Uruguay 2-3 The Netherlands

The first of the semi-finals was a fairly tepid affair, strange considering that there were two stunning long-range finishes, a controversial goal and a surprising strike from Arjen Robben. All topped off with a very nervy end to the game.

Holland started brightly, with Dirk Kuyt being gifted an opportunity by the Uruguay ‘keeper, Fernando Muslera, in just three minutes, as he fumbled a harmless cross. Kuyt, however, blazed his shot over the bar.

Uruguay struggled to handle the Dutch crosses into the area early on, a frailty that Kuyt and Arjen Robben were all too happy to exploit.

But it was the sublime strike from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst with 18 minutes gone that will be remembered. He received the ball 40 yards from goal towards his familiar left-wing. After a quick look up, he laced it with power and precision into the distant top corner. Calls for goal of the tournament quickly flooded the social networks and the Dutch men were flying (sorry, I couldn’t help it).

Sadly, after that the pace of the game dropped as the Netherlands defended resolutely while Uruguay tried to gain a foothold in the match. Much of the Uruguayan possession though was harmless and was just plain sloppy in the final third.

Then up stepped Diego Forlan. The prolific Uruguay and Athletico striker jinked around inside the Dutch half before striding forward to unleash a strike with his wondrous left-foot that wavered in the air. Maarten Stekelenburg could only get a helpless hand to the ball before it nestled in the net.

Little else happened in the first half but the game remained open, giving the impression that more goals were to come in the second half.

After much ITV nonsense, we were back underway. Holland brought Rafael Van Der Vaart on during the break – the Real Madrid man replacing Demy De Zeeuw who took a nasty kick to the face in the first half.

The game sprung into live following a slow restart when a mix up in the Dutch defence saw Stekelenburg race off of his line needlessly. Following a poor tackle by the ‘keeper on Edinson Cavani the ball found its way to Alvaro Pereira, whose lobbed effort was cleared behind with ease by Van Bronckhorst.

The Dutch then huffed and puffed at the Uruguay defence but were unable to come up with an incisive move. Their defence continued to look shaky and leaky – not a good combination – and Uruguay appeared to be the more likely to score early on.

Then Holland began to show glimpses of that devastating counter-attack we were all treated to two years ago when, at Euro 2008, they continued their trend of being the best team to not win the tournament. But Uruguay got wise. La Celeste soon recovered from their excitement and reverted to the defensive football that, while being typical for them, still looks strange coming from a South American team.

Heavy pressure from Holland ensued but to no avail and Uruguay responded by playing a bit of keep-ball to reassure themselves that they deserved to be in the semi-final.

Another dirty challenge from the increasingly unpopular Marc Van Bommell allowed Forlan to display his almost unique grasp of the Jubilani ball, forcing a save low and to the right from Stekelenburg.

At the other end, the first clear chance of the second half finally arrived on the 68th minute. A neat interchange gave Van Der Vaart a point-blank opportunity that, following a good save from Muslera, fell kindly to Robben, Only for him to blaze over and show why Forlan’s gift is just that.

Then controversy turned the game – something that has dominated this World Cup.

A tame effort from Sneijder on the edge of the Uruguay box deflected off of two defenders, past (the fractionally offside) Robin Van Persie and Muslera, and into the bottom right corner. But it was Van Persie’s failed attempt to redirect the ball that made him an active and illegal participant in the goal. So, Uruguay undeservedly behind, but justice may have been served for Luis Suarez’s ‘save’ against Ghana.

A rare but well-taken headed goal from Arjen Robben added to Uruguay’s misery on the 73rd minute. A great cross from Dirk Kuyt was powered into the bottom left corner by Robben with all the prowess of a natural-born centre-forward.

The two-goal advantage gave the Dutch some breathing space to play the football we always expect from them, with Sneijder and Robben linking up particularly well on several occasions. Khalid Boulahrouz’s one-man-band defending only made this easier.

