Saturday, June 23, 2012

Half-Assed Euro Cup 2012 Quarterfinal Predictions Pt 2

First, a quick look at Part 1 of the half-assed predictions, and one thing you will notice is that it was clear I was using my whole ass. Both games with the winner predicted correctly, and the margin of victory dead-on. The actual score? Not so much. But still--I predicted a Portugal 1 goal victory, and it came to pass. I predicted a German 2 goal victory, with domination that suggested a larger margin of victory, and it came to pass. Thanks in no small part to Khedira's flying smash. Which you should probably see.

Now, an honest handicapper of Euro Cup matches would say something like, "Hey--to be fair, these matches, based on what happened in the Group play were pretty open-and-shut picks. Portugal beating the Czechs was hardly going against the grain, and everyone who can identify a particular ball as a soccer ball could tell you that Germany would beat Greece." But I'm not an honest handicapper, and I'm going to bask in my imaginary kudos. In my imagination, those kudos rain from the ceiling like the rose petals from Mena Suvari's breasts in American Beauty.

I'm sure there was some asshole out there who was arguing that Greece had a chance. In fact, I know an asshole who argued exactly that. But who cares about assholes who argue stupid shit? Let's get to the predicting!

Saturday: Spain vs. France

I will not lie to you, dear reader. I'm having trouble handicapping this match, at least in part because of my incredibly small stakes gambling efforts, in which I have France advancing. Many of you may take one look at France losing to Sweden 2-0 in their last game of qualifying play and say, "Nope--a team that can't handle Sweden certainly can't handle Spain." And I am sympathetic to that argument.

But has Spain really been that impressive? Maybe they have been. They certainly beat the fuck out of Ireland. (Which led to one of those moments in Euro Cup that makes American sports writers go, "Why the fuck don't we do that?--specifically, the Irish fans singing a heartfelt ballad called "The Fields of Athenry", even when their team was down 4-0.)

Spain hasn't beaten anyone in their Finals group--let's be clear. They went 2-0-1, and scored 6 goals. That sounds impressive, if you know how group play works in the Euro, but do consider this: take out that drubbing of that poor old, sad Irish team, and you are left with a record of 1-0-1 and two goals. It isn't Spain's fault that Ireland was in their group. But it is up to Spain that they have so little confidence in Fernando Torres that they actually attempted to play a game with no strikers at all. It is up to them that they defeated a strictly OK Croatia squad 1-0. Can Spain be gotten?

Yes they can. France doesn't have a striker dicking around in the MLS, like Ireland had in Robbie Keane. They have Benzema. They have Malouda. They have Ribery and Nasri on the flanks. They also have a questionable defense, made all the more questionable by the fact that starting defender Phillipe Mexes is sitting out due to too many Yellow Cards.

France hasn't played anyone of import, either, you could argue. They tied England (though they were clearly the better squad there), beat a lackluster Ukraine, and against Sweden, barely looked interested whilst folding 2-0.

I'm going to look at the history of the Euro Cup and World Cup and note that no team has ever won 3 of those championships in a row, and Spain is currently in possession of the 2010 World Cup and 2008 Euro Cup. Statistics say that they lose at some point. I think most folks looking for a loss for Spain see Germany in the Final, but why not France? Dangerous offense, a solid keeper. Spain is running a system that seems to have been figured, and they don't have the alternative scoring threats that Germany has. I think and want to believe Spain loses this game. But it will be close. One goal margin. Maybe even PK's

Players to watch:  For Spain, Sergio Ramos. An excellent wing defender, with excellent overlapping skills that Spain has neutered by moving him to central defense. He needs to be involved. Fernando Torres needs to make the defense sweat, a proposition that is a coinflip the last few years. For France--Lloris, the goalkeeper will probably need to stop shots from distance; Benzema will need to keep the Spanish defensive line high and tight and allow speedsters like Malouda and Ribery to overlap. The defensive back 4 will need to come up big.

Prediction: France advances by a whisker, and we get our first upset of the Quarters.

