Can Technology Really Make The Game Better?

June 30, 2010

The debate about the use of technology in football has been around for a while now. Obviously, the big blunders we saw in the England-Germany and Argentina-Mexico games have brought the issue to the fore once again.

There was an interesting discussion on the topic on the World Have Your Say program aired on BBC radio a couple of days ago. You can check out the podcast on this link. It is the 28th June program titled, “Should all sports at the top level embrace technology?” There were many speakers from different countries talking about various sports. I had the opportunity to present my two cents and, if interested, you can my thoughts just after the half hour mark. I’ll cover whatever I said and build on the details in this article.

I must say I’ve thought about the use of technology quite often. As Arsenal fans, we’ve suffered a lot at the hands of refs, and often that leaves me wondering if technology would have helped us.

The way I see it, there are two extremes; the present situation with virtually no role of technology is on one end and unlimited referrals for all kinds of decisions is at the other. I don’t think either is an acceptable state.

We’ve all seen the problems with the present state so I won’t dwell on that. If we end up using technology for each and every decision it will certainly kill the flow of the game. It’s not hard to imagine a 90 minute game lasting three or four hours if we start referring all doubtful decisions.

Clearly, the ideal solution lies somewhere in between. Goal line technology has been mentioned as an option. I’m not convinced about it because given the cost involved, the benefits aren’t that good. If I’d to make a guess, I’d say less than one percent of games have controversial goal line decisions. There were 380 games in the Premiership last season; can you remember four controversial decisions that would have benefitted from goal line technology?

Then there are other complications with using goal line technology as the only tech help. Against Germany, Lampard’s strike was from open play. But it could easily have been a free-kick. Imagine a situation where a free kick goes in and out and the goal is awarded using technology. At the same time replays show that the free-kick was incorrectly awarded and should have been given the other way. In such a situation we would have technology giving a goal to one team, while the other suffers as we only use it for goal line decisions.

I believe any technology based solution should satisfy three main considerations,

  • Make a tangible improvement to the fairness of the game
  • Must not introduce too many delays
  • Should not be very expensive

The referral system used in Tennis seems to be the best solution. If the Manager of each team has just one unsuccessful challenge available to him per game it would make a world of difference. This should be limited to big decisions like Goals, Penalties, Red Cards, and Second Yellow Cards. I think more than one game changing decision going wrong in a game is extremely rare so we don’t really need to refer all minor decisions or worry about too many referrals.

Implementing the referral system would be tricky. For instance, a manager might feel an opponent was off-side. In such a case, when should he refer? I’d say referrals should be allowed when the game stops for a goal, penalty or a card. If the player was indeed marginally off-side but it didn’t lead to a goal or other major event (happens quite often) then what’s the point in stopping the flow of the game.

Then there is a question of controversial decisions that don’t lead to a pause in the game. For instance, a team might have a legit penalty claim but the ref waves play on. I think at this point the manager must have a right to bring the game to a stop and ask for a referral.

Since there is only one incorrect challenge available to a manger they are not likely to waste it on frivolous claims. We can be relatively confident that the referred decision merits another look. The referral could also be invoked if the manager thinks an opponent deserved a Red Card.

I think Arsenal could really benefit from this. We probably lost 8-10 goals last season because we didn’t get some stone-walled penalties. I also feel this could be useful in incidents like the one against Bolton where the thug put his knee on Fabregas’ face and pulled his hair. At least knowing that a referral system exists will definitely serve as some sort of a deterrent to the thug teams.

The referred decisions should be seen by the fourth ref or another ref on a TV screen and there should be a 30-60 second limit on the time he can take. If the replays are not conclusive then we just move on and the original decision stands.

Since this would be limited to big calls only, chances of managers using the referrals as a time wasting tactic are low. Even if they do use it I think it’s an acceptable downside for a much fairer game. After all there are plenty of time wasting tricks that make us cringe when we see them. If we have a problem with gamesmanship those are the tricks we need to eliminate, not a solution that improves the fairness of the game.

To my mind this seems the simplest solution. The matches that don’t have TV cameras won’t be able to afford any other technology based solution anyway, so we can’t really think about them at this point. All other games that are covered by TV will have fairer games.

Like any other system, this isn’t perfect. I don’t pretend that this is the only or the best solution. Nor am I deluded enough to think that all the problems will go away and no new ones will be created. But considering all factors I think this system deserves a trial. It should be implemented in a couple of lower leagues or junior level competitions and the results should be measured. We can then have a clear idea of the kind of delays that are introduced into the game, the improvements can be measured, any new issues that might arise can be noted, and an objective analysis can be done regarding the way forward.

I also believe technology should be used for some retrospective decisions. For instance, diving must be punished if proven by replays. It doesn’t matter what the ref saw on the pitch or what he felt, if the replays clearly show a playing taking a plunge without contact he should get a 3-5 game ban that increases for repeat offences.

Similar punishments need to be handed for playacting and such other problems. We can’t have players clutching their face and then peeking at the ref before continuing their theatrics. It’s abominable.

