Mama Said Knock You Out: Previewing the World Cup’s Sweet 16

It all begins again tomorrow, when Uruguay tees off against South Korea to start the knockout round at the World Cup. From here on out, the stakes get higher, of course: win or go home, as the cliche goes.

For those of you (paging Rick Reilly) who hate on soccer because of all the damned draws, you can rest your objections. If teams are tied after regular time, two 15 minute periods of extra time are played; if it’s still tied after that, then we go to penalty shootout. Needless to say, this makes for some truly exciting soccer.

So, quick take: This is a remarkably diverse Sweet Sixteen. It’s a sign of the increasing parity in world soccer that traditional soccer heavyweights like Italy and France (the finalists from 2006) didn’t even survive the round-robin. You want parity? Try this on: Japan and Korea made it out of group play, and could credibly advance to the semifinals. That’s like Butler playing Duke for the NCAA title.

Without further ado, onward. Previews on the flip.

URUGUAY vs SOUTH KOREA (June 26): In many ways, Korea and Uruguay are mirror images of each other, as far as the team goes.

South America’s had a phenomenal tournament, thus far. How good? Consider this: we could potentially have an all-South American World Cup semifinal round. That said, of all the South American sides, Uruguay’s likely the weakest. Because of that, though, it’s also the most likely to be underrated. They possess decent scoring ability with Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, while captain Diego Lugano does a fine job of backstopping the defense.

As for South Korea, this is the second time they’ve made it out to the knockout stage – the other time came when they hosted the Cup 8 years ago, and made a wonder run to the semifinals. Like their Asian counterparts Japan, they’re fairly disciplined defensively, sneakily lethal on the counterattack, and pack some offensive punch. Look for Lee Jung-Soo to pace the Korean attack – he’s got 2 goals already, with Lee Dong-Gook (their leading goalscorer, with 25) to break out of his scoring slump.

It’s hard to pick a winner here, but I’m going to go with the Latin-American flow, and pick Uruguay to win 2-1 in a close, hard-fought game.

U.S.A. vs GHANA (June 26): An epic preview for what’s likely to be one of three epic matches in this round.

Oh, Africa. The hopes were so very high that this would be the World Cup where African teams – who’ve blessed the game with players like Roger Milla, Michael Essien, and Didier Drogba – would finally break through en masse to the knockout rounds.

Instead of a dream, African fans got a nightmare in the round robin? Nigeria? Gone. Cameroon? The Indomitable Lions remake got cancelled. Les Elefants won’t be dancing, and the vuvuzelas won’t be blowing for South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, the first host team to be denied a golden ticket for the Sweet Sixteen in World Cup history.

The sole survivor? The Black Stars of Ghana. That said, this is a team that’s well equipped to make a deep run and redeem African hopes. Asamoah Gyan, who’s stepped up in the absence of Ghanian wonder striker Michael Essien, roams tirelessly in the attack, always ready to pounce on a loose ball and make teams pay. Their defense is relentless, suffocating attack after attack.

They’ll be facing the U.S.A., who are making their customary every-other-Cup appearance in the knockout stages. Of all the matches in the Sweet 16, this is the most even. In no other match will the first goal tallied matter more than in this one. Bold, I know, but here’s why:

Thanks to a missing Michael Essien and an unfit Sulley Muntari, Ghana haven’t scored more than a goal in six straight matches. Their only two goals in the group round came off penalty kicks for handballs. They struggled to score not just against Germany, but even against an Australia squad that the U.S.A. shelled 3-1 while looking poor themselves. Their strategy, thus far, has been to score and then pack nine men behind the ball, while leaving Gyan to roam on rare counterattacks. Frankly, it’s dreadful, negative stuff.

Should the U.S. give up an early goal against the Black Stars, as they did in playing England and Slovenia, it’ll be phenomenally difficult for them to tally an equalizer. Should the U.S. score once or twice early on, Ghana will be hard-press to draw even, thanks to their lack of attacking prowess.

As cool as it would be to see the lone African team make a deep run, I think Ghana are too offensively deficient. As long as the American defense makes no mistakes, I favor them to avenge their controversial loss to Ghana from 2006, and defeat the Black Stars 2-0.

NETHERLANDS vs SLOVAKIA (June 28): Admit it – after Slovakia’s performance in the first two games of this World Cup, you weren’t expecting them to make it to the second round. They got stunned by a New Zealand side that came, literally, within 4 inches of shocking the world by beating Italy, and only had one shot on goal against Paraguay’s side.

Then they played Italy, and in one of the crazier games of the Cup, beat them 3-2. All it takes is one game, folks. Just like that, they were through, and Italy wasn’t, for the first time since 1974.

So, what now? Well, the truth is that Slovakia really isn’t that good of a team. They tend to play what’s now become a standard 4-2-3-1 formation, but it’s a pretty plain defense and even plainer attack, lacking much creativity. That they scored 3 goals on the Azzuri is less a testament to the Slovaks’ magnificence than to how putrid this edition of Italy’s squad was.