Sunday: England vs. Italy

I don't have a gambling dog in this fight, and I can apply my clear eyes to this match-up and say that it will probably be low-scoring, as between England's Hart and Italy's Buffon, it will take great strikes/massive fuck-ups in the defense to score goals.

After decades of ungrounded high expectations of England, the lack of expectations seem to be working wonders for them. The same thing could apply to Italy.

However, I have watched both of these teams play, and I know how England has scored, and I know how Italy has scored. And I can say with some confidence that the goals England scored against Sweden and Ukraine won't be available against Italy. The goals Italy has scored have been about pace and spacing and talent.

I think this one is a bit of a surprise in the gambling world, only because there are so many English gambling firms, and they've convinced themselves, yet again, that this team is good. It isn't that good.

Players to watch: Ashley Cole. He's looked old in this tournament, and I can't help wondering if the Italian offense is going flow to his wing and test his mettle. Joe Hart needs a big game. Wayne Rooney scored a gift, but he wasn't impressive. England needs him to be impressive, along with Ashley Young. For Italy, we're looking the oddest combo up top in the Euros--Balotelli has yet to leave his mark, due to some questionable shit that Marco Balotelli is all about. Cassano has been brilliant at times. Those two, combined with sneaky veteran Pirlo suggest to me that if Italy cracks the first goal, it may lead to 2 and 3 shortly thereafter. Let's see if England's other wing back, Glen Johnson, doesn't wander too far from his spot on an ill-advised run. I feel like he's got at least one of those a game.

Free kicks could determine this game--that's a Gerrard vs. Pirlo contest, essentially.

Prediction: Italy 2, England 0

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Half-Assed Euro Cup 2012 Quarterfinal Predictions Pt 1

Each team still alive at this point of Euro 2012 has played three games against competition that was good enough to get to the Finals (via one route or another), and I think I've seen every team play at least once in the past 10 days, if not twice. So that's good enough to deliver some opinions as to what happens next, yeah?

Thursday: Czech Republic vs. Portugal

No one thought the Czechs would be here after they dropped their first game of Group Play to Russia 4-1. But they won their last two, and despite some defensive miscues (the goal they gave up to Greece was just  embarrassing and demonstrated a potentially troubling lack of communication in the back) they've been pretty solid overall.

Portugal had a similar underdog vibe, despite the fact that Christiano Ronaldo is one of the most talented players in the world. His form at the World Stage has not been great of late, they were seen as the third most dangerous team in the Group of Death. But no one foresaw the Netherlands losing to Denmark and never properly recovering. What we saw over the past couple of weeks suggests that the Netherlands World Cup team in 2014 might be a youth movement of sorts. (certainly their thuggish defensive midfielders Van Bommel and De Jong are done, yes?)

A Youth Movement is basically what both the Czechs and Portugal have brought to the table--aside from a handful of players (like Ronaldo--27 years old!) both teams are full of guys that weren't on the team the last time they got this far along in a major tournament. That type of young energy breeds excitment--sometimes too much excitement. No offense to Václav Pilař, but there is no such thing as a Czech Lionel Messi. There is Messi, and then there is everyone else. Pilar isn't even the Czech Clint Dempsey. Not yet.

Players to watch: the aforementioned Ronaldo is an obvious pick, as is Pilař, but to me the course of this game might be determined by one of the few old guards in this game, and that is Petr Cech, the Czech Republic goalkeeper. I'll admit that Czech veterans Rosicky and Baros may figure in, but I'll be a bit surprised if they do.  Portugal's offense has looked absolutely sublime at times, and this will be the best offense the Czechs have faced since Russia took them apart. The Czechs beat Poland and Greece a combined 3-1. The Portuguese have won their last two games a combined 5-3 (against Denmark and Holland). If the Portugal offense, with Ronaldo and Nani, is able to get behind the Czech defense like I think it might, Petr Cech is going to have to put aside his aspirations of becoming a Giant Version of Tosh.0 and have a big game. The good news for the Czechs is that he's absolutely capable of having a big game.

