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Football is back…

August 10, 2010

Competitive football: welcome back - BBC

…football is back, whoa-oh whoa-oh etc.

A four-week gap straddled by the World Cup final and the opening weekend of the league season is just about right. Slightly longer might be preferable if England had better opponents in the cricket, but they do not, and so it is with delight we welcome the start of the domestic footballing calendar.

The season started with a feast of football league action on Sky Sports, with an inconveniently-scheduled Friday night game and a pleasing Saturday lunchtime clash. League One champions (they have a snazzy gold badge on their sleeves to prove it) Norwich defended like they’d never been away from the Championship, conceding goals against Watford like it was going out of fashion. Back in 2009 a combination of Glenn Roeder, Bryan Gunn, and an atrocious defence saw them relegated. Under Paul Lambert they impressed last time though, and most pundits seem to fancy them for mid-table this term, which seems reasonable. Watford have been tipped to struggle but looked the better side as they emerged from Norfolk with a 3-2 win.

Southampton fans observed the now obligatory custom of booing your side off after a home defeat, even though they played quite well and could easily have scored a few before half time. Crosses into the box were dangerous but well defended by Peter Reid’s Plymouth side, who then struck early in the second half and held out well for a one-goal win. Alan Pardew is expected, it seems, to take Southampton up this season; it’s a shame the supporters didn’t think much of the entertaining side he’s assembled.

After the 3pms a second dose of Championship football was available on the BBC. Leeds v Derby was a very enjoyable match, featuring a superb performance from Leeds’ Kasper Schmeichel that was not enough to stop them losing 2-1. Rob Hulse’s opener was cancelled out by Leeds striker Luciano Becchio after smart play from the excellent Jonny Howson, and a good decision from the ref allowed Kris Commons to score the winner from the penalty spot.

England fans show their class - BBC

Sunday’s games, too, were enjoyable: Cardiff and Sheffield United drew one apiece and Manchester United beat Chelsea in the world’s most glorified pre-season friendly.

And the matches just keep on coming. The League Cup is underway and – to return to the theme of fans getting behind their team – tomorrow England play for the first time since their 4-1 defeat to Germany at the end of June. Mystifyingly the pre-match coverage suggests they will be booed by their own fans – obviously nothing new to anyone who’s played for the national team in the past, but are people really going to pay money to watch a friendly then boo their team? Surely not. God help Gerrard and co if it’s a repeat of 1953.


Taylor triumphs again

July 27, 2010

Another tournament, another win - Getty

Phil Taylor frequently forces record-keepers to reach for their Tippex and biro. Two nine-dart finishes in the Premier League final earlier this year underlined his ability to redefine darting greatness, seemingly at any televised event he deems appropriate.

The nine-day World Matchplay, which concluded on Sunday evening, was not one of those events. Instead it was notable mainly for the resurgance in form of Sunday’s beaten Raymond van Barneveld who, despite his post-match protestations (“I’m back? From where? I’ve always been [world] number two”) has been out of form for the last eighteen months or so. Barneveld kept close to Taylor until the final few legs in Blackpool, finally going down 18-12.

Taylor, as always, had the grace to acknowledge the performance put in by his opponent. Yet Barneveld trailed in the match once he had been broken in the seventh leg. He threatened to break back twice – only to see his opponent hit three-dart, ton-plus finishes while he was sat on a double.

Instead, Taylor got the second of his four breaks of throw at 11-9 and from there, though Barneveld did get one back, the game was up. The consistency with which Taylor manages to be on a finish after throwing 12 darts and the inability of the best of the rest to stay toe-to-toe with him over an hour and a half is what leads to finals like these being branded “ordinary”.

Not that you’d know you were seeing any standard darting action from the commentary on Sky Sports. The sport suffers in the sense that its basic mechanics mean little can be said about the game itself. Therefore Dave Lanning, John Gwynne and Sid Waddell are forced to eulogise about the spectacle rather than enlighten the viewer on tactics or approach. It has none of the complexities of cricket or football or, indeed, any other sport, and so whilst it can be compelling viewing – a one-on-one battle, camera trained on the faces of the sportsmen as they hit or miss by millimetres – the commentary is often superfluous.

