Friday, June 25, 2010

"Sitting here in my safe European home, don't want to go back there again..."

A NEW depression is spreading across Europe.
Greece have already gone into leaderless meltdown, Italy rapidly heading that way too.
Ireland have long since bailed out already, while Spain and Portugal have had to do some tricky clinging on – though desperate times mean they must now turn on each other.
So much for the so-called PIIGS.
Elsewhere, despite a brief recent upturn England remains vulnerable and split in top leadership positions, while Germany is starting to creak under the burden of maintaining momentum.
Meanwhile, Brazil continues to thrive – alongside emerging South American neighbours – while efficient Asian nations surge forward while Africa still struggles.
It’s not the economy, stupid – but the World Cup, of course, now making tough cutbacks of its own by shedding 16 squads.
Seven of those flying home are doing so to Europe, leaving just six from what was the tournament’s best-represented continent.
And all six now face each other in what is somewhat inelegantly, yet universally being referred to as ‘the round of 16’ (rather than, say, simply the second round).
That does still guarantee that almost half of this summer’s quarter-finalists will come from Europe, and despite recent difficulties most bookies would hesitate to price Spain much longer odds than marginal favourites Brazil.
Yet the overwhelming mood seems to reflect a South American surge at the expense of old Europe, especially with the catastrophic plunges of France and Italy.
Key factors vary for each team, making any attempts at sweeping explanations rather difficult – and, also, unhelpful.
Yet several have suffered for lack of ambition and imagination, above all this evening’s casualties Switzerland.
Having conceded no goals during four games in 2006, before losing on penalties to the Ukraine, they exceeded expectations by beating European champions Spain in the first match this time around.
While not especially pleasing on the eye, the muscular work of Blaise Nkufo and the selfless persistence of Eren Derdiyok helped pull off a counter-attacking triumph – marked by Gelson Fernandes’ admittedly-scrappy winning goal.
Yet, after losing by the same scoreline to a more vigorous Chile, tonight’s insipid goalless draw against Honduras allowed Chile to go through despite losing to Spain.
After leading Chile one stage further than he managed with his native – and then much-admired – Argentina eight years ago, Marcelo Bielsa will struggle to find anyone begrudging him.
With their grain-opposing fondness for a 3-3-1-3 formation, Chile have certainly been one of the most curious propositions of the tournament so far – and also one of the most exciting to watch, with Matias Fernandez pulling strings and Alexis Sanchez pulling full-backs to shreds.
There was a fear, however, that the progressive return to form of a Swiss-shellshocked Spain might just be enough this evening to not only topple Chile from the top of Group H, but from the qualifying places all together.
Any Swiss win could easily have left Chile to rue the hordes of chances they created for just one goal apiece in the two previous games.
They did look like paying a hefty price for further wastefulness against Spain, most head-shakingly a close-range, 11th-minute shot blazed embarrassingly over by Mark Gonzalez.
Found in space on the end of Beausejoir’s cutback cross, the winger born not too far away in Durban showed finishing worthy of the Bafana Bafana.
And he and his team-mates were swiftly made to pay, as Spain were roused by another audacious goal by happy slapper David Villa – lofting in a first-time shot from not far inside the Chilean half, after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had raced out to clear.
Encouragingly for Barcelona fans, and ominously for La Liga opponents, new Catalan signing Villa was soon combining deftly and incisively with a left-scurrying Andres Iniesta.
Back in the side after yet another of his season’s injuries, Iniesta virtually passed the ball into the net after a one-two with Villa – paying no heed to Fernando Torres lying slumped in the background.
While his strike partner is flourishing – his first goal against Honduras and his strike against Chile making him perhaps the most audacious Villa outside a Donald Trump estate – Torres is toiling.
Like the substitute who later replaced him, Cesc Fabregas, the injuries of the past season look to have left their mark – leaving neither one looking quite sharp enough, either in body or mind.
In both matches so far, Torres has tended to snatch wildly at chances with his feet, or miscue with his head, while the Fabregas cameos have been tentative, to put it politely.
Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney – goalless and spark-less ever since that injury against Bayern Munich – are also still playing their way back into condition, in the most scrutinised of circumstances.
Van Persie is off the mark now at least, while for all the carping Rooney continues to face his movement did look a little more nimble and defence-stretching against Slovenia.
Bringing the very best out of Rooney on Sunday will be Capello’s most pressing challenge, while Del Bosque faces further tinkering to a side whose displays he rightly termed ‘weird’.
Sergio Busquets hares here, there and everywhere across the field, with admirable energy – though perhaps not always with such need or indeed helpfulness.
The Spain of Euro 2008, for all their eye-boggling tiki-taka – allied with the urge and ability to counter-attack at lightning-speed when crucial – had at their base the immaculate Marcos Senna in holding midfield.
His unfussy distribution, barely-there-but-triumphant tackles, and ability to cut off more passes than the cast of Bonanza ought really to have renamed the so-called ‘Makalele role’.
His own injury-dogged season with a below-par Villareal meant he misses out this summer.
Perhaps it has also been a temptation to stamp his own mark on Luis Aragones’ prestigious achievers that prompts Del Bosque to field not just one deep-lying midfielder but two, in the form of Busquets and Xabi Alonso.
