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World Cup – Semi #1

Netherlands 3 – Uruguay 2

Neither team ever took control of this exciting, back and forth game. Netherlands were better in the first half, although not by much. Dutch left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst scored an unlikely 30 yard beauty on 18′, after picking up the ball near the touchline and moving in a few strides.  It was among the finest strikes seen at this tournament, striking the inside of the right post 2 inches below the crossbar. Uruguayan star Diego Forlan also scored a powerful strike against the run of play in the 41st minute, from 20 yards or so in the center. The teams went into the break level.

The second half continued back and forth, with both teams having possession and both teams making minor chances. Controversy came on 70′.  Wesley Sneijder got the ball at the top of the area on the left post, and took a shot.  After a couple of Uruguayan deflections it went toward Robin van Persie, who stepped out of the way and allowed the ball past him and into the corner. The goal was allowed to stand, wrongly in my opinion. Three minutes later Arjen Robben scored a nice header from a Dirk Kuyt to effectively seal the game at 3:1. Uruguayan midfielder Maxi Pereira pulled one back in stoppage time with a seeing eye strike through a packed penalty area from the top right elbow.

Uruguay, the cinderella team of the tournament, will rightfully feel unjustly treated after this match. They had three VERY close offside decisions go against them when they had players in on goal in the first half, and then the same assistant allowed the Sneijder goal. One might say that they deserved it after Luis Suarez stole the previous game from Ghana with the handball.

Referee Note #1: The commentators got the offside discussion wrong, again. They focus on the deflections, which are irrelvant. The relevant questions are whether Robin van Persie was in an offside position when the shot occurred and whether he was “active”. The replays are pretty clear that he was in offside position, despite (Dutch) announcer Ruud Gullit’s assertions otherwise. RvP certainly thought he was; there is no other reason he would not have put a touch on a ball in that position. The second question is whether RvP was “active”. He had to get out of the way of the shot, was screening a defender away from the ball, and the goalie appeared to stop in front of him, so I think he was active.

Referee note #2: I fail to see how Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel escapes yellows for his consistently bad fouls.  He got a silly yellow late in stoppage time for kicking the ball away, but should have been booked several times earlier for terrible fouls (18′ no call, should have been red, 43′, 64′, 89′). Dutchman Khalid Boularouz was booked in the 70th for a hard (but fair) challenge far less dangerous than any of MvB’s. The same story has been played in all of the Dutch matches.  I don’t get it.

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World Cup – Quarters, Day 2

Argentina 0 – Germany 4

Argentina went out with a whimper. German young star Thomas Mueller scored 3′ in on a free header at the top of the goal area from a Schweinsteiger free kick. At that point, the Germans relied on their stout defense, which was not particularly physical or dirty, just did not get bent out of shape by the slick Argentine passing. Argentina had a lot of the ball, but couldn’t make much, and in the second half the German counter attack netted three more goals.

Paraguay 0 – Spain 1

The game started quickly, with Spanish goalie Iker Casillas forced to save a Jonathan Santana shot in the first minute.  But it quickly became tedious. Spain had most of the ball, but couldn’t get through midfield. Paraguay made a few advances, and actually looked more dangerous, but could make no serious attacks.  The most exciting moment of the first half was a Paraguay goal by Nelson Valdez (correctly, though controversially) waved off for offside. The second half was far more interesting and entertaining. Paraguay earned a penalty kick when Gerard Pique took Oscar Cardozo down on a Paraguay corner kick, but Casillas made a fine save. Not even a minute later Paraguayan defender Antonin Alcaraz took down David Villa on a counter, and Spain had a PK! Xavi Alonso scored the kick easily, but referee Carlos Batres ruled encroachment, and the re-take was blocked. Spain called for another penalty in the ensuing scramble, but Batres got it right. David Villa scored the winner late on a Spanish counter attack,, collecting the ball after a Pedro shot hit the post, stepping to his right, and slotting the ball off BOTH posts and then in.

The PK fiasco was the only issue I had with referee Batres, but it was huge.  Both PK calls were deserved, but the encroachment calls were screwy. If the second PK needed to be retaken due to encroachment, the first should have been as well, because the encroachment was worse!

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World Cup – Quarters, Day 1

WOW!  Two wonderful games in one day ..

