Saturday, July 19, 2014

Riding into the Sunset: GERMANY

For the past four years we've tracked every team to play in and eventually lose in the world cup, at the end of all that stands the final survivor, ready to ride into the sunset with the Jules Rimet trophy in one hand and an obscene wad of cash in the other.

That team is Germany.

They bested all these other fools

So how did they do it?

Well they kicked off qualifying with a 3-0 walkover versus Faroe Islands, with Mario Götze's 28th minute strike starting the march towards Rio.

The rest of qualifying was similarly easy with only Sweden really testing them: first by stealing a point in Berlin and then by striking twice in the first half to take a lead...before Andre Schurrle's second half hat trick put Die Nationalelf ahead for good.

All told they brought down 28 points from 10 matches, and ceded 10 goals...3 of them to teams not named Sweden.

Fortunately, the Swedes couldn't get past Portugal which mean that when they had finally qualified they were pretty high on my list of contenders (in fact I had them losing the final to close)

But in December fate seemed to frown upon the Germans foisting them with this year's "Group of Death" (cue dramatic music). The Portuguese who had shot down the rival Swedes? In it. The Ghanaians who had bedeviled them four years before? In it. The Americans who had beaten Germany (albeit their B team) in a friendly the year before? In it. At the time it prompted a lot of conversations among my fellow hooligans. The best part of which might be this exchange with my old student teacher:
"Parcursed: US in a group with the best European team, their bogey team, and the best player in the world... See you all in 4+ years.
Me: I 100% agree with my student-teacher (whose doing a great job of doing my real job while I'm home sick today). But the good news is, traditionally teams who emerge from the group of Death are the teams who compete for the title.  (Including Italy when they topped the US and Ghana in 2006--so at least we'll lose to the best?)"
Again I called for Argentina over Germany in the final, and again the Germans looked to be hard core, their build up to the trophy was impressive, and even though I gave in to the massive group think that we were building to Brazil V. Spain (Round 2), I knew they would be tough enough to make it to at least the quarterfinals--and that Benedikt Howdes would be brutal in defense (Sadly I was one round too early in my "injured Neymar" prediction.

The group stage started with Thomas Muller featuring prominently both as goal scorer, and Portugal's least favorite man, as they crushed the Portugese 4-0 (causing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to shake his head and go back to kicking gum into his mouth). They had perhaps their worst match of the whole tournament in a narrow 2-2 draw with Ghana where the Black Stars looked the better side for long stretches. The final day dawned with a result needed against the US and dreams of match fixing in the press. It wasn't nearly that serious as Germany controlled and the Yanks looked bedraggled before a 1-0 win.

The knockout stages started with a surprisingly game Algeria, repeating much of the same athletic end-to-end pressure that Ghana used so effectively. Though a pair of late goals gave Die Mannschaft a better result, it was dangerous for a while. 
Things were less dire versus the French in the quarters, as control and possession spelled the end for Les Blus. The blunted attack of Karim Benzema was just fine by the blunted attack of Miroslav Klose as they headed for the semis and the vaunted Brazilian side.

Well...maybe they shouldn't have been that vaunted. Instead 7-1 has all the makings of a national joke for decades to come. The superlative style of focused, ingenious attacking made fans around the world sit up and take notice--as well as several other football players look on in shock.
By the time the final came around, Germany looked the safer pick--even against the Argentine squad I'd been plumping over Germany for six months, and while Argentina looked strong in the first half, the gas ran out of Lionel Messi's legs in the second. Yet the Germans couldn't capitalize and while it looked for all the world like we'd be doomed to the pig-kissing penalty-kick shoot out, that was when Mario Götze came up big, delivering the final goal of Germany's campaign, just as he had delivered the first in Hannover 22 months before.

No question about it the Germans are champions and deserve to be them. They have the best league in the world and a relatively young squad that continue to improve. But will they be the dominant force in football for the next six years (as Spain was before them)? Not that likely: Sweden, Ghana and Algeria all had answers for them and may provide the model for how to dethrone the current kings. But until that happens, live it up Germany, now is the time for you to shine (and make huge chunks of money on the transfer market). Savor the sunset now, because who knows how quickly we'll say happy trails to you next time around.
It's good to be it is...

(Okay, we probably will see you in the semi-finals AGAIN in Russia...but let us dream, okay?)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy Trails: 4-2

As the competition ended we had to end what we began three years ago when the first batch of teams was eliminated. It's tough to say who had the worst World Cup ending: Macau who got dispatched by Vietnam by 13 goals at the tournament's first hurdle? Or Argentina who got dispatched by Germany by 1 goal at the tournament's final one?