Sebastian Fernandez became the metaphorical towel as he was thrown in to the game in place of Uruguay’s talisman, Forlan. A poor effort from Robben and shoddy passes in the Uruguay area prevented Holland from making the score 4-1, but the game was fizzling out. Tomorrow night and Germany’s footballing delights could not come soon enough.

Then, on the 91st minute, the Uruguay right-back, Maxi Pereira, managed to make stoppage time more exciting than any other time in the game by slotting home a neat left-footed curler from the edge of the Dutch area. Uruguay commenced flooding Holland’s area with men and battered it with long passes from the back. One kind bounce could have popped the ball up for an opportunistic Uruguayan, bringing about an amazing end to normal time.

But it wasn’t to be.

The Netherlands go through to the World Cup final and guarantee that the trophy will return to Europe – the first time it has ever been won by a European side when the World Cup has been hosted outside of Europe.

It’s coming home…

Let’s push things forward

It has been four days since England lost 4-1 to Germany. In that time we have all had a chance to reflect upon the heaviest defeat the national football team has ever suffered at a World Cup finals.

It was very tempting to get in from the pub after that game and blog straight away about how England were both awful and awfully robbed. But reflection is needed in these situations, otherwise one succumbs to ranting stupidly about the individuals who failed to perform when it mattered, doesn’t one?

What I have observed is that almost every England fan, myself included, is partly to blame for England losing to Germany by such a great margin. We all spat venom at the lifeless performances against the US, Algeria and Slovenia. And we all demanded England ‘go for it’ against Germany, especially when the defence leaked two soft goals early in the game.And both rightfully so.

But, is it not right that the fans should shoulder some of the blame? After all, the players were only trying to give us the aggressive, attacking football we had been pining for all tournament, and they paid the price for it.

“No,” I hear you cry. “Just because we wanted them to go forward, it doesn’t mean they had to lose all tactical sense and forget how to cope with counter-attacks.” And this is a very valid point. But the players had the taste of blood in their mouths. They had already pulled level with Germany – sort of – and were determined to give ‘the folks back home’ the victory they so desperately craved. Caution was thrown so vigorously towards the wind that even the wind didn’t know what had hit it. Could you honestly say that, in the craziest of first halves the 2010 World Cup has seen, you would’ve kept your head? Where I was watching it, people were in tears, some were storming off and others were having excitement induced nose-bleeds. All before half time.

We deify these players and demonize them when they turn out to be human.

I am merely trying to help ease the pace of the England-are-shit bandwagon and perhaps even coax a few people down from it. Granted, the performances of the England team were not good at the World Cup, not by any stretch of the imagination, but now the ‘Golden Generation’ can be forgotten and this should surely ease the pressure we heap on the squad at every tournament. The amount of times I saw World Cup promotional material that said ‘England expects’ was sickening. What do we expect? All I expected (as I said in my previous blog Don’t Panic) was England to scrape through the group, get everyone’s hopes up and then crash out against a far superior side. That is what happened, because that is what has always happened since I watched my first major international tournament in 1996.

Perhaps with this Golden Generation dropped like a dirty habit, England will be able to become a real team. Because that was not a ‘team’ we saw in the World Cup was it?

I believe that Fabio Capello is the man to take England forward. With a fresh batch of players, he will be able to nip any conflicts in the bud. The players he can choose from now may actually look weaker than the previous lot did on paper, but football is played on grass, not paper. Talking of paper though, we should not just take a leaf out of Germany’s book, but take the book off of them and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Let’s start again with a vibrant, young squad and play a beautiful passing game – the German way.

Don’t panic

‘Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard.’

So goes the Coldplay lyric that encapsulates the thinking of a number of ‘big’ European sides at the 2010 World Cup. (A prize goes to the person who spots the other Coldplay reference in this blog.)

Only the Dutch have produced two performances that suggest they could win the tournament, and their first victory was not the most convincing either.