Netherlands 2 – Brazil 1

This was a tremendous game. Brazil was the better team in the first half.  Robinho scored a nice goal on 10′ on a long ball down the middle which he controlled and put in the goal.  Brazil controlled the rest of the half, and had a couple of good attempts that they would deeply regret not scoring. The second one was a gorgeous strike curling into the upper corner nicely saved by Dutch golie Stekelenberg,

The Dutch came out and dominated the second half.  Dutch winger Arjen Robben wreaked havoc down the right wing; the equalizer came at 53′ on a Wesley Sneijder free kick drawn by Robben. 15 minutes later Sneijder, the smallest man on the pitch, got the winner on a free header from a corner kick.  The Brazilian hopes ended in the 73rd minute when Felipe Melo got sent off.

Brazil is the more talented team, but they could never really get things going this tournament.

Uruguay* 1(4) – Ghana 1(2)

This was the most dramatic (and heart-breaking) game of the tournament. Ghana was the better team for much of the game, although Uruguay generated quite a bit of positive play and good chances. Ghana earned a goal at the stroke of halftime through Sulley Muntari, who struck from above the penalty circle while the goalie was screened and put it in the corner. Uruguay leveled early in the second half on a gorgeous 25 yard free kick from Diego Forlan, who had no trouble bringing the troublesome Jabulani ball down over the wall and under the crossbar. That was the scoring for the game, which was surprising given how open and aggressive both teams were playing. Even during extra time, which is often horrible as both sides play not to lose, this game was open and entertaining.

It was also dramatic.  In the 120th minute, Ghana mounted a furious attack at the Uruguayan goal, and would have scored but for a Luis Suarez handball on the line.  The referee saw it, and properly awarded the penalty and the red card. Ghanian star and leader Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the kick, and bounced it off the crossbar!  Literally a minute later the game was into “kicks from the penalty spot”, and Gyan was the first kicker. This time he nailed it, but two of his teammates failed, and Uruguay won the game on PKs.

So, a depleted Uruguay play Netherlands in the Tuesday semi-final. I fail to see how, with leading scorer Luis Suarez and defensive standout Jorge Fucile suspended, that they can even make a game of it. But I hope they do, if for no other reason than to make the game interesting.

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World Cup – Eliminations, Day 4

This is the last day of the first elimination round.

Paraguay 0(5)* – Japan 0(3) – Paraguay advance on PKs

This was a difficult game to watch .. both teams were cautious and played not to lose. Paraguay was better, but not by all that much. Neither team deserved to lose, but neither deserved to win either.

This was the first shootout of this world cup, and it was exciting.  Paraguay shot first, and both teams hit their first 2 PKs.  Then Paraguay scored #3, and the Japanese defender Yuichi Komano bounced his PK off the crossbar.  both sides made #4, then Cardozo calmly watched the Japanese keeper Kawashima dive early as he ran up and put the ball in the empty half to send Paraguay through.

On a tactical note … IMHO the Japanese coach made an error in removing midfielders Yuki Abe and Daisuke Matsui. Komano should not have been taking the penalty.

Spain 1 – Portugal 0

Portugal/Brazil was a snoozer, and this game was not much better. Portuguese star (and 2008 FIFA player of the year) Cristiano Ronaldo was nowhere to be found, other than taking a couple of free kicks. Spain was clearly the better team, controlling the midfield and preventing Ronaldo from getting the ball in space. Spanish strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres imposed their will on their on the Portuguese defense.  Spain deservedly broke through on 63′ through David Villa, although offside should have been called. The outcome of the game was just, if not totally correct.

Referee Notes:

Frank deBleeckere, the excellent Belgian referee, did not (IMHO) acquit himself all that well in the Paraguay/Japan game. There were no big decisions to make, but he was inconsistent in fouls and discipline, and gave two highly suspect (and undeserved) cautions for “intentional” handball. I am not into schadenfreude, but I suspect that this performance may clear the path for my favorite (Englishman Howard Webb) to do the final.  After yesterday, Jorge Larrionda and Roberto Rossetti are out of the running, although I hope neither retires.

Argentinian referee Hector Baldassi officiated the Spain/Portugal game, and seemed to manage the roughness and fakery typical of both of these teams.  However, he made two (under-reported) errors.  The Spain goal should have been disallowed as Villa was offside. it was close, but clear.  TV replays show the assistant referee out of position. And the straight red card to Ronaldo Costa was ridiculous .. Baldassi was conned.

Spain's David Villa is clearly offside ...

