For Spain it’s a Case of Better Late Than Never

6 07 2010

Spain 1-0 Paraguay

This wasn’t the usual performance from the well-oiled Spanish machine. This wasn’t an opponent expected to reach this stage. Regardless, Spain played Paraguay in a quarterfinal that people will be talking about for some time.

Paraguay was playing in its first ever World Cup quarterfinal, but didn’t let the occasion overwhelm them as they ran Spain ragged. The South Americans did everything but score, although if you ask some spectators, viewers and pundits they would say otherwise when in the 41st minute Nelson Valdez thought he’d given Paraguay the lead only to be called back for offside when replays showed that was not necessarily the case.

As the game was approaching the hour mark it was as though the events were taken over by a scriptwriter. While Paraguay was taking its first corner kick Oscar Cardozo’s arm was tugged until he was brought down in the box by Gerard Pique and the ref pointed to the spot without hesitation. Cardozo stepped up to take the kick and Iker Casillas in the Spanish net guessed the right way and made the save. A slightly dodgy offside call and a rare penalty save. Forces were conspiring to keep this game scoreless.

You might think I’ve lost the plot a bit talking about a conspiracy, but consider what happened with in two minutes on the ensuing counterattack. David Villa was brought down by Antolin Alcaraz in the box (barely, but he was tackled) for a Spanish penalty. Xabi Alonso took his place at the spot and dually hit it home, but no. Pique was thought to have encroached the area before the penalty and a re-take was ordered.  Alonso regrouped, stepped up again and it was Justo Villar’s turn to guess the right way and make the save. Unbelievably we had two penalty saves, a penalty ordered re-taken and that dubious offside. Maybe I’m not crazy thinking it’s some kind of conspiracy. Under half an hour to play and Paraguay was still very much alive.

It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that we got to see the Spanish attack we had seen before and expected to see again. Andres Iniesta delivered a beautiful cross off the side of his foot to a wide-open Pedro who hammered his shot clear off the post. The rebound came right back to David Villa who also nailed the post and saw his shot bounce off the opposite post before crossing the line. It wasn’t easy, but it was a goal. That it would come so late and in those circumstances was a surprise. That the goal was scored by Villa isn’t a surprise at all.

It wasn’t pretty and now Spain has a semifinal date with Germany who won’t let the Spaniards get away with a performance like that. Paraguay goes home and now the South American juggernaut is down to Uruguay. As the knockout stage has evolved, Europe has shifted the balance of power in the tourney. Lets see what the scriptwriters come up with in the semis.


Japan is Going to Rue the Crossbar

29 06 2010

Paraguay 0-0 Japan

(Paraguay advances 5-3 on penalties)

It was a game that had some interesting story lines going in to it thanks to Paraguay’s surprise first place in Group F and Japan overcoming both Cameroon and Denmark to qualify out of Group E, but something was lacking in this match. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the opponent, as Japan had never played Paraguay in a World Cup game. Perhaps it was the weight of sudden expectations as neither side had ever reached the quarterfinals.

The match seemed destined for Penalties from the opening whistle. There was little to comment about form the first forty-five minutes. Daisuke Matsui drilled a shot of the crossbar in what was the first half’s best scoring chance.

As for the second half it was a case of neither side really putting together a serious scoring chance. Both sides seemed careful not to make a defensive mistake. A first time quarterfinal berth was at stake and both seemed to play as though not to loose that opportunity rather than to seize it.

Ninety minutes came to close and Japan embarked on the first extra time in its World Cup history. The following thirty minutes were pretty much like the first ninety resulting in the tournament’s first shootout.

I’m not a fan of the shootout to decide who advances, but today I was willing to make the exception since neither side seemed willing to score this is the exit one of these two sides deserved.

For the first two rounds neither keeper looked all that sharp as they were both beaten easily. Paraguay repeated the form with their third shot, but alas it was the crossbar that denied Japan again as Yuichi Komano fired off the woodwork. The Japanese rebounded with their next kick, but the Paraguayans were five for five and move on to the quarterfinals where they will have to raise their game if they are to get past either Spain or Portugal.

