherra and Belhadj get back, but that was it. Despite Crouch’s introduction for Barry in the 84th, impotence reigned in the final minutes.

There were zero positives as far as personnel go. Every single player disappointed, aside from maybe James, who had little to do, and Carragher, who did little wrong outside of the yellow that sees him banned for England's next match. I don’t know what to criticize tactically, because I don’t think Capello's lacking in that area. The players just look terrible. No inspiration, no belief, and terrified of making a mistake similar to the one that saw Green dropped for this game. You wouldn’t have thought that’d be a problem from the England we saw in qualification, but once again, the World Cup completely changes this country. Getting Gerrard behind Rooney might be a start, but I seriously worry how he’s coping with the captaincy – something I never thought I’d write. I’d also like to know what Joe Cole did to Capello to induce his exile.

All you can say is at least England aren’t eliminated. If they win, they’re through, and the same goes for their opponents as well as the US. Pity that looks like a tough task based on today’s (or last Saturday’s) form. Slovenia – England’s opponents – on four points, and the US, tied with England on two, have been the “best” sides in the group so far.

Now, the pressure will be even more intense. Either catalyze as a team or suffer the deserved slings and arrows of an outraged press.

United States 2-2 Slovenia

Cherundolo DeMerit Onyewu Bocanegra
Dempsey Bradley Torres Donovan
Findley Altidore

Birsa 13'
Ljubijankic 42'
Donovan 48'
Bradley 82'
Edu 85'


All the focus will be on the "late winner" that was somehow chalked off. And rightfully so – it was a terrible decision always almost made by weak refs, and the US should have taken all three points after a tremendous comeback. Even I've worked myself into a patriotic lather, and you're all well aware where my allegiances lie.

But Bob Bradley's name deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. His substitutions changed the game, with both of the US' goals coming less than three minutes after each. He's exempt from criticism now. Exempt.

Let's get the cliché about how the U.S. never gives up out of the way. You can't count this team out, but if they were able to start games as they finished them, they'd be a current regular at the grown-ups table. The US started tentatively, clearly weighed down by the favorites label they applied to themselves, and were one-dimensional, underwhelming, and unlucky throughout the first half. And they were deservedly behind after Onyewu's dual errors led to soft goals.

Delight boomeranged around the Internet before the match – including from yours truly – as the more-attacking Torres started in place of Clark. Needless to say, it wasn't the right decision, as play completely bypassed midfield. Slovenia pushed forward from the opening whistle, and the Americans' sole release value was punting the ball in the direction of Altidore and Findley. I know that's not all down to Torres, but he was one of the few different variables.

"Step 1: Hoof. Step 2: Hope. Step 3: Prepare for Slovenia to attack again" isn't a winning strategy. And the US were punished for it only 13 minutes in. Birsa picked up the ball in space between two staid lines of four, Onyewu – the nearest defender – failed to step out to close down space, and the Slovenian lashed an unstoppable 20-yard shot past Howard.

Without a firm foundation in midfield – crucial with two similarly deployed 4-4-2s – and with limited ideas going forward, the US weren't able to bounce back from the early goal as they did against England. The side only started creating chances ten minutes before the interval – Torres' driven free kick saved at the near post and Donovan unable to slide in on Dempsey's pass across goal – and were soon punished when caught up-field and the offside trap broke down. Onyewu, yards behind the other defenders, stepped up late to put Ljunijankic through on goal. He smartly finished low into the far corner.

But Bradley somehow regrouped at halftime, restoring the backs-against-the-wall self-belief and making the requisite substitutions. Feilhaber and Edu came on for Torres and Findley, with Dempsey taking up the second striker role. The changes not only firmed up the midfield, but also slowly evolved into a 4-3-3 after Donovan pulled one back in the 48th. Through on the right after Cesar dove in and missed Cherundolo's long pass, Donovan held his run until on top of the keeper, blasting a point-blank shot over Handanovic. As easy a target as Landycakes is, he’s "that man" for the US yet again.