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What I Think About .. the Argentina World Cup team

They are cheaters.  Plain and simple.  They are also certainly the most talented team in the 2010 World Cup tournament, and the (IMHO) favorites to win as of today, the completion of the Round of 16.  But they cheat.  They dive, they fake, they deceive, and they whine to the referee. Their conduct sullies the game I love.

It starts at the top. Diego Maradona, among the greatest players ever, is an unabashed and unapologetic cheater. He also seems to be an excellent coach, given the results so far. I am most impressed with how he has (in the mold of Jose Mourinho), put the focus on himself and taken the focus off of the players, allowing them to shine. But there is a culture of cheating on the team. Lionel Messi falls dramatically when a defender breathes to hard on him. Gabriel Heinze is a thug, far more so playing for Argentina

I write this post because of the Carlos Tevez offside goal against Mexico (28-Jun-2010, World Cup Round of 16). A blown call is one thing.  But Tevez knew he was offside, but he still celebrated, and encouraged his teammates to do so, in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to con the referee.

The sporting thing for the Argentines to do would have been to put one in their own net, or to allow the Mexicans to score a freebie.  But that wasn’t going to happen, because the Argentines view a successful cheat as a victory.

BTW — soccer fans of the world seem to agree with me.

Note: Princeton Ethicist Peter Singer wrote a column about cheating in sport focusing primarily on German goalie Manuel Neuer.

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World Cup – Eliminations, Day 3

Well, my apologies. This post sat in “draft” mode for a few days because I got busy.  I have adjusted the publication date to be in the actual playing sequence.

Netherlands 2 – Slovakia 1

Netherlands was the better team, and although Slovakia had spirit, the outcome was never really in question. Dutch star Arjen Robben scored a pretty goal early, getting the ball in midfield, making a run up the right wing, cutting inside on the edge of the box and beating the Slovakian goalie. The Oranje pretty much controlled the game from that point forward. Slovakia came to some life early in the second half, but could not mount serious, continued pressure.  The Dutch enigma Wesley Sneijder scored late to seal things.  The best Slovakian in the tournament was Robert Vittek, and he scored a penalty late in stoppage time to

Brazil 3 – Chile 0

Brazil is rolling.  Although Chile was aggressive, Brazil controlled the game.  Brazil broke through on 35′ on a Juan header of a Maicon corner kick. They doubled the lead 3 minutes later from a counter-attack.  Robinho sped down the left wing, drew the defense and slipped the ball to Kaka, who fed Luis Fabiano. Chile wanted offside, but Fabiano wasn’t and the officials got it right. The irritating but talented Robinho got the third on a counter-attack to ice the game early in the second half.  Chile showed some life in the last half hour, but could not break through.

Referee Note:  One of my favorites, Englishman Howard Webb, officiated the Brazil/Chile match and did a nice job.  He controlled the Brazilian drama, and his crew got the one controversial decision (Fabiano goal not offside)  correct.

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What I think about .. Soccer Referees and Technology

For those hidden in a cave .. yesterday (26-June) there were two soccer World Cup elimination matches, and both were marred by clear officiating mistakes. In the England/Germany game, a England shot that would have tied the game was not given because the officials didn’t see it cross the line, and it wasn’t close. In the Argentina/Mexico game the first Argentine goal should have been disallowed because of clear offside.  It also wasn’t close.

I don’t want sensors in the ball or computers making decisions.

Anyone who thinks technology are infallible is wrong. If a computer is making the decision, then the judgment is taken from the on-premise officials to the programmers who write the software! The physics (and the associated mathematics) of identifying the exact location of a compressible spherical object rotating on all three axes, particularly when the sensors on the ball produce only a polygon approximation of a sphere. Frankly, programmers make mistakes, and are hardly immune to corrupting influences.

I think soccer should use a system similar to the NHL review system, which, while not perfect, is working well. An additional assistant referee should be in the press box (or elsewhere on premises), with access to the video and the ability to rewind and see slow motion. That official has better information, and can give that information to the referee. FIFA can specify what can be reviewed (perhaps goals, offside and violence) or can simply have the officials communicate and get it right as they can. Nine times out of 10, the field official will know to ask for help immediately. And soccer already has the culture of a referee getting advised by assistants.

One more thing .. FIFA agrees with me about not wanting computers making decisions. And they are opposed to the “replay official” concept because of the scarcity of excellent officials. What they don’t realize is that by making the officials job easier, and removing the risk of catastrophic (for the referee) error, they will greatly expand the pool of officials able to take on big matches.