Prediction: Portugal 2, Czech Republic 1

Friday: Germany vs. Greece

It would take someone a hell of a lot ballsier than me to predict anything but German victory. The question to me is how big it will be. Can the Greeks really frustrate the Germans the way they did the Russians? The obvious answer to me is, "Nope. Not even a little bit."

First of all, despite his appearance as a long suffering poet who just can't understand why people won't accept his genius, German coach Joachim Löw is in fact a genius. It isn't poetry (as far as any of us know). His genius is with soccer tactics. Even when Klinsmann was running this team, the whispers were that it was Löw who was behind the team's successful scheme. Klinsmann was often referred to as "talismanic" which is a nice way football writers call someone "a charismatic figurehead". I don't think that's fair to Klinsmann, but it says something that people bought into Löw that quickly.

Secondly, I don't think there is a team as talented, depth-wise, than the Germans. And yes, I'm including Spain. And based on the way Spain started this tournament (by attempting to start a formation without any strikers at all) the Spanish might agree.
I've never been a big believer in Mario Gomez, but something clicked in the past two years--he's shown all the skill that we started hearing about back in the day when he was supposed to to easily supplant Miroslav Klose. It took him awhile, but he has, with this tournament, proven that he is Germany's go-to finisher, and he's done it with a variety of touch, power and timing that I didn't think he had. One could argue he's been the best striker of the tournament. The Swedes might say, "Um, hello, pardon us, we don't wish to interrupt, and we certainly don't want to be rude in any way, but is it possible, by any chance, that you haven't seen the goal Zlatan scored? Just asking. Again, so sorry for interrupting."

Whatever, Swedes.

My point is that Greece is very good at compressing a field, making the midfield touch passing that has become so popular in the wake of Spain's excellence very difficult. The Germans practically invented short technical passes, but even if that facet of their game should be stymied, they (unlike, say, Russia) will be able to adjust, and punish Greece via the old school drive up the flanks and cross to big strikers in the middle.

It is a simple fact of life, you see--if you choose to gum up short technical passes by jamming as many people as possible in the middle, the wings are therefore more open. And the Germans have some trigger men who can release the overlapping runs of Lahm and Boateng and apparently this kid Hummels.

They also have a number of midfielders capable of beating men one-on-one and ranging into dangerous areas all on their own--Podolski, Schweinstieger, Ozil. Hell, Toni Kroos would be starting for any number (that number, worldwide, would range in the dozens) of national teams, and he's their first midfielder off the bench.

If they were playing against a very dangerous offensive team, I'd warn that there was still some chance of upset, due to the aging of Lahm, and the still unsettled nature of Badstuber and Boateng in the back. Even then, I'd have to point out that Manuel Neuer is one of the finest goalkeepers left in the competition and that Mats Hummels has looked awfully good as a young central defender.

Oh, but Greece isn't particularly dangerous on offense. They advanced whilst scoring a grand total of 3 goals. The only way this isn't a much bigger rout on the field than it is on paper is if the Greeks somehow steal a goal early. If that happens, you can probably plan on seeing a defensive shell the likes of which you've never seen, and you can still plan on the Germans still scoring at least once. I think the dream scenario for the Greeks is penalty kicks, which they would probably still lose.

Players to watch: On Greece--no one. I don't mean that in a bad way. There's just no way they win based on an individual's greatness on that day. They win only if the entire team plays such a systematic shut down style that it manages to fluster Germans. On the German side, the obvious guy to look to is again Mario Gomez, but I also feel that Mesut Özil has been quiet so far, and he's capable of doing something awesome at any given moment.