Nearly level three minutes later, only to see Onyewu inches away from a flicked-on free kick, the US turned the screws throughout the second half. Altidore remained the main threat with limited chances, but the US at least had some semblance of control on proceedings. Bradley saved his last throw of the dice for the 80th minute, bringing on Gomez for Gooch as the US upped possession, necessarily risking three at the back.

And it was his son, otherwise known as Nepotism Jr. around these parts, who found the second goal. Altidore leapt highest to knock down Donovan's deep cross and Bradley was in the right place at the right time – again – to crash home a rising shot. Say it quietly, but it definitely evoked memories of Gerrard's first in the dramatic FA Cup final against West Ham.

Three minutes later, the US had the winner. With bodies crashing to the floor around him, Edu put Donovan's free kick in the net, only to see the referee throw his hand in the air for what's still a mysterious decision. Both Bradley and Bocanegra could have had penalties of their own on the play. If Bradley was offside, he never touched the ball, which is how linesman had been deciding the 'active/inactive' law. It was completely baffling, and the main source of this strange pro-US feeling in the match report. And it was more proof that the referee was overawed by this game, with questionable calls throughout that mostly favored Slovenia. You often see invisible attacking "fouls" in the area when the referee's unsure what's happened. It shouldn’t happen in the World Cup.

Slovenia had the last two chances of the game, with the US unable to recreate earlier heroics, as Novakovic shouldered a header wide and Howard punched a dipping Radosavljevic shot away. The damage was done. Still, a lot of credit to the US for fighting back as far as they did, and credit to Bradley for making proactive changes, especially those at halftime. Too many managers give their starting side 10-15 minutes to "figure things out." The US needed to change, and change they did.

Yes, a draw doesn’t help much here, although a point’s obviously and always better than none. The US will need some results to go their way to advance. The best bet is probably hoping for England to pull themselves together and win their next two matches, while the US has to beat Algeria no matter what. That would leave England with 7, the US with 5, and Slovenia with 4.

But a draw, as well as the feeling of being shafted by the referee, helps reinstall the 'everyone's against us' mentality and restores the underdog label that the US revels in. Which means you can’t count them out.

17 June 2010

England v Algeria 06.18.10

Live on espn2 at 2:30pm ET

Guess at the line-ups:
Johnson Carragher Terry ACole
Lampard Barry
Lennon Gerrard JCole

Bougherra Halliche Yahia Belhadj
Boudebouz Yebda Matmour Lacen Ziani

Group C Points Goal Diff
Slovenia 3 +1
England 1 0
United States 1 0
Algeria 0 -1

The two keepers have been the most newsworthy after each's respective howlers, (although Chaouchi might now be ruled out after picking up a "knee injury" in training yesterday), but there are multiple storylines for both sides. Both look likely to make changes in defense, midfield, and attack. England will fervently expect a win after Saturday's disappointment, while Algeria will probably be content simply to improve on their last showing.

Despite last Saturday's "heroics" (and my repeated clamoring for Joe Hart), I'd be stunned if Capello dropped Green. James doesn't appear to be fully fit, while it's become clear Hart's not trusted because of his age. And if you leave out Green, you might as well send him home now, for the same reason he wasn't substituted at halftime. That'd be his confidence shot, no matter how often he says he's experienced enough forget it and move on. The human brain does not work that way, even for goalkeepers with numerous loose synapses.

Regardless, having Gareth Barry back is the biggest improvement England can make. They desperately need a midfielder to focus on ball-winning and retention, a cool head to sit in front of the defense allowing Gerrard and Lampard to do what they do best. Gerrard didn't play badly against the US (Lampard on the other hand, as usual for England...), but he's still better when playing closer to the striker and free to focus on attack, rather than the rampaging box-to-box midfielder he really wants to be. See: his best moments with Torres when both were fit and Liverpool weren't sucking for other reasons.

The question is how he'll be accommodated. In place of Milner/Wright-Phillips, with Gerrard taking up his free role from the left (as often happened in qualifying), or in place of Heskey, shifting to a 4-2-3-1/4-1-3-1-1 with Gerrard off the striker (like at Liverpool), with Joe Cole replacing Milner/Wright-Phillips (just because it should happen)? Your guess is as good as mine. It needs to be one of those two systems, though.