Sky’s coverage of the darts feels insecure – a sport that frequently attracts thousands of fans and yet that the broadcaster needs to justify its own existence by getting inordinately excited about a match of decent, as opposed to brilliant, commentary. Most of this is down to Waddell, whose manic utterances range from the inelegantly clever – his frame of reference frequently includes darts heritage blended with British history, geography, and classical mythology, which makes for entertaining metaphors – to irritating misfires (“Super…cali…non-fragile…ballistics!” was one such pronouncement on Sunday evening). Often they excitedly talk between themselves during a lull in quality about how great darts is.

The greatest player in the history of the game -

The sport yearns to be noticed – cameras train on soapstars who have come to watch, pre-match graphics include quotes from newspapers about previous events – when such things fill the void created by an insistence on wall-to-wall coverage. It is a basic, yet fascinating sport, that does not require commentary over every dart. Sensibly, the build-up – anchored well by Dave Clark and including Eric Bristow and Rod Harrington (both excellent) – is short and informative. The same cannot always be said of the commentary, though the pairing of Dave Lanning and Waddell is the best; they complement each other both in content and delivery. If only they each talked a little less.

Newspapers don’t cover darts because there is little insight that can be put into a text report of a match. This article has not described Taylor’s 135-checkout in detail because mere description is largely irrelevant and uninteresting. It is why the Barry Hearn-led PDC has introduced the idea that each thrower should be a character, with a nickname and entrance song. It is a sport to be watched, not read about. And that is unavoidable, but also a shame, since it means one of the most dominant sportsmen in the world is overlooked despite all his achievements.

Sunday night in Blackpool saw Phil Taylor’s 11th Matchplay title, to add to his 15 World Championships, 5 Premier League titles (out of a possible 6) and 9 World Grand Prixs. His achievements are extraordinary, and yet darts remains a sport sometimes belittled and dismissed. It is popular, and entertaining, game. Sky needs to let it speak for itself.

Viva España

July 11, 2010

Iker Casillas lifts the trophy before Sepp Blatter can get out of the picture -

So, in the end, the best team won.

Andres Iniesta’s smart finish three minutes from the end of extra time saw Spain to their first World Cup triumph; for Netherlands, the World Cup winless run was extended to three finals.

The game was marred by some awful lunges from by the Dutch but was evenly-matched overall. Spain eventually benefited from the game becoming more open, but Arjen Robben, petulant and brilliant in almost equal measure, wasted two second-half chances which may have avoided extra time – and Dutch disappointment. His admirable quest for glory led him to stay on his feet under pressure from Carles Puyol for the second, but the best chance was well saved by Iker Casillas who had dived the wrong way.

It was, though, Spain’s day, and with four 1-0 victories in the knockout stages they have confirmed their status as the best team in the world. Their Barcelona-inspired passing was not as swift in the early stages of the final as it was through much of the tournament – the peak came in the semi-final against Germany – but their commitment to a beautiful brand of football has been rewarded.

Ouch. But De Jong will probably be hurting more than Alonso in the morning -

The BBC’s coverage suggested that, for the Netherlands, it was an inglorious defeat to end a proud run of victories. Their insistence on brutality was a shame, and unnecessary since they matched Spain throughout when they were not kicking them. Nobody can play football like Spain but the Netherlands did more than most to stop them creating chances.

Recent talk has been of a World Cup of teamwork – Spain, Netherlands and Germany showing the value of the collective over the individual. And the fact that six of the Spanish eleven have played together daily for months or years with Barcelona surely gives them a clear advantage. Pique and Puyol at the back; Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro going forward; Busquets bridging the gap. They are to be joined by David Villa, whose goals fired Spain into the later stages – and, perhaps, Cesc Fabregas, who slots into the national side with ease when called upon and who shines like a beacon in a sea of good – but not great – players at Arsenal.