Once the players know that the authorities are serious about taking action, diving/gamesmanship is likely to go down on its own. I think most players do it because they see others getting away with it. It’s a negative spiral that’s sucking more and more players in. Once a strict system is introduced we are likely to see a positive spiral and more and more players will be cautious about their acts on the pitch.

Having said all that, I still don’t feel positive about the use of technology. It’s not that I don’t believe it can help, as this article demonstrates I’m sure technology can help football. The reason I’m sceptical is that more than the actions of players and refs, football suffers from the archaic nature of administration. I just can’t see them doing the right thing.

Arsene said, “I just feel we are historical monuments that can’t move forward.” I can hear you say, “my sentiments exactly!”

Pathetic Portugal Punished; Best Teams In Quarterfinals?

June 29, 2010

Seven of the eight group winners have qualified to the quarterfinals. Ghana are the only second placed team that beat group winners USA. In hindsight, the England group was generally quite poor and I’ve a feeling teams like Serbia, Ivory Coast, and some others will be ruing their luck that they didn’t get such a group.

One could say that the best teams have qualified as the group winners are through and Ghana certainly did enough to merit their place. The counter argument would be that the draw made a big difference and teams like Portugal would certainly have qualified if they had played the likes of Slovakia, Japan, South Korea, USA or such others.

I have no sympathy for Portugal. They are a pathetic team clearly built in the Mourinho mould. It was shameful the way they’ve played in this tournament. Surely, a team ranked as high as 3rd has to do more for the sport. Over the course of the tournament I’ve supported the tactics of teams like Switzerland, New Zealand, and the other smaller nations (smaller in footballing terms). But nothing can make me respect Portugal (nothing against the people or fans of Portugal, they deserve better).

When such teams score a fluke or win a couple of big games the winner worshipers laud the manager as a genius. When it doesn’t come off it just turns into an intolerable display that ruins the reputation of the sport and saddens fans worldwide, especially the neutrals.

Anyway, I’m very happy Ronaldo is out. He is the kind of player who encourages such tactics because of his highly individual style of play. Another reason I’m glad Portugal are out is because most of their players use dirty and cheap tricks all the time. From a neutral point of view watching Portugal is like watching a disease spread. Good riddance.

Spain, for their part, didn’t get their tactics right in the first half. Both Villa and Iniesta were playing on the left and it was too easy for Portugal to defend in just one quarter of the pitch. While discussing the loss against Switzerland I had mentioned that Del Bosque should use Llorente in such games because of his presence in the box. Thankfully, the Spanish manager did replace the ineffective Torres in the second half and immediately Spain looked more dangerous.

I’m not sure whether the goal was off-side or not. Hopefully it was; that will only add to the misery of Queiroz and his tedious bunch.

Portugal couldn’t create anything of note in the last half hour or so. What could they have done when the manager had packed the side with defensive minded journeymen, and their talisman is a guy who can’t really succeed when teamwork is required?!

In contrast, David Villa has shown he can play in different positions and has a lot of variety to his game. Our strikers and wing players would do well to develop shooting skills similar to the latest Barcelona recruit.

In the other game Paraguay went through on penalties as both teams failed to score in two hours of football. I didn’t watch that one as it was highly predictable.

In other news, after a long time there is some movement on the Arsenal front. It seems the “secret” signing of Koscielny is on the verge of completion and hopefully we will have a few more incomings. I think irrespective of whether Campbell stays or leaves we need at least another defender capable of playing midfield. I’ll discuss the transfer thoughts in details once we run out of football.

Van Persie Struggles, Argentina – Mexico Best Game So Far, Brazil Imperious

June 28, 2010

I’d great expectations from Van Persie. I thought he could be a big player at this World Cup. So far, except for the dead rubber against Cameroon, he has been rather disappointing. The Dutchman had a very poor outing against Slovakia, although in fairness, one could say that the whole Dutch team looked out of sorts. It was as if they were already thinking about Brazil and took the field only to get a formality out of the way.

They got an early goal via a Robben special and fell asleep after that. Van Persie had a few half chances but he didn’t make the most of any. Most of the Oranje possession was in defensive areas as can be seen from their passing stats. Even the Keeper Stekelenburg completed more passes than Sneijder, Kuyt, Robben or Van Persie!

Slovakia just didn’t have enough to cause an upset. Their striker Vittek had a couple of good moments but couldn’t beat the keeper until the last minute penalty. More than anything, the Italians must be wondering how they managed to lose to this Slovakian side.

The Dutch haven’t been on top form and will really struggle against Brazil if they continue in this manner. The Selecao were dismissive of the Chilean challenge. While not quite their entertaining best, Dunga’s team have managed to score a number of goals while playing some pragmatic football. They look like one of the most balanced teams in the competition and are clear favourites to reach the Final from their half of the draw. If they get past Holland they will face either Uruguay or Ghana in the Semis.

There is something about Brazil. Even when they are not playing well or aren’t dominating possession it always looks like they own the pitch. Even their defending has some class to it and the transition from defence to attack has been breathtaking at times.

I’m really hoping the Dutch get their act together; their quarter-final could turn into one of the most memorable games of all time. At times like these though, I try to keep my expectations in check. With the likes of Robben and Robinho on the pitch, it could also turn into a boring encounter if both teams are afraid of coming out. We’ve already seen that in the Brazil-Portugal game.

