World Cup 2010 (The Semifinals): CHOMP!!! …

… Well, I had a nice piece all written up to give Spain their due for beating Germany in Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal, 1-0. A game some said was boring and while I wouldn’t go that far, it wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve seen in this World Cup. Though, granted, I watched the game more than 48 hours later, so the in-the-moment anticipation of something happening wasn’t there.

But, either my computer or BigSoccer or both conspired to eat the post before I could get it finalized, so it’s lost to history.

Congrats to Spain. Good job.

Now run along, nothing more to see here.

Off ya go.

So, let’s talk the always exciting third-place game, shall we? It is, to me, actually a very interesting matchup. On the surface, I think most folks would look at a matchup between Germany and Uruguay and automatically pick Germany without giving it much thought. I can see the reasoning, if based on nothing more than pedigree alone, but today, I’d disagree.

Uruguay have had a great tournament, sparked by Diego Forlán’s goals and his ability to seemingly lift up his team (and his nation) just about every time they’ve needed it. While they were surely heartbroken not to make the final, a third-place finish for Uruguay in the current soccer climate is nothing at all to sneeze at. It’d be a wonderful result for Uruguay and something I think they might cherish and strive for a bit more than Germany will. It bugged me how little Germany showed against Spain – a team who I had thought Germany’s counter tactics would have worked well against. But they sputtered to just five shots overall and two on target for the entire game.

Germany will probably have more of the ball today, but with Uruguay hopefully having a healthy Forlán and the returning Luis Suárez, there will be no shortage of danger from the underdogs. There are also questions about whether German leading scorer Miroslav Klose will play. It’d be a shame if he didn’t, given that just 2 goals today would leave him the World Cup’s all-time leading goal scorer with 16, passing Ronaldo.

It’s not as if Germany lacks for firepower if Klose doesn’t play, but more so than anyone else in the side, he seems to be the one that always in the right place at the right time in front of goal to take advantage of the opportunities his teammates create. If Germany are without that, and Uruguay can benefit from having Forlán and Suárez, it might be enough to give them the edge, when combined with the thought that there might be more to this match for Uruguay than there is for Germany.

It’s not the final, and traditionally, third-place matches don’t often get remembered in the overall history of the World Cup. But I think it will be fun to watch, and I’m going to go with Uruguay, by a 2-1 score.

Wednesday’s Record: 0-1.
Tournament Record: 35-27.

World Cup 2010 (The Semifinals): This One Had It All …

… It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a match as much as I did the 2010 FIFA World Cup semifinal between Holland and Uruguay.

The match had just about everything you could ask for – quality individual skill, good team play, some stunning goals, and a fervent attempt at a comeback that had everyone watching on the edge of their seats until the final whistle.

Going in, I had expected Holland to handle Uruguay pretty easily. Without the suspended Luis Suárez, I thought it was going to be too much to ask of the super-talented Diego Forlán to carry his team and his nation on his back and into Sunday’s final. With so many more potential weapons, I figured Holland would get the goals it needed to take command, and concentrate defensively on shutting down Forlán to go a couple goals clear and move on.

It didn’t exactly play out that way, and the game was thrown on its ear early on when Giovanni Van Bronckhorst blistered the ball from a solid 30 yards out (at least), scoring into the far upper corner just over the outstretched hand of Fernando Muslera. It was a wonderful strike, the kind that just makes you stand up from your chair and react, then wonder how the hell he did it. Of all the possible goal scorers for Holland that Uruguay had to worry about, seeing Van Bronckhorst beat them had to be a shock.

But Forlán showed once again why he’s been a star throughout this tournament, drawing Uruguay level with a rocket from straight on that beat Maarten Stekelenburg, a shot commentator John Harkes felt Stekelenburg should have had – and perhaps he could have read the shot better to get two hands on it – but to me, that’s just a great hit by Forlán. He deserves full credit for the strike.

Still 1-1 well into the second half, Uruguay were getting the game they wanted, but they couldn’t hold it. Goals from Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, the latter on a powerful header that Muslera could only stand frozen and watch, gave Holland a 3-1 lead and seemed to turn the lights out on Uruguay.

But one issue Holland have had at times in this tournament is the inability to truly put games away. Both in this match and their 2-1 win over Brazil, there were multiple clear opportunities for Holland to increase its lead and eliminate any doubt. When those chances have arisen, however, the Dutch have been sloppy and careless, and yesterday, it almost cost them.

Uruguay’s Maxi Pereira cut the margin to 3-2 in the 92nd minute, when on a free kick from dangerous territory, Pereira ran into open territory before the kick was taken, and newly introduced Holland substitute Eljero Elia was too slow on the uptake to pick him up, giving Pereira his shooting space.

The final couple minutes then elapsed with Uruguay frantically attacking the Holland penalty area, but never able to draw level. The task was made harder because Forlán had been subbed off in the 84th minute for Sebastián Fernández. At the time, with the score 3-1 and most things going Holland’s way, it appeared to be a noble departure for the man who had brought so much to this World Cup. In the end, however, he wasn’t on the field when his team needed him most. Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez caught a lot of grief for this sub, given his team’s furious fightback. This story on FIFA’s web site indicates Forlán may have been carrying an injury, but the specifics of it were not given.