The Portuguese demolition of North Korea probably surprised Kim Jong-il, but that is it. Spain looked good against Honduras, but we have seen their imperfections already – they can be defeated.

While other continents watch their nations give spirited displays, European sides are left pointing the finger at one another as they try to determine the worst side. Obviously that unenviable title goes to France, much to the delight of the Irish.

What about England though? England’s distinctly average displays against the US and Algeria aren’t anything to get your knickers in a twist about. England scrape through every group they enter. Just when you write them off, they put on a display that pulls you from your depressed slouch to say: “We can do this.”

And England can. But England won’t.

That display will entitle England to play a team that has too much quality for them to handle and your hopes will be shattered. That has been the way that England have done things since I have followed football.

So, while I have complete faith that England will beat Slovenia on Wednesday and go through to the second round of the World Cup, they will not win it. This despair you now feel will soon be followed by the traditional pain we are used to. What do you prefer?

Don’t panic, the pain is coming.

Vuvuzelas

Cheers Chile and Switzerland. I had a nice little blog called ‘Disappointment’ ready to upload before you both decided to make the World Cup all exciting and stuff.

It’s a small price to pay though. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is breathing a huge sigh of relief following the shock defeat of tournament favourites Spain earlier today. Finally the World Cup isn’t boring. Chile sounded good too (I listened to the games at work).

Can we expect more of the same in the first of the second round of games tonight? South Africa are taking on Uruguay and I am eager to see the home nation in action having been stuck on the bloody train when they drew 1-1 with Mexico. (If you are a fan of Bafana Bafana and not a boring reactionary, why not turn up the volume on your computer, or put some earphones in, and read the rest of this blog here?)

That’s better isn’t it. Now we’re getting into the spirit of things.

The vuvuzela has provided more reason for debate than any of the football on display at the World Cup. Even Robert Green’s error has been talked of less. As the reactionary traditionalists of football cry about them sounding like a swarm of bees/wasps/hornets (delete as appropriate) their response to this unique symbol enjoyed by the fans in Africa stinks of oppression.

Football is not snooker and football is not tennis. The fans of football make noise for their teams. Are we Europeans really that arrogant that we believe we have the right to dictate exactly what type of noise fans should make? I sincerely hope not.

On this note I will depart to see if South Africa come from behind to defeat Uruguay. But I will leave with a cheesy, action-film quote that I believe sums up my position in three words:

BRING

THE

NOISE

Ze Germans

The fear of pain spread over our fair little island last night as Germany produced an enviable show of force in their first game of the 2010 World Cup. Even without their leader, Michael Ballack, they were able to make light work of Australia and end the night as 4-0 winners – it could have been more too.

Many still detest the sight of German success as they are unable to recollect that the war is over. Many of those who aren’t stupid still dislike the Germans purely because of the agony they have heaped on English football fans over (fairly) recent years.

So the nationwide wince experienced last night was only natural.

I actually love the Germans. I was pretty gutted when they lost out to Spain two years ago in the Euro 2008 final. They constantly display the desire to win that we all wish we could see from England. They even got to the final of the 2002 World Cup, even though England famously beat them 5-1 in the qualifying rounds of that tournament. Germany (West Germany between 1949 and 1990) have been at every World Cup since 1934. Since then they have failed to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament just once, in 1938. They have reached the final seven times, winning the trophy on three of those occasions.

In fear of sounding like a xenophobic moron though, I must point out that there are a number of ‘foreigners’ in the German squad. Of course every German is foreign to an Englishman, so I’m talking of the players in the German squad that aren’t German. Look at these players who were a major influence in Germany’s victory last night – Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose, Mesut Ozil, Cacau, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller – only the last two were born in Germany. Podolski and Klose were both born in Poland, Ozil in Turkey and Cacau in Brazil. In addition, substitute Marko Marin was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Such a point could anger a lot of people, especially if this team of ‘ringers’ goes on to do what last night suggested they might – win the whole thing. The more liberal fans will look at it as an example of how Germany is a marvellously diverse country. This should not be taken lightly either, especially given that dark period in German history too many are too quick to hold against them.

