What We Learned From Group C Eliminators

Football, Bloody Hell – Engerland 1 – 0 Slytherin

As ex-Engerland manager Graham Taylor once said, presumably just before he was unceremoniously sacked. While this wasn’t the kind of harum-scareum kick and rush derby day cup tie you normally associate with Engerland, it still had the requisite quantity of anxiety and chaos. Normally when Engerland start with Jermaine Defoe it’s a statement of intent, only the intent is usually for Jermaine to not score and to be offside a lot. This time, however, things were a bit more lenient and he was allowed to put the ball in the net and he wasn’t offside quite as often. Still, normal Engerland service was resumed as it seemed we would sit back for the remaining 70 minutes and panic like headless chickens. Usually this is the cue for the opposition to stuff a couple past us and reduce us to quivering, vengeful wrecks intent on mutinously doing our team when they return. Unusually, in this case, Engerland began to take control of the game and passed it about a bit and looked pretty bloody regal for a bit. Admittedly it was only a bit, but it was 110% more of a bit than we’ve seen in the last four Engerland matches combined. Sure we nearly bolloxed it up through a combination of not scoring the second, letting the Slytherins back into the game and allowing Heskey back onto the pitch. When we were good we had a bit of tempo, pushed the ball to both wings, and tried to play the ball on the ground on a pitch that was every bit as bad as I predicted after the first match. It does make you wonder how we managed to play quite so atrociously in the previous two matches, especially against the Algerians.

Having had a boost by beating Algeria themselves, Slytherin were surprisingly unthreatening. Again, you wonder what effect the ‘pressure’ of the World Cup is having, Engerland crushed by expectation, France reduced to a farce, African teams overwhelmed, while less-fancied sides appear freed from pressure as they are ‘simply glad to be there’. You look at teams like New Zealand, Switzerland and Uruguay, who realistically can’t be expected to win the tournament and they’re playing either competent, determined football (NZ and the Swiss) or genuinely expressing themselves in the case of Uruguay. Slytherin fall definitively into the former category, pleased to be here, freed from expectation, the worst they can do is appear to punch above their weight. And with a goal against Algeria magicked out of thin air and a goal for the US against them disallowed for equally mysterious reasons giving them the lead in the Group going into this game, they really should have posed more of a threat than they did. Instead they showed none of their previous creativity and, but for their keeper, would have been soundly beaten. Maybe this time the pressure started to tell on them.

Engerland, while getting through the Group Stage, are left ruing two frankly shit performances, one never-to-be-forgotten goalkeeping fuck up and the inability to put this game to bed, which, thanks to the USA result sends Engerland into the much tougher side of the draw. Still, if you’re going to win the World Cup you’re going to have to beat the big teams.

USA 1 – 0 Algeria

It was quite impressive. Despite not having scored a single goal up to this point, Algeria could, if results went their way, actually have qualified from this group. Not on the basis of this display although admittedly I’ve only seen the highlights, which at this World Cup are restricted to shots on goal and give little but a headline impression of the match itself. That’s less highlights than a news report, which is a shame, especially when you consider that all the highlights programmes are stuffed full of fluffy, patronising, non-football guff about South Africa. They’re like Match of the Day 2 where that Bernard Cribbins lookeylikey goes to away matches and meets ‘fans’ ans you think, “fuck this Bernard, just show us some more football”. Anyway, USA really should have put them to bed much more comfortably than they did. Now I don’t think anyone can accuse the US of being an accomplished, skillful football team, but they have two things going for them, first they are better than clodhoppers, they’re decent, mid-level pro footballers, and, second, they have spirit. Now normally, we in Blighty associate spirt with all the vaguely crappy qualities footballers can have, committment, hard tackling, chasing back, more hard tackling, blood on the forehead, actually dying for the team and hoofing it into row Z. The Americans see it slightly different, they have the sort of spirit you see at Man U, the sense of a team working together that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, a never say die committment and a relentless desire to attack and win. And they’ve come into the World Cup with both a promising track record, having beaten Spain in the semi-finals of last year’s Confederations Cup and narrowly losing the final to Brazil, and no overwhelming sense of expectation burdening their shoulders. Still, they are only average and so, while they should have mullered Algeria, they ended up lucky to win 1 – 0 and where they probably should have beaten Engerland, they only got a point because we gifted it to them. And like South Africa’s five second foul up against Mexico, which deprived Bafana Bafana of 2 points and a place in the last 16, Green’s spooning of the ball into his own net may both save the US and damn Engerland as USA win the Group and Engerland merely finish second.

So Bye-Bye Algeria And Slytherin

We should have roundly stuffed the pair of you, but we weren’t up to the task. Algeria, you were only saved total humiliation by your keeper, who reaps his just reward with a possible reserve keeper berth at a lower level Premiership club, so we won’t be seeing him on the pitch any time soon. You never managed to live up to your Qualification face off against Egypt, which had to be played in a neutral country and still nearly sparked off an international conflict, but then again, that’s quite a level to achieve more than once.  Slytherin, you might be the smallest House at the World Cup, but you’re not the worst, even if Serverus Snape is your manager.