Talking about entertaining matches, I think the best one of the tournament so far was yesterday’s game between Argentina and Mexico. The Mexicans started brightly and were putting up a stiff challenge against their much fancied opponents. The key was their high pressing and quick ball movement.

Unfortunately for the El-Tri, they couldn’t find the finishing touch on one end and the linesman screwed them on the other. I still can’t believe how the Assistant Ref missed that off-side. If it had been a matter of inches it would have been acceptable, that kind of bad luck is part of the game. Once it’s a two yard decision the thoughts move from luck to incompetence to cheating and bribes.

To compound the Assistant’s error, those controlling the large screen showed the replays. It led to a great deal of argument and chaos on the pitch. The Mexicans lost their concentration and Osario made a fatal mistake as he lost the ball to Higuain right in front of his penalty area. It was always going to be tough to come back from a two goal deficit.

Tevez scored the third with a wonder strike and the new United recruit, Chicarito, got a consolation for the Mexicans. It was a wonderful turn and strike by the youngster and I’m looking forward to seeing him in the Premiership.

I was impressed by the way Argentina held back and defended their lead. They will need these skills and the discipline against the bigger teams as they have a tough road to the final.

I’m also enjoying the spirit of the Argentineans. They look like they are really enjoying their game and cherish being on the field, playing some attractive football. Their spirit reminds me of the Arsenal team at the start of the 07-08 Season. Let’s hope they end the tournament better than the way we ended that Season.

Maradona might have his weaknesses but he is certainly getting the best out of a talented bunch of players. Thankfully, he has also managed their egos quite well so far. The same cannot be said for some of his counterparts who’ve failed miserably.

In tomorrow’s games, Paraguay take on Japan and there is a classic in the offing as Spain clash with Portugal.

I think Japan will defend better than Paraguay and can nick it on set-pieces. There won’t be much to see or talk about in that game.

Spain’s battle with Portugal will be exciting from a tactical point of view. We can be quite sure that Carlos Queiroz will send his team out to defend and play on the counter. It’s also a given that Del Bosque will persist with the attractive style that makes Spain such a joy to watch.

Will Spain have enough to break down a resolute Portuguese defence or will Ronaldo score one on the counter? I think the key to unlock Portugal is with Fabregas. He might not start but I’m convinced he will have to play a crucial part late on if Spain are to progress. Can’t wait for that one.

England Need Arsene As “Minister Of Football”

June 27, 2010

Germany have clinically decimated, dismantled and despatched a hapless English side that was hyped up as potential champions by many clueless pundits.

I can’t tell you how happy I am. Words fail me. Over the years England, in my mind, have come to represent everything anti-Arsenal. I know this is not fair to thousands of true gooners from England and trust me I don’t count them when I write this. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The reason I feel this way is that almost the entire English set-up is completely contradictory to the Arsenal way. We all know how the pundits hate us, how the media (except a few balanced writers) is largely anti-Arsenal, how most managers promote a style that doesn’t leave us a leg to stand on, and how some so called Arsenal fans criticize their own team for failing to be English! And I’m not even getting into the refs or the FA and other authorities.

This goes on season after season. Arsenal do things the right way; manage finances, develop young players, play brilliant football, compete at the highest level, and act responsibly in all activities be it transfers, or community development, or any other.

There is only one stick to beat Arsenal with really – No Trophies. In order to use this stick one has to lose all sense of perspective (move to the stadium, financial constraints, artificially inflated transfer fees, insane wages, etc). Not only that, one would also need a supporting cast of specious arguments like – No English spine, Can’t handle the physical game, and so on.

Essentially, all the genuine, practical, and relevant details have to be ignored and vague, hollow, and baseless arguments (that might sound intelligent to some who don’t want to see what’s really going on) need to emphasized. Isn’t that the real problem with English football?

I like to think of myself as a student of the game because I genuinely believe that is the only way to develop one’s understanding. In contrast, I find there are too many experts in the English game. People who pretend to be know-it-alls, who change their tune based on the results and not on the details of what actually happened.

For instance, this is what Alan Hansen said after this game,

On the whole (David) James was England’s best player, for the keeper to be the best player in a performance like that is unusual. It was shambolic.

Seriously, what is he talking about!? James’ technique for the second goal was very poor (Watch some Almunia one-on-one saves to see how it’s done). And what was he doing for the third goal? Look at his arms, it was as if he was trying to protect his body instead of making himself big. He could have done much better for the first goal as well.

If such comments were one-off I wouldn’t say anything. But the truth is that most pundits and football writers in England talk exactly the same way. Worse still, most of the comments are affected by results. If Germany had not been clinical with their two counter attacks and the game had finished at 2-1, these pundits would be talking about how England were robbed by the linesman and how FIFA is impotent and archaic. The problems with the team would have been forgotten and they would have been hailed as heroes for fighting a corrupt system.

It may be that the media is the same everywhere but I don’t understand Italian, German, Spanish or any other language so I can’t comment on that. If you have a perspective on this please do share.