King will also have to be replaced in defense, with Carragher, Upson, and Dawson to choose from. There are concerns about all three. Altidore repeatedly beat Carra like he was a surly stepchild. Upson's left-footed, as is John Terry, which can make for an awkward pairing. And Dawson's yet to earn his senior cap. That Carra was first off the bench on Saturday means he's most likely, but with Algeria likely to be pinned back, I'd be tempted to start Dawson, the most readymade replacement for King. If you're afraid to use him against the likes of Algeria, there's no point in his inclusion.

The other change Capello's mooted is Defoe for Heskey. Algeria will look to congest their own half, making it hard for England to find gaps, which could be an argument for Defoe. Still, outside of his usual inability to convert the one decent chance offered him, Heskey did what was asked against the US: throw himself about and win flick-on headers. Others failed to capitalize.

Algeria often played 3-5-2 in qualifying, but appeared to use more of a four-man backline against Slovenia. And despite the defeat, the switch "worked." It was Ghezzal's insane dismissal less than 15 minutes after coming off the bench and Chaouchi's subsequent Green-esque gaffe that caused the loss. However, you can't rule out Algeria reverting to three center backs with England likely to pose more questions than Slovenia (hopefully!). Young star Boudebouz should start on the right, as the Times suggests Algeria will revamp their attack after its previous dismal outing. The Guardian suggests that Algeria's formation will be closer to 4-6-0 with Djebbour miles off the pace, Ghezzal suspended, and substitute striker Saifi 35 years old.

Whatever tactics Algeria employ, it'll be England on the front foot, and England under the most scrutiny. Neither is a new phenomenon, but the response with the group up in the air will define this team.

16 June 2010

Spain 0-1 Switzerland

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Alonso Busquets
Silva Xavi Iniesta

Gelson Fernandes 52’

It remains incredibly low scoring, but at least the World Cup’s finally thrown up a huge shock. Sucks that it happens to one of the tournament’s most enjoyable sides, one with heavy Liverpool ties, but, unavoidably, that’s football.

And it’s a small sample size, but we might have our answer about 4-2-3-1 versus 4-1-3-2, at least against flat-back 4-4-2s. That was smash-and-grab football at it’s best (worst?), but that happens. Cue approximately 1732 articles about how the more things change, the more Spain in the World Cup stays the same.

The first half was perfectly in line with the World Cup so far, direly lacking shots on target, let alone goals. Spain had 80% of the possession in the opening 15 minutes, but didn’t test Benaglio until the 17th, with Silva’s low shot easily smothered. Iniesta, cutting inside from the left (with Silva operating similarly on the opposite flank), was amidst almost all of Spain’s good work, but it rarely led to breaching a determined back four.

Despite the usual possession, Spain created just two clear-cut openings in the half. The first fell to Pique with extra men forward after a set play, from Iniesta’s delightful pass, only to see Benaglio come out to close off the angle. The second, right before halftime, came on Spain’s lone counter-attack at pace when Switzerland was caught up the field, with Iniesta again providing the pass that put Villa free down the left. The striker did well to check back at the byline, but strangely over-hit a chipped cross for Silva instead of shooting.

Once again, a resilient flat back four canceled out a strong attack. It’s been the overriding theme this week. Spain seemingly had two options – get more men in the box by replacing one of the midfielders with Torres, or stretch the field by using a winger that stuck to the touchline – i.e. Navas – as the narrow Silva and Iniesta had little room to operate into Switzerland’s packed half.

Spain eventually chose both, but not before Switzerland sent jaws plummeting to the floor with a goal from absolutely nothing. Slow to regroup on a Swiss goal kick, Busquets misjudged his header, allowing Nfuko to pick up the ball with Pique and Puyol backing off. His clever through-ball caught both flat-footed, Casillas was slow to come out, and the keeper's collision with Derdiyok led to a scramble that Fernandes reached first. I’d be a lot more surprised if I didn’t see similar weekly in the Premiership. If you can’t vary your game against a well-drilled defensive side, you’re not going to succeed. I know for a fact that Liverpool fans are nodding their heads at that statement.