While I obviously think a lot of Germany, I must point out that I am one of too few Englishmen who genuinely believe this is the greatest country. Therefore, if England do meet Germany in the second round of the World Cup (or later), I will be giving all of my support to my fellow countrymen. But, if I hear the word ‘Kraut’ or any mention of ‘The War’, I might just try to claim German citizenship like all of the players mentioned above.

Reasons to be cheerful

A sweepstake is just like a Secret Santa – a small device deployed to bring the excitement of a large event into a serious setting.

Secret Santas take Christmas to work and sweepstakes do the same for sporting events. The World Cup has begun. Many of you will have drawn teams. If you haven’t, don’t worry, it isn’t too late. The prizes only matter in the last round of games, so here is a sweepstake kit to get you underway, courtesy of the saviour of public transport – The Metro.

In my work sweepstake I have drawn out Switzerland, Chile and Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast, idiot). A lot of you may look at that as an awful draw, but a bit of background reading will inform you that those teams have been tipped as potential surprise packages. Ivory Coast are tenth favourites to win the tournament and Chile have even been described as ‘the most tactically exciting side’ at the World Cup.

Now, as there are positives to be found for those three sides, I thought I’d take it upon myself to help all of those who may think they’ve thrown their money away to the jammy git who drew Spain, for example. Below is one reason to be cheerful for drawing every team outside of the top ten favourites (according to William Hill) and one person that provides the strongest link to your ‘normal’ life.

Algeria – Beat Egypt in one of the most controversial grudge matches football has ever seen to get to this, their third, World Cup finals. If they can beat the African Cup of Nations Champions to get to the first World Cup ever to be hosted in Africa, surely they have a good chance of getting somewhere?

You may know… Nadir Belhadj. The Portsmouth wing-back that managed to churn out good performances in his club’s annus horribilis, making him a highly sought-after defender/midfielder.

Australia – Their performance at the 2006 World Cup made people sit up and take note of ‘The Socceroos’. None more so than Italy. The Azzurri converted a gift of a penalty in the dying moments of their second round clash to squeeze past Australia and eventually go on to win the tournament.

You may know… Harry Kewell. Yes, he is alive, and still kicking with that once beautiful left-foot. The 31-year-old forward has been sunning it up in Hell, Galatasaray’s home, where he now earns a luxurious living.

Cameroon – Since Roger Milla they have been seen as THE African team to fear. They have pace, power and experience in players like consecutive Champions League winner Samuel Eto’o. Wins against Japan and Denmark should mean that their last group match against the Dutch is a non-event. After that, anything can happen.

You may know… Alex Song. The Arsenal bruiser will have a key part to play as the Makelele of Cameroon’s midfield.

Chile – See link above.

You may know… Mark Gonzalez. One of many Liverpool flops but very quick and an integral part of Chile’s three-man attack.

Denmark – Have a very strong back five that includes Stoke ‘keeper Tomas Sorensen, Daniel Agger, the Liverpool defender with a thunderous left-foot, and solid Palermo centre-back Simon Kjaer. If Niklas Bendtner finally grows into the star centre-forward he is supposedly destined to be, the Danes could raise some eyebrows.

You may know… Niklas Bendtner. The aforementioned Arsenal frontman scored crucial goals to help Denmark through qualification, much to the surprise of everyone in England.

Ghana – ‘Pace and power’ is a cliché often used when talking about African sides – I’ve used it already – but Ghana have both by the bucket-load, even without the unit that is Michael Essien.

You may know… Sulley Ali Muntari. The stout midfielder that briefly graced the turf of Fratton Park before moving to Inter Milan. Helped Jose Mourinho’s side to the biggest prize in European club football last season.