Either way, it doesn’t diminish what Forlán accomplished during this tournament, and it really was a great run for Uruguay. A past champion dismissed as an old relic no longer relevant on today’s soccer landscape, Uruguay did far more than make itself important again – it was involved in some of the most tantalizing moments of this tournament, and they deserve full credit for making the final four.

Holland, meanwhile, now stand on the cusp of history. The often repeated phrase, “Best country to never win the World Cup,” has been echoed by the ESPN talking heads repeatedly. All of that can be erased in 90 (or 120) minutes of quality soccer come Sunday’s final, which will see them matched against either Spain or Germany. The latter two meet in today’s 2:30 p.m. semifinal on ESPN. I, of course, am hoping Holland does it – not just because I picked them before the tournament, but I think it would just be great to see. They have such great support, have produced such great players, and they’ve been a joy to watch in this tournament, outside of some of Robben’s embellishment – but that was a known quantity before the tournament started.

But no matter what happens for Holland Sunday, and to a lesser extent, for Uruguay in Saturday’s third-place game, I’m glad I got a chance to see their clash yesterday. Great fun, great match, and another wonderful memory from this 2010 World Cup.

WEDNESDAY’S PREDICTION:
Germany 2-1 Spain

* I can’t not go with the German machine here. Spain is a great team, and this should be a tense match, but the Germans seem to have all the answers right now. I’ll go with Miroslav Klose to get one of the German goals, putting him level with Ronaldo for the all-time lead.

Tuesday’s Record: 1-0.
Tournament Record: 35-26.

World Cup 2010 (The Quarters): A Day Long on Memories …

… What will stand out for you most on this Friday at the World Cup?

* Brazil scoring its first own goal in 97 World Cup matches?

* Wesley Sneijder’s header that gave the Netherlands their 2-1 lead and eventual win over Brazil?

* Brazil’s Felipe Melo becoming the first player in World Cup history to score an own goal and get sent off in the same game? Of note, Melo also lost Sneijder on the aforementioned header, and assisted on Brazil’s lone goal.

* Luis Suárez nearly throwing a potential Ghana winning goal off the line in the final seconds of extra time, getting sent off, only for Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan to miss the ensuing penalty?

* Sebastián Abreu’s cheeky chip that ended a penalty shootout and advanced Uruguay to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1970?

There were no shortage of talking points in the two games today, both entertaining and both showing the great and the ghastly of our game. To go through all of them would require about 4,000 words, and I don’t want to bore you with all that.

In the early game, did you get the same bad feeling I did that it might turn into a rout when Robinho scored in just the 10th minute? Due to a late injury, the Dutch were required to start Andre Ooijer in central defense – a player I’ve long felt was among the worst defenders at the international level in the world. I really thought at that point Brazil was going to run off and hide with the game, winning 3-0.

But they couldn’t add on before halftime, and in the second half, Brazil were not the Brazil we had seen earlier in the tournament. Their team defending that had been excellent to this point faded, and their attack sputtered, coming close to the target on multiple occasions, but never adding another goal. The defense/goalkeeper error that led to Melo’s own goal early in the second half was defensive comedy we had not seen from Brazil to this point. Their complete unawareness as a team of Sneijder on the corner kick that eventually won the game was damn near criminal. Sneijder was able to simply step a yard away from Melo and get the second touch on Arjen Robben’s corner kick and put Holland ahead, 2-1.

Robben was quality when he stayed on his feet, which wasn’t often on this day. There was a good bit of diving and play-acting in both games today, and it was disgusting on all parts. But with Robben down in the late going, Melo stomped on him needlessly, earning a straight red. Brazil were basically toast. It was a cowardly moment likely created by frustration, a blemish on a shining star of a team that everyone seemingly were backing to move well beyond this point this year.

Today could be the day we look back on years from now as the one where Dutch football finally crossed into the championship class. Two tough games await, against Uruguay, and then one of Germany, Argentina, Spain, or Paraguay. But how can you not like their chances? They took an early shot to the jaw from the legendary five-time champs today, then fought back and stung Brazil not once but twice. They should not lack for confidence from this point on. They can, in fact, beat anyone in the world. The only question facing them now is, will they?

Ghana were mere inches away from the semifinals later in the day, but Gyan’s penalty kick – literally the last kick of the ball over 120 minutes, banged off the crossbar, in what served as a crushing blow for not only the nation but the continent. All of Africa’s representation in the 2010 FIFA World Cup has now been eliminated. Gyan had the spot kick after an astonishing scramble around the Uruguay goal box, which saw one shot saved, another blocked off the line, then a third handled by Suárez to prevent a goal – an easy penalty call and ejection.