I don’t really care about English football but since it affects Arsenal continually and we are an integral part I end up thinking about it anyway.

The way I see it, England needs Arsene (or someone like him) to control every football related aspect.

It’s not that the English players are bad. Some of them are world class. But the grass roots level of coaching is certainly not very good in England. I haven’t been there but it’s really obvious from the way the mid-table and bottom half clubs play.

Watch the way Germany brought the ball out for their two counter attacks. See how composed each and every player was even though some of them are really young. Can you imagine this from players like Barry, Milner, et al?

I like to think of these players (Lennon, Barry, Milner, James, etc) as the Redknapp level footballers. They are good players. If you put them in a team of fighters they will keep battling and will get some results, might even nick a trophy if luck goes their way. But these players will never produce consistent, top quality football and will never beat the best teams (Check Redknapp’s record against United, Arsenal, Chelsea).

Just see how Barry was exposed when Ozil skipped past him before setting up the third goal. It reminds me of Denilson against Sidibe. How can anyone say Barry is any better than Denilson?

Of course, there is an immediate counter argument that if the Arsenal player isn’t much better than how can I say everything that I’ve said. The answer is that it’s a complex world and the financial constraints on Arsene have really forced his hand. If he makes the choice of spending a quarter of the money on Denilson than he would have to on someone like Barry, we have to except it’s a brilliant piece of business. This is where perspective is so important; we need to see all the variables that affect a decision. The inflated value of Barry clearly illustrates the actions of the hype machine.

Just like the players, all the football writers and commentators need some fundamental training. Many of them are gifted writers as far as language is concerned but few actually understand the nuances of the game. These people are important because they shape public opinion. They also have a big impact on the way players play. If Shawcross is a hero, what do you think youngsters will learn? How do you think managers will approach a game? Can you imagine a young English manager having the guts to develop a technical team? He would be massacred the moments a few results go awry.

Even the administrators need to learn from Arsene. What’s the point of the Carling Cup? Wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to everyone if it was a youth competition, or maybe along the lines of the Olympics with three senior players allowed? Isn’t that much more likely to improve the quality of the youth? This is just one example, I’m sure Arsene can give ten or more radical ideas that will improve the quality of youth football.

Wenger has taken Arsenal to a whole new level with the Stadium, training facilities, countless innovations, and amazing football resulting in financial progress and memorable results like the invincibles. I feel England need a visionary like him to redefine all aspects of football if they want to emulate the other giants of world football.

Question is, can they get out of the intricate, self-deceiving web of unjustified hype and misplaced glory?

Ghana Emulate The Arsenal Collapse But Hold Nerve Eventually

June 27, 2010

The knockout phase of the World Cup got off to a scintillating start with two exciting, hard fought games. This particular quarter of the draw is probably the weakest of the four but the football was top class.

Uruguay got through to the quarter-final with what I’d consider an intelligent and opportunistic win. The South Americans played to their strengths, i.e. organization and strike force, and despite valiant efforts the South Koreans fell short.

In some ways the Asian side shot themselves in the foot when they conceded a stupid goal early on. There were eight players and the Keeper between Forlan and Suarez but no one got close a hopeful cross. Suarez was optimistic and had the technique to control and direct a bouncing ball on a wobbly surface.

This allowed the Sky Blues to sit back and slow the tempo, something they excel at. The Koreans didn’t have a genuine aerial threat and couldn’t create much against a supremely organized defensive unit.

Despite some resolute defending, the South Koreans did manage to equalize when a set-piece wasn’t properly defended and the loose ball fell kindly for Lee Chung Yong. Muslera made the fatal mistake of coming for the ball and he ended up in a no man’s land. If the Keeper had stayed back he would have had an easy save.

At that time it looked like the Asian side will have the momentum but the Uruguayans found an extra gear and pushed forward in search of the winner. They got one out of nothing when Suarez curled a beauty into the far post from the left side of the penalty area. Given the problems with the ball it was an extra special goal from the man of the match.

I really enjoyed the game as it was a subtle battle of tempo management and space control against pace, quick passing, and hard work. Little did I know that the second one was going to be even better!

Ghana took on USA in a game that was labelled a revenge match in the US media. The Black Stars started brightly and controlled the ball in the first half. I thought Bob Bradley got his starting line-up and tactics completely wrong. His two men in the midfield just couldn’t cope with three opponents and I’ve never understood why he plays two very similar strikers up front, especially as neither is really special.

Ghana got the early goal when Clark lost the ball in midfield. Boateng made a powerful run as DeMerit backed away and his low strike beat Howard at the near post. Poor play all-round from the USA but credit also to Ghana for their pressing and finishing.

After the goal Ghana dominated possession but were extremely wasteful with some ambitious strikes, poor crosses, and a lack of genuine desire to score the second. It reminded me of the times when Arsenal play for the fun of it.

In the second half Bradley got it right and introduced an extra man in midfield. It was a completely different game after that. Not only did the US control the midfield, their best players got into good attacking positions.

At this point the Ghanaians completely lost their composure in a manner similar to the times when we see Arsenal crumble. The midfield was frozen and didn’t help in defence or attack. The back line was shaky and kept hoofing the ball up-field. The lone man could never hold it long enough and it kept coming back within seconds. Ghana really struggled against long balls down the middle and from runs down the wings. Classic Arsenal panic mode!