The aforementioned changes – Torres for Busquets and Navas for Silva – led to more Spanish chances, but Benaglio was equal to the task when called upon, while Iniesta and Torres curled shots wide before Alonso nearly destroyed the crossbar on Xavi’s centered free kick in the 74th. Resorting to more customary clichés, when those aren’t going in, it’s just not your day.

And it only become further frazzled in the final 15 minutes. Switzerland nearly went two up on another hilarious Spanish attempt at defense. Derdiyok easily got around Capdevila after another Nfuko clever through (no coincidence he was at the heart of this and the goal), beating both center-backs before hitting the post with a tricky toed shot.

Exposed on the break in the desperate search for an equalizer and with chances harder and harder to come by as frustration mounted, this was about as bad as it gets from Spain. I can’t help but reference the loss to USA in last year’s Confederations Cup. But this team’s losses – like the club sides Spain’s always compared to – frequently look alike. Credit goes to Switzerland’s defense – which includes midfielders Inler, Huggel, and Fernandes – for giving Spain no space to operate in the final third, while the side’s height helped negate Navas’ – the focal point of Spanish attacks in the latter stages – influence on proceedings. Despite rarely impressing, the Swiss remained as indestructible as in the previous World Cup, where they never conceded, going out on penalties in the round of 16.

Writing ‘that’s football’ after games such as this rarely suffices. But it again seems fitting. There’s a reason underdogs inevitably rely on defense and counter-attacking. Spain’s original tactics fed into the strategy, and they were behind and scrambling by the time Del Bosque changed matters. They had two defensive breakdowns and were punished by one.

Group H, already interesting, is now must-see material. Switzerland and Honduras are incredibly difficult to break down. Chile and Spain are two of the most attacking sides in the tournament. Spain will probably become even more attacking against Honduras next week in response to this setback, ideally starting both Torres and Villa, while today’s two winners will face off. Which leads to Spain and Chile in the final match, ensuring the group will go down to the last day, especially since the second-placed side will almost certainly face Brazil.

As much as I hate to see Spain suffer, especially given their history, results like this are what the World Cup is all about.

14 June 2010

What does Benayoun's sale mean?

I see sacking Benitez isn't going to stop the exodus of players. Awesome. Like that ever was the case.

Yes, it's not official yet, but it's been mooted so long it's bound to happen. Benayoun's on his way to Chelsea, and all that's left is figuring how much more than £5m Liverpool will get. It certainly won't be double that, the supposed asking price. And I know it's shouting into the wind, but maybe let's not let Broughton take part in negotiations?

It'll be a shame to see Benayoun leave. It's even worse to see him on his way to Chelsea. The squad's already paper-thin. There's already a dearth of useful creative players who can change a game. And Yossi was unforgettably one of Liverpool's best two seasons ago – you know, when the team was good.

This is the new Anfield, the new Liverpool, under its two loving owners.

My sole consolation was the sale was evidently in the works before Benitez was fired. Maybe it's part of 'the plan' (not saying there is a plan, as going two weeks without Rafa's replacement suggests a lack of one). Maybe it's not the first trickle of the incredible awfulness that would be a fire sale of Liverpool's top players.

We honestly don't know the full extent of Liverpool's woes – just that we're woeful right now. My cynical suspicion is that the owners want to sell a bunch of big names this summer in an attempt to pay down the debt before selling the club, but my hope is that selling the main assets when you're trying to sell the club is stupidity beyond even Hicks and Gillett.

Regardless of the situation, it's still infuriating and was avoidable, and the owners still need to be held accountable more than ever – which is why I keep bringing up the likes of Spirit of Shankly. Supporters, no matter where they live, need to have some sort of representation in the fight to oust the cancerous owners. Spirit of Shankly seems the best hope of that by some distance.

