Saturday, June 24, 2006

ATH: A fine Roundup from SI

A really good roundup of the remaining teams at the World Cup from Sports Illustrated . . . except that they're already on the ropes on one of the first two games (of course i am too!) . . .

Knockout Stage Preview
A look at the the 16 teams that survived the first round
Mark Bechtel, SI, Posted: Friday June 23, 2006 5:03PM; Updated: Saturday June 24, 2006 11:02AM

Left: In his first World Cup, Argentina's 18-year-old wunderkind, Lionel Messi, has put on a show.
Ben Radford/Getty Images

They've played 48 of the 64 games in this year's World Cup in Germany, and half the field has gone home. Here's what to look for from the 16 teams who survived the first round.

How It Got Here: By putting on a clinic. Argentina beat a very good Ivory Coast team to open, and it closed with a draw in a meaningless game with the Dutch. In between, it humiliated Serbia and Montenegro 6-0. If you haven't seen the second goal, do yourself a favor and watch. It says something about the play that the highlight lasts well over a minute. The Argentines strung together 24 passes. If you're scoring at home, it went Riquelme to Maxi Rodriguez to Sorin to Maxi Rodriguez to Sorin to Mascherano to Riquelme to Ayala to Cambiasso to Mascherano to Maxi Rodriguez to Sorin to Maxi Rodriguez to Cambiasso to Riquelme to Mascherano to Sorin to Saviola to Maxi Rodriguez to Saviola to Cambiasso to Crespo to Cambiasso (a backheel!), who put the finishing touch on the prettiest team goal you'll ever see.

What Lies Ahead: A date with Mexico, which can't be too pleased. Moreover, Argentina's outstanding form combined with Brazil's indifferent displays may have propelled La Selección into the role of favorite.

Prediction: Barring several injuries or a mass alarm clock failure on the morning of a match, a deep run looks inevitable.

How It Got Here: In Guus they trust. Dutch coach Guus Hiddink got the team to finally play up to its potential. After qualifying for the first time in 32 years, the Socceroos scored their first World Cup goal late in the second half against Japan, then tacked on two more to win 3-1. A fine showing against Brazil (in which they got no help from strangely terrible ref Markus Merk) was followed by a draw against Croatia, which saw the 'Roos through for the first time.

What Lies Ahead: The Aussies play Italy, a team that, on paper, should handle them. But both Ghana and the U.S. gave the Italians fits. And you're not going to get far in life betting against Hiddink, who led Korea to a win over the Italians in 2002.

Prediction: There aren't many Cinderella stories left in this World Cup, but don't count out the Aussies. Italy can be beaten, and that would be followed by a game against Switzerland or Ukraine. Watch the 'Roos.

How It Got Here: By underwhelming the world. Ho-hum wins over Croatia and Australia were followed by a clinical dissection of a bad, bad Japan team. The big story was Ronaldo, who has gotten so pudgy and whose movements have become so belabored that looking at him you couldn't help but think he was going to start sweating red beans and rice. But where has Ronaldinho been? He's provided a couple dozen stopovers, and not much else.

What Lies Ahead: Being kicked in the ankles. Brazil should handle Ghana, but it will have the bruises to remember the encounter for days and days.

Prediction: The odds-on pre-tourney favorite will have its hands full with Spain in the quarters.

How It Got Here: Group A was horribly weak.

What Lies Ahead: Ninety minutes of football against England and a plane ride home.

Prediction: See above. Actually, I talked to several England fans who would have preferred playing Germany to playing Ecuador in the round of 16. While those people might be crazy, it does bear mentioning that Ecuador played very well in qualifying for the tournament and it handled Poland in the opener and drilled Costa Rica. But Poland isn't good, and neither is Costa Rica. The lasting memory of Ecuador's 2006 campaign will be Ivan Kaviedes's Spider Man mask, which he donned during the rout of Costa Rica.

How It Got Here: By playing dull but effective football. England won its first two group games (against Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago) then tied Sweden to win Group B. With Wayne Rooney working himself back into shape, England relied on long balls to Peter Crouch, which didn't really work. Michael Owen was ineffective before he injured his knee in the early moments of the Sweden game. And central midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard never really got clicking.

