Thursday, June 29, 2006

Magnificent France turn the clock back as Spain choke yet again

Just when I was about to lose faith in the world cup and start wondering whether the greatest show on earth is really so, my faith is restored by a side which had forgotten to win, forgotten to score and as termed by mosy represented an "old age" home. Spain vs France was all what we want in a world cup match and was without doubt the best match of round 2. After four successive matches ending with 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and a forgettable 0-0, Monday provided the much needed boost.
It started off with Ronaldo's record breaking 15th goal which was a typical Brazil-special and continued with countless Ghana attacks, a busy day for Dida, smart moves from Brazil, controversial goals, no off-side call when there should have been and hold on.... Just ONE red card.
If Brazil and Ghana set the tempo for the day, Spain and France raised it to the highest levels. This was undoubtedly billed as the match of round 2 along with the Portugal-Holland match but unlike the latter this was a proper hard-fought football match (and not a boxing match or a card game). As the game kicked off, it was youth Vs experiece at its best. The young Spanish legs were fast, held possession for most of the time, attacked non-stop but never looked like finding the back of the net. The French used all the experience, played to their strength and tactically out-smarted their opponents. The Ribery-equalizer was ample proof of that. At 1-1 it was absolutely even-stevens in teh 2nd half but only one side looked likely to score. With all their talent and pace, the inexperinced Spanish could not match up to their experienced rivals. The battle-hardened French could find just that extra bit in a big match like this. As for the Spanish, their inability to lift their game in a big match once again showed and the under-achiever tag remains for another 2 years till Euro2008.
Now, with the French resurgence, we have a QF line-up which has loads of history attached. Brazil Vs France - Could you ask for anything better? Two legends, being great pals at Real Madrid, facing off against each other for one last time. One trying to leave on a high and the other trying to bury that ghost of the 1998 final forever. The stage is again set, actors are the same, just that 8 years have passed by.
And, if there is any team in the world Brazil in jinxed with, its none other than France. In the last 20 years France has managed to knock Brazil out of the world cup twice (1986 - refer to my previous artciel and 1998). I dont think any team has managed to do that ever.
As for the other QF, right now Germany Vs Argentina is the match to watch - undoubtedly two most impresive teams of the competition. Fond memories of that great 1986 final come back again and again.
And lastly, England Vs Portugal brings Skolari and Eriksson against each other for the third time in a row in a Quarter Final - Skolari leading 2-0.
Last time (and only) time England met Portugal in a World Cup KO phase, was when they won the tournament way back in 1966 - with a brace from Bobby Charlton against the brilliance of Eusebio.

So hold your breath. History will have no significance as far as the outcome of these matches is concerned but it will surely make it more special especially with old scores to settle.

Friday, June 23, 2006

At last its Samba Time!!! - The REAL thing starts

As the group phase is about to conclude (with the last 2 groups being decided today) here are some pieces of trivea and comments from the group phase:
  • Remember the famous 1998 final - What was so significant about it? Well, it was the last time Brazil lost a world cup match and the last time France won a world cup match (Hope this trivea holds good only till the time France meet Togo tonight)
  • Coach Luis Fellipe Scolari has now won 10 consecutive world cup final matches - 7 for Brazil in 2002 and 3 for Portugal in 2006. Hope he extends his run but by just one more match. Portugal beat Holland in a nail-biter and then lose to England in another would be just what I want.
  • Ronaldo finally moved and got boot (and head) to ball as he scored twice and created history. He is now at par with Gerd Muller with the most no. of goals in world cup finals (14). Will the magic 15th come against Ghana?
  • Brazil finally displayed the 'beautiful game' that they are known for and what the fans expect. Was it the result of being 0-1 down? I guess so. As a soccer fan thus, I pray that Ghana take a 1-0 lead withing the first 10 minutes. I am sure we will then get the best 80 mins of the world cup. Who can forget Brazil's display when they were 0-1 down the last time after Michael Owen scored in the 2002 QF? Like last night, that day too the equalizer came in 1st half injury time - an amazing Ronaldinho-Rivaldo combo.
  • Australia held Croatia in a tough, hard-fought match full of drama and is bound to give the Azzuri a hard time in their 2nd round clash. Dont be surprised if its a 1-1 and then penalties. And we all know how good the Azurris are when it comes to penalties.
  • Italy put the final nail into the Czech coffin making it a sad exit for Nedved and co. A journey which showed so much promise after the convincing 3-0 win against the US came to a abrupt end. Al least one upset is due in any world cup final - this time it fell on the Czechs. It was all too emotional to watch Buffon hugging Nedved at the end of the match. This is what makes the beautiful game even more beautiful.
  • As of now, Portugal V Holland looks to be the match of Round II in a re-match of their semi-final clash in Euro 2004. Portugal won convincingly then but its going to be far from easy this time around. France V Spain is another possibility unless the French cross all limits and fail to beat Togo. Fireworks can be expected in Germany's and Argentina's matches too against Sweden and Mexico.
  • All in all if things go right, we are in for some mouth watering Quarter Finals, the most awaited ones being Germany V Argentina and Brazil V Spain.

