Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup Post #12

First quarter finals wrap - Germans and Italians show the mental toughness needed at this level
Tony Tannous, back in Sydney

Germany vs Argentina; No surprise to see the hosts march on to the semi finals, they are extremely solid mentally, unlike the Argentines, who can be fragile when the going gets tough. From their opening game, against Costa Rica, the Germans appeared in the right frame of mind, particularly offensively. They've been exploding into games and few teams have been able to keep up with them. They've worked hard on the defensive problems that dogged their first game (being caught too square) and have generally grown with the tournament. From the moment Argentina pumped Serbia and Montenegro six-zipp, there was concern that they may have peaked too early, and there was evidence against Mexico that their best football may already have been played. Here there was plenty of respect between the two teams in the opening period and Peckerman appeared to have Klinnsman's measure, deploying Tevez on the left and Maxi Rodriguez on the right to stop one of Germany's main sources of attack, overlapping fullbacks Arne Friedrich and Phillip Lahm. Both have been vital to Germany's success this campaign, getting forward and providing excellent width and delivery. Here they were pegged back, and a stalemate emerged. Peckerman's reaction to Ayala's goal gave Germany the impetus to press forward, not that they needed it. The Germans have a reputation for mental toughness that is second to none, but this young side must have had some doubts after conceeding first for the first time this tournament. Instead of doing what has been natural for them this campaign, pressing forward for another goal, Argentina went conservative and paid the price. They started wasting time, became cynical, and there can be little sympathy for a team that does this. The introduction of Odonkor made a big difference as he kept Sorin busy, and Germany did what they do best, fight and fight, getting their reward. They mightn't be the best team player for player, but they have remarkable mental strength, as witnessed during the penalty shootout, simply top notch. Argentina were in the drivers seat and had stuffed it, and their reaction afterwards was as much about the frustration at their own inability to get the job done.

Italy vs Ukraine; There is a certain destiny about the Italian run. All the off field drama, all the luck of the world on it, and they march on. Here they always looked like winners, too strong technically for the Ukraine, but even then they had to survive a couple of close shaves when up 1-0. First Buffon made a great stop, followed by a block on the line by Zambrotta, before the crossbar denied a back post header. It proves that, for all the good defending in the world, you also need luck to do well in a major tournament, and they've definitely had that in abundance, as the Socceroos can atest. But the Azzuri also have a steel that has impressed, lead by Buffon, Cannavaro and Zambrotta at the back, and backed up by Gattuso, Perrotta and Pirlo in midfield. Totti and Toni are finally getting going, and the Italians might be peaking at the right time, just like Brazil and the hosts. The Ukraine came late, but by then it was too late.

Tonights quater finals; England have had a soft draw and meet their first world class opponent in Portugal, who knocked them off two years ago. In the past three major championships, England have been knocked out by better technical passing teams (Romania in 2000, Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2004) and it remains to be seen whether they can pass the ball better than they have been, vital if they are to relieve pressure against the technically edept Portugal. The performance against Ecudaor was England's best so far, not perfect but a step in the right direction, albeit against an Ecuador that seemed satisfied with what they'd achieved. Portugal won't be satisfied with reaching the quarters, they have bigger ambitions, but the cards may just have fallen England's way with suspensions to Deco and Costinha. Portugal have the depth with the likes of Simao, Tiago and Petit, and if they can control themselves better than they did against Holland (where the stakes were so high), they might just have too much control of the ball for England. In the other quarter final, Brazil might just have too many gears for a French team which is on the improve. Les Bleus finally pulled the finger out in the second half against Togo, when Viera was the inspiration, finally providing some drive from midfield (which had severly been lacking for two and a half games), and against Spain it was he and Zidane who rewound the clock. Henry still struggles and unless he finally produces it against Brazil, expect the world champs to march on. Like Italy they have relied on a bit of luck (both the Socceroos and Ghana were unable to punish some gaps at the back), but they have the class in attack to create chances. One of the most telling stats against Ghana was shots off target - Ghana 11, Brazil 1. Like Germany, they are efficient in front of goals, and the prospect of a semi final pitting them against former manager Felipao wets the appetite.


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