What Lies Ahead: An easy match against Ecuador, which is what England needs. It'll give Rooney another game to get fit, and it'll give the team a chance to tinker with the formation. Losing Owen might not be a huge blow; in fact, it might be a blessing in disguise. With the team so thin up top, Sven-Goran Eriksson could go to a 4-5-1, which would allow Lampard and Gerrard to both play attacking roles.

Prediction: England should handle Ecuador, but its quarterfinal game will be a challenge: either Portugal, which dumped England from Euro 2004, or the Netherlands. Chances are, despite what the English fans sing, football ain't coming home.

How It Got Here: By skirting every mandatory retirement age in the books. The 1998 champs, who were abysmal in 2002, have been slightly less abysmal this time around. But had France not had such a weak draw, it would have gone home after the group stage for the second straight Cup.

What Lies Ahead: France's just dessert, in the form of Spain.

Prediction: If France's World Cup campaign has shown us anything, it's how good Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is at figuring out when it's time to sell a player. Remember when Patrick Viera was, I don't know, good? It wasn't too long ago. But Wenger sent him to Juventus for a boatload of cash, and we're now seeing just how prudent and timely that move was. Viera has been awful, and France's other aging stars -- Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, who's done little to shed the I-can't-perform-when-it-matters label -- haven't been much better. Watching France is like watching Ali get his ass kicked by Trevor Berbick.

How It Got Here: By pounding a weak group. The Germans outscored their opponents 8-2 in winning all three of its Group A games.

What Lies Ahead: A test. We know the Germans can run roughshod over the likes of Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador. But will they be able to attack with such ease and grace against a disciplined team like Sweden? They'd better hope so, because if they beat the Swedes, they'll likely get Argentina in the quarters.

Prediction: Sweden they can beat. Argentina? That's a different story.

How It Got Here: By manhandling Group E. The Black Stars were fouling machines, roughing up all three of their opponents. But there's more to this team than its passing resemblance to the 1988 Pistons. The midfield is fantastic -- the middies run up the center of the park when they don't have the ball, hunt down whoever does have it and then transition into attacking mode in no time flat. The only thing they lack is a deadly finisher. If midfielder Michael Essien could shoot, we'd now be discussing if he was, in fact, the best player in the world.

What Lies Ahead: Brazil. Oy.

Prediction: The U.S. wasn't the only team to get hosed by referee Markus Merk on Thursday. Before his awful penalty kick call, Merk gave Essien a ridiculously soft yellow -- his second caution of the group, meaning he'll miss the Brazil game. That's too bad, because the man is a class footballer. Without him, Ghana has no chance.

How It Got Here: I'm not sure. Italy got through the toughest group in the tournament without looking spectacular. They struggled to put Ghana away, drew a plucky, undermanned U.S. team and then dispatched a Czech team that couldn't catch a break.

What Lies Ahead: A stroll to the semis if Italy can get past Australia, which will put up a fight. Past that, it's Switzerland or Ukraine.

Prediction: Here's what we learned about the Italians: 1) They can compartmentalize (the Serie A scandal that could see a quarter of the lineup relegated didn't seem to bother anyone). 2) They're not impermeable, but they're still pretty darn good defensively. 3) They're cagey. Did you see Francesco Totti take that quick short corner against Ghana? The Azzurri should be in it when the semis roll around.

How It Got Here: A good draw. Mexico was held to a draw by Angola and lost to a Portugal side that was resting Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo, Costinha and Pauleta. Had Mexico been faced with decent competition, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

What Lies Ahead: Mexico's most likely path to the title game: Argentina, Germany, Italy.

Prediction: Did I mention Mexico plays Argentina next?

The Netherlands
How It Got Here: By dispatching a good Ivory Coast team. After a decent effort in their opener, a 1-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro, the Dutch played a fantastic game to beat the Elephants. (It was sad to see the Ivorians go. Were they not handed such a hellish draw, they likely would have been the tournament's darlings.) The final score was 2-1, but the Netherlands looked awfully scary, especially on the wings, where Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have been outstanding.