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World Cup – Eliminations, Day 2

This was a day full of controversy!

Germany 4 – England 1

This was a spectacular game, marred by a true controversy!

Germany’s first goal was pretty, but simply horrible defending. A German goal kick straight down the middle was allowed to bounce, and German striker Miroslav Klose beat both English central defenders and goalie David James to the second bounce and tapped it past James. The second was also nice .. Germany got the ball on the right elbow and crossed it to a completely Lukas Podolski, who was totally unmarked.  Podolski calmly nutmegged James.  England pulled one back .. defender Matthew Upson headed in a very nice Steven Gerrard free kick.

Then the craziness.  Less than 2 minutes after the goal, England is attacking, and a wonderfully English bull rush down the middle.  Frank Lampard lets loose a cannonball from the top of the area dead center.  It hits the top of the crossbar bounces down and hits the turf 2 feet behind the line.  But the spin brings the ball back up to the crossbar, and then down onto the line, where German keeper Manuel Neuer grabs it.  Somehow, neither the referee (Uruguayan Jorge Larrionda) nor his assistant saw the bounce on the turf, and no goal was awarded.

Germany got two (very pretty) goals in the second half from Thomas Muller on counter attacks, when the English defenders were committed on offense and did not have the speed to get back.

Clearly, the best team prevailed.  But England has to wonder what might have been, because the disallowed goal really did change the tenor of the game. The second half would have been dramatically different had the teams been level at halftime, and the last two German goals were counters that took advantage of England pressing 9 or 10 men forward because they were behind. England saw a lot of the ball, and was aggressive the whole game, but did not generate the same kind of chances as Germany. In fact, the German speed advantage was decisive. Had the score been 2-2 at halftime England would have pressed for a winner and the outcome would have been the same.

Argentina 2 – Mexico 1

This game was also defined by controversy; Argentina’s first goal on 26′ should have been disallowed and wasn’t. Argentine beat the Mexican offside trap beautifully .. Lionel Messi sprung Carlos Tevez on goal. Mexican goalie Oscar Perez read the play well and snuffed out the attack at the penalty spot, but the ball fell to Messi at the edge of the box.  Now comes the trouble.  Messi tapped the ball directly forward to Tevez, who was clearly in offside position, 2 yards behind EVERY Mexican defender including the goalie. It was not close. But the flag stayed down, Tevez scored the easiest goal of his career, and all hell breaks loose.

The reality is that the referee error did not cost Mexico the game. Their meltdown after the error is what cost them the game. They lost focus.  Plain and simple.  Had they kept on their game and lost 1-0 or 2-1, perhaps a case could be made for the referee error being decisive.  But not in this game.

The second Argentina goal was a gift .. on 33′, just a couple of minutes after the offside debacle, Mexican defender Ricardo Osorio passed the ball square at the top of the box to Argentine Gonzalo Higuain, who dribbled it around Perez and into the goal.

Argentina’s third shortly after halftime was a thing of beauty.  After some typical Argentine nifty passing, Tevez got the ball a few yards above the box on the left.  He made a couple of feints, popped the ball right, and from a yard above the penalty circle sent a strike curling into the top right corner of the goal.  Perez was helpless.  The game was over at that pint, although Javier Hernandez pulled one back for Mexico in the 71st minute.

Argentina and Germany play on Saturday (3-July) for a spot in the semi-finals.  This should be a fascinating game, as Argentina’s aggressiveness and willingness to lose defensive shape to press that attack leave them open to the lethal German counter-attack.

Continued…

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World Cup – Eliminations, Day 1

The Round of 16 starts today …

Uruguay 2 – South Korea 1

This was a really fun game to watch!  Uruguay played a very disciplined defense, although South Korea managed to make some chances.  The Koreans got behind on 8′ when their goalie failed to deal with a very reachable cross and it ended up on the foot of Luis Suarez, who put in the easy chance. They kept fighting, and got the equalizer an hour later when a Korean free kick from was not well cleared, allowing Lee Chong Yung a free header which he scored. Luis Suarez scored IMHO the goal of the tournament so far when he picked up the remains of a Uruguay corner on the left corner of the box, made a couple of moves, ended up just inside the box, and curled a beautiful strike into the far corner of the goal.  Korea kept pressing, but that is how it ended.

