Friday, June 30, 2006

Quaterfinals, Day 2, Previews and Stuff

England vs. Portugal These are two teams who aren't looking great, but winning or tying games when they need to. England has been almost impressively unimpressive thus far, inspiring thousands, if not millions of people to say, "How did they get this far?" whilst scratching their heads. Perhaps some of them have even asked, "What's all this then?" while dressed as Graham Chapman, and presumably a bit high.

Portugal will be missing at least half their midfield, which should be a huge advantage for England. Biggest question in this match is whether right-winger/pretty-boy/dangerous motherfucker Christiano Ronaldo is going to play, and if he does play, how effective will he really be? The English defense has played well thus far, but they have yet to play against a player as creative and quick and lethal as Ronaldo is when he is healthy.

Apparently, for some reason, England is excited to have rather overrated defender Gary Neville back in the line-up. I don't understand the collective masturbatory exhalation over the news that Gary is fit to play, but they seem to think that's a big deal.

Portugal is going to have to shuffle a line-up that had finally started to look pretty good, if a bit cynical in its approach to defense. England will be starting basically the same team, with the aforementioned "bonus" of Neville. But again, they haven't played well once yet. They keep talking about not reaching their potential, but they've played a number of games now, and I think it is time to discuss how the whole sometimes doesn't equal the parts. Maybe this a group of talented individuals, but not a very good team.

There are almost an impossible number of variables in this game (well, any soccer game, really, but this one seems particularly convoluted), and any prediction made without knowing the health of Ronaldo seems silly, but I'm comfy with silly. And stupid. And being considered a bit of a rube. So be it.

But let's pick an overlooked variable. Goalkeeping. Robinson has looked a bit sketchy the few times he has been tested, as has Ricardo. But Robinson has looked particularly lost at times, and while they may fly against the underacheivers they've played thus far, I guarantee that Pauleta, king of the Garbage Men, will punish any mistake made in the box. And don't forget that Figo was once considered the Best Player in the World, by no less of an authority than Figo. He'll also punish mistakes. Who is going to punish Ricardo's mistakes? The goofy tall guy, or the pub thug who hasn't scored a goal in World Cup play (including qualifiers) yet?

Prediction: Portugal 2, England 1

Brazil vs. France First things first, if John Harkes is doing the commentary for this game, listen to how he pronounces "France." Half the time, it is the American, flat 'a' "France", and the other half of the time, he pronounces it with the Frenchian Accent, ala "Frounce". It's very distracting once you notice it. So now you'll notice it. Suckah.

OK, so France looked like warmed over shit throughout the first round, and didn't really look like a team to worry about until their last game. But that was against Spain, a team with a rich and well-storied history of finding ways to choke themselves like Michael Hutchence.

Brazil has no such history. Their most disappointing exit in recent years in fact was against the French in the 1998 World Cup, when Zidane went all bitchcakes on them. The Brazilians swear they aren't thinking about that game, but I do declare horseshit on that one. One of the reasons France won that game was their game plan of kicking Ronaldo in the knees every chance they got. It was an ugly, chippy game, with a few moments of brilliance. But there's no way that Ronaldo has forgotten that game.

Goalkeeping is again a huge issue in this game. Dida got flat-out lucky against Ghana--woodwork and his legs accidently saved a couple of goals. Counting on your goalkeeper being lucky isn't a great strategy. Counting on your goalkeeper not going totally apeshit isn't a very good strategy when your netminder is Fabien Barthez, either. Barthez usually makes a very big mistake in a big game. He hasn't done it yet. The laws of diminishing returns, or Schroedinger's Cat, or Game Theory says his fuck up is coming soon.

Zidane didn't train on Thursday, which could be to protect the 34 year old, and keep him fresh, or he could be nursing a hidden injury. That would be a huge deal, obviously.

There are players to watch in this match, obviously. Every team that France has played has had trouble containing Riberry, if he gets the ball in a decent position, he runs at defenses with pace and a willingness to shoot from anywhere. Brazil's defense is often maligned, and often deservedly, but they've been playing decently this cup. Can they contain Riberry? They'll need to.

Juninho is a dangerous player for Brazil who wasn't got a lot of clock yet, but he is set to start this game. He's like a slightly bigger, less pretty player than Kaka. But make no mistake, he cant set up an attack and then chill out 20 yards away from net, and hit absolute thunderclaps. Kaka and Juninho in the same midfield causes massive headaches for the French, as both can penetrate a defense, shoot well, and lay off well timed through balls.

I've thought the French were out of their league for a quite a time now, and while I was impressed with their work against perenially early exiters Spain, I think they are really, really over their heads now.

If Brazil plays with the kind of urgency they've only hinted at occasionally this Cup, not only will they win, they will win very convincingly. But Brazil has seemed content to play some sort of Advanced Keep-Away for a lot of this tournie. Will they really put the hammer down in this game? If they can't get up to crush France, there isn't a team that they can get up for. If they don't blow the fucking doors off France, than I think Germany or Italy becomes the new favorite to hoist the cup.

Prediction: France 1, Brazil 4 (one goal very late)

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