What Lies Ahead: A rematch of their Euro 2004 semifinal with Portugal, which the Dutch lost 2-1.

Prediction: The Netherlands boast one of the most energetic sides in the tournament. The Portugal game will be the best match in the round of 16. If the Netherlands can get past Portugal, it'll likely face England -- whom the Netherlands should paste pretty good. A semifinal berth doesn't look at all far-fetched.

How It Got Here: On the back of a rejuvenated midfielder. Portugal had one tough game in an otherwise weak group: Mexico. During that affair, Maniche played brilliantly, making one wonder why he can't come near to cracking the lineup at Chelsea. He bossed the midfield -- winning balls, starting attacks and, not insignificantly, scoring Portugal's first goal. Portugal's other two games, against Iran and Angola, were hardly challenges.

What Lies Ahead: Portugal has a much tougher test in the round of 16 (the Dutch) than it would in the quarters (England or Ecuador).

Prediction: Coming into the tournament, I thought the Portuguese were going to sneak up on people. In 2002 they had the burden of wildly high expectations, as their so-called golden generation came of age. We all know how poorly that turned out. But in '06, the Portuguese have, unfairly, I think, been written off. They're hardly ancient, and any team with Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Deco and Pauleta can't be trifled with. Plus, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has won straight 10 World Cup games. Don't count this team out.

How It Got Here: Group H is almost as bad as Group A.

What Lies Ahead: A cakewalk against Group G runner-up France, then we find out how good Brazil really is.

Prediction: Chronic underachievers, the Spaniards showed signs that they might be ready to look as good as they historically do on paper. Captain Raul has been pushed aside, with youngster David Villa slipping on the stud suit. After Spain hammered Ukraine 4-0 in the opener, Villa, who had two goals, said, "We expected a much more complicated match." And that was against the second-best team in the group. Spain is good. Brazil should be worried about getting out of the quarters.

How It Got Here: By finally figuring out a way to score. The Swedes were held to a scoreless draw by minnows Trinidad and Tobago in their opener, and then Paraguay kept them off the board for 89 minutes in their second game. Freddie Ljungberg finally headed home the winner against Paraguay, setting up the Swedes to finish second in Group B.

What Lies Ahead: A showdown with the hosts, which should show us once and for all if the Germans are for real.

Prediction: A team with Ljungberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson is going to create chances against anyone, especially a team like Germany (the German defense has ranged from passable to awful so far). If the Swedes get the kind of finishing those three are capable of providing, they should give the hosts all they can handle.

How It Got Here: DEE-FENSE!! DEE-FENSE!! While not the most exciting team (they only scored three goals), the Swiss were the only side not to concede a goal in the group stage.

What Lies Ahead: A winnable knockout stage match against a weak Ukraine team. Then, most likely, an Alpine showdown with the Italians.

Prediction: Switzerland had virtually no attack until Hakan Yakin was brought on as a sub midway through its second game, a 2-0 win over Togo. He was excellent again in the finale versus South Korea. If the playmaker is on his game, he gives the Swiss -- who defend well and play with a, well, Swiss precision -- a nice balance. (However, that strong D will suffer if Philippe Senderos's arm injury is serious.) They haven't blown anyone away in Germany, but they're always going to be a tough team to beat. Italy has had its moments of weakness. If the Swiss can take advantage of one and keep Italy off the board, they could surprise.

How It Got Here: Someone had to come in second in Group H.

What Lies Ahead: If we're lucky, a loss to Switzerland. I've had this World Cup theory for a while: One great player on a roll can make any team dangerous. So I thought Ukraine, with Andriy Schevchenko, would be a dark horse. In retrospect, it's the worst theory ever. Ukraine got killed by Spain and advanced with a win over Tunisia, which was down a man, in what might have been the worst game of the tournament. That the Ivory Coast got sent home and Ukraine is still in it is an abomination.

Prediction: Sadly, Ukraine can beat Switzerland, which looked like anything but a worldbeater in winning Group G. Should Ukraine pull the upset, Italy will send them home.


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