Prediction: Germany 2, Greece 0  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Here's That Messi Goal that the Kids in NJ Are Talking About

Just a sick, sick finish from the best in the world, and arguably the best ever. Once Messi gets past the sideline challenge, you can almost see the terror on the Brazilian defense. 20 yards out, under a challenge, Messi delivers beautifully, in the final 10 minutes of the game. Again--people who say that soccer is boring are watching a very different game than I am, or the 82,000 souls in MetLife Stadium were watching.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Your Hate of Soccer is Making You Dumb, Joe Anderson

I want to preface my comments with a clear statement that Judd & Phunn (Judd Zulgad and Joe Anderson) host my preferred local morning sports radio show. They are generally entertaining, and have a nice back and forth that works. The result means more talking about sports, and less of the painful shtick that their opposite number Paul Allen is producing morning in morning out on KFAN. There are no minute long musical bumps on Judd & Phunn. There's little to no effort expended on coming up with wacky names for wacky segments. It is clear, informative (as far as sports radio goes) and generally not painful to listen to.

If I had one complaint, it is that they talk hockey way too much. But I'm a transplant to Minnesota, and I long ago learned to live with Minnesotan sports idiosyncrasies (high school tournaments on prime time TV? Sure. The Vikings are terrible/Super Bowl Bound in the span of a couple of weeks? OK. A belief that hockey is the world's greatest sport if the world would just get its head out of its ass? Why not? Doesn't hurt me any).

But the hockey thing gets more annoying when it gets paired up with someone like Joe Anderson of Judd & Phunn, mostly because of Anderson's bizarre antipathy to the world's favorite game--soccer. I have ripped various folks for hating on soccer (Tom Powers comes to mind), but it is much easier to do when I don't really care for the body of their work in general. I really don't like criticizing guys who I generally enjoy, and like I said, Judd & Phunn is a pretty enjoyable sports show. I enjoy Scott Van Pelt more than most of the guys on ESPN these days. Both Anderson and Van Pelt can be total dicks about soccer.

But Anderson's dislike for the game is particularly puzzling to me for two reasons. First, the intensity. He isn't a 'take it or leave it' kind of guy--he hates soccer. Today, during the segment that I'm about to finally get to, he muttered as they went to break, "Soccer is just stupid." Thoughtful take, "Phunn". Second, I'm confused to how a guy who loves hockey can hate soccer that much, because they are probably more alike than either fan would like to admit. Set aside the niche audience, the frequently low scoring, and continually put-upon fans. To transform hockey into soccer takes about 3 steps, and it is mostly about scale. Double the size of teams, greatly expand the size of the goals and playing surface (which obviously needs to switch from ice to grass). Boom--soccer. Both are free-wheeling games, with minimal stoppages when things are going well. Both require a ridiculous amount of conditioning to play at its peak. You don't find roles for 350 pound guys in either sport. There are more similarities than differences, really.

So here's the segment that made me a little crazy. Judd and Joe were discussing the flagging ratings of the Stanley Cup, as the media does every year. They were both stunned to discover that a show about training dogs (that they thought was about walking dogs) got better ratings than a potential final game of the Stanley Cup. Anderson then started a weird little rant about how soccer fans are going to eat up these low numbers and start pushing for more soccer on TV, because in terms of ratings, soccer is getting close to hockey numbers. And he huffed and fumed about that for awhile before making a prediction that it would never happen.

Except, of course--it already has. The Champion's League Final, just last month, outperformed not only the playoff hockey game that aired the same day, it was watched by more people than any Stanley Cup Final game in the series. The only reason European soccer doesn't regularly outperform hockey as this point is because of the time difference. Prime time games are aired live in the middle of the afternoon here. Tired whining about how soccer is dumb and boring aside, the people have spoken, it appears.

What will be interesting to see is how well the Euro Cup (started this morning! the Polish goalkeeper saved a penalty kick!) does in terms of eyeballs throughout the next few weeks. I imagine there will be any number of games that will demonstrate that world soccer is a far bigger viewership draw than the NHL. Joe Anderson might not like it, he may hate it, but soccer fans don't have to do any whispering campaigns about how soccer deserves to take precedence over hockey. The campaign has already happened, and already been won.

UPDATE (6/10/12): Brazil lost to Argentina 4-3, with a Messi hat trick and over 80,000 people in attendance. In MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (aka, the Meadowlands).  Further proof that um, hey, the demographics of the US are changing, and soccer has eclipsed hockey in almost every way. (the quality of the MLS still needs to bump up several notches).

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