What We Learned From Spain vs Paraguay (1-0)

Unstoppable Force Meets Immoveable Object

Or the potentially hardest working defence left standing meets the apparently most intricate passing team in the world. And bugger me it was boring. Paraguay are the Switzerland of South America, and not just because they were the home of fleeing ex-nazis and secretive bank accounts. No, they are set up to defend. And harry. And press. And harry some more. And do everything but actually score. And, like Switzerland, they work bloody hard at it. So hard that it wasn’t until very late on in the game that Spain finally got their act together. But, also like Switzerland, they really can’t score. One goal against Italy and two against the mighty Slovakia in the Group stage have taken them to the brink of a World Cup semi-final. And very odd moments aside they really never looked even vaguely threatening. I mean at 72 minutes, with the score 0 – 0 they play their joker, taking off their by now knackered striker Valdez and bringing on Rocque Santa Cruz, who hasn’t scored for Paraguay for two years and hasn’t scored for Man City since the Mark Hughes era. Even then he manages to scuff up their only real chance from open play.

It’s All Gone To Penalties

Thank fucking christ it didn’t because the tedium would have finished me off. But for a crazy 5 minutes this game went off the charts. First Paraguay got a penalty, which they contrived to tamely tap into Casillas’ midriff, then Spain got a penalty, which Alonso scored, then had to retake, then missed. For a second it was like the shoot out had come early, before normal service (and tedium) was resumed. You feel that if Paraguay, like Ghana, had scored their penalty, they would have won this match. And you could feel that the pressure of being here, having gone further in the tournament than they had really believed they would, weighed heavily on the penalty takers.

Tikki Takki’s All Gone Messy

The Spanish have got a problem. They’ve arrived with half a good game and no idea of how to make it a whole game. Admittedly it works better than teams like Engerland, who arrive without any part of a good game, or teams like New Zealand, Switzerland and Paraguay, who arrive with one that they’ve borrowed from Jose Mourinho but haven’t read all of the user manuals. Spain’s real problem is that their chosen game has both declined and been susssed out. I don’t think they’re implementing their clever passing game as well as they did in Euro 2008 and I think teams have discovered how to put them off their game. All of which sounds a little pedantic given that Spain have Tikki Takka’d their way to the semi-finals, but they have been fantastically lucky. Chile gifted them the game, Paraguay surrendered it and they were lucky to beat Portugal. But they really need a way to combine clever, good looking football with incisiveness, speed and variation. Too often their attacks come down the middle at a pedestrian pace with no great effect. Take out David Villa and Spain don’t look remotely threatening, just pretty in the middle of the park.

60 Down 4 To Go 4 Teams Remaining

What We Learned From Paraguay vs Japan (0-0)

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

Both these teams are like bad Premiership centre halves approaching the opposition half and suddenly realising where they are and immediately falling into panic mode. They have achieved beyond their wildest dreams. For Paraguay, this is as far as their nation has ever gone, while Japan, prior to this tournament, had never won a World Cup game not held in Japan. Their coach, who was prepared to resign during the team’s charabanc tour of every footballing venue in Europe, can now retire gracefully to his farm, where he will always be addressed as Football-Manager-San and probably won’t have to pay for anything ever again.

The saddest thing about this match was that it was essentially a throwback to the very First Round of matches. Both sides emerged like frightened rabbits, too scared to attack, happy to pass it around their back four and stultifyingly dull. The Japanese actually seemed to have the better of it, making more vaguely attacking moves, but none that had the cutting edge of their match against Denmark.

You sense that there is a huge unseen psychological impact that the World Cup exerts on teams and players. For Japan, you sense that they gave it all in the match with Denmark and somehow felt that they had reached the summit of their achievement, that this match was one match too far. You can see it writ large in the dreadful, painful Third and Fourth place play-off that neither side wants to be in and which too often collapses under the pressures of the previous semi-finals. Paraguay just don’t seem very good, yet, thanks to the failings of Italy and Slovakia, have lucked out into this, the easiest of Second Rounds. How Engerland would have like to be playing Japan. Actually, on second thoughts based on our previous friendly with Japan, we’d probably lose that one 4 – 1 as well.