The saving grace for the last African team in the Cup was that the USA attackers weren’t clinical enough and missed a number of gilt edged opportunities. Ghana defenders also did well by throwing their bodies to make last ditch blocks. Their Keeper also deserves mention for a couple of good saves and punches.

Finally, the equalizer came from a penalty as Dempsey was brought down in the area. I was not sure it was a foul or whether the defender got a touch on the ball. None of the replays was conclusive so the benefit goes to the ref. I could see Silvestre, Clichy, Song or some other Arsenal defender conceding that one in a moment of madness. The befuddled look on the young defenders face was also similar to what we see from our youngsters when they get it wrong.

Some luck, poor finishing, and good goalkeeping prevented USA from winning in regular time.

Extra time was going to be a stern test of fitness and I think Ghana edged it on that. They had a fantastic start when a long punt forward was converted into a goal by some phenomenal work by Gyan. I was critical of the striker earlier but he deserves all the plaudits for this goal.

Firstly, he had to sprint twenty yards to reach a bouncing ball, and this was in extra time. Then he had to control it with his chest while shrugging off a physical challenge from Bocanegra. After that he had to maintain his balance and then shoot a bouncing ball past the keeper. Too often we have seen players fall over or shoot wildly in such situations. Gyan aced it.

Subsequently, the Africans used all the tactics for time wasting and secured a win. The USA had some chances but there were too many bodies in the penalty box for them to get through. At least on this front the Ghanaians didn’t imitate Arsenal as we have a tendency of giving vast open spaces in our box in the final few minutes even when defending a lead.

I thought Ghana were deserving winners even though USA fought hard. Bob Bradley will have to take a hard look at his choices.

In tomorrow’s games I expect a cracker between Argentina and Mexico. Just as we saw Chile trouble Spain, if the Mexicans can get their pressing right they can trouble their much fancied opponents. Messi will obviously get some room to run into and get in behind the defence so both teams should get chances. Ultimately, Argentina will win this one due to their quality in the final third.

I’m not sure how Germany-England is going to pan out. My guess is that England will sit back and play on the counter and Germany will try and break them down. It could be the other way round as well; it just depends on the choices made by Low and Capello.

I think England have a stronger defence and that should see them through. The Germans are weak on the left side so Glen Johnson and the right sided attacker (Gerrard, Milner, Lennon, Cole?) can do some serious damage if England get their act right.

I’m also want to see Ozil against another strong defensive unit. He was largely invisible against Serbia, but if he can excel in this game then we can say he is ready for the Premiership.

Lot’s to look forward to.

Cesc Gets Another Meaningless Cameo + 3 Players Left

June 25, 2010

As expected, Brazil and Portugal played out a drab, goalless draw. If there were any doubts about the intentions of the Portuguese, their manager’s celebration at the end of the game quelled those emphatically.

Portugal started this game with 6 defenders in the starting eleven and a couple of defensive minded midfielders. Brazil started with 5 defenders and a couple of defensive midfielders. People must have paid hundreds of pounds for the ticket to such a game. I wonder how they feel. Are they happy just with the thought that they saw “Portugal V Brazil”? Is the experience of being in that stadium enough to justify the expenses incurred? Personally, I would find it a colossal waste of money if I ever ended up watching such a game.

We are likely to see more of the same when Portugal take on Spain in the second round as they will look to emulate the fluke achieved by the Swiss, who bowed out after failing to score in the other two games.

Hopefully, Del Bosque will have enough to get past Carlos Queiroz but I have my doubts based on what Spain have done in their first three games. They haven’t got going yet and their qualification is largely down to the quality of David Villa who scored another memorable goal.

Chile V Spain turned out to be as exciting as I was hoping for. The South Americans took the game to the Spaniards and were really asking some tough questions in the first half hour. The goalkeeper’s blunder did put them a goal behind but they always looked like they could get one themselves.

It all changed when another idiotic refereeing decision forced Chile to play with 10 men. Estrada received his marching orders for a second booking. I thought both cards were extremely harsh, although he did get away with one tackle where he should have been booked.

In order to understand the significance of this sending off we have to see the passing stats. When the game was 11v11 Chile had more passes than Spain. Xavi was making roughly one pass in two minutes with a 50-55% success rate. After the sending off Spain almost doubled the number of passes by Chile and Xavi had more than a pass a minute with over a 90% success rate. In short, the ref sucked the life out of the game.

Chile did the tactically correct thing of protecting their goal from then on and were lucky to score one from a deflection. It didn’t matter in the end as the Swiss couldn’t score. The last half an hour of the game was just tippy-tappy stuff in the middle of the park by the Spaniards as Chile held back. I think it’s not fair on the spectators either but it’s understandable, and both teams have been extremely positive thus far so it’s acceptable as well.

Cesc came on in the 55th minute for the woefully out of form Torres. By then the game didn’t have an edge so most of his contribution was rather meaningless, keep-the-ball-no-one-really-cares kind of stuff. He did manage 52 accurate passes out of 58 total, roughly matching Xavi in terms of numbers and accuracy. Incidentally, these passing stats were far better than what Alonso did in 73 minutes but as I said before the game was dead by then so we can’t read much into it.