It was his work on the edge of the box that freed Iniesta to fire past home. The Netherlands players’ complaints following the goal were laughable for the detached observer, considering they were fortunate to be down to ten men – however debatable the calls of the second yellow for Heitinga and the foul on Elia. Mark van Bommel emerges from the final with little credit following an excellent competition; Nigel de Jong similarly so, even if his bizarre studs-into-chest ‘challenge’ on Xabi Alonso was not deliberate.

In any case, the Madrid midfielder’s bruises will heal soon enough. He has been performed superbly as part of the best team in the competition. Even if the hyperbole can sometimes become tiresome, it is clear that Spain have been an excellent side to watch for two years. After a stuttering start in South Africa they have won six games in a row; they deserve their World Cup triumph.

Viva España.

World Cup 2010: Team of the tournament

July 11, 2010

One of these players has made it into our team of the tournament - can you guess which one?

It seems a long time ago that Siphiwe Tshabalala’s bullet shot lit the blue touch paper of the 2010 World Cup. Since then, we’ve had English buffoonery, German mastery, Ghanaian heartbreak and Brazilian surrender on our way to the final. And despite the early signs pointing to a tournament that would belong to the South Americans, tonight’s showpiece is an intriguing prospect between Holland and Spain, two of Europe’s underachieving giants. A guaranteed new name on the trophy is a fitting end to this tournament of surprises that has been a delight to watch if devoid of the classic ding dongs (Uruguay v Ghana aside) that have marked previous World Cups. There are a few surprises, too, in this team of the tournament. Not every selection makes perfect sense but then, in football, what does? One thing that does make sense is the success of the 4-2-3-1 formation, which we have used here in honour of the two finalists who both employ the ‘double-lock’ midfield to devastating effect. Using this system has meant a couple of the best players have had to miss out, but which ones? Read on to find out.

Do you agree with my selection? If not, tell me why I’ve got it spectacularly wrong via the comments….

GK: Maarten Stekelenburg (Holland)
It’s not easy taking over the goalkeeping jersey from the most capped player in your country’s history, and with 130 appearances in a majestic international career stretching back 15 years, Edwin Van Der Sar’s were big boots to fill. But Holland’s current custodian, 27-year-old Maarten Stekelenburg of Ajax, has filled them with asssured aplomb. Admittedly, he was at fault for Diego Forlan’s equaliser in the semi-final, misjudging the flight of the Uruguayan’s shot from distance, but his prodigious leap to deny Kaka in Holland’s quarter-final victory over Brazil was pivotal. Had that shot gone in, the South Americans would have turned around with a two-goal lead and may not have avoided their collapse and subsequent defeat.

RB: Maicon (Brazil)
Until that implosion against Holland, Brazil had looked virtually unbreakable, not least thanks to the efforts of their colossal right-back Maicon. Scorer of arguably the goal of the tournament – a bendy bullet from the by-line against North Korea – the Inter Milan defender terrorised opposition defences and attackers alike with his direct running and fierce tackling. Even though Dunga’s pragmatic approach denied the world of his gifted team’s full array of skills, 28-year-old Maicon Douglas Sisenando was able to prowl the right touchline on his own to devastating effect.

CB: Ryan Nelsen (New Zealand)
Only two teams remain unbeaten in the 2010 World Cup. Unsurprisingly, finalists Holland are one, thanks to their gritty midfield and propensity for flukey goals, but slightly more unpredictably, the other are minnows New Zealand who kept Slovakia, Paraguay and reining champions Italy at bay. Their success was undoubtedly a team effort but if one player epitomised their spirit, organisation and determination more than any other, it was Blackburn Rovers and All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen. An ever-present at the heart of defence, the 32-year-old cajoled and inspired his team of bank clerks and journeymen to undreamed of heights, conceding just two goals and missing out on qualification by one point.

CB: Yuji Nakazawa (Japan)
There may well have been more talented and celebrated centre-backs at the World Cup – Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joris Mathijsen and Lucio spring to mind– but few were as influential as the lionine Yuji Nakazawa. Japan conceded just two goals (against Denmark and Holland) in their unprecedented run to the second round on foreign soil, where they were cruelly dumped out on penalties by Paraguay in a goalless stalemate. Nakazawa’s flowing locks and flawless positional sense alongside the impressive Marcus Tulio Tanaka were critical to their progress, while the veteran’s unflappable, understated cool provided the platform for many of their attacks.

