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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

South (World Cup Quarterfinals Primer)

What is it that they say about "best laid plans"?  The FIFA selection committee put together a bracket which was designed to the benefit of underdogs, particularly African underdogs, but as we enter the quarterfinals, five of the top seven teams in the world are still kicking, with #3 Portugal and #8 England only knocked out by virtue of second round matchups with #2 Spain and #6 Germany.  

There is good news for FIFA, however, at the expense of Americans.  Even though only one African team got through, Ghana has managed to advance to the final eight.  They were the second-lowest ranked African side at #32 and they are the lowest ranked team among the remaining participants, but they have looked much better than that ranking indicates.  They beat a highly regarded Serbian side during the group stage, a Serbian side who went on to upset the Germans.  Then they played an outstanding game against Germany themselves.  Even though it ended in defeat, Ghana threatened to take the group outright, as they held the imposing German team to one goal, midway through the second half, and actually exceeded them in shots and were nearly their equals in time of possession.

In retrospect, based on the level of competition they'd faced and how they fared against that competition, Ghana was probably the favorite entering their first knockout game against the U.S.  It was an exciting affair, and Ghana's tremendous fitness and their "home"-field advantage were probably the deciding factors, as they brought significantly more energy and hunger to the extra time.  

They will again wear the underdog label against Uruguay, but again, it might be misleading.  Uruguay has dominated their competition thusfar, but they've had, undeniably, the easiest path to the quarterfinals, as the top rated team in their group, France, essentially boycotted this World Cup, playing half-speed at best, and the South Koreans, though gutsy, were pretty clearly among the weakest teams to advance to the knockout stage.  

Ghana will need to contain the impressive Uruguayan tandem of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.  The Ghanese backline, particularly Hans Sarpei and John Pantsil, have looked very strong.  They will be the most tenacious and athletic tacklers that Forlan and Suerez have seen.  The key, to me, is that Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has been among the most impressive players in this World Cup, continues to create opportunities for himself and others.  If Ghana maintains a sizable share of possession and scoring chances, it will be because of his ability to draw a crowd of Uruguayan defenders.  If Ghana makes the semi-finals, which I think is a strong possibility, this World Cup should be considered a massive success for African soccer, despite the unfortunate early bow-outs by Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast.

The most interesting quarterfinal match promises to be Germany and Argentina.  Look for it to be an aggressive, even dirty game, as both teams have that propensity, and many of these players remember the tumultuous showdown from 2006, which ended in penalty kicks.

Finally, here a few relatively unheralded players to watch:

Sergio Ramos - Right Back - Spain

Ramos, who plays his club soccer with Real Madrid, is pretty close to a household name.  Along with Maicon (Brazil) and Dani Alves (Brazil), he is generally considered among the best outside backs in the world.  However, as he did during Spain's 2008 Euro Cup championship, Ramos has raised his already high standard of play to yet another level.  He arguably did more to trouble the vaunted Portugese defense than even David Villa did.  His fleet and fancy runs down the side and into the corner often force two and even three opposing players to move from in front of goal, opening space for the likes of Villa, Iniesta, and Xavi.  That, and he usually eliminates the viability of one of the opposing forwards (see Ronaldo, Cristiano).

Martin Demichelis & Jonas Gutierrez - Defenders - Argentina

As it turns out, Diego Maradona, for all his eccentricity, knows a hell of a lot about soccer.  He took loads of flak for choosing these two backs over players of greater international renown, but thusfar Argentina has conceded only two goals, and both came when the games were already well in hand.  The truth is, they will be tested by Germany, among the most lethal scoring sides in the Cup, but these two impressive physical specimens will likely set the tone for the match.  They are extremely big and extremely fast.  Don't be surprised, also, if Germany's slender forwards, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, to have the "fear of God" put in them in the form of exploratory fouls in the early going.  Argentina has a deep bench.  If they suffer a yellow card, they can easily replace that player to prevent the going down a man.  Don't think Maradona is above such tactics.

Lucas Barrios - Left Forward - Paraguay

This Argentinean turned Paraguayan is clearly the straw that stirs the drink for his team and will undoubtedly be moving to a more notable club in the very near future.  He's got a vicious right foot, tremendous aerial game, and a "nose for goal," which essentially means he seems to be in the right place at the right time and never gives up on a play.  His major disadvantage is that in the upcoming matchup with Spain he can expect to become very familiar with the 6'4", 200 lb. tandem of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.  Um...sorry, Lucas.  It will be a handsome sandwich.

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