Del Bosque will have to change his approach for the game against Portugal. I think he needs the creativity of Fabregas but the formation he is playing severely limits his options as he has to play one of Torres, Silva or Navas. If Spain fail to get past Portugal, it will be due to the incompetence of their manager.

Now that the group phase is over, only three Arsenal players remain in the competition (United, Chelsea, Spuds, Liverpool and City have more). One is injured, one is getting his form back and the best one is struggling to get a chance. The good news for Arsenal fans is that our players will get a much deserved rest and won’t have to miss much of the preseason.

Amongst those who are left, I think Vela will go out against Argentina in the second round. Van Persie is likely to have a mouth watering clash against the Brazilians in the quarter-final and if the Dutch get through, they will have a good chance of making the finals.

Spain have a tricky second round tie and will have a tough semi-final with an easy game in between.

It’s likely that our two best players will be the last to leave the World Cup and that will affect their preparations for the next season. Some might say that Fabregas is getting a rest anyway, but that’s definitely not the case. He must be mentally exhausted with the transfer saga and physically from all the continuous training.

We have a tricky start to the season and will be interesting to see how Arsene handles it. Anyway that’s still in the distance. Let’s just enjoy the few games that are worth watching before we worry about the next season.

Will Spain V Chile Outshine Brazil V Portugal?

June 25, 2010

Brazil V Portugal was probably The marquee game when the draw was announced. After all, it can’t get much better than the top ranked team playing the third ranked nation, can it?!

However, based on the way the tournament has turned out so far, it is difficult to imagine this one will live up to its billing. Brazil have been lacklustre even when they’ve dominated the games and Portugal need a draw to ensure qualification. In such a scenario, it’s difficult to imagine that either of these teams is going to light up the tournament with a sensational display of attacking football.

I hope I’m wrong and we get a spectacle that justifies the status of these teams but my guess is that Portugal will play on the counter. Brazil under Dunga have been, to put it politely, extremely pragmatic, so we can’t expect them to outclass a team that has gone 17 games unbeaten and have 21 clean sheets from the last 25 games. Some might say, Brazil are Brazil and they can spank anyone. I don’t have an argument against that; we’ll just have to see.

Thankfully, both teams have an incentive to top the group. They won’t know whether Spain will finish first or second (assuming they qualify) so they can’t really plan for that. It would be safe to think that the Spaniards will top the group (more on that later in the article). Moreover, if they top the group they will have a much easier path to the final. Except for the Dutch in the quarter-finals there shouldn’t be much resistance for either of these teams as they will face one of Ghana, USA, Uruguay or South Korea in the semi-finals.

I’m not trying to belittle these teams but in my honest opinion they don’t stand a chance against Brazil or Portugal. There are too many “ifs” involved here but if I was the manager of Brazil or Portugal I’d surely want to top the group. If Carlos Queiroz thinks the same then this game could actually be quite interesting.

In the other group, La Roja take on La Roja! I mean, Spain (probably La Furia Roja is more commonly used name) take on Chile who are top of the group with two wins. In the other game Switzerland take on minnows Honduras. If Span and the Swiss win all three teams will be tied on 6 points and it will come down to goal difference and goals scored.

As Chile have an attacking style of play, I think Spain will win that one with a good goal difference. I also have a feeling this game will turn out to be the most entertaining game of the first round. The South Americans have a very unique style and they will create some chances while giving Spain ample opportunities to play their game. If Spain win they will qualify as they will go above Chile on goal difference or goals scored.

The Swiss can then qualify with a win but it won’t be easy for them. There are other permutations but it doesn’t make sense in doing a comprehensive if-then-else analysis. I’d certainly like to see Spain and Chile advance.

In the earlier games from Group E, Van Persie scored and got the Man of the Match award for a good outing against the Indomitable Lions. The Dutch haven’t been in top gear but have managed three wins out of three against quality opposition.  I’m convinced they will beat Slovakia in the second round and we will have a terrific quarter-final no matter who they face from Group G or H.

Japan were the other team to qualify with a comprehensive win over Bendtner’s Denmark. The Danes had to win this one to go through and that favoured the Asian side who were happy to sit back and attack on the counter. Japan scored a couple of goals from brilliant free-kicks. It could be that the players are now getting used to the ball as we are finally seeing some wonderful goals.

I thought Sorenson was at fault for both goals. Taking nothing away from the strikes, the keeper moved prematurely on the first one and got his wall wrong for the second. He left a gap for the right footed player to exploit and had the shorter players on the far side. The wall should have been further to his left and he should have had his big men on that side to create a bigger challenge for the right footed free kick. If Honda took it left footed or the right footed player went central, then Sorenson would have had a better chance of saving it. Of course this is just my opinion based on some observations and common sense and I’m not a qualified coach so I could be completely wrong.

Japan have been surprisingly good I must say. They have done really well on set-pieces at both ends of the pitch, especially against physically bigger and stronger opponents. They’ve also maintained their organization and worked really hard without losing focus.