It went to penalties. Paraguay won’t get past Spain.

55 Down 9 To Go 9 Teams Remaining

Extra Extra What About Them Second Rounds Then

Group Of Ease

Yeah, so one of Uruguay, South Korea, USA or Ghana is going to a World Cup semi-final. And, let’s face it, that should have been Engerland not USA in that list. Out of these I give the Koreans little or no chance, for while they have a great team with a couple of decent players, they’re up against Uruguay, who have the excellent Diego Forlorn, who seems to be one of the very few players not to have been overwhelmed by the scale of the World Cup and has actually seized control of and dominated games. I see Uruguay going right the way through to the semi. USA have a great team with a never say die attitude, but attitude aside all they really have to offer is Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and I’m not convinced. Ghana are a great strong passing side, who haven’t managed to score goals other than penalties so far. You can see them riding the wave of African euphoria, but they’re going to have trouble when they come up against a quality side.

Group Of Death

Forget any previous pussy, lame Groups of Death, this is the real thing. Germany, Engerland, Argentina and, well there’s always one, Mexico. For Engerland to get to the semis, we’re going to have to beat both the Germans and the Argies. If we get that far life will be very sweet indeed and we’ll probably only have to beat Spain and Brazil to win the big lump of gold. So no pressure there boys. If we want to win it, we’re going to have to do it the hard way. Heart says we go through and win, rational analysis says it’ll be the bloody Argies (again).

Group Of Football

With both Holland and Brazil, this should be a group of total football. Holland, I suspect have been playing a very cagey game and not really over-exerting themselves. Straight wins throughout their First Round matches means that they haven’t really been tested yet and I don’t see the conquerors of Italy, Slovakia, giving them any trouble at all. I think the Dutch will open with their wingmen and then we’ll see some football. Brazil and Chile should play off a great South American cup tie, but given Chile’s attack only policy and Brazil’s excellent defence I see Brazil wiping the floor with Chile’s poor quality defending. Brazil v Holland will be a cracking quarter final, which will provide Brazil with a really serious test, but this Brazil side is pretty formidable and, like the Dutch, just beginning to find their form. I see this as Brazil’s group.

Group Of Unexpected

Ideally, Spain and Chile should have switched groups, but they didn’t so this group has the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumberer match up of Spain and Portugal, in some ways it hardly matters which one of them comes through. Spain will have a tough game, they seem to have lost their way mentally and don’t know which direction to go in. Now true World Cup Champions always undergo some kind of transformation during the tournament, but the transformation Spain are undergoing is tortuous. Will they sacrifice the beautiful game that got them here for a pragmatic hoof and wingplay game we saw them trying before Chile gifted them the game? Portugal will be a hard test, they have a rock solid defence and are really hard to play against and when they’re in flow as they were against North Korea, they can’t half knock in the goals. I see Portugal going through. Paraguay and Japan will be a fantastic, open game, the Japanese will not give in and Paraguay are a decent team. This match should be a cracker and I see Portugal going out of this group.

The Semis

I see these being

Uruguay vs Engerland

Brazil vs Portugal

Can’t help being optimistic eh?

What We Learned From Group F Eliminators

The Torture of Human Endurance Italy 2 – 3 Slovakia

They’re still at it. Day 3. The awesome Mahut and Isner are still going. 68 all. And I know this beause I was forced to switch channels and sports because ITV’s spastic half-time drivel is just so unremittingly tedious you have to leave. Anyway, they illustrate the positive power of sport in a way that nothing in the World Cup, this overblown spectacle presided over by grovelling arch-toad Sepp Blatter, has come close to.

The first thing to note is why on earth the Group F eliminators should be played before the Group E ones. Surely that’s morally incomprehensible. I blame FIFA. The second thing to note is that we are in the presence of not one but two sets of imposters. Italy, for instance, bear no resemblance to the team that won the World Cup in 2006, sure there’s the requisite amount of diving, cheating, feigning and general Italian tomfoolery, but no sign of the immaculate defending of Canavaro or the complete control of Pierlo, even though both of them appeared on the field. Ultimately, they just couldn’t rouse themselves out of the torpor that saw them draw with both Paraguay and New Zealand.