LB: Fabio Coentrao (Portugal)
Ultra-negative Portugal were largely disappointing in South Africa (a 7-0 obliteration of North Korea apart), boring everyone to death in their clash with Brazil before going out limply to finalists Spain in the second round. One bright spot amid all the drudgery was the skillful, all-action style of left-back Fabio Coentrao, who seemed to be attacking on his own for long periods. While all around him seemed hell-bent on sucking the life out of every fixture, the 22-year-old, fresh from winning the double with Benfica, bombed forward relentlessly piling cross after cross into the box and was no slouch in the tackle either.

CM: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Having made his name at the last World Cup as a spritely left-winger, it’s been as the beating heart of Germany’s dynamic midfield that Schweini has shone this time around. Thrown into the centre of midfield midway through last season by Bayern Munich coach Louis Van Gaal, Schweinsteiger has combined superb technique, immaculate positional sense and an unshakeable confidence in his own ability to emerge as the outstanding player of the tournament in the coveted holding midfielder role that is so critical to success in the current tactical era. His ability to dictate play almost single-handedly, alongside a knack of popping up in attacking positions with devastating effect have continually caught the eye. Unceasingly unfazed by the opposition, the 25-year-old made the game look frighteningly easy against both England and Argentina.

CM: Mark Van Bommel (Holland)
Schweinsteiger’s club-mate at Bayern Munich, the uncompromising Mark Van Bommel, has made destruction into an art form. To many, he epitomises everything that’s wrong with modern football – sly tackles, flying elbows, a fondness for falling theatrically to the turf and an arrogance that makes casual observers sneer in his general direction – but his performances at the heart of Holland’s miserly midfield have been critical to their success. Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubting his effectiveness at getting the job done.

AM (R): Thomas Mueller (Germany)
Not satisfied with winning the Bundesliga and appearing in the Champions League final in his first full season at Bayern Munich, 20-year-old Thomas Mueller decided to take the world by storm in South Africa as well. With just one cap to his name before the tournament, few expected him to ease so effortlessly into the international game, but five goals in a magnificent campaign highlight the giant, rangy strides Mueller has made. If David Villa or Wesley Sneijder fail to increase their goal tally in this evening’s final, the gangly attacking midfielder’s three assists would give him the Golden Boot. Holland’s Arjen Robben has been mightily impressive in the same position on the right of an attacking midfield three, but Mueller’s rampaging style just gives him the nod.

AM (C): Xavi (Spain)
Who’d be a manager? The central attacker of our midfield three was by far the most difficult position in our 4-2-3-1 to pick, as it meant two of the tournament’s best players twiddling their thumbs on the bench. Holland’s Wesley Sneijder’s incisive passing and crucial goals have propelled his team all the way to the final. Meanwhile, Germany’s Mesut Ozil has effortlessly pulled the strings like a classic playmaker, carrying on a rich tradition defined by greats like Maradona and Platini. While both players have been critical to their team’s success it is Spain’s Xavi who makes it into our team of the tournament. The little maestro is the central cog in the European Champions’ perpetually purring midfield and his contributiuon to their success can not be underestimated. With 570 passes so far (compared to Sneijder’s 325), he should comfortably overtake Dunga’s record set in 1994 to cement his place in World Cup history.

AM (L): David Villa (Spain)
Fenando Torres’ ineffectiveness has meant a shift to centre-forward in the final two games of the tournament for Spain’s goal machine David Villa, but it was on the left side of coach Vicente Del Bosque’s attacking trident that he pierced a succession of defences early on. Memorable goals against Honduras, Portugal and Paraguay – all scored marauding in from the left of midfield – have proved the difference in Spain’s string of narrow victories (in terms of the scoreline, at least) on their way to the final. Quite simply, Villa is the man who applies the finishing touch to Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ passing game, and has enjoyed a magnificent World Cup.