On one side we’ve seen teams like France and Italy who have underperformed miserably and on the other there are those like Japan and Uruguay who have outdone all expectations. I really like it when some of the unheralded sides do well as I have a tendency to support the underdogs when I’m watching as a neutral. That is also the reason I’m backing Chile to entertain us more than Brazil or Portugal!

Mourinho Didn’t Do Enough For Italian Football, Eh!?

June 24, 2010

The most boring group has given us the most exciting moments in the Cup so far. If you haven’t seen it already, check out the goal by Quagliarella (I found some links but they get deleted pretty soon so no point in posting them). It’s difficult to describe because the beauty is in its simplicity. All the talk about problems with the ball goes out of the window when you see such precision.

It’s a shame Italy didn’t produce more of the same as they bowed out in the first round ending up at the bottom of the group that includes teams like Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand!

I wasn’t really surprised when Switzerland defeated Spain or Serbia put one past Germany. There was no doubt that France were going to struggle or that England will flatter to deceive. But the Azzurri’s failure in such an easy group is a real shock in my book.

Of course you could say the signs were there and the pre-tournament preparations were that good. The loss to Mexico and other poor results were like a trailer before the horror show. Even then, Italy had enough to get through but didn’t quite manage it.

The last fifteen minutes showed us the level Italy can reach. If they had done that for even half the game Slovakia would have lost by a couple of goals. Two substitutes, Quagliarella and Pirlo, made all the difference and you have to wonder why they didn’t feature more. Pirlo, I guess, was injured but anyone who saw the Napoli striker’s performance in this game will point the finger at the manager.

Interestingly, this game reminded me of Arsenal on two counts. Firstly, Italy conceded the third goal in an uncharacteristic manner as two defenders went to cover one player from a throw and left the penalty area uncovered. No midfielder tracked the run of Kopunek and the keeper charged forward to end up in no man’s land. Very similar to the way we concede some goals when our defenders and keeper lose their composure and lack basic awareness.

Secondly, it reminded of the times when Wenger is accused of doing nothing for English football. Wonder if the press will think the same of the Dark Lord of Anti-Football. Inter Milan won the treble but are there any Italians in that team? I don’t criticize Wenger for not playing English players and so I won’t criticize the Dark Lord for not playing Italians. Obviously, they are not good enough!

The main point is – if Wenger receives so much flak for not blooding English players, will Mourinho get the same? Somehow, I doubt it!

England, USA Sneak Through; Germany, Ghana Lie In Wait

June 23, 2010

England finally came up with the goods in the final group game. The win wasn’t really emphatic and the performance wasn’t one that would make the other contenders sit up and take notice, but given the previous two outings this was a much improved show.

The players looked like they wanted to win and they were up for it. Changes to the starting line-up helped a bit. I’ve never been able to figure out how Heskey even makes it to the probables list so reading the name of Defoe alongside Rooney was not a surprise. Some might have expected Joe Cole to be in there but I’m not sure he is anywhere close to his best right now.

The two players who came into the side were the ones who created and scored, justifying the team selection. Milner’s cross was almost perfect, and Defoe had the pace to get in front. Heskey would never have reached that ball before the defender.

England had plenty of chances to stretch the lead. Rooney, Gerrard and others missed some good chances and the Keeper, Handanovic, made some good saves.

Towards the end I was wondering if England will regret not getting the second goal. The Slovenians showed some urgency, but didn’t have enough in attack. Their playmaker Birsa was particularly disappointing, as was the striker Novakovic.

In the end, I think the Slovenians paid the price for their inexperience at the highest level. They should still be proud of their performances, and just like England have been criticized for being below par, the Slovenians deserve special credit for making the group interesting.

I didn’t see the other game in which USA grabbed an injury time winner. Algeria haven’t scored in this tournament so it wasn’t a surprise that Howard wasn’t troubled all that much. USA, if anything, are a team that fights right till the end and that quality has seen them through the group stages in spite of some decisions going against them. Not only that, they’ve even managed to top the group and will definitely fancy their chances against Ghana. Germany might have been tough for them as the Germans have a similar spirit and a lot more quality.

In the other group the Germans eked out a win over Ghana by a solitary goal, a stunning strike by Ozil. The youngster has missed three or four one-on-one’s in the tournament so far, including one earlier in the game, but came good when it mattered with a stunning volley from outside the box.

Ghana had plenty of chances, just not the quality to beat Neuer. I think the Black Stars would have been a major threat at this tournament if they had a good striker and a fit Essien.

I thought the Ghanaians were not sure whether they should attack or defend. The other game in the group was a topsy-turvy battle in which the Australians came close to a big upset. I didn’t quite believe the Socceroos will have enough in attack to get past a strong Serbian defence. Through Cahill and Holman they managed to take a two goal lead. Another two and they could have been through on goals scored. It wasn’t to be as Schwarzer spilled a long range shot and Pantelic got one back for the Serbians.

We now have two very exciting second round fixtures on June 27th as Germany take on England and Argentina battle with Mexico. The winners of these games will meet in the quarter-finals.