Greece – Euro 2004 winners. Shouldn’t that be enough to make you feel better about their chances? I don’t care if it was six years ago.

You may know… Theofanis Gekas. You’ve heard of him haven’t you? No? Well he was the player that banged in the most goals in European qualifying, more than some ugly Rooney fella I keep hearing about.

Honduras – Supposed Real Madrid target, Wilson Palacios, was a highlight of the 2009/2010 Premier League season with his rock-solid performances for Spurs. Carlos Pavon, the leading scorer in Concacaf qualifying, should boost their chances too, despite being 36.

You may know… Georgie Welcome. Simply because he has the coolest name ever.

Japan – Asia’s greatest prospect at this World Cup. That may be like being the tallest dwarf, but…

You may know… Shunsuke Nakamura. He used to play for Celtic, for whom he often scored sexy free kicks.

Mexico – Looked tidy in their friendly against England, although their defence was weak. Have since beaten holders Italy 2-1 in another friendly game.

You may know… Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Don’t ask me how you pronounce his first name, but Blanco is the cheeky-chappy who did the ‘bunny-hop’ dribble back in 1998. Although 37 now, he still has a touch that most would kill for.

New Zealand – The side with nothing to lose. But, to punch a whole in that awful cliché, they have three massive games to lose. And, as much as I try to be positive, they probably will lose them. If I’d drawn them in a sweepstake I would stick a few episodes of Flight of the Conchords on to make myself feel better.

You may know… Ryan Nelson. Blackburn centre-back with a chest the size of, um, something really big. He’s a big bloke, okay?

Nigeria – Back at the finals after missing out on qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Have a lot of pace and power. Oh, I said that was a cliché didn’t I? Know what? I don’t care. Clichés are clichés because they’re overused, and they’re only overused because they hit the nail on the head. Nigeria have a lot of pace and power and that is a reason to be cheerful.

You may know…Mikel John Obi. The Chelsea fouler and whiner that rubs teams up the wrong way – the exact way they should be rubbed by the opposition. In England he is known better as John Obi Mikel, for some reason.

North Korea – While we’re busting out the clichés that teeter on the edge of racism, let’s throw in ‘industrious’ for the North Koreans. They’re also well organised. Some people say they will be tough to beat at the World Cup, but some people say that the holocaust didn’t happen. Make your own mind up.

You may know… none of them. Honestly, none of their names will ring a bell. After the World Cup that could be a completely different story.

Paraguay – Have the tendency to display Latino flair when the moment takes them and also have a pinch of European efficiency.

You my know… Roque Santa Cruz. Striker that used to be able to score goals in a Blackburn shirt until Man City wafted over the scent of money to his greedy nose.

Serbia – They have been tipped to shine by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, and he’s probably forgotten more about football than the combined knowledge of all of us mere fans.

You may know… Nemanja Vidic. The hardest defender on the planet failed to capture his best form last season, but he should perform well for his country.

Slovakia – The only team at the finals never to have appeared at one before. They would gladly operate in the shadows to get out of their group, and feasible victories against Paraguay and New Zealand could ensure that does happen.

You may know… Marek Hamsik. The Napoli midfielder is a talisman if ever there was one. At just 22, he has top European sides clamouring for his signature.

Slovenia – Although the days of Zlatko Zahovic’s wizardry are long gone, Slovenia’s discipline and organisation could see them grab a spot in the second round. They play a tight 4-4-2 that all English people can appreciate.

You may know… Valter Birsa. Tricky left-winger that enjoys the old Pires-cut-in. Put in a good performance against England when Slovenia lost 2-1 at Wembley.

South Africa – The hosts of Africa’s first World Cup. That honour plus their vuvuzela weilding fans should spur them on past the group stages at the very least. They also have talented players.

