Saturday, July 01, 2006

Today's World Cup Quarters

The two matches today: Germany v. Argentina, and Italy v. Ukraine; Germany and Italy move on to the semis. Two powerhouse teams that, historically speaking, you wouldn't be surprised to see in the final weeks of any World Cup. But my impressions from each match are surprising to me: that is, Germany is vulnerable, and watch out for Italy. Not at all what I was expecting to see from the day's play.

I admit I missed the first half of the Germany match to take my daughter to have her cast removed (she had broken her arm). I saw the second half, however, which was the half worth watching, apparently. Argentina scored first (the score was nil-nil at half time) -- but then proceeded, unexpectedly, to lose the plot. By contrast, it's always interesting to watch Germany react to such dire circumstances -- i.e., when they're down, on the home pitch -- because the Germans are an inherently cautious team, much preferring to take risks early on to score once, and then to sit on that score (often quite literally) in front of their net. For this reason, it was exciting to see the German players show some zeal (or anxiety), and to see whether they would in fact rebound effectively after Argentina's first goal.

I personally don't think Germany won the match, which went to penalty kicks in the end. Rather, Argentina lost the match -- they got disorganized, verklempt, not only allowing a German equalizer, but also failing to mount any subsequent offense (which sent the match into penalties). Was (Lionel) Messi's absence truly felt there? Possibly. It's hard to say what happened there, other than that they dithered between playing predominantly offensively or defensively, and ended up playing neither effectively.

But Italy shoud take heart from the Germans' lack of command in this match, when the Azzurri confront them early next week. Indeed Italy looked possessed in their match against the Ukraine.

The Italian side is suffering from a series of handicaps, including the injury sustained by their galvanizing full-back, Nesta, and the Azzurri legitimately verklempt by the recent suicide attempt by former teammate Gianluca Pessotto. I hadn't considered them a favorite until now -- but now see them as potentially indomitable, especially if Nesta returns. Watching the Ukrainian Andrei Schevchenko is like watching a master class in soccer; but the Italians played like a world-class team, offensively, defensively, and their goalie Gianluigi Buffon, truly inspirational.

That said, however, home-pitch advantage lends all sorts of odd powers, and Germany may come back roaring from the team's near defeat. In the meantime, we have yet to see England play Portugal -- to settle the score from Euro 2004 -- and France play Brazil -- a rematch of the World Cup final in 1998. The Portuguese are even more disabled than Italy in this next match, what with the slew of red cards handed out their chief players in their win over Holland. But as the Italians have proven, sometimes adversity proves the best possible motivator; and the England team is famous for blowing a sure thing. As for France and Brazil -- yeesh, I call Brazil, but hold in my mind the fact that no South American team has ever won a major tournament on European soil.

I had thought the Germany/Argentina match would be one for the ages (it wasn't), so feel apprehensive about saying the France/Brazil match might be. At this point, the greatest suspense lies in seeing what each clash of the Titans -- for no Cinderella teams remain, only the usual suspects -- might turn out to be . . . (how's that for a mixed metaphor?!). Enjoy.

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