Lets hope and pray that the big guns dont disappoint. The REAL world cup starts now.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

24 passes - 1 GOAL!!!..... and Ghana's 'Czech'mate

Well the title sums up the second phase of group matches in Germany 2006. Ghana's upset and US's subsequent holiding of Italy may have thrown group E wide open but phase II of the group matches was all about Argentina V Serbia-Montenegro. As the 'expert' in ESPN clearly put it - "That goal will send shivers down anybody's spine". It was not Cambiaso's goal. That goal belonged to Argentina. That goal summed up soccer and the great team game that it is. And what was most important is that it did not come against minnows (well in the finals of the world cup, no one is one). It came against a defense which conceded next to nothing in the qualifiers and just one against the dutch boys in their opener (a team having Robben and Nistelrooy). Argentina's performance has already made this world cup a special one irrespective of whatever happens from now on. Most fans will be unanimous in their verdict as to who would win if Argentina were to play Brazil in the final tomorrow. Yes, the stakes have shifted a bit.

Here are some of they other key points from the 2nd phase of group matches

  • France finally scored and Henry proved he can score for France too. But scoring only once, dominating the match and missing umpteen chances did not help as they still haven't won in the world cup since the 1998 final. And worse still, Zizou picked a 2nd yellow card and is out of the do-or-die match against Togo. The end is near - for France and it could well be the end already for the once great Zizou
  • Spain was awesome but its too early to talk about them. They start every world cup like this and then bite the dust in the quarters. We'll pass any judgement on them only after the quarters.
  • Brazil and England both came through with 2-0 wins but were scrappy. Nothing to worry as of now but they need to lift their game by a notch as the knock-out phase starts. Ronaldo needs a break and Rooney needs a break-through.
  • Holland battled off a fighting Ivory Coast - a very exciting team which deserved better but what could you do if you are pooled in with Argentina and Holland. Ghana might have caused the upset but I would still say that the Ivorians are the best from Africa.
  • Italy again failed to finish off even after having a one-man advantage (dunno whether it was the referree or the one extra player in the team).
  • Ukraine redeemed itself and with France hopelessly out of sorts could face an easy opponent in the 2nd round and sneak in to the quarters.

Today is the day when we get to know the first of the 2nd round face-offs and there is (yes there is) a huge possibilty that we'll get England V Germany as early in Round II. I just pray its not (By the time this article is published the result will be well and truly known).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

And the show begins....

First and foremost what a start!!!! Bang! Bang! Bang! 17 minutes and its three goals in. If you were late in coming home with your packet of Lays and Coke, you would have been too late. Old-timers in the world cup who are so used a 1-0 scoreline in the opening match were in for a German treat as one spectacular goal was followed by another. Breathtaking long-rangers
from Lahm and Frings and brilliant positioning/poaching from Klose gave us a feast, not to forget the hollow defence which allowed Costa Rica to get a couple back. A young attacking German side, a 4-2 scoreline - just the start required. So did a shift in tradition do the trick for FIFA? Traditionally, the defending champions kicked off the tournament but from this year onwards the hosts did so. The opening match proved to be a curse for most champions. Ask Argentina (1990) and France (2002) who bit the dust in the hands of Cameroon and Senegal respectively. Some of the champions scraped through with 1-0 and 2-1 scorelines while others managed a few 1-1s. The Germans had no excess baggage like the "favorites" tag and went for the kill right from the beginning.
Now as we round up the first leg of group matches and having seen all the big guns in action, here are my views:

  • No major upsets which shows that the big guns did not suffer from the any 'first match blues' (I dont care much about the Swedish)
  • England and Portugal were disappointing in their 1-0 wins. It was most ridiculous to hear Sven Goran Erikkson blaming the heat for the disappointing show. Mr Erikkson, this is not Mexico City. Wonder what would the English do if the world cup were to be held in Mexico (Most infamous for 12 noon kick-offs). Portugal made a brilliant start but ended up being booed by their own supporters
  • Most big guns are firing right from the word go and taking a 1-0 lead asap. Some like England and Portugal preferred to sit on it. They could afford to as their opposition were not dangerous. The Dutch tried hard but could not get more. The Czechs demolished the opposition after a 4 min lead.
  • Italy was the major surprise. I was prepared for the same defensive game being satisfied with a 1-0. But it turned out to be cracker. Non-stop back and forth and a very worthy 2-0 scoreline.
  • The Argentina - Ivory Coast match was the most fought. One more Drogba and Ivorians could have well snatched a point. The Argentines did not give an inch, did the simple things right and were home. Most importantly Crespo and Saviola were at the right place at the right time.
  • The 'socceroos' from down under showed their true Aussie spirit and gave the indication that it wont be long that they reach the top in this game too. Watch out Croatia!! (Too early to say watch out Brazil!!!). Has it got to do with the man with the 'midas' touch? Yes, I am talking about coach Guus Hiddink.
  • Brazil were good but the chinks in the defense was obvious. Had the Croat strikers shot the ball a yard or two on either side of Dida, the strory could have well been different. Instead each time they shot straight to Dida's hands.
  • The long-rangers that are being fired time and again - Frings, Lahm, Rosicky, Kaka it would be good idea to send some strikers back home. At least it applies to two of the best - Ronaldo and Henry. Only in the 2nd half did I realize that Ronaldo was playing in the game.
  • The best from Africa: Ivory Coast
  • The best goal: Frings (Germany V Costa Rica)
  • Most entaining of the big-guns: Germany
  • And lastly, the most disappointing big gun award undoubtedly goes to the French. Henry once again realized France was no Arsenal. One of the shots he took at the goal almost looked like a back-pass to his own goalie. Such was the lack of power is the foot of the French. Now France has gone 4 world cup matches without scoring a single goal, ever since Emmanuel Petit scored that 3rd goal in the 1998 final. Looking at the forward line, this goal-less streak is likely to continue.