From Commedia Dell’arte to Tragedy in Four Years (or at least in Ninety Minutes)

24 06 2010

Slovakia 3-2 Italy

Paraguay 0-0 New Zealand

Has any country had a better sporting year than Slovakia? In the past twelve months they’ve qualified for their first World Cup (beating the Czechs 2-1 and drawing with them 2-2 in the process), finished fourth (ahead of Sweden, Russia and yes, the Czechs) in the Olympic ice hockey tournament and the enjoyed the events of today.

Italy had been uninspired and slow in their games with Paraguay and New Zealand and today was no different. Whether it was the lack of individual creativity on its roster or the number of players on the Azzurri that are on the wrong side of thirty, but the team hadn’t got up to much. Italy hadn’t done a whole lot by the 25th minute either when Robert Vittek put a right footer past Federico Marchetti from the top of the box for a 1-nil Slovakia lead.

Italy looked to have leveled things up in the 67th minute when Jan Mucha was beaten in the Slovakia net, but Fabio Quagliarella’s shot was kicked away on the line by Martin Skertl to keep the Slovaks in the lead. Two minutes later Miroslav Stoch thought he’d doubled his side’s lead, but his shot was a hair wide of the top left corner.

By the 73rd, Jaroslav Halak had to make way for Robert Vittek because Slovakia had a new sporting hero thanks to his simple tap-in in the crease off a Marek Hamsik cross for his second on the day.

Somebody should have told the Italians a football match is ninety minutes and not nine, because it wasn’t until the 81st that Italy finally got on the board. Mucha saved the initial shot by Vincenzo Iaquinta, but Antonio Di Natale slotted home into the wide-open net.

Suddenly the Azzurri had a spark. Di Natale did everything he could (except stay onside) to equalize four minutes later. Quagliarella got revenge for his earlier shot being stopped with a brilliant strike from the top of the box that nailed the back of the top corner. It was a dramatic goal that would have mattered more had Kamil Kopunek not chipped a shot past Marchetti minutes before.

Now the post mortem can begin in Italian football as Group F concluded and the Italians are going home while the first time participants from Slovakia are writing a Cinderella story few thought would have more than one chapter.

In the group’s other finale, Paraguay played for a draw against the upstart New Zealanders. The Kiwis don’t have the offence to score a lot of goals at the best of times and were no match for a side keen on defense as Paraguay was. It ended nil-nil, giving Paraguay first place while New Zealand does go home, but they go home in the knowledge that they didn’t lose a match and finished ahead by one point of the defending World Champions.

In case you’re curious, The Daily Record’s headline today was Jermainia (complete with a shot of Jermain Defoe) and The Sun had In Rood Health (with a picture of Wayne Rooney). Not quite classics yet, but the game with Germany isn’t until Sunday so watch this space.

Italy Shows its Age, New Zealand Shows its Heart

21 06 2010

Italy 1-1 New Zealand

Paraguay 2-0 Slovakia

Italy loves its draws. I’ve mentioned before that their attitude is best summed up by former national team head coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s comment, “no lose”, but going up against a New Zealand side making just their second ever World Cup appearance (and first in twenty-eight years) the Italian side and its fans could and should expect more than another draw.

Italy’s team is made up of players from Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina, among others. They regularly play their games at the highest level in Serie A and he Champions’ League. New Zealand’s roster features players who have made stops in England; not at Arsenal Chelsea or Liverpool, but at clubs like Brentford, Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle. Most of these guys play for a club known as Wellington Phoenix that competes in the Australian league. On paper this was a glaring mismatch, but as the cliché states, the game isn’t played on paper, it’s played on the field.

In their first game against Slovakia, New Zealand waited until the last minute of second half stoppage time to squeak out a 1-1 draw. Today they got the scoring underway in the 7th minute on a goal by Shane Smeltz after he tapped in a Winston Reid flick on. Seven minutes in and New Zealand led 1-nil. There were still over eighty minutes to play so the natural order of things should return.

Twenty minutes after Smeltz’s goal Ricardo Montolivo fired a shot on net that had clearly beaten keeper Mark Paston who stood frozen in his crease but the shot rattled off the post and the Kiwis still had the lead. There was still over an hour to go so Italy had time.