You could say Suárez cheated, and hoped to escape unseen, but he was caught, and while he seemed surprised when he saw the red card, he couldn’t have had any real doubts in his mind. He was walking down the tunnel with Uruguay on life support when Gyan famously missed, and Suárez celebrated, turning to the field for a moment, only to remember that he could not return.

On one hand, he had committed what would have gone down as the ultimate act of World Cup deceit had he not been caught – and there would have been no apologies for it. Or, if you believe it another way, he took the last available action to him, knowing the consequences, but knowing that in that moment, Uruguay still were level and still had whatever slim chance there was of Gyan missing the penalty.

That small chance came true, and after winning the penalty tiebreaker, 4-2, Uruguay are more than alive – they’re two wins away from winning their third World Cup, but first in 60 years. They’ll be massive underdogs vs. Holland on Tuesday afternoon, especially with Suárez suspended. But that doesn’t matter to Suárez or any of his teammates now. Whether he knew what he was doing, or whether it was merely a non-premeditated reaction, Suárez made the play that saved Uruguay’s tournament. Gyan had his chance to punish Suárez for it, and famously failed.

It is to Gyan’s credit that he scored his penalty in the first round of the shootout, but you had to know that even with that, Ghana were somehow already beaten. Theirs is one of the more catastrophic losses a team will ever suffer at this level. It continues a run of late, late deciders in this tournament that have given it a feeling of March Madness rather than summer soccer. It is the most cruel part of the World Cup for Ghana that today’s shocking defeat can’t be erased from their minds for at least another four years.

Uruguay and Holland, however, have no such concerns. One will play in the World Cup final on July 11. Holland stand two wins away from erasing forever their decades of frustration. Uruguay, meanwhile, are just two wins away from recapturing a glory long since forgotten – and in some cases never learned by the younger followers of the game. They may not be the two that everyone picked to get here, but there’s no lack of interesting plot lines for either.

Meanwhile, Ghana and Brazil go home. One, coming about as close as a team can to winning before being eliminated; the other, failing to close out a game because they didn’t do the things that had gotten them to that point.

We can only wonder what tomorrow has to offer, with Argentina vs. Germany kicking off at 10 a.m. Eastern, followed by Spain-Paraguay at 2:30 p.m.

I can’t wait.

SATURDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
Argentina 3-2 Germany
Spain 2-1 Paraguay

Today’s Record: 2-0.
Tournament Record: 33-25.

The US wins the group; Costa Rica dives to a playoff; Maradona has the last laugh

… Quite thrilling for a tie, huh?

Yes, the United States got a goal from Jonathan Bornstein just about at the end of time to steal a point from Costa Rica last night at RFK Stadium in Washington. The point gave the US top honors in the CONCACAF 6-team qualification group, since Mexico failed to win at Trinidad & Tobago last night.

Perhaps more importantly, the late goal was a hammer blow for Costa Rica, for whom three points would have booked passage to next year’s World Cup in South Africa. Now, they must battle Uruguay home and away in the CONCACAF/CONMEBOL/Insert your acronym here playoff for one of the tournament’s last open spots. More on Uruguay in a moment.

While the US were lax defensively in the first half and that helped Costa Rica grab a 2-0 lead, I couldn’t complain too much about the attack – save for the final (and yes, most important) part, the finishing. Conor Casey and others had chances to put the US ahead early and failed, and then the second half was spent chasing the game, trying to rally from two down to avoid the country’s first home qualifier loss since 2001.

Bornstein’s header did that, some five minutes into stoppage time that Costa Rica mostly created for itself, with several players staying down for “injuries,” and CR coach Rene Simoes probably adding a bit to the time given with his running conversation to the fourth official (it was probably a pretty one-sided conversation, at that) which led to Simoes being sent off. He didn’t exactly leave quickly, despite DC’s finest giving him an entourage to the dugout.

Is a tie the best possible result? Certainly not. You want to win every home game and I’m sure there’s plenty for coach Bob Bradley to look at off this latest performance in beginning to determine what his team will look like when the World Cup begins in 8 months in South Africa.

But you also could have given the US every reason to fold up shop a bit last night down 2-1, playing with 10 since they had no substitutes and defender Oguchi Onyewu was out with an injury (which AC Milan isn’t happy about), and given the ominous cloud that overshadowed the game after the car accident that seriously injured Charlie Davies. Had the game ended 2-1, I don’t think too many people would have gone terribly nuts in their reaction. Though Mexican fans might have had some fun with winning the group.

I was most impressed by the efforts of the US in the final 10 minutes, though, and eventually it seemed as if the goal was certainly coming, it was just a matter of when. Credit to Bornstein – an oft criticized player who has appeared regularly during Bradley’s reign – for rising to the occasion.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, must find some way to rebuild their emotions and put this behind them to stand any chance vs. Uruguay, you’d think. Then again, it wasn’t as if Uruguay proved themselves to be powerhouses last night, either. Needing a win at home over a struggling Argentina team to advance, Uruguay failed to even nab a point. They were dealt a further blow when José Mart