Now they face the Netherlands. If ever a team looked lackluster while going 3-0-0 in their group, it was them. They clearly looked as if they badly missed Arjen Robben directing the wondrous mechanics of Clockwork Orange.  Despite Robben’s absence, Wesley Sneijder keyed the attack, allowing the Oranje to run the table.

Truthfully, the wonder is a tad bit overstated – this isn’t the Netherlands of Johan Cruyff, much like Brazil isn’t the Brazil of Socrates. That said, they’re the best European team, winning all 8 of their matches in qualification, and look poised to make a deep run to at least the semis, now that Robben is back in charge.

I’m picking the Netherlands in a blowout, 4-0.

BRAZIL vs CHILE (June 28): No team faces a tougher road to the title than Brazil.

Think about it. Should they beat Chile (more on that in a second), they would potentially face the world’s second-ranked team in the Netherlands in the quarters, then have to deal with the dangerously underrated quartet of Uruguay, Korea, U.S.A. and Ghana in the semifinals, before finally facing one of Argentina, Germany, or Spain* for the championship.

And Chile? La Roja is no joke, folks. They play in a wildly unorthodox 3-3-1-3, which favors a wildly entertaining and attacking orientation. Even though they lost to Spain 2-1 to close out their group play, that was more the result of yet another goalkeeper howler, combined with a horrible red card. In that game, they wasted 3 chances in the first 20 minutes, which really should’ve seen Spain losing 2-0 and facing a shameful exit.

Instead, we’ve got the third great game of this round. I fully expect that Chile will give Brazil fits, as they ceaselessly attack…and attack…and attack some more. Luckily for Brazil, they’ve got a great defense to go with their offense, and I think that will prove to be the difference here, since Chile will be missing both of their starting central defenders, thank s to red cards.

I expect Brazil to defeat Chile 2-1, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Chile managed to scratch out a win here by the same tally. Chile’s that good.

ARGENTINA vs MEXICO (June 27): Look, I won’t blame you for thinking that Argentina’s coach, Diego Maradona, is insane. You wouldn’t be the only one. For starters, Maradona is fielding a lineup that’s chockfull of attackers, while missing defenders. The bet that he made, simply, was that the Albiceleste would outscore you, making up for any defensive lapses that would happen (and they have).

As badly as Argentina struggled during qualification, it seems to have come together splendidly here in South Africa. Lionel Messi, despite not having scored yet in this Cup, is clearly well-tapped as the Cup’s MVP. They were simply dominant in their group – demolishing a good Korean squad 4-1, for example.

Meanwhile, this Mexican squad is also in fine mettle. They’re young, it’s true – but with the youth comes also excitement. El Tri have shown a nose for the attack, particularly the counterattack. Mexico have the ability to pose problems for Argentina’s defense, by preying on Argentinian defender Martin Demichelis’ propensity for boneheaded play. Mexico’s defense is pretty sterling as well – witness their play against France and Uruguay.

So, it’s entirely possible that Mexico could beat Argentina, book a place in the quarters for the third time in history, and potentially go further than any Mexican team ever. They have the offense and defense to do the deed, and if they can beat Argentina, they can beat a seemingly shaky Germany, or a staggering England.

[SIDEBAR: Believe it or not, for as much as Mexicans like to woof about their supposedly great soccer pedigree, the U.S. has gone further than Mexico in the Cup, making the semis in 1930. Mexico made the quarters in 1970 and 1986, but has otherwise been lackluster. They've only been really successful, internationally, since 1994 - roughly tracking with the U.S.]

Entirely possible, but not probable. In the end, I’m expecting this to be the second great game of this round, full of open play, with plenty of scoring chances. And at the end of Mexico’s day, the sun will set on their Cup hopes with a 3-2 loss to Argentina.

GERMANY vs ENGLAND (June 27): There’s a certain kind of England fan that always looks at their contests with Germany as a rivalry, and casts that rivalry in warlike terms, hearkening back to World War II, making tired jokes about the French, the Americans and the Germans.

I understand. It’s easy to live in the kind of frozen amber that that fantasy requires, because the reality of England’s performance at the World Cup is disappointing at best, and disheartening at worst.

Consider this: since England beat Germany 4-2 to win its only Cup in 1966, Germany has made the second round every single time – 11 straight cups and counting. They’ve won two Cups, finished second four times (including ‘66), and third twice. They’ve made it to the quarters seven straight Cups. They’ve made it to the semifinals the last two Cups.

In that time, England have made the semifinals once, and failed to qualify three times. While they’ve made the quarters the last two Cups, let’s just say that the Three Lions haven’t covered themselves in glory, exactly.

Moreover, England’s record against Germany is miserable – aside from the win in 1966 for the Cup, and another in the 2000 European Championships, it’s been nothing but defeat after defeat, with the most painful coming in 1990 – the last time England made the semifinals.