In an ideal world, Liverpool would be able to keep Benayoun and add to the squad, and we'd have never heard the names of Thomas Hicks and George Gillett. Sadly, that's not reality. The reality is that Yossi Benayoun is 30 years old, and Liverpool paid £5m for him three years ago. While I wish moving from Liverpool to Chelsea weren't a step up, that's the situation we're in after this season. He'll probably get a nice pay raise, signing his last big contract. It's hard to begrudge that, and if he wants out, so be it. Liverpool's fairly compensated – or as fairly compensated as they're gonna be – and it's crucial that every player actually wants to be here, willing to fight for the shirt, with the situation the club's in. See: almost everything Pepe Reina says.

If selling him helps avoid selling the likes of Gerrard or Torres, it's for the "best." As key as Yossi's been in the past, he's still more expendable than others. Liverpool has Kuyt and Maxi on the right, Gerrard in the hole, and Benayoun's rarely been at his best on the left. There's also the chance Pacheco will get more opportunities – and I'm almost positive Dani counts as a homegrown player starting next season (having joined in July 2007).

And honestly, the real reality of the situation is that £6m, which is what the fee will probably end up being, only covers Liverpool's interest payments for 54 and a half days.

Again, thanks for everything, George and Tommy.

Holland 2-0 Denmark

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel De Jong
Kuyt Sneijder Van der Vaart
Van Persie

S Poulsen (og) 46’
Kuyt 85’

Okay, so it wasn’t a "classic," but it did entertain as both teams lived up to the tactical hype. Holland was the better side, but a 2-0 scoreline’s harsh on the Danes, especially since the opener came from a fluke own goal, the first of the tournament.

Denmark’s defense set the first half tone, allowing Holland its customary possession but ensuring very little of it came in the final third. The Dutch were restricted to a smattering of shots from distance, with Kuyt’s 10th-minute effort the lone to test the keeper. Van der Vaart and Sneijder both saw a lot of the ball, but with a packed midfield packed further by Van der Vaart and Sneijder (and Kuyt’s) proclivity to cut inside, the central pairing of Agger and Kjaer were able to mop up absolutely everything (hint, hint Liverpool).

Meanwhile, Denmark slowly but surely gained a foothold, creating chances with Dutch players caught up the field. The best of the first 45 unsurprisingly came on the break, with Rommedahl lofting a floating cross that Bendtner narrowly headed wide in the 27th. In addition, Stekelenburg had to smother Rommedahl's shot after Jorgensen found him with a lovely cross-field diagonal and palm away Kahlenberg’s blast after Bendtner's pivot and through ball.

But calamity struck less than a minute into the second half. De Jong’s wonderful ball over the top fell to van Persie's feet after a clever run. Although the striker was pushed wide, he still found space to send in a teasing cross that Poulsen somehow headed onto Agger’s back, disastrously redirecting it inside the far post. I’m still surprised FIFA credited the own goal to Poulsen – it doesn’t hit Agger, it doesn’t go in – but I’d rather a Liverpool player not have that blot (plus, I’ve got money on Carragher scoring Liverpool’s first own goal).

Denmark did well to restrict Holland’s possession after the goal – it was 60/40 in the first half and a lot closer to 50/50 in the second – but they created fewer chances as Netherlands were happy to hold what they had. Unlike the first 45, all the best opportunities came from Clockwork Orange, with Sorensen saving well from van Persie, van der Vaart, van Bommel, and Sneijder (the latter aided by a wicked definition from that man Agger again; he’s had a terrible streak of luck, whether injuries or deflections, but was probably Denmark’s best player today).

But in the 85th minute, Kuyt – yes, Kuyt – iced the game. Sneijder played a delicious through ball for the on-rushing Elia, whose shot eluded Sorensen only to ricochet off the foot of the post. Once again, Kuyt’s there for the rebound, taking advantage of Kjaer giving up on the ball. He has an absolutely supernatural sense for rebounds, and it’s worth noting that his strike came less than six minutes after moving up front. ‘A nose for goal’ doesn’t come close to sufficing.

And it should have been three less than three minutes later, only to see Simon Poulsen make amends for his earlier error by replicating Cannavaro’s heroics from that recent Nike commercial. Kuyt got down the left to send in a cross that Afellay reached first, poking towards goal, but Poulsen somehow got back to bicycle the shot off his goal line. Jaw-dropping. Don’t let anyone tell you this was a boring match.