So after the first set of matches, what I am looking forward to most is Group E, the key to which belongs the Italy-Czech republic showdown on the 22nd. Firstly, because of the great show by both these teams and secondly and most importantly, whoever loses this match or are runners-up in Group E faces Brazil in round 2. I cant wait for that mouth watering encounter.
Something just tells me its going to be Italy. And the memories of '82 come back.

P.S. This article was posted before Spain has kicked off their World Cup campaign.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Just three more days to go.....

Its already Tuesday now and like most people I am waiting for the moment the 'greatest show on earth' kicks off. So, I look at this as a last chance for me to feel a bit nostalgic and recall some truly memorable moments from the tournament's great history.

This was a cup most fondly remembered for the exploits of one single man named Diego Maradona but most soccer lovers will never forget the day when the game's two other greats Zico and Platini went head-to-head, when the European champions and the Latin American giants met on a hot afternoon at Guadalajara. The Brazil-France quarter-final had it all. Both sides attacked and fought tooth and nail. Both goal-keepers were kept busy, the cross-bar was hit on more than one occassion and at the breather it was 1-1 but Brazil clearly looking more dangerous. The defining moment of the match came in the 2nd half when French goal-keeper Joel Bats brought down Brazillian Branco inside the box and the ref. gave the penalty. I was watching the match as an 8 year old and I still remember the sight of Branco being brought down and Zico immediately rushing to hug him while he was getting up. The war seemed to have been won . But it was a day when things would be different. Yes, one of the great dead-ball experts of the game Zico missed the most crucial penalty and Joel Bats became an instant hero. The game went into penalties and it was now the turn of the other great dead-ball expert and Zico's opposite number Platini to mess up a penalty. Thankfully, it was to be the day of Joel Bats and France. He saves twice and Platini's miss did not prove costly. France had won the day and an epic battle.
Maradona's exploits need no narration. The famous hand-of-god goal followed by the dream 2nd goal against England and then another dream goal against Belgium were all hair-raising stuff. But the most unforgettable and significant 'Maradona' moment came in that great final. A typical West German fightback made the score 2-2 and all of a sudden their resurgent opponents threatened to take the cup away from Argerntina. With Lothar Matheus breathing down his neck like a shadow all Maradona had time to do was a "one touch" pass. He exacltly did that and that one-touch put Buruchaaga through. The sight of the ball passing through Schumacher (in a bright yellow jersey) into the net is an all time great "kodak" moment in World Cup history.

A drab and boring world cup most remembered for the dearth of goals and one penalty shoot-out after other. The most cruel way to exit a tournament for which you wait for four years saw many tragic heroes being born, many of whom will be remembered throughout their lives for that one missed penalty. Ask Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena. In the tense semi-final at Naples, as Aldo Serena hit the ball straight to Argentine goal-keeper Goycochea, it triggered a national mourning. Italy crashed out in front of its home crowd. A day later Chris Waddle and Stuart Pierce would go through the same agony as another soccer crazy nation England fell at the semi-finals and that too to arch-rivals West Germany.
Maradona's unceremonious exit, lots of goals scored, a drab final and Roberto Baggio are what you remember most of US '94. I just wish there was at least a goal scored in the final which promised so much. Brazil V Italy, Romario V Baggio. All came down to penalty kicks.
Undoubtedly, the most significant moment and the moment which I cherish the most was Baggio's equalizer against Nigeria. Two minutes more and Baggio would have been dubbed as the biggest flop of the world cup and the most over-rated player in the game. Down 0-1, with 10 men, facing elimination, it was 2 minutes and Roberto Baggio. He beat time and the Nigerian defence and Italy scarped through.
Argentina V England at St Etienne. Owen's wonderful solo goal, Beckham red-carded and once again those dreaded penalties proving a curse for England - Gareth Batty being the tragic hero this time.
Dennis Bergkamp's winning goal against Argentina was a classic and with two wonderfully headed goals in the final Zinedine Zidane took the first step towards greatness.
(Let me not get into the Ronaldo mystery on the day of the final)
Another dull and boring world cup, mostly remembered for South Korea's dream run into the semis and Ronadinho's free-kick sailing over David Seaman's head into the net.