That said, this could prove to be a closer match than many expect. Germany’s been shaky their last two matches, having had trouble creating chances and even greater trouble finishing them. Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that England have managed to overcome the collective funk that they found themselves in after drawing their first two games.

More than most, this is a hard match for me to read. If any match this round goes to a penalty kick shootout, it’s this one. And there’s history on my side for this: the last two times these teams have met in the knockout stages of a tournament, it’s gone that far. Both times, die Mannschaft has reigned supreme, serenely escorting the Lions out.

It ends here, it ends now, I say. I’m saying Wayne Rooney finally lives up to billing. I’m saying England beats Germany, 1-1, with the English finally winning a shootout.

PARAGUAY vs JAPAN (June 29): This game is a mystery to me. Really, it is. Both of these teams are criminally underrated.

I read once that the key to pitching in baseball was to break up the hitter’s rhythm. Well, that’s what both Paraguay and Japan do – they break their opponent’s run of play, they disrupt their rhythm, with their disciplined play on defense. Then, once they score, their style of play forces teams to panic and overcommit on offense, thus opening up more attacking lanes for Paraguay/Japan to counterattack. And…score!

Now you’re panicking – waitwaitwait, are we really losing 2-0 to PARAGUAY/JAPAN? REALLY? And just as you’re setting the table for a score to draw within 1 goal, suddenly you’re backpedaling, suddenly you’re seeing the ball settle gently within the goal a third time, as your keeper stretches desperately, vainly, to prevent the goal. Now you’re down 3-0, and your day is over.

Rinse, repeat, finis.

What’s interesting to me is that I don’t know who wins this game – it’s going to be a real chess match of a game, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see this a 0-0 draw going into extra time. But eventually, someone will break. What I don’t know is if it will be Japan or Paraguay breaking.

I’m leaning towards Paraguay here, given that they play against Brazil and Argentina regularly, rather than the minnows that Japan plays in Asia. I think Paraguay’s greater experience at the World Cup is the difference here, and the Guaranis take advantage, 1-0.

SPAIN vs PORTUGAL (June 29): Congratulations. You’ve made it. This is the end of the preview. Too bad that it’s a preview of a match likely to contend with Netherlands v Slovakia for worst match of this round.

Spain had really high expectations going into this World Cup. They’d been unbeaten in 45 out of their 46 previous games, their only loss coming in the 2009 Confederations Cup against the U.S.A. Their last game before the Cup began was a 6-1 romp over Poland. La Furia was the hipster choice for World Cup favorites.

And then…and then it came crashing down with a 1-0 loss to Switzerland. Let’s get one thing clear: there’s negative soccer, where offenses sputter and die, and then there’s what Switzerland plays, which is closer to a black hole, where soccer goes, never to be seen again.

They recovered to beat Honduras and Chile to win their group, but one senses that this Spanish team feels vulnerable, shorn of their innocence, waiting for the inevitable heartbreak that’s a hallmark of Spanish soccer (before their Euro 2008 title, Spain had gone 44 years without winning a title of any kind).

Now they face a Portugal squad that’s the antithesis of everything good about soccer, led by soccer’s equivalent of Alex Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo. This is a squad that never fails to become intimately acquainted with the ground, thanks to their propensity to dive when breathed upon. Indeed, this tendency gave me one of my favorite moments of the Cup: Brazil’s Luiz Fabiano hectoring Portugal’s Pepe to get his punk ass off the ground and quit diving in their game today.

Here’s the thing, though: as witnessed by their 7-0 thrashing of North Korea, Portugal can play awesome, attacking soccer that’s fun to watch. That said, even that win was sour, having every element of watching a bully pound a hapless kid into the ground.

That’s why you can’t root for Portugal. There’s something deeply wrong about the way they play, something fundamentally corrupt and rotten and putrid. It’s the kind of insecure game that only posers and guys who roofie drinks play, and it deserves every ounce of derision possible.

If there’s any justice to be had in this game, Spain wins. Luckily for us, Spain is going to pound Portugal’s sorry ass into the ground. Look for Spain to win 2-0, in a game that really should be 3-0 or 4-0. And if the soccer gods are listening, 7-0.

That’s all she wrote. If things go as I expect, the quarters will feature some truly awesome matchups. Tell me who you pick in the comments.

*I’m not kidding. As I detail in the post, anyone can come out of that bracket, and it wouldn’t be ludicrous. Japan & Paraguay are solid squads, England could snap back into qualification form, and it bears remembering that Portugal are ranked third in the world. That side of the bracket is murderous.

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One Comment

  1. Gray, Germany
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    “we could potentially have an all-South American World Cup semifinal round.”

    Not if the Dutch and Germans can prevent that! :D

    And good luck with your predictions for the quarterfinals. There’s room for improvements!

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