38 Down 26 To Go 23 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 Slovenia vs USA (2-2)

This Tournament Is Made Up Of Phases

And I don’t mean the Group Phase, the Round of 16 Phase, I’m talking about the Phases within the Group stage. It seems that Round 1 was the Cagey Phase, where teams seemed to be both overawed with the reality of simply being here and petrified by the idea of losing the first game, the result being umpteen really tedious matches dominated by timidity and a lack of ambition. Only a few teams (Germany, Chile, Argentina and North Korea) really went for a win, the rest were simply content to play it safe and try and pick up a point. Some, like South Africa, Engerland and Algeria to name but 3, will regret rookie schoolboy errors that robbed them of valuable points, but the majority will be happy with their point.

In contrast Round 2 is very definitely the start of what Fergie called “Squeaky Bum Time”. The pressure is on and teams now know that they need to win these matches. As a result the very dynamic of the games has changed. They are, so far, faster and more aggressive than the previous Round, have had significantly more goals and are really separating the Could-Bes from the Going-Homes. This is where it gets serious boys. And so far the results in Round 2 have, with the exception of Argentina and Uruguay, gone spectacularly against the run of form, with Mexico, Greece (Greece for fuck’s sake) and Serbia all winning, USA and Slovenia drawing and France and Germany losing. We will be seeing some big beasts going home by the end of this, that’s for certain.

When We Said Slovenia Were Rubbish

What we meant was that they have a dynamic team with clever ball-passing players, some of whom possess real skill. Especially that chap Birsa, who scored a great goal (no problems with the Jubilia-Crawfishpie-Filigumbo ball there then). They are dynamic and looked to be roundly thrashing the previously estimable Yanks, before they somehow imploded and let the USA back into the match. This felt like the first of the Knockout Round matches, both sides going full on for it.

It’s Been A Funny Old Day

What with having moments where we were genuinely rooting for the Germans (the Germans for fuck’s sake) there was obviously something in the air. Halfway through this match I started rooting for the USA. And, you know what, they showed the kind of guts and determination that is normally associated with crappy lower league teams who think talent and tactics are two optional extras. Only the Yanks matched their guts with skill and ambition. By the end they were really unlucky not to have won.

22 Down 42 To Go

What We Learned From Algeria vs Slovenia (0-1)

The World Cup Will Be Starting Sometime Soon

Because, let’s face it, I’ve been watching TV football for what seems like months now and so far there’s been no sign of the Festival of Football everyone was talking about. Most games seem to have been played out like preparatory training matches, with no emphasis whatsoever on attempting to dominate or, god forbid, actually win matches. And we’ve seen some teams that really should have been stifled at birth (yes that will be Greece, Algeria, Slovenia, France, Mexico and South Africa to name but a few) and almost none wbo will make any kind of impact when the Real World Cup starts sometime soon (that will be Argentina then). So far the only genuinely decisive, game changing moment has been the defence splitting pass setting up Tshabalala’s outstanding net-cracking goal in the first match, with Donkey Heskey’s round the corner layoff to Gerrard being the only other contender (although UK broadcaster ITV did manage to cut to an advert so as to avoid any semblance of real football being observed by the TV audience back home).  At some point real football is bound to break out.

Is Qualification So Different From The Real Thing?

One problem may be that the core tactics needed to qualify may actually be counterproductive once teams get to the World Cup itself, in much the same way that winning the Championship (and being promoted to the Premiership) requires a completely different (some would say mutually exclusive) tactical style to actually being in the Premiership. To qualify, you need to cane the minnows and not lose to the bigger boys. That way, at least, you will scrape into a one on one last gasp ‘limp into the finals’ qualifier. The seeding system rewards conservative play, pitting potential game winners against clod-hopping ‘kick yr shins out’ defenders where skill is valued less than body weight. Once you get to the Finals, however, defences are so well marshalled that you need genuinely skillful players to unlock them, the same players who are a luxury during qualification. You can’t simply ponce about playing loads of flat back passing hoping that you’ll be able to spot the defensive keyhole you need to slot the ball through to win (and then being able to slot the ball home). This effectively means that the very players you need to win World Cup matches (and the ones we want to see) are the ones who are too expensive to risk during the qualifiers.

No Sign Of Revolutionary Tactical Evolution

So far, so Mourinho. A collapsible double bank of four defenders set up just in front of the penalty area, with the now-obligatory defensive midfielder sandwiched in between them seems to be the set up everyone is playing.  Admittedly there are a number of options and changes that happen when the team gains possession and moves forward (very, very slowly), but the gentlemanly technique of allowing the opposition to get set up before beginning your attack in earnest is something that needs to be addressed. At some point someone is going to have to come up with an effective counter to this stalemate.

Sorry, Was There A Match On?

I recently watched Get Shorty again (which is a far better use of 90 minutes than any of the matches I’ve seen so far). In it a drug dealing kingpin threatens to have his minions staple someone’s tongue to their forehead. Watching another match this fucking garbacious would require them to staple my eyelids open and then force me to face in the correct direction. This was Sepp Blatter’s worst nightmare, two teams the world could give a shit about playing sub-low league football in front of a stadium so empty they couldn’t even give the tickets away. So much for the ‘Festival of Football’ and FIFA’s pathetic attempts to pretend that they care about the average South African fan or indeed the average TV watching fan.

But Didn’t Some Guy Get Sent Off and Didn’t The Goalie ‘Green’ It Into His Own Net?

Yes, some guy was sent off (and wasn’t he the lucky one?). And, yes, the Algerian goalie did seem to ‘Green’ it into his own net, albeit with a bit more televisual flair. But that doesn’t excuse the rest of the game.

6 Down 58 To Go