Monday, June 26, 2006

The Italian Job

They've done it again. Ten man Italy escaped this morning, 1-0, thanks to a Francesco Totti penalty, 3 minutes deep into injury time. Grosso beat his man with a nifty move, then pushed the ball by Lucas Neill. Neill had already committed, and all Grosso had to do was run into the defender's body and go to ground. Penalty awarded, and up stepped substitute Totti to blast the ball into the left corner past the diving Mark Schwarzer.

The result is no surprise (1-0 to Italy may well be the most common World Cup result over the past five tournaments...I'm looking into it), but with Inter defender Materazzi already tossed from the game, the Aussies were in prime position to pull the upset, or, at the very least, let the Italians take the game to the penalty kick lottery. But they were wasteful in their finishing and probably missed Liverpool midfielder Harry Kewell (injured) quite a bit. On the whole, they've got to go home feeling good about their performance here. I'm sure we'll see them again in South Africa in 2010 -- they're now qualifying directly through the Asian federation. Let's just hope whomever takes over the team recognizes that superb fitness, hard running, and physical (but not dirty) play can be successful. They were never a pretty team to watch, but they were certainly endearing and entertaining.

As for Italy, who knows. With the easiest knockout draw of any of the big teams, they now have either Switzerland or the Ukraine standing between them and a birth in the semifinals for the first time since 1994. Pirlo looked lost for much of the game, Gilardino and Toni both continued to be wasteful in front of goal, and that joker Lippi subbed in up top is one of the least dangerous players to play up top for Italy in a decade. Where is Inzaghi? At least he can score. They're not a bad team, at all, but there's not much attacking quality there, and it will be difficult to see them making it to the final. And, to be honest, I like Switzerland's chances if they can beat Ukraine today.

Knockout Rounds Outlook
ROUND OF 16
Germany 2 - Sweden 0
Argentina 2 - Mexico 1 (ot)
Italy 1 - Australia 0
Switzerland v. Ukraine
England 1 - Ecuador 0
Portugal 1 - Netherlands 0
Brazil v. Ghana
Spain v. France

QUARTERFINALS
Germany v. Argentina
Italy v. Switzerland/Ukraine
England v. Portugal
Brazil/Ghana v. Spain/France

SEMIFINALS
Germany/Argentina v. Italy/Switzerland/Ukraine
England/Portugal v. Brazil/Ghana/Spain/France

There's a lot being said about the Round of 16 match pitting France against Spain. Spain has to hate the way the draw worked out, but I truly do believe that the Swiss are the tougher draw. Fabregas has proved he can handle Viera and Zidane, and Puyol has proved he can deal with Henry. Ribery has looked active but not necessarily dangerous. Wiltord is simply a role player who can score some goals if placed in the right position. For Spain's sake, hope that Viera starts at right midfield so Zidane can have the middle to himself, then raid that side and pack the middle defensively.

The situation of France brings up a common theme in this tournament: the inflexibility of managers. Domenech of France and Eriksson of England are the prime examples, displaying more and more with each match their unwillingness to field a cohesive team (that is, someone playing right midfield who actually plays right midfield or has some proven degree of success there) and/or bench key players. But enough with the Beckham talk...he's proved his worth. No, the right side is not dangerous, and perhaps a more creative coach (why again is Lampard keeping his place?) would find a way to have Beckham on the field and get him involved more. He simply doesn't have the pace to be a threat offensively in open play, but on set pieces he is still deadly. Spain has looked sharp in part due to the competitive nature of the squad: bringing Raul off the bench makes him hungry to score. With Reyes and Joaquin riding the pine as well, coach Aragones has more attacking variety in his second 11 than most of the 32 managers have in their entire lineup.

But let's be honest...with relatively few major upsets so far, the deepest and most talented teams are advancing, regardless of how well they play. And as other teams seemed bogged down by opposition gameplans and tactics, only two teams have been able to display a consistent ability to set the pace and tone of each match. One is Spain, and they could be pushed to their breaking point by a French team loaded with stars and looking to make Zidane's last ride a memorable one.

The other is the Germans. A tough road to the final lies ahead, but this team is starting to look like the reverse image of France in 98, the attacking pace and youthful enthusiasm to France's seasoned, miserly defence. Both host nations, both with difficult quarterfinals with a seemingly winnable semifinal to look ahead to. You never know.

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