Posted by: mdegeorge | July 3, 2010

Starting XI Points: World Cup Quarterfinals

It’s been a whirlwind two days of soccer to kick off the Fourth of July weekend and whet fans’ appetites for the final four matches of a stellar World Cup Finals. Here are my Starting XI points from the quarterfinals.

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– So about that South American dominance? It looked like the dream quarterfinals in the dream tournament for the continent: a chance at an all-CONMEBOL final four; a realistic shot of a Brazil-Argentina final; the definitive declaration that the 2010 World Cup Finals and the soccer world at large, to paraphrase Martin Tyler, dances to a Latin beat. But after 48 hours, only one nation from South America remains in South Africa. In truly appropriate World Cup form, that team is Uruguay, who finished in the final CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying position and had to win a playoff with Costa Rica just to earn the right to travel to South Africa. Did the Celeste benefit from the easiest pairing? Probably, though the mobilization of Pan-African support behind Ghana made them anything but a pushover. But in the case of the alleged superiority of Brazil and Argentina, the matchups shouldn’t matter. There’s certainly disappointment in both countries tonight—especially for the Samba Kings and their blown lead—and the continent as a whole.

– Where the South American powers withered, the European behemoths most admirably rose to the occasion. Germany was comprehensive in dismantling a pedestrian Argentina and looks like the side that made the 2006 final. Spain doesn’t always play the prettiest football, but they’re the most determined, methodical, possession-based offense around. And the Dutch are playing to shake a decades-old perpetual bridesmaid syndrome. It’s beautiful attacking football from household names. What more could you want?

– Could there be a more mouth-watering matchup than Spain-Germany for its theatrical and tactical merits? It’s a rematch from the Euro 2008 final in which La Furia Roja came out victorious. Each team provides the other’s exact counterbalance. You’ve got the consummate possession team in Spain, angling to burst open the smallest defensive fissures with pinpoint passing and clinical one-touch football. Then there are the ultimate counter-attackers from Germany, content to make their 40 percent of the possession count with constant running from their high energy midfield (even without Thomas Muller for the match, though advancing Mesut Ozil to have free rein on the wing and adding another ball-winner to the midfield could prove beneficial). It’s going to be a 15-round heavyweight bout.

– The other semifinal is no slouch either. Uruguay and the Netherlands play similar 4-3-3 styles that should allow a lot of space in the midfield and a back-and-forth game. It’s a shame that Luis Suarez, a man who’s made mincemeat of Dutch defenses for his club Ajax Amsterdam, won’t take part. But Diego Forlan and the ability (if not the actual emergence just yet) of Edison Cavani leave Uruguay with more than passable options. The Dutch attack, with a healthier Arjen Robben and dynamic Wesley Sneijder, should but on another strong show (especially if Uruguay give them time and space as they did Ghana’s Sulley Muntari in the quarterfinal). But they’ll miss midfield sergeant Nigel De Jong, though it could provide the neutral fans an even more offensively-explosive showcase.

– It’s a tough script to swallow, but it looks like the villain was vindicated for Uruguay. It’s Suarez, the hand-ball hero who saved Uruguay’s tournament with his reflex stop of Kevin-Prince Boateng’s last second attempt at goal. It gave the Celeste a second life, however limited it appeared to be, and it paid off with Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty. They’re the darlings of the tourney, and Suarez’s gamble paid off.

– Who’s the bigger goat from the quarters? Is it Gyan and his missed penalty, or leg-stomping Felipe Melo and his defensive blunder (now a Sneijder goal)? Even with the high profile of Gyan’s penalty spot gaffe, at least he got a chance for redemption in the penalty shootout and converted. Melo took himself out of the running for retribution, and will suffer a bitterer pill on the flight home.

– It’s time to put Miroslav Klose firmly into the running for greatest striker of all time. With his next goal, he will tie Ronaldo for the all-time lead in World Cup Finals scoring. It’ll be his 15th, and his fifth in three straight Finals. It’s an utterly unbelievable record from an unbelievable striker.

-If Lionel Messi was the poster child for players having strong tournaments without getting on the score sheet, Bastian Schweinsteiger made it his mission today to displace Messi, literally and figuratively, from that position. He was a demon against Argentina and has been a strong and creative presence throughout the tournament. He’s the elder statesman of that midfield at only 26, but he’s been indispensible both ways for Germany so far.

– For all Spain’s positives thus far, can they really win this tournament without a fully effective Fernando Torres? It doesn’t have to be the out of this world Torres who has everything that goes off his foot go in. But it has to be a reasonably effective Torres who converts the golden chances his team creates for him. You have to wonder how close Vicente Del Bosque is to starting Pedro in his place.

– It’ll be interesting to see what Ghana’s near miss in the quarters does to the legacy of African teams in the first Finals on the continent. There’s no doubt they underperformed as a group, with some very disappointing performances from Nigeria and Cameroon. Ghana’s finish seemed part and parcel of the African contingent’s showing: a good effort that could have been made great with better execution in clutch time. But it helped unify the continent however briefly, as Nelson Mandela’s address to the Ghanaian team attests.

– This is very much a good news/bad news day. On the bright side, no one in Buenos Aires has to see Diego Maradona run naked through the streets. On the down side, no one gets to see Paraguayan lingerie model Larissa Riquelme run naked through the streets of Asuncion.

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