That comeback started a minute later when Tommy Smith brought down Daniele De Rossi in the box and Vincenzo Iaquinta converted the penalty to level the score.  The comeback had started, but was never completed as Paston put in what might be the best goalkeeping performance of the tournament to this point. The Kiwis defended with everything they had to pull off one of the shock results at this or any World Cup.

What is it about Italy and World Cups at new locations? At USA ’94 they dropped their opening game 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland. At Korea/Japan 2002 they were memorably knocked out in extra time in the round of 16 by South Korea. They rebounded from that Irish loss to reach the final, so it’s not all bad news at this point for the Azzurri.

Since it wasn’t a win, I’m not sure if you can call it an upset, but it was definitely something amazing as now after two matches New Zealand is tied on points with Italy. My congratulations go out to New Zealanders everywhere, especially the young couple who braved a stroll down College Street in Little Italy later on that evening. Their jerseys were tasteful, but the flag he wore as a cape may have rubbed it in.

With this result and a few other surprises so far a true dark horse has emerged in the form of Paraguay.  An opening match draw against Italy sent a message that South America has more quality sides than just Brazil and Argentina (Paraguay actually qualified with a better record than the Argentines so they are no pushover).

In their second appearance against Slovakia (coming of that last second draw snatched from the jaws of victory) they controlled the run of play and thanks to goals from Enrique Vera and Cristian Riveros the Paraguayans went top of Group F with four points and look in good shape for a knockout stage berth, Given a desirable match up and the quarterfinals may not be out of the question. I say this because they haven’t even gotten the best out of their mercurial striker Roque Santa Cruz, which means this dark horse still has potential to be a favourite.

As for the Slovaks they were seconds form victory a few days a go and now find themselves on the outside looking in regarding progression to the next round. Although, a match up against Italy doesn’t seem as daunting as it did this time last week.

Escape From Alcaraz

14 06 2010

Italy 1-1 Paraguay

Italy’s opening game of a World Cup is always a big event, especially in Toronto with its hundreds of thousands strong Italian community. Figuring that I would have to get down to Little Italy early, I was outside Café Diplomatico (a mainstay for watching Italian games) a full ninety minutes before kickoff only to find I should have been earlier. It was already full up. This being Little Italy, there is dozens of bars, restaurants and patios (even a bit of a street party as a block of Beatrice Street was closed off complete with DJ) filing up with men and women, young and old in their Azzurri jerseys. In front yards just off of College Street kids were kicking balls around dreaming that one day it will be them on the pitch under the spotlights. Who is Italy playing? Oh yeah, Paraguay. I’d almost forget because it doesn’t matter who’s the opposition is this neighbourhood. It’s all about supporting Italy. There would be a chair or stool available somewhere. I’d just have to claim it soon. Yes, when Italy plays it’s a big deal around here.

The College Street Bar had available space at the counter and air conditioning offering a reprieve from the heat and humidity (but it was nine degrees and raining in Cape town so the environment was always going to be better here).

In Little Italy there is only one flag on the cars. There is only one jersey on the backs of soccer fans. There is only one colour on display and that is azzurri. A look out on College Street and it’s virtually a sea of blue on the sidewalk, in the cars and on the patios. It is also a place where you are likely to see as many glasses of wine on the table as pints of beer. You’re also likely to see plates of food rather than bowls of snacks. This is la dolce vita when it comes to watching the World Cup.

Kickoff and all eyes are on the TV. Every corner kick given to Italy is greeted with cheers and every foul against them met with derision.  That derision maxed out six minutes before the half when Antolin Alacaraz found the back of the net to give Paraguay a 1-nil lead. It isn’t until the 63rd minute that everyone can slightly relax as Daniele de Rossi equalized off another highly supported Italian corner kick.

Full time and it ends 1-1. The mood is fitting. There is no joy or disappointment. In the words of former Italian national team coach Giovanni Trappatoni, ”no lose.” It wasn’t a win, but it wasn’t a loss. With Slovakia and New Zealand still on the horizon the fans of the Azzurri will have opportunity to celebrate. If they don’t get the chance, at least the food will be good.