If the Danes ignore the result – which is obviously hard to do in a World Cup – both sides lived up to expectations. Denmark is a well-organized side led by two tremendous center backs in Agger and Kjaer. Sorensen’s probably taken Reina’s title as the most underrated keeper in the Premiership. With a firm foundation, they can make sides pay if Bendtner and Rommedahl (and Tomasson off the bench) convert chances.

But Holland is rightfully one of the favorites if they stay defensively solid. In Sneijder, van Persie, van der Vaart, and Robben, they’ve attackers that’d stroll into any side in the world bar Spain and Brazil. Van Bommel and De Jong are excellent holding midfielders; De Jong was simply superb today. And Kuyt plays a key role – I expect him to keep one of the ‘magic quartet,’ probably van der Vaart, out of the side even after Robben’s fit. He’s crucial to protecting van der Wiel’s forays forward, making a fair few necessary defensive tackles and headers today, and once again demonstrated his predatory instinct. I will be howling about how underrated he is even if he leaves Liverpool this summer. (Stop now. I'm not saying he will.)

I’m truly interested to see how Cameroon and Japan fare in the upcoming match. Holland and Denmark should still be odds on favorites to progress, and I think that this match only decided the group winner. Both Cameroon and Japan will find it difficult to break down the Danes (unless Eto’o gets his head right), while the Netherlands just needs to avoid a mental breakdown – which is never outside the realm of possibility.

Either way, I’m still excited to see both of these sides going forward. The World Cup is the best.

12 June 2010

England 1-1 United States

Johnson King Terry ACole
Lennon Gerrard Lampard Milner
Heskey Rooney

Cherundolo DeMerit Onyewu Bocanegra
Donovan Bradley Clark Dempsey
Findley Altidore

Gerrard 4’
Dempsey 40’

It’s a historic day. The United States national team is all grown up. Pity it’ll be remembered for England’s suicidal goalkeeping instead of the US’ team effort.

Capello got it wrong. Bob Bradley got it right. Let that sink in for a few seconds. Nonetheless, it's still a draw, and both teams are still on pace to qualify. I expect both nations to overreact in different directions, but this result doesn't necessarily mean the US is now super awesome or that England's preternaturally doomed.

It was two 4-4-2s ramming against each other, and neither really gave way. There was little style to go along with the substance, lots of long balls and set plays, and some crucial mistakes. The US did it better, made fewer mistakes, and deserved to come away with a draw. Yes, had Green not decided to commit hara-kiri, it could have been 1-0, but it also could have been 1-2 if Altidore had taken his chance after skating past Carragher.

But the game will be defined by the errors, and errors led to both goals. England’s was obviously more catastrophic. Gerrard’s early strike, easily ghosting behind Clark to slot in Heskey’s throughball, seemed the perfect start for England, but it also aided the US. England started sitting deeper, trying to manage the game. What was more important was controlling possession, and England didn’t, allowing the US to slowly grow into the game. Still, the equalizer was nothing if not fortunate.

Five minutes before halftime, after much huffing and puffing but little output, Dempsey spun Gerrard 25 yards from goal before lining up a low, simple shot. But Green, not fully behind the ball, somehow fumbled the tame effort into his own net. Paul Robinson who? Green’s now synonymous with English howlers. Congrats.

Unsurprisingly, a mistake like that knocked England off its stride, and needing to make two changes before the second half started didn’t help. First, Milner came off for Wright-Phillips barely half an hour in. Then King, looking gimpy as usual, went off for Carragher during the interval. Aside from a 52nd minute chance from Heskey, put through by Lennon but shooting straight at Howard, England offered little until Altidore sent hearts in mouth in the 65th – torching an already-booked Carragher only to see Green push his shot onto the post.

England somewhat responded, finally getting the previously anonymous Rooney – well-marked by DeMerit – more involved. But Rooney couldn’t find the net, Wright-Phillips shot too close to Howard when given an opening, and Heskey couldn’t keep his headers down. The last throw of the dice with Crouch, with 10 minutes to play, was pretty much throwing good money after bad, and it was the US that deservedly finished stronger.