CF: Diego Forlan (Uruguay)
Uruguay’s spearhead and most accomplished player, Diego Forlan continued his fine form for his club – his goals proved crucial in their victorious Europa Legue campaign – and provided the firepower that pushed the two-time champions to the semi-finals. His selfless running, ability to find space and mastery of the much-maligned Jabulani ball have been a joy to watch throughout the tournament and, after his nightmare at Old Trafford – where he seemed to make missing easy chances his forte – Forlan has blossomed into the consumate professional and an admirable ambassador of the game.

Subs from:
Wesley Sneijder (Holland) – will probably score a hat-trick in the final to render this article null and void
Mesut Ozil (Germany) – outstanding playmaker who will surely be even better in 2014
Miroslav Klose (Germany) – veteran striker proved he could still pop up in the right place
Asamoah Gyan (Ghana) – tireless front man whose goals catapulted Ghana to the quarter-finals. His penalty miss against Uruguay remains the tournament’s most memorable moment
Robinho (Brazil) – the Seleção’s best attacker until their collapse against Holland
Jong Tae Se (North Korea) – fearless striker who deserved a goal for his rambunctious efforts
Richard Kingson (Ghana) – he wobbled occasionally, but Ghana’s hulking goalkeeper performed heroics in equal measure
Keisuke Honda (Japan) – brilliant attacking player and scorer of vital goals
Claudio Morel (Paraguay) – neat and tidy full-back with an eye for a pass
Lionel Messi (Argentina) – flickered sporadically but didn’t deliver when it really mattered
Arjen Robben (Holland) – devastating pace and a stunning shot
Sergio Busquets (Spain) – metronome at the base of Spain’s midfield
Xabi Alonso (Spain) – magnificent passer of the ball who would walk into most teams
Carlos Puyol (Spain) – a rock at the back and scorer of the semi-final winner
Andres Iniesta (Spain) – Xavi’s partner in crime – skillful, quick with unerring vision
Gerard Pique (Spain) – the new Beckenbauer
Diego Lugano (Uruguay) – Captain Marvel
Phillipp Lahm (Germany) – industrious, rarely beaten and a continual attacking threat
Carlos Tevez (Argentina) – never-ending reserves of energy and a cannon shot
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina) – poacher supreme

So it’s come to this: World Cup final preview

July 10, 2010

So, the history books will have a new entry under ‘World Cup Winners’ come Sunday evening. Spain and the Netherlands have both faltered at various stages in the past; this year’s favourites have already come two rounds further than ever before, while the only team to have won all their games in this tournament last reached the final in 1978.

Puyol bags the winner for Spain in the semi -

Neither have stormed through to the final like some previous winners – Spain were defeated in their opening game and Netherlands, despite never looking like losing, haven’t truly impressed for long periods. Yet they’ve both made it, so it would be churlish to suggest they don’t deserve to contest the final.

Quite why there needs to be a third-place playoff nobody seems quite sure, but it’s better than watching Casualty on a Saturday night and keeps people who bet on Forlan or Klose for top goalscorer in with a shout of some money. Germany will start as favourites – Paul the psychic octopus has gone for them after all – and were the most impressive side in the tournament until defeat by Spain in the semi-final. It was a shame to say goodbye to their endearing style; controlled, cautious play without the ball turning into a buccaneering yet sensible charge forward on the counter. Yet Spain, unlike England and Argentina, kept the ball superbly themselves and made it difficult for Germany to attack. Germany defended well, as usual, but were finally broken not by a patient, sublime string of passes but by a free header from a corner.

Luis Suarez couldn't help his side against the Dutch -

Uruguay played reasonably well in their semi-final and were unlucky to concede a second which could have been given offside. The Netherlands, though, scored another straight after through the irritating but excellent Arjen Robben. It wasn’t clear what difference quarter-final remorseless hero Luis Suarez could have made to Uruguay’s stuttering play going forward, he may have crafted an opening. In the end though, the best team won – just.

Netherlands are an interesting team because they’ve done what they needed to at every stage, and little more. Brazil should have scored more against a frazzled defence in the opening half-hour of their quarter-final clash, but when they didn’t the Dutch preyed on their inadequacies and scored two quick goals – exposing both their hitherto unseen defensive frailties and, later, their indiscipline.