4. Ate Mas Tarde, Brazil
Why they Lost: The six minute long Blitzkrieg of Belo Horizonte was an unmitigated disaster. God awful defending that had made Ghana, the US, Algeria and France stand up to say..."uh...can we please play instead?"
What we Missed in the Finals: A true demonstration of just how great Neymar really can be on the world's biggest stage.
Thanks Robin Van Persie.

3. Tot Straks, The Netherlands
Why they Lost: Another round of yet another mind-numbing penalty kicks didn't go their way, despite the success of the quarterfinal against Costa Rica. You can only play Russian Roulette for so long before you get a bullet.
What we Missed in the Finals: More Van Perseing.

2. Adios, Argentina
Why They Lost: The failure of other people in the blue and white to be named/play like Lionel Messi. Maybe with about three more Messi's they would have been unstoppable.
What we Missed in the Finals: An involved and energized Messi who could play to his full potential. Maybe that mid-winter cup idea Qatar's got would work well.

Monday, July 14, 2014

3 On/3 Off: The Final

It's been an amazing World Cup, every bit the action packed thrill-ride that makes me want to follow it for four whole years. 

ON: Sergio Romero--The german attacks were far more accurate and dangerous than the guilt edge shanks that bounced off, but Romero saw them all off time and time again. He wasn't the biggest star or the most efficient keeper this tournament but he was the man Argentina needed most--and he delivered.
OFF: Gonzalo Higuain/Ezequiel Lavezzi--We named Lavezzi as our hipster star of the team before the tournament and Higuain has often been featured as a star attraction. They were utterly MIA in attack for Argentina this tournament, leaving Lionel Messi to create all on his lonesome--which he certainly did...but that's more demanding than it ought to be.

ON: Manuel Neuer--The German stopper has certainly solidified his position as the world's preeminent keeper. It's thrilling to watch those who are close to seizing the crown and becoming the next king of the mountain, but neither Romero, nor Navas, nor Ochoa, nor Howard, nor Enyema have been able to show the same skill on the biggest stage of all. Maybe they can. Maybe they will. But until then Neuer is the man.
OFF: Thomas Muller's Acting Skills--Runner-up to James Rodrigez in the Golden Boot, shut out from all the major trophy hand outs. Muller had a good tournament. But he is undoubtedly the new poster child for the ugly art of diving. From the first match to the last, anyone who touched him evoked Wagnerian levels of tragedy, somewhere a stern German or a million is sternly scolding him.

ON: Mario Goetze/Andre Schurrle--Die Mannschaft's substitutes weren't unstoppable by any means. They certainly looked underwhelming for most of the first over time. But when they had the chance they did not spoil it, with Schurrle sparkling on a cross and Goetze's goal a thing of beauty that left even Romero stumped. In the end their combination was the reason Germany won.
OFF: Rodrigo Palacio--While L'Albiceleste's final sub was every bit as underwhelming as Goetze and Schurrle for most of the match, he was worse in three clear ways: botching an easy ball over the top (a chance that neither Goetze nor Schurrle had the opportunity to miss), committing a foolish foul that created the final run, and finally having the ugliest hair of the whole tournament.

It was a superb tournament, tied for the most goals ever, featuring phenomenal individual and team performances. It was every bit the thrill ride we've come to hope for from the World Cup and we can't wait to do it all over again, starting with qualification next winter.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

3 On/3 Off: The Semis

A pair of semi-finals as different as night and day, tea-party and hippy, or Lebron and anonymity. What did we learn?

ON: Ball movement--The Germans again showed their utter mastery of how to handle and move the ball. You might have noticed, it worked well.
OFF: Ball Watching--Singapore's Business Insider doesn't seem like a great futbol website, but their chronicle of just how Brazil collapsed is wonderfully detailed and telestrated. The primary culprit: ball watching, the dumbfounded, gobsmacked, ever uncertain Brazilian defense.

ON: Sergio Romero--It's a wonderful thing to see goalkeepers rise to the occasion when thrown against the ever exasperating penalty shoot out, and for all the clamor around Lionel Messi and his fellow shooters--Sergio Romero was perhaps the foremost savior of the club
OFF: Jasper Cillessen-- It's a terrible thing to see a goalkeeper take the blame when thrown against the ever exasperating penalty shootout. Worse still, for Jasper Cillessen, Holland had just won a Penalty Shoot out...but they did it without him between the posts. He did his job for 120 minutes, but got worked by the ruination of those gosh darn penalty kicks.

ON: Attacking-- Clearly Germany took the route to delight the fans, pounding and hammering a goal box until the flood of goals crushed their rivals and floated hopes of continued beautiful football.
OFF: Defensive Control--While Messi might be the star attraction on Sunday for nearly every dreamy-eyed kid in the world (outside of the Rhineland). The passive, delaying, defensive, wait-and-see, Lord-Messi-save-us Argentina style of play was infuriating. If he can invent, inspire and move it forward we would love to watch the final; if he and the team wait and see if they can make it through another penalty shootout it will be a sad end to a tremendous tournament.