Milner and Green were the questionable starters and they were the goats. Fat lot of good it does now, but I’d again like to reiterate my belief that Joe Cole and Joe Hart should be in the team. I feel for Green – this is his legacy now – and it’s Milner that’s the more unconscionable inclusion. He’s an unlikely starter in the best of circumstances; if he’s ill, he shouldn’t have been anywhere near the first XI. Not a good day for Don Fabio.

For all of the hype, rightfully deserved in a lot of ways, Capello has a bit of explaining to do. This England looked little different than previous World Cup failures. Tactically, it was still old-school 4-4-2, with the same problems because of the Gerrard/Lampard midfield. The uncertainty over the goalkeeper, no matter what Capello says, seemed to sap both Green and the rest of the rearguard’s confidence, and King’s injury only made matters worse as Carragher was clearly exposed by Altidore’s pace. Yes, Capello was hamstrung by injuries, but he bound his own hands substitutions-wise with the team he chose. Other than Johnson getting forward and Gerrard’s early goal, there was little to be pleased about from England’s perspective.

Regardless, the USA looked more of a team than England throughout. Cherundolo was truly awesome, as were Howard and the rest of the defense. Talent-wise, it’s not close, no matter what Alexi Lalas says. But talent is rarely the biggest factor in team sports. England had little to no fluidity after the fourth minute, and it only got worse as the game intensified. That bodes poorly for the rest of England’s tournament, even if this team still looks capable of beating both Slovenia and Algeria.

Today’s is a bigger result than the much-referenced 1-0 from 1950, and everyone involved should be justifiably proud. Despite Green’s humiliation, this didn't seem a fluke. Teams, not individuals, win competitions, especially knockout competitions.

But grown-ups have to prove it again and again. Now the pressure’s on the US – we’re going to hear that this team’s obviously good enough to beat the no-marks that fill out this group and are certain to qualify along with England. It’s the exact opposite of the Confederations Cup.

At least this result ensures the group will remain interesting until the last day.

11 June 2010

Getting Involved in America

Last week I wrote about feeling removed from the fight against the owners being based in America. And I've had little in the way of concrete suggestions besides boycotting official merchandise and joining Spirit of Shankly. McrRed also beat me to the punch of this post, adding a few excellent links and ideas in the comments of the "Who's Next" post below.

I'm not one for Facebook – I rarely use my personal account anymore, let alone ever set one up for this site – but if you are, there are some good ideas being bandied about over at North American Reds LFC Supporters Group. In addition, here's the concurrent RAWK thread. One idea I particularly like is a billboard in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and if it comes to be, I'll get a link up to the donations page (and chip in).

There are LFC supporter clubs based in most big US cities, but I know a fair few of us live in smaller places. That's where Facebook, RAWK, and the like come in. Even if you're sick of Facebook, like I am, there are tools to ensure we work together in constructive ways. And even though I'm a small voice and like to focus on analysis here, I still feel the need to put this blog into service sometimes.

Long story short, getting American reds together worked for ousting Steven Cohen, and it can help again here. If you're of the Facebook persuasion, join the group. Even if you aren't, check in every now and then, or at RAWK or the other various internet forums, and again, consider signing up for Spirit of Shankly. Soon enough, there should be enough members to form a US SoS branch.

No matter who the next manager ends up being, the focus will still need to be on ousting Hicks and Gillett.

10 June 2010

England v United States 06.12.10

Live on ABC at 2:30 ET

Predicted line-ups:
Johnson King Terry ACole
Lennon Lampard Gerrard JCole
Heskey Rooney

Cherundolo Onyewu DeMerit Bocanegra
Dempsey Bradley Clark Donovan
Altidore Buddle

Key questions:
• 4-4-2 with Barry out, which is what we've seen in the friendlies, or Gerrard back in a free role behind Rooney?
• Can Lampard and Gerrard play together?
• Who starts in goal?

• Who partners Altidore?
• How healthy is Gooch?
• Can the fullbacks keep up?

It's the match I'm dying to see and yet fairly unhappy about. The country I root for versus the country of my birth. And it'll take place on day two of the tournament. I guess it's always better to jump in feet first...

