Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Matchday 5

Missed most of the first two games today but they seemed pretty decent and evenly matched. Korea came from behind to beat World Cup debutantes Togo -- mired in a coaching controversy that has seen Otto Pfister leave then return to coach the team -- 2-1. 2002 star Ahn was left off but came on late to score a very nice winner from about 22 yards out. Both Korean goals looked nicer than they were. Can somebody tell me why there are so few decent African goalkeepers? Kingson of Ghana looked set to pass the laughable Benzekri of Morocco in 98, but Italy seemed determined not to exploit his vulnerability on high, lofted balls and also to fire a number of shots right at him.

Watched about thirty minutes of France-Switzerland, and the Swiss looked like a more dangerous team. I can't imagine this will be a long tournament for the French. If you look back on WC 98, they sort of willed themselves to victory with a watertight defense. You may recall they only beat Paraguay 1-0 on a golden goal from defender Blanc in the Round of 16, beat Italy on penalties in the quarters after a 0-0 tie, beat Croatia in the semis pretty much solely on the determination of defender Thuram, who, never having scored for France before that game, scored twice after making the mistake which originally put Croatia in the lead. They then conquered a mysteriously out-of-sync Brazil in the final with two headed corner kicks goals from Zidane and one late breakaway from Petit after the game was already decided. Their Euro 2000 success owed much to the excellence of Henry and Trezeguet in that tournament. They haven't had the production they've needed since.

Though the direct route from Switzerland looked uncomfortable for France, one great block from Barthez preserved a shutout and a 0-0 draw. Probably a fair result based on what I saw, and you would think that both teams will like their chances in the next two group games. If both take maximum points in the next game, expect France to go through in first place on goal differential. But don't quite rule out the plucky Koreans, who, early though it may be, are still in first place in the group right now.

Later today - BRAZIL v. CROATIA - Preview

Everyone's fantasy teams look set for a big points boost as the favorites finally take the field. Croatia proved difficult to breakdown in qualifying, but with Australia's win there's some pressure to earn a draw here. A point would be a massive step towards the next round.

With these three group games, most people seem to be wondering how many goals Brazil can put up, but I expect Parreira to go for efficiency in the first game. In 94, Brazil (with Parreira as coach) used midfielder Rai's play as a springboard to a 2-0 victory over Russia in their opening game and were never really challenged. Croatia should present a tougher test. They're likely to show their opponents some serious respect and get plenty of players behind the ball in defense. Of course, Ronaldinho and Kaka are masters a breaking down a mass defense, and, should they struggle, Lyon free kick wizard Juninho waits in the wings with some dead ball tricks up his sleeve.

Prediction: 2-0 to the holders.

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