On the other end of the draw – Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana, and USA will battle for a semi-final spot. In short, we are certain to have one surprise candidate in the semis. Well, not exactly a surprise anymore, but a team few would have expected to see in the last four before the tournament started.

All these teams will see this as a golden opportunity of going through to the last four. I’m not sure who will make it as it’s quite difficult to predict. The team that can hold its nerve and last the distance will – that’s as close as I can come to a prediction. I hope Ghana can make it as it’s an African World Cup and it will really mean a lot for football in the continent.

England must be looking at those four names and ruing the missed opportunities, especially the Rooney one. One more goal and they would have topped the group. Now they have to face Germany and if they get through, it will most probably be Argentina in the quarter-final.

Tomorrow’s fixtures are not that exciting. Group F has been quite boring so far but all teams can still go through so we might get some open games. In the other group, the Dutch have already qualified and Cameroon are out. That game won’t have any life. Denmark and Japan are tied on three points with the Danes needing a win as their goal difference in inferior. Can Bendtner and co do it?

I’ll end with a mention of Wimbledon. Not sure how many of you follow Tennis but there is a phenomenal match going on at Wimbledon – Mahut V Isner. This game is tied at 59 games apiece in the fifth set. That’s right 59-59 in the fifth. It’s broken the record for the longest match, longest set, most aces and probably many others. In fact, the final set has lasted more than seven hours, which is more than the time of the previous longest match!! It’s been so long that the game has been suspended for two successive days due to darkness.

If you don’t follow Tennis then you’ll probably be wondering what’s the big deal. Think of a football game that needs a result but doesn’t have a penalty shoot out but unlimited extra time till someone scores. Now imagine that game going on for 6-7 hours in extra time and you’ll get an idea of what’s happening at Wimbledon. Wish the World Cup final could be like that!

Les Misérables Out, South Americans Shine Brighter

June 22, 2010

Arsenal’s French contingent will have an early return from South Africa after their woeful tournament came to an end following an ignominious defeat against the hosts. There were hardly any noteworthy moments in an abject French performance but Sagna’s through ball that set up the French goal deserves credit. The full-back’s professionalism has been exemplary and many of his team-mates must learn from it.

Gourcuff, highly rated by many and supposed to be a replacement for Cesc, was quite poor all through the World Cup. It’s difficult to say how much of it was down to the internal strife that wrecked the French campaign. Based on these games and some of the Bordeaux games that I saw, Gourcuff doesn’t look like a player who can succeed in the Premiership, at least not immediately. It would have been fun if Man City had signed him for big money before the World Cup only to realize later that they have a lemon!

Even Lloris, another highly rated player that Arsenal should be signing, came and flapped at a corner. Was it a co-incidence that he had Sagna, Gallas, Clichy and Diaby in front of him? In scenes all too reminiscent of Arsenal conceding against smaller teams, Diaby was quite poor in dealing with that corner after Lloris missed it and the South African player scored.

In a way it’s good because Sagna and Clichy can do with the rest. I’m also happy that Nasri wasn’t selected and was spared the embarrassment.

In the other game in group A, Uruguay defeated Mexico but both teams went through to the next round. Before the first game I’d said that Mexico can top the group and Uruguay are good enough to take the second spot. The South Americans did one better and thoroughly deserve their top spot as they kept three clean sheets and scored some good goals.

South Africa got the dubious distinction of being the first host nation to be knocked out in the group phase. I think their performances were commendable and much better than what was expected. They have done a great job and should leave with their head held high. A number of teams can learn the value of playing for the national flag from the Bafana-Bafana.

In group B, Argentina maintained their perfect record with a two goal win over boring, boring Greece. South Korea and Nigeria shared four goals in a thrilling draw. That was the first time in this tournament that both teams led at one time and both came back.

I like this idea of playing the two games simultaneously as it provides and added element of drama. Greece were in with a chance till the 75th minute or so. S. Korea were on their way out before coming back into it, and Nigeria blew a golden chance of qualifying and creating history (no team has qualified for the knockout stages after losing first two group games) as Yakubu missed a sitter.

These results set up two exciting second round ties as Argentina take on Mexico and Uruguay go head to head with South Korea. None of these teams is overtly defensive and we should get open, entertaining games.

As a neutral, I’m also looking forward to tomorrow’s fixtures. There is a chance that England and/or Germany might follow France on the way out. On paper, it’s a remote possibility. But given present form and the way the tournament has been so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if the underdogs steal the show.

I don’t think Ghana can defeat Germany, but if the Africans draw with Germans and Serbia win against the Aussies, we will have another big upset on our hands. Germany should have enough in their locker to get through but it’s not going to be easy.

All four teams can go through but Australia’s chances are more mathematical than realistic.

Similarly, England need a win against Slovenia and they will have to come up with a big performance. A high scoring draw might also work for them but that seems like a theoretical option more than a practical one.

The USA also need a win against Algeria, who themselves could go through with a win if the other result is favourable.

Normally, I like to support the underdogs but I think the tournament will get more interesting if the bigger teams get through to the knock out stages. Still, I wouldn’t feel as bad as I felt in the past when Argentina, Spain or the Dutch got eliminated.

All in all, an exciting day ahead.