Saturday, June 17, 2006

"If you're rated X, you're some kind of goal..."

Phew. Hopefully the reluctant little girl forced into heartstring-tugging, ticket-seeking duties by her dad will join the ranks of fervent football fans.
But perhaps it would have been better if her family did indeed miss out on tonight’s pulsating Italy-US match.
With all the crunchy tackles flying in, this blood-and-thunder, ligaments-and-lightning cup tie was anything but suitable viewing for children.
Fantastic fun for adults, mind.
After the fiasco of their three-goal rout by the Czechs, the Americans were a team transformed tonight.
This time, against the defensive masters of world football, the US were a much tighter, controlled unit at the back.
Tactically, that is – sadly, not tackling.
Sadly, a certain indiscipline probably denied them the win they deserved, more than their opponents.
This enthralling World Cup may have captivated every country in the world except the US, where friends assure apathy reigns, and remains, rampant.
But the American supporters here were proudly outsinging the Italians from the first whistle.
And their players were the most positive, testing the full-backs if not the goalkeeper, and provoking Totti into a fifth-minute booking.
Captain Claudio Reyna and defensive midfield lynchpin Pablo Mastroeni were putting together intricate passing movements, starting to jut into the final third of the pitch.
But just as wingers Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey were realising they had every right to feel confident, the Italians struck first blood – metaphorically speaking, though the real stuff would flow in the fullness of time.
Mastroeni’s enthusiasm got the better of him, for the first ominous moment, when he upended Totti on the right-hand side of the US box.
The American accused Totti of diving – not the first nor last time for the Italian playmaker.
But harsher injustice – albeit comical, too – came when Andrea Pirlo floated over the free-kick and Alberto Gilardino stooped low to nod past Kasey Keller.
Replays showed Luca Toni and Oguchi Onyewu locked in what looked the most passionate of embraces.
A wrestle-turned-romantic it may have appeared, but the Americans weren’t whispering sweet nothings as they protested about the clear obstruction on their most impressive defender.
Toni versus the centre-backs, Onyewu and Eddie Pope, could have made for a lively, honest, six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other battle of the powerhouses.
Yet despite his 1.94m in height, 89kg in weight, Toni kept crumpling like a Wendy house in a strong wind, every time Onyewu so much as glanced his way.
When the game was still goalless, he had helped find Pope’s way into the book, collapsing under a 50-50 challenge in a chase for the ball.
But just as they had set themselves up for a comfortable cruise into the second round, the Italians pressed the self-destruct button – twice in as many minutes.
First, the often-hesitant Cristian Zaccardo swung a left foot at a Reyna free-kick that had cleared a congested penalty area – only to swipe at thin air, the ball bouncing off his standing foot and dribbling into his own net.
Seconds after the restart, snarling Daniele De Rossi – already facing a third-match ban for any yellow card – received a straight red for bloodying Brian McBride with a flying elbow.
He made as if to protest his innocence, before rightly stalking straight off the pitch – the clearest-cut dismissal so far this tournament.
The inevitable Italian sacrifice, sadly, would be Totti – hauled off after just 35 minutes, to allow the tenacious Gennaro Gattuso to shore up the midfield.
This invited Andrea Pirlo to sit even deeper in front of the centre-backs, while switching Perotta from probing right-wing to defensive left.
As the game turned out, Italian manager Marcello Lippi might later come to regret the loss of Totti from the attack.
Mastroeni, at that point the most dynamic player on the pitch, might have made the difference with a curving 30-yard drive which landed millimetres high, on top of the net.
But he ruined the effect a minute before half-time, lunging late and two-footed into Pirlo’s thighs and promptly following De Rossi down the tunnel.
He too tried to look innocent and bemused at Jorge Larrionda’s decision, but for all Pirlo’s predictable histrionics, the foul was flagrant – and dangerous.
Lots to do for Larrionda – barely two minutes into the second half, he was again flourishing that fluorescent red, this time despatching US veteran Pope for a second yellow.
The first had looked harsh – the US later insisted the second was too, though he was far from the ball in a hack from behind on Gilardino’s ankles.
Perhaps greedily looking for further US dismissals, the Italians continued to sprawl theatrically at the slightest touch.
In this, captain Cannavaro seemed to be setting the unsavoury example, infuriating his counterpart Reyna with lengthy calls for “treatment”.
In contrast, Reyna was a more admirable inspiration, keeping his calm, keeping his position – and keeping his thoughtful passing going, from the heart of the midfield.
When dropped DeMarcus Beasley got a shot at redemption, as a 62nd minute sub, he and Reyna were unprepared to let the nine-man team simply shut the game down and hope to hold the score level.
Their canny one-twos threatened to carve open the surprised Italian defence, only to be let down by McBride’s slowness of thought and delivery when set free.
The lone striker was to blame for a Beasley “goal” being ruled out, sloppily straying and staying offside as the substitute – and a deflection – lashed the ball past Buffon.
Full-backs Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo proved as sturdy and stubborn as their Italian counterparts looked flaky and uncertain.
Zambrotta at least earned relief from Cherundolo’s rampaging raids, by surging forward himself and daisy-cutting a shot just wide.
But Zaccardo, an own goal to the bad and perplexed by Convey and, increasingly, a right-drifting Landon Donovan, was put out of his misery and replaced with 35 minutes still to play.
Lippi’s most progressive shift was to bring on Alex Del Piero for Zaccardo, encouraging him to fill the gap left by Totti.
Del Piero came closest to breaking the deadlock, stretching to flick a toe to a volley, only for Keller to arch even more painfully to tip it away.
Keller then produced a more conventional save, to beat away a long-range Del Piero drive – sealing for himself the man of the match award.
But while Del Piero worked hard to conjure these two three-quarter-chances, he lacked the Totti curiosity to wander deep and dictate attacks a little more imaginative.
The excellent Onyewu had finally seen off Toni for the equally-ineffective Iaquinta.
And he rudely interrupted the final Italian attempt to steal the win, by hoofing into Row Z a Del Piero cross.
Like the game itself, it certainly wasn’t pretty – but in the moment, in the circumstances: worth a hearty cheer or several, all the same.

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