Most importantly, both teams are better than the sides sent to Germany four years ago.

The difference in England comes down to two factors: Fabio Capello and Rooney's development. Otherwise, it's basically the 2006 team but four years older. Which is evident from the key questions above. We're still debating whether or not Lampard and Gerrard can play together in central midfield, we're still wondering if David James is really England's best goalkeeper, and England's still reliant on Wayne Rooney.

Tactically, the main debate is Heskey v Crouch v Gerrard in a free role. Barry's absence, from this game at the least, means Gerrard will almost assuredly play as a holding midfielder – albeit one that bombs forward at opportune moments. Neither Carrick nor Milner made the most of chances given during the past month. And that means that Rooney will play with another striker up top. We can rule out a little-little partnership with Defoe, but whether Heskey or Crouch gets the nod still seems up in the air.

Heskey's been preferred in the past; as with Owen, managers love how he creates space and draws defenders to the benefit of his strike partner. But he's been unable to buy a goal for club or country, while Crouch has an excellent scoring record for England (21 in 39), even if most have come against the minnows. My guess is Capello goes with the devil he knows best, and we got a hint with seeing Rooney and Heskey paired in the second half on Monday, but I say that with little certainty. No matter which starts, either will be crucial with crosses coming in from the flanks and Oneywu suspect after an extended injury, and that would lead me to pick Crouch.

Meanwhile, the US has continually improved since 2006, something Bob Bradley doesn't get nearly enough credit for. Beating Spain in last summer's Confederations Cup was the high-water mark, but recent low-water marks include eking through World Cup qualification and the earlier rounds of the Confed Cup. And the hero of qualification, Conor Casey – with his two goals against Honduras – didn't even make the squad. But there was no surprise in that.

Despite form, World Cup qualification – like the win over Spain – still demonstrated the US' best attribute. They win games by outworking opponents. The 'never say die' attitude is cliché, especially in reference to an American team, but it's true. And there are assuredly worse qualities to have. Yet England are routinely renowned for the same quality – tactically questionable on the big stage but full of blood and guts.

As go Dempsey and Donovan, so goes America. The US needs both on their game – as they were against Spain a year ago – to succeed. Shocking, right? The team plays well when the two best players play well. But Deuce and Landycakes are head and shoulders above others in the squad. Dempsey's become a big player in the Premiership, which is of no small importance here, while you can be certain that Donovan's loan to Everton took place with this match in mind. Deuce, Howard, DeMerit, Spector, Guzan, Hahnemann and Holden ply their trade in England; Altidore and Donovan spent at least part of last season there on loan; Gooch, Boca, and Feilhaber have played there in the past; and Beasley and Edu are currently in Scotland. Check my math, but I'm pretty sure that's more than half of the squad. It might help.

At the same time, all eyes are on the US' defense. The possibility of Spector and Bornstein at fullback should strike fear into the hearts of any American, especially with the likes of Joe Cole, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Cole, and Glen Johnson on England's flanks. I'd wager any amount of money that's the main point of attack, and we'll see how the Americans cope, especially with Oneywu still recovering from that knee injury. He played sparingly during the friendlies, but if he's anywhere near fit, he'll start, consequences be damned. And it's hard to argue with that decision.

It's also hard to put much stock in friendly results, but there were signs of optimism from both sides. Three wins from three for England, although Mexico and Japan gave them problems and the Platinum Stars barely counted. Meanwhile, although the Czechs walloped the Americans, the USA came back strong against Turkey and Australia. Still, the rickety defense worried, especially conceding silly set piece goals against both the Czechs and Aussies, while Turan torched the US on one break where Spector was caught upfield. Worth noting given England's strength on free kicks and corners (scoring twice against Mexico) and its pace on the flanks.

These two teams are predicted to qualify from the group and rightfully so. But the US has never advanced after losing its first match. England's done it twice – 1962 and 1986. Make no mistake, this will have crucial implications for who progresses and both teams know it. Which leads me to believe the US will set up for and be satisfied with a draw. It'll be up to England to prove why they should be amongst the favorites.