In the group the Orange were – to borrow a couple of buzzwords – functional yet effective, whereas Spain controlled the play in all three games despite losing to Switzerland. Their lack of goals – certainly compared to their Euro 2008 showing – is concerning and against organised defences their lack of width is obvious. Germany were not far from denying them a goal over 90 minutes, though occasional breaches were crafted by Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta and Villa (and, in the end, Puyol).

Jonathan Wilson’s excellent look at the tactical battles of the competition so far discusses how Spain looked more impressive without Villa and Torres trying to play together, though this is perhaps as much down to Torres’s patent unfitness as it is their tactical approach. Wilson’s piece is harsh on Germany who had little need to be ‘reactive’ after scoring early in the knockout rounds, but accurately sums up Spain’s outlook. It is Barca-esque, as expected given the players involved, and it has inevitably found trickier opponents in the later stages than Barcelona usually face.

They should control the game again against Netherlands, though one wonders if Sergio Ramos charges forward (their only potential width on the right) will Robben move left and expose a gap? It is unclear from the TV cameras who fills in – presumably it is Sergio Busquets who is the least attacking of the midfield five (or, sometimes, four), or one of Puyol or Piqu – but they must have someone there or they would likely have been exposed already.

Can Sneijder help the Dutch escape the 'bottlers' tag? -

The Dutch seem to enjoy long shots when a pass is the better option. Obviously this worked for Giovanni van Bronckhorst in the semi-final and has sometimes worked for Wesley Sneijder, their best player, but too often they make the wrong choice. Shooting from distance against Spain is probably appealling given the lack of close-range chances they usually concede and frontman Robin van Persie’s lack of form, but it is surely a low-percentage strategy when it comes to outscoring the world’s best passers of the ball. One suspects if David Villa gets two chances, one or both will go in. There is far less confidence in van Persie. The Dutch set pieces cause trouble on occasion, but Spain are favourites, and understandably so.

Germany 2 Uruguay 1
Netherlands 0 Spain 2

Don’t cry for me Argentina…

July 3, 2010

Bastian Schweinsteiger was magnificent -

…the truth is you were beaten by a far better side. A magnificent German performance and an atrocious defensive display saw to Maradona’s much-vaunted stars this afternoon.

A defence involving Di Micheles and Heinze was always suspect, as highlighted earlier – yet on this occasion right-back Otamendi was the main culprit during 90 minutes of Argentine incompetence.

Germany fired a warning shot across the bows of the competition as early as the opening weekend, and have carried that ability into the knockout stages. Anchored by Bastian Schweinsteier, the midfield superbly morphs into a potent attacking force when it wins possession and if the ball reaches Klose, Podolski or Muller it is only usually to enjoy a fleeting visit en route to the back of the net.

This is the third time in five the Germans have scored four, making them comfortably the tournament’s top scorers. They have been helped out by calamitous defending from Australia, England and Argentina, but create a fantastic number of excellent chances themselves. Podolski on the left was one of today’s star men, tormenting Otamendi and forcing the foul after two minutes which led to the opening goal. Once the free kick is conceded (or, if you please, won) you’d expect a reasonable level of strength or cunning would be required in order to convert an opportunity into a lead – particularly in a World Cup quarter final match. Yet all Thomas Mueller (excellent again today) had to do was move across his marker and get a slight touch to richochet the ball in off the goalkeeper.

Argentina’s defensive woes continued and the game could have been won by half-time. Heinze and Otamendi both looked out of their depth and in the second half the team’s spine ensured this appearance was replicated throughout the side. Goals two and three were both poked in from point-blank range after superb pass and move football. As Mark Lawrenson said on the BBC, it was, to an extent, basic stuff – yet few teams (all too few in this year’s competition) do it well enough to carve open teams so often.

Villa's teammates manage to get closer to him than most defences have -

Germany can look forward to a semi-final with Spain, who edged through after an unconvincing performance tonight. Paraguay were the better side for a lot of the game and should have taken the lead when Cardozo tamely shot at Casillas from the penalty spot – Piqué laughably protesting his innocence after dragging his man down. His teammates were eager to back him up, showing admirable solidarity considering most of them had been facing the other way at the time.