What will we know after the finals? We'll see you on Sunday to find out.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Happy Trails: 8-5

The field has been cut again so let's bid adieu to four more teams the only way we know how: dumb jokes and self-important blather!

8. Tot Zien, Belgium
Why They Lost: The Belgiums quite simply ran out of extra skin on their teeth. Squeaking past Algeria, Russia and South Korea, led to squeaking past the US, until running out of room against Argentina.
What We'll Miss: The brief glimpses of just how good Belgium can be courtesy of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany.

7. Au Revoir, France
Why They Lost: Les Blus ran out of offense after their 6 goal slugfest against Switzerland, squeaking a goal against Ecuador and then needing a last second savior of Paul Pogba and a Nigerian own goal to get themselves into the quarters.
What We'll Miss: Those kits are absolutely gorgeous.

6. Tu Veo Luego, Colombia
Why They Lost: Los Cafeteros are good, and they were an unstoppable force when their fans overwhelmed all the also rans they battled against. But in Brazil, against Brazil and a screaming horde of Brazilian fans? It was just a little too much for them all.
What We'll Miss: Midfield miracles courtesy of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado...maybe if Falcao was there...

5. Ciudate, Costa Rica
Why They Lost: Utter exhaustion. Navigating the hellscape of Uruguay, Italy, England, horrific calls against Greece and then Holland, they were simply out of gas--and the clairvoyant Louis van Gaal's keeper adjustment should not be missed either.
What We'll Miss: Cheering someone, anyone, not from Europe or South America; and day dreaming of a future when Costa Rica rules the futbol world.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Quarter Finals

It's a sad but true statement: The World Cup is nearing the end of it's month long reign over the world. In one week the last four matches will have been played, and the champion will be crowned in the middle of the Maracana. Just who it will be and why they will win it has yet to be determined, but we can definitely appreciate the glory of the last four matches in the quarter finals, with another set of 3 On / 3Off

ON: Lionel Messi--The midfield maestro has slowed his goal scoring role, much to the delight of his fellow Argentine strikers. But let's not miss the message...every play runs through Messi, he controls the ball, he controls the distribution, he controls the build up, he IS the most important player who will walk out for the final four. And he is easily the best player left.
OFF: Neymar--Fractured vertabrae...I just...I mean, what the heck do you do with that? (I mean other than hit those who call soccer players "soft" upside the head?). It wasn't a rough play or a violent one, and it's no one's fault but clearly this is a blow to Neymar now, and may be a blow to him for months (and perhaps years to come)

ON: Louis Van Gaal--I'm very much of the mindset that "Coaching Geniuses" are anything but (witness my tireless mockery of Fabio Capello), but I've got to admit, van Gaal might just make me a believer. The last second swap of keepers JUST for penalty kicks takes a certain amount of brash self-belief, and willingness to be totally pilloried if it goes wrong...when it goes right that's cool, but just making the call is nice to see.
OFF: Marc Wilmots--Wilmots is undoubtedly a good manager, he's seen a little lowland nation rise up into a top 8 team, and a serious threat for continental supremacy. But he's awfully slow to make adjustments. 90 minutes of lackluster American play was redeemed by an unimaginative Red Devils squad. Argentina's regularly squandering of chances was excused by a Belgian inability to navigate an occasionally porous back line. A team that scraped through their group and into the quarter finals was good...but not nearly as good as we wanted them to be.

ON: Fine German Engineering--How do you solve the group of death? Precision passing and tireless work (even against a faster, more motivated, near miss Ghana) How do you beat the unflappable Algerians who wore down Korean and Russian squads that try to emulate you? Be even less flappable and wear them down. How do you unnerve the edgy attack of France? JUST BE GERMAN. It works.
OFF: Miroslav Klose--Lets take nothing away from Klose, the sniper of so many German attacks is still a threat anywhere within 30 yards of the goal, but his uninspiring performance against France confirmed that this is certainly the twilight of his career and that the Germans will be more likely to excel through teamwork and collaboration than 30 passes and one thunderous Klose smash.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Happy Trails: 16-9

16: Adios, Uruguay
Why They Lost: Generally speaking when your only real goal scorer is banned from competition for biting guys you're doomed.
What We'll Miss: Hating Uruguay (lousy cheating so and so's...)

15: O dabo, Nigeria
Why They Lost: Their low expectations were critical to helping Nigeria squeak through Group F, but they didn't have much offense if any to help them create, only Ahmed Musa looked willing to make things happen for the Super Eagles
What We'll Miss: Both Vincent Enyema's spectacular keeping and the fact that this team looked ready to distract people from the creeping cruelty of Boko Haram.