The other set of even more improbable imposters was the team pretending to be Slovakia. Now previously we may have given the impression that Slovakia was a made up country where all the stupid people in Czechoslovakia were conned into going which featured none of the benefits and all of the defects of that country; that its football squad was full of 23 utter incompetents led by the thoroughly useless Hamzik, who lacks any sense of control, spatial understanding, positional ability or general footballing skill; that the main thing they deserved was to be horsewhipped naked through town accompanied by the kind of bell-ringing that is normally reserved for residents of the nearest leper colony. So where have they hidden that team today? Even more spectacular than the transformation that overcame the Engerland team yesterday was the revelation that was Slovakia. Crisp passing, good movement off the ball and exciting, attacking play. You wondered why they apparently hadn’t bothered to do this against, say, the mighty New Zealand, who on the evidence of this should have been utterly pummelled. Italy seemed to have no answer to them until it was beyond too late and they then started with all the old Italian favourites, a desperately scrambled goal, a lot of jostling and bashing about and general Italian cheatery (which was matched it has to be said by some pretty blatent Slovak cheatidge), all to no avail. Excellent work. Slovakia go into the easy side of the draw, alongside the Yanks, Mexicans, Uruguayans and Ghanaians, so there’s every danger they could go even further. Italy, on the other hand, take the economy flights home.

Meanwhile Isner and Mahut have finished their war of endurance with Isner winning 70 – 68.  Way to go guys. One suspects Mahut will go back to France for some kind of presidential ovation and general award. Maybe he’ll get to man the guillotine when it deals with the shitty residue of the French football team. Isner meanwhile has got it all to do again as he moves into the second round.

Paraguay 0 – 0 New Zealand

So plucky New Zealand, you scored two goals, played two matches so astonishingly tedious that they were painful to watch and exemplified the kind of pub level ‘committment’ football that we are trying to eradicate in the civilized world. OK that’s as many goals and tedious games as Engerland, but hey, we can pass it around a bit when we really, really have to and have nicer kit. Paraguay play well and probably didn’t have to exert themselves too much here, knowing that there was nothing they could do to avoid topping the Group and thus getting into the shitty end of the draw.

So Bye-Bye Italy And New Zealand

At least New Zealand are certain to qualify for the next World Cup.

42 Down 22 To Go 19 Teams Remaining

Extra Extra What We Learned At The Halfway Point

The Competition Has Kicked Off

Yes, the Second Round of Group matches were certainly better than the First Round. Most teams understood that they couldn’t simply defend all the time and play for a draw, even the Swiss, whose adoption of an almost ‘Neutral Country’ option has seen them regularly top both the Haven’t Conceded and the Haven’t Scored tables, realised that at some point they’d have to come out and have a shot, although to be fair they did have something that vaguely resembled a shot in the First Round and it paid off handsomely. The games got faster and more meaningful as we saw Matches That Mattered and teams realised that there was a very real danger of their World Cup ending later this week.

The Goals Are Coming

As teams threw off the shackles of defensive cowardice and started attacking we began to see more goals. Few teams were content to sit on a one goal lead and continued to press their opponents. Some goals were even good, although few of them were up to the Tshabalala standard. However, I distinctly remember exclaiming, “What a goal” more than once during Round 2.

The Cheating Has Started

Grab and Dive, with or without pirouette, is the order of the day. Compulsive penalty box wrestling at every set piece. Not that much deliberate diving, but plenty of subtle blocking and writhing around. All in an attempt to cheat your way to a free kick or some colour of card for the opposition, or both. Not good. I think if it continues, we will see some kind of tv replay system introduced on the fly, if only because the whole world is watching.

Lots of Empty Seats

Now that it’s getting serious I suspect we won’t be seeing too many empty stadiums, but I’d lay money that there will be empty seats at the Uruguay Mexico match, where both teams need only to draw to go through (0 – 0 anyone?). However, too many venues have been conspicuously less than capacity.