Spain’s Xabi Alonso then scored a penalty, which was retaken and saved, then should have had another opportunity when Fabregas was tripped going for the rebound. It was not to be and Spain had to wait until the 83rd minute when David Villa, as usual, was in the right spot to sidefoot the ball in off both posts for the winner. Like Klose, he has the ability to find space in the box at precisely the right time.

The pick of the last eight

July 3, 2010

1990 World Cup Final: Germany 1 Argentina 0

After an action-packed round of 16 and yesterday’s entertaining quarter finals comes the highlight of an attractive knockout schedule so far.

This afternoon Germany and Argentina will vie for a place in the last four. Both sides are past winners (albeit Germany in their ununified guise) and both were less fancied than usual going into this tournament. Many pundits plumped for Spain (who face Paraguay later) or Brazil (rudely dumped out by the Netherlands yesterday), yet the two team contesting the third quarter final have produced the most exciting football thus far: Germany in the 4-0 thumping of Australia and counter-attacking (with a touch of route one) success over England, Argentina in a Messi and Higuain-inspired performance against South Korea.

The Germany game should be Maradona's biggest managerial test so far -

Only Uruguay’s superb display against the hosts has rivalled these showings over 90 minutes, and after yesterday the South Americans can also lay claim to winning one of the best games of this competition. But Germany and Argentina would both feel confident about meeting them, and have a much more difficult route to the final. Germany’s demolition of England was admittedly easier than expected (though not as easy as the scoreline suggested), but beating Argentina and then facing – probably – Spain and the Netherlands would be a superb way to win a World Cup. They also had one of the more difficult groups.

Maradona divides opinion. Some love his irascible comments and quirky approach; others think is a cheat, a chancer, and one who is lucky to be at the World Cup as a manager following a woeful qualifying campaign and a failure to pick Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti.
Tomorrow sees his biggest test yet – surly observers point to the less-than-brilliant opposition they’ve faced so far, but no-one can deny they’ve beaten most in some style.

El Diego’s counterpart Joachim Low is clearly a very cool man. His team are more than capable in the final third, though their defence is not entirely convincing. Argentina’s has yet to be properly exposed but one fears a defence featuring Di Michelis and Heinze will get its comeuppance at some point. Whether it will be today remains to be seen of course, and then even if it does there is a reasonable chance Messi, di Maria, Higuain and Tevez will score enough goals to render it irrelevant.

Cool man, cool clothes

A few words on yesterday’s action to conclude. Brazil were disappointing after the first half an hour and the Netherlands were not as impressive as they should have been to beat a team who have waltzed through to this stage. Netherlands have had a less than taxing route through too, but at the first sight of decent opposition, rode their luck then struck twice in the second half. This could be a winning formula if they can sustain it over two more games.

And then the best game of the tournament so far. ITV and, in particular, Clive Tyldesley’s unquestioning assumption that every human being on the planet was supporting Ghana made for an irritating soundtrack to a hugely entertaining clash between the African side and Uruguay. His irrational level of support was demonstrated with a rising fervour and uncontrolled bias usually reserved for the team one draws in an office sweepstake.

Thankfully the match was as vibrant as this man's dress sense -

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was mildly condemned for ‘cheating’ in the last minute of extra time yet who, in similar circumstances, can say they would not instinctively have done the same and pushed the ball away on the goal line, volleyball-style? He was punished with a red card (and a semi-final ban), Gyan had the chance to win it from 12 yards and couldn’t hit the target. On such fine margins do competitions turn.
ITV then decided the first draft of history would include the fact that Ghana were much the better side in the opening half, when in reality they were dominated for the best part of thirty minutes and crafted chances only in the final ten. They were, however, undoubtedly good value for the draw after 120 minutes. Still, as they travel home they can no doubt take solace in the heartwarming cliché that they ‘played their part’ in a superb game of football.

Today’s predictions:
The Videprinter’s predictions have been poor to say the least thus far, and tomorrow’s is too difficult to call. Our only prediction is: it’s gonna be a cracker.