Yet in the marginally underwhelming Spain games so far, this has resulted in phases of frustration, when the likes of Xavi and Iniesta have been forced higher up the pitch – trying to launch those mesmering moves with a little less space opening up clear ahead.
David Silva disappointed in the first game, Jesus Navas has tried to hurl over a madly prolific number of crosses without quite connecting right, while Javi Martinez and Juan Mata have not quite got hold of the games in short substitute appearances.
Already only four of Spain’s 19 outfield players are still waiting for their first 2010 World Cup action, suggesting the strength in depth of the squad – but also a nagging sense of Del Bosque still fine-tuning.
Or maybe he’s just trying to keep everyone happy.
The trailing jet smoke of the now-flown French and Italian squads should act as some solace for all European survivors – there but for the grace (not hand) of God, go we…
The Dutch did did manage three wins out of three, despite their performances being about as flat as, well, the Netherlands Рthough stabs of élan from Elia and Sneijder suggest there should be plenty more still to come.
Although a defence featuring the old-timer likes of Van Brockhorst and Boulahrouz hardly looks like a World Cup-winning rearguard in waiting, the evidence so far suggests they make more than the sum of their parts.
After all, Bert van Marwijk’s side conceded fewer goals than any other European side during qualifiers and have let in just one so far at the tournament itself – and that a Samuel Eto’o penalty, in Thursday’s meaning-lite third match.
Perhaps the most mouthwatering test for that defence would come from the tournament’s strongest attack, the rich Argentina palette of Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Milito and, yes, even ever-willing hoofer Martin Palermo.
Their respective routes to the final would mean having to meet in the final itself, an alluring rematch of 1978 – though this time with added Maradona, one of three players cut at the last moment from Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad back then.
But before then, for all their dreamlike movement and interconnectedness up front, Argentina’s own wobbly defence might have been toppled by others.
Even against the lowly likes of Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, failings and fissures could be glimpsed at the back – whether in the gaping spaces left behind false right-back Jonas Gutierrez or when Demichelis and partners were pressed in possession.
Then again, when you have Lionel Messi showing such sparkling verve – whether as striker, winger or deep-drifting playmaker – just winning the ball back will be a sturdy challenge itself.
Cristiano Ronaldo has gone one better than his World Footballer of the Year successor, by hitting the back of the net – though an uncharacteristic self-deprecation in his grin suggested his ball-juggling strike owed equal credit to both judgment and luck.
Kaka, despite playing with his usual grace, has suffered another stop-start opening to this World Cup, though will be under pressure to do better even against the leg-choppers of Chile.
While he and Rooney are perhaps the only superstar names to have under-performed, several more emerging talents have captured the attention – and imagination.
Mesut Ozul, of course, though also impressive have been Uruguay’s versatile defender Jorge Fucile and their poacher-turned-playmaker Diego Forlan.
Then there was Robert Vittek’s barnstorming performance for Slovakia against Italy – all the alleged qualities of Heskey, but with surefire finishing too – while Japan’s free-kick-swisher Keisuke Honda and Ghana’s diminituve cruncher Anthony Annan have also caught the eye.
Others quick off the mark include adventurous Portugal wing-back Fabio Contreiao, New Zealand’s indefatigable goalkeeper ?? Paston and US inspirations Landon Donovan and, more surprisingly, half-pint right-back Steve Cherundolo.
Still there has been a irritating shortage of goals in too many games, currently averaging out at 2.1 per match – worse than the all-time World Cup low of Italia 90’s 2.2, with Germany ’06 managing not much more at 2.3.
At least things could only get better after the first set of first round matches produced just 25 goals in 16 games, with 42 in the next batch and 34 in the third.
Whinges about vuvuzelas and Jabulanis have been waning ever since sides started to hit form – and the net – with smoother ease.
Or else, still-thrilling chaos - as in the cases of Cameroon-Denmark and Slovakia-Italy above all.
Packed eight-, nine- or ten-men defences when not in possession held a relative balance of power for the tournament’s early stages, but the most unambitious teams are thankfully on their way home now.
Off the field itself, stadia have been crammed with noise if not capacity crowds.
A rather casual air around security has so far led to only embarrassment and not calamity.
And most people have managed to get to the games they intended – even if a tournament navigable by car or plane alone tends to favour only those with plenty of patience. And cash.
The Fifa and LOC strictures which have cowed local traders – while cow-towing, of course, to official sponsors – have threatened at times to dully homogenise an event idealised as something deliberately, exciting different.
But the outbursts of outrage heavy-handed officials have faced – sloganised on T-shirts as ‘Fick Fufa’ or ‘Mafifa: we own the game’ – may fade gently away as they count the governing body’s $1billion annual profits.
Carping aside, even when the World Cup’s bad, it’s still worth cherishing just because it’s the World Cup – and this has so far been a not-bad tournament anyway.
Previous finals tended to turn cagier – though dramatic, if all-too-often penalty-decided – when the expansive group stages gave way to winner-takes-all knock-outs.
Perhaps this time we might see the opposite effect. Either way, the next fortnight can only be compelling.
Never mind the quality – feel the drama. Though some quality treats would be welcome as well.

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