You may know… Steven Pienaar. The Everton man carries the hopes of the home nation on his shoulders. The way he jinks about though, they should fall off soon and he’ll then be able to impress.

South Korea – The second tallest dwarf at the competition (calm down, that isn’t a racist slur about the height of South Korean people, just an anaphoric reference to what I said about Japan). Have a dogged determination to upset the big guys, much like their northerly neighbours. With the smarts of Monaco frontman, Park Chu-young, in attack, this little dwarf could swing high and land a punch in the nuts.

You may know… Park Ji-sung. The Duracell Bunny that works harder than a cart horse and is cunning like a fox – sounds a bit like Ferguson’s Monster.

Switzerland – Well organised and therefore hard to beat. Have a strong midfield and experience upfront in Alexander Frei, the 30-year-old striker who averages more than a goal every other game for his country.

You may know… Philippe Senderos. Fulham’s latest signing has failed to prove himself as a centre-back so far, both with Arsenal and during a loan spell with AC Milan.

United States of America – Are steadily becomoming a force to be reckoned with. Expected to advance from Group C with ease and can definitely go further. Beat favourites Spain at the Confederation Cup in South Africa last year. The most likely team to cause an upset. Beware England.

You may know… Clint Dempsey. Had a great season with Fulham, including scoring a beautiful winner in their Europa Cup quarter-final against Juventus.

Uruguay – Have class and creativity in Ajax pair, Nicolas Lodeiro and Luis Suarez, plus a deadly striker in Diego Forlan. Will probably score at least one amazing goal. If you ask for more than that, you’re just greedy.

You may know… Diego Forlan. Has eradicated memories of his piss-poor performances for Man U by banging in goals for fun in Spain. One question though: who doesn’t score goals for fun? Bloody clichés, who needs ’em?

So there you have it folks. Thank you for wading through all of those clichés and all the mentions of the word cliché. I hope this blog makes you feel a bit better about the no-hopers you were unlucky enough to draw out.

We all know none of them will win it, but it is often the lesser sides that make the World Cup magical – just look at Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 and Senegal in 2002.

Here’s to the underdogs.

Injuries, injuries, they’re all getting injuries

The World Cup starts this week. I have looked forward to saying that almost as much as I look forward to my bed at night.

That is no positive expression though. I hate my bed. It’s basically a glorified chair that does as much for my back as Judas did for Jesus’.

I want to be saying: “The World Cup starts today.” Or better still: “The World Cup has started.”

But I will have to wait for that, just as I’ll have to wait for a new bed.

While I do so, there is still fun to be had.

I’ve already played a World Cup on Pro Evo, but I won’t go into too much detail about that, let’s just say Australia in the second round may be a trickier affair than you’d first imagine.

ESPN Classic is doing its bit by, surprisingly, showing classic games from World Cups of old.

While all this fun is being had though, big name players are dropping like flies. In fact, flies probably have greater anti-dropping powers than the pros warming up to showcase their talent on the greatest stage in football.

Rio, Drogba and Robben are the big three so far. Drogba may still have an impact, as may Robben. But we English know better than any that half-fit players at the World Cup do nothing but frustrate as memories of their true, fully-fit selves linger.

Rio, however, is on his way home after the game against the US, in what is bound to make for emotional reading in the next editorial for his shockingly good #5 magazine.

Along with these big name Charlies, Brad Jones of Australia, Wilson Palacios of Honduras and Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner, are going home, doubtful and doubtful plus shit, respectively.

On a serious note, it must be pointed out that Brad Jones is going home because his four-year-old son has been diagnosed with leukaemia. This sad news has at least galvanised an Australia team that was rumoured to have had rifts.  Now you may begin to see why I think, not just because of being beaten by them on Pro Evo, Australia could be the surprise package at this World Cup. They don’t exactly have an easy group though. Serbia and Ghana are no pushovers, and Germany…well, Germany are Germany – all German and stuff.

See Mum? I told you I’d write more regularly.