14: A Revair, Switzerland
Why They Lost: It was gouda of them to come and play, but I never really bris-lieved they would be a serious camembert...Seriously though, Switzerland was sloppy throughout the group stage, and only seemed to qualify due to Ecuador's rotten luck
What We'll Miss: Cheese god the Cheese jokes.

13: Hasta La Vista, Mexico
Why They Lost: Pick your scape goat--Arjen Robben's floppery? The Ref's believing him? Or maybe Rafa Marquez for being chippy enough to be a dubious victim in anyway.
What We'll Miss: Miguel Herrera, please come be an AYSO coach, so you can bring your unique brand of freak-outs to us all.

12: Gim di Lehna, Algeria
Did someone say Islam Slimani?
Why They Lost: As infuriating as their defense was, Les Fennecs had a devil of a time breaking down defenses (other than Islam Slimani) someone, any kind of distributor would be valuable there.
What We'll Miss: The Fennec itself is pretty darn adorable when you get down to it, and add to that the fact that Algeria will be donating its FIFA prize money to the displaced people of Palestine and you have a pretty lovable crew

11: Totes Later, USA
Why They Lost: There's lots of things to pick out--lack of athleticism, Michael Bradley's maddeningly inconsistent play, overly defensive strategy, Jozy Altidore's injury...but I'm going to pin the blame on our inability to retain possession. You can win if you sit back and wait out  an early lead, but you can also win if you never give up the ball.
It's more fun to think about Tim Howard
than any of these other teams...
What We'll Miss: The chance to yell "TIMMY!" at inappropriate intervals.

10: Xaire, Greece
Why They Lost: Kaylor Navas shut them down in the penalty shoot out...after a tonnage of cards from the Australian referee gave them a better chance to win than they really deserved.
What We'll Miss: The butchery of Greek names and comments about how old their defense is.

9: Chao, Chile
Why They Lost: Since I've grown totally irrationally fond of him, I'll say it's because they pulled Gary Medel and didn't let him have a shot against Julio Caesar in the penalty shoot out
What We'll Miss: Being on El Rojo's bandwagon before it was cool to be on their bandwagon.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Round of 16

We've trimmed the field again, and gutting as it is to see the US go out again, there's some absolutely thrilling futbol to appreciate.

ON: Extra Time--5 Matches went to extra time and three ended there, all in thrilling fashion with glittering goals and tremendous excitement. When announcers say that these matches are "dripping with drama" they aren't just making things up.
OFF: Penalty Kicks--2 Matches did go to PKs (with Brazil and Costa Rica finally surviving), but neither one was terribly satisfying. It's a little like letting a home run derby decide a game that's gone 16 innings, or having a free throw shooting contest in lieu of a third overtime. We don't know how to end it but, we know there has to be something better than this.

ON: James Martinez--For whatever reason, I haven't been able to see every little bit of Colombia's play, but it's plainly obvious that he's in another class when it comes to the game of football. Brazil may well knock out the youthful Colombia from the world cup, but it's hard to imagine any player of any nation getting the better of Martinez.
OFF: Any Goalie With Minimal Job Security--Say you play goalkeeper for a strong team in the big leagues of the world. You probably feel pretty good about yourself, nice paycheck, minimal hours, must be nice. Sure you may let in the odd howler, but come's not like there are a bunch of better options out there right? Maybe not...but maybe the tonnage of superlative performances in the last 16 should have you edgy: Kaylor Navas, Guillermo Ochoa, Vincent Enyema, (Montanan Hooligan BFF) Tim Howard...there's a plethora of strong keepers who showed up big time when their defenses are MIA, and maybe your management will keep you on and trust their money in defense...or maybe you should hit the practice fields.

ON: US Soccer Culture--20 years ago, I had to bug my dad endlessly until he turned to the US matches. Now I have to calm him down, and we're equally in agony as the games go on. 20 years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find another fan within 10 blocks. Now, we swarm all around the big screens in parks and bars and city squares. 20 years ago a draw was greeted with confusion, now it's greeted with fury at our specific failures. We've come so far, and are so excited, and while we may well move on from it for another four years--we'll all be back, riding a bandwagon maybe, but excited? Indubitably
OFF: Soccer Haters--I don't even know what to say to people like this anymore. There are still, somehow, stupefyingly, people (assuming blog trolls and radio announcers count as people) who poopoo and snidely snark on every aspect of the game. Someone wrote on a blog I whipped up for another website that he was upset yet another place had succumbed to the game. What do you say? "Sorry, we all like something you don't"?; "Sorry, you can't appreciate something that brings such joy to so many"?; "Have fun hanging out with your most prominent celebrity ally...Anne Coulter"?  "Shut the f*** up"? Hey...I like that one.