USA 1 – Ghana 2 (OT)

Man oh man, did this loss hurt. Clearly, the USA had not come back from the high after the Algerian stoppage time win.  They started flat, and gave up a silly goal early. On 10′, Ricardo Clark gave up the ball at half, Kevin Prince-Boateng picked it up and advanced unmolested the 18, where he popped a left footed strike past USA keeper Tim Howard on the near post. .  Silly turnover, silly defense, silly goalkeeping.  The USA struggled getting the ball past midfield for the next 20 minutes, before Bob Bradley figured out that Ricardo Clark shouldn’t have been started and replaced him with Maurice Edu. Then things perked up, although no scoring.

At halftime, Robbie Findley was replaced with Benny Feilhaber, and then things really got going.  The USA was the better team through the second half .. the outstanding Ghana keeper Richard Kingson was in my opinion man of the match.  The USA got the equalizer on a nicely taken Landon Donovan PK earned when Clint Dempsey got clear in the penalty area and Jonathan Mensah took him out. So the regular time ended with the score tied at 1.

Extra time opened the way the game did. A Ghana long ball was nicely picked up by 20 year old Asamoah Gyan, who blew straight between the US central defenders and beat Howard cleanly. The next 27 minutes was spent in the Ghana half, but with no result.  So again, Ghana eliminates the USA.

This game was a microcosm of the USA World Cup. The USA was a better team than Ghana, but the result went against them. Coach Bob Bradley picked a team poorly suited to the opponent, defensive lapses resulted in soft goals, poor first touches gave away promising opportunities, and Bradley’s options at the end were limited by his having to use substitutions to fix selection problems.

But the biggest problem is that the USA was not up to snuff technically.  Donovan is the only USA player who can consistently finish.  Over and over again, excellent opportunities were squandered because of a poor first touch .. Jozy Altidore had three himself. Possession after possession was given away because of an inability to protect the ball, or a pass that wasn’t good enough. Until that is fixed, the USA has plateaued.

Ghana and Uruguay play on Friday for a spot semi-final spot. My expectation is that Uruguay will hammer Ghana.

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World Cup – Day 15, Group H

This is an interesting group .. before play started Chile was on 6 pts +2 GD, Spain on 3 pts +1GD, Switzerland on 3 pts 0 GD, and Honduras on 0 points -3GD.  The permutations were fascinating.  Collusion for a draw between Chile and Spain was on many minds, as a draw would put them both through while a Spanish loss would put them third (and out) if the other game was lopsided, and a Chilean loss would put them out if the Swiss won by enough to cover the GD.

Switzerland 0 vs. Honduras 0

I favored Honduras going in, as they have more attacking flair and a draw does neither team any good. I was wrong, as both teams played open, attacking soccer.  I enjoyed the game, despite the lack of goals.  Both teams had a number of clear chances, but neither could convert.

Chile 1 vs. Spain 2

The games was very open and fun to watch.  Chile gifted Spain a goal on 24′, when the Chilean goalie Claudio Bravo came 20+ yards out to challenge a long ball to a well-defended Fernando Torres, and sent it to David Villa instead of into the seats.  Villa calmly volleyed the ball 40 yards into the goal. Spain’s second on 37′ was a beauty from Andres Iniesta, setup by Xavi Alonso and Villa. To add insult to injury, earlier on the same play Torres was accidentally tripped dove, play acted and conned the referee, and Marco Estrada was sent off after the goal. I hope FIFA has the stones to suspend Torres for the clear, blatant, cynical dive.  I am a Liverpool fan and a Torres fan, but it was shameful.

However, Chile kept their composure and pulled a goal back right after half-time, which had to calm them as a 2 goal defeat combined with a Swiss win would have sent them home! Half-time sub Rodrigo Villar shot from distance and a lucky deflection off Gerard Pique sent the ball looping over Spanish goalie Iker Casillas and into the net. Spain hunkered down on defense, determined to preserve their advancement, and Chile could make nothing else substantial.

In the end, both teams advanced.  Spain took first and will play Portugal on Tuesday (29-June), and Chile will play Brazil on Monday (28-June).

UPDATE: After viewing the video of the Estrada second yellow incident more carefully,  I have to admit it wasn’t a dive .. clearly Estrada’s knee hits Torres’ right foot, so he was indeed tripped. I would still call it “cheating” because of the cynical play acting. The trip is clearly accidental, so the card should be revoked to allow Estrada to play the next game.

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