Who Has Been Naughty?

It’s goodbye to South Africa, France (very naughty), Nigeria, Greece (very bad),  Algeria,  Oztralia (awful), Serbia (painful). Cameroon, New Zealand (rubbish), Slovakia (tedious), Ivory Coast (unlucky to get Group of Death for the second World Cup in a row), North Korea, and Honduras. You are all officially too crap for the World Cup. Book your flights now.

Who Has Been Nice?

And it’s hello to Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, South Korea, Ghana, Germany, Holland, Paraguay, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, and Chile. Nicely done South America.

And Who Is Bricking It?

Group C is totally up for grabs with two of Engerland, USA and Slovenia, the permutations are excruciating, but basically all teams have to win to be sure that they will qualify. In Group E Japan and Denmark will duke it out, a draw being enough to take the Japanese through. Group H is so complicated that Spain, Chile and Switzerland could all end up with 6 points and theoretically identical goal differences and goals scored, in which case as Spain will have beaten Chile, who have beaten Switzerland, who have beaten Spain lots would have to be drawn.  Makes penalty shoot outs seem tame by comparison.

And Who Is Really Bricking It Most?

Has to be ever-optimistic no-hopers Engerland, who just seem utterly unable to cope with the pressure of having to play a few matches away from home in front of large television audiences. Basking in unwarrented media acclaim and with performances getting more inadequate by the day, Engerland are a disaster waiting to happen. And while the French are imploding with a farcical degree of hilarity, Engerland can’t even manage an effective internal coup d’etat. One thing is clear, Wednesday could be the most excruciating game of football ever played.

What We Learned From Paraguay vs Slovakia (2-0)

It’s A Game Of Make Believe

I’m playing a little game here while I watch this match, not because it is somehow more excruciatingly dull than any others – on the contrary it’s a pretty gripping encounter – but because I had a bit of an epiphany. This thought transformed the game for me and made it utterly compelling. I suddenly thought, Are Slovakia better than Engerland (or more realistically, Are Engerland any better than Slovakia)? And I started comparing the teams in an almost man-to-man way.  Is Slovakia’s defending conspicuously worse than Engerland’s? Is Robert Vittek the Slovakian Emile Heskey? Is Marek Hamsik their Wayne Rooney? Is Vladimir Weiss their Aaron Lennon? Ultimately, are Slovakia as disappointingly shit as Engerland?

It totally changed my view of the game as I substituted Engerland related commentary on top of the match commentary, and the game itself changed. I was thinking what are Slovakia doing the change the game, to mix things up, to get the ball back when they lose it (as they regularly do). I was thinking, what would Rhino do, why can’t the midfield actually pass it about, and most importantly, why are they always hoofing it to Heskey (sorry Vittek). Because Slovakia’s problems are identical to Engerland’s. They don’t seem to have any clear gameplan other than defend in a sub-Mourinho way and desperately hope to catch the opposition on the break. They have players who can, apparently pass to one another and control the ball, but seem unable to demonstrate this on any consistent basis, they don’t seem to have the patience (or skill? or belief?) to develop moves through the middle and rely on a hoof and hope tactic that really isn’t working for anyone at this tournament, in contrast to the Paraguayayayans who develop their moves through neat passing and use the full width of the pitch. So far the jury’s out, but Slovakia are running Engerland a close second in the race to be most rubbish.

A Different System From The Paraguayayayans

Like Chile, Paraguay have eschewed the Mourinho Discipline, instead going for a 4 – 3 – 3 formation, which they use in an attacking positive way. They also press very well and drop into a 4 – 1 – 3 – 2 defensive formation when they are being pressed by the opposing team. Their defenders even apologise to one another when they lose composure and simply hack the ball away, which is a very un-European thing to do. Certainly there was no sign of their previous hack and tackle philosophy which they used to not very much effect when playing Italy – another indication of how much teams have had to adapt their games as the tournament goes on.

Stupidly Interesting

Slovakia share the same kit design as Denmark, only theirs is blue where the Danes’ is red. If I was either country I’d feel really, really cheated.

27 Down 37 To Go 31 Teams Remaining