2014 FIFA World Cup – Brazil

FIFA-world-cup-2014Four years of waiting is over and it all begins today as Brazil host Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The beautiful game returns to the heart of football, as São Paulo takes center stage today kicking off 30 days of football bliss. In a true world competition, it’s great to see 32 nations come together with the goal of winning the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Much has been made of the draw and group selections, from the team who surprisingly made it and those who did not qualify. Looking over the 32 teams, it can quickly be reduced to a small, handful of teams who have a chance to win the competition this year.

Top of the bunch, EURO 2012 and World Cup 2010 winners, Spain top the list. Arguably, one of the best countries that have dominated the sport and major competitions the last few years. This country has one of the best starting XI and a very deep bench. Yet repeating as World Cup Champions is never an easy task, as host country Brazil has repeated 1958 and 1962 and Italy back in 1930 and 1934. Spain starts their quest on Friday against their 2010 World Cup final opponent, Holland. Talk about a game setting the tone for the rest of the cup, this is it.

My heart continues to scream “ITALIA!” but realistically I am not thrilled at their prospects past the group stage. Yet, they were a dark horse in the in the EURO 2012, when they made the finals after an amazing 2-1 victory over a stronger Germany team, but ended up burnt out dropping a 4-0 decision to Spain. Italy will go the way of Mario Balotelli. If Cesare Prandelli can keep the big man involved and happy, Italy could make it to the quarterfinals. A great mix of young and old in the midfield led my Andrea Pirlo and Danielle DeRossi with a stalwart, Gigi Buffon between the posts.

This year I am picking Argentina, La Albiceleste, to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Brazil. Argentina should cruise through the group stage with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Their ticket out of Group F should be punched to the semifinals, where they could end up playing defending champions, Spain. Not an easy task, but the offense that La Albiceleste brings is going to be tough to stop. Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain lead the attack with Angel DeMaria, Maxi Rodriguez, Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano anchoring a good midfield. Their weakness could be on defense, but if their offense can find the back of the net 3-4 times games, Argentina will be set.

Brazil will carry the weight of their countrymen on their shoulder as the host nation this year. You can never count these skilled footballers out, but could their inexperience be their downfall? Neymar is being put in the spotlight up front to do the damage for Brazil, with Jô, Fred and Hulk. The midfield stacks up nicely with Ramires and playmaker, Oscar. The defense is very potent on offense with Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz. Good to see AS Roma defender Maicon part of the squad in could be his final World Cup at age 32.

I do think highly of Germany and Uruguay, but both teams have been struck with injury that could affect their run at the World Cup. The Germans lost their goal scoring threat in Marco Reus and will most likely be replaced by Chelsea star, André Schürrle. Four Germans have 100+ caps, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Poldolski and Miraslov Klose, they have the experience, which could play a major role in Brazil, as long as they can find some goals.

Uruguay looks to be competitive, but Luiz Suarez’s status is still in doubt for the first game. He put up some excellent numbers this year for Liverpool scoring 31 times. If he can’t go, then it will be the experience of Diego Forlan to take over the striker duties. Edison Cavani would need to step up his play to make up for the loss of Suarez. However I think La Celeste comes up just a bit short this World Cup.

While not really sleepers or dark horses, I do like Chile and Belgium both having great showings in Brazil. Belgium has been on everyone’s radar for some time with talent and experience and a game changer in Eden Hazard. Without doubht Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world as World Cup play starts. Pele has already tipped Chile as a favorite this year in Brazil. With a high tempo offense led by Alexi Sanchez and anchored by Autro Vidal, manager Jorge Sampaoli has his work cut out for him.

Beyond this group, I don’t see any other surprises in the tournament. You already know what little I think of US Soccer, Jurgen Klinsmann has similar thoughts. They MIGHT win one game in their group, but will be going home early. Portugal might be the only team some would see as a surprise not to progress. You can’t replace the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, Christiano Ronaldo, if he can’t go Portugal will struggle. Even if he plays, I don’t see Portugal advancing past the second round. France is the other team, after quitting on Raymond Domenech in South Africa 4 years ago, Les Bleus was stuck with an injury to Franck Ribery, which is the heart of their offense. While they should advance out of Group E, their run will end in the second round.

Can’t wait for a month full of world class football from one of the greatest footballing countries in the world, Brazil. Hopefully the protests don’t interfere and the stadiums are ready and safe. Football is here, get ready to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

Forza Italia!

UEFA EURO 2012 ends today in Kyiv as Italy takes on defending champions, Spain in the final. Whatever the outcome, the Italians put together a very good run in the tournament. My pre-tournament favorite to win EURO 2012 was the defending champions, Spain. I didn’t expect this sort of showing from Italy, but they have surprised fans and the world advancing to the finals.

I do believe is Italy played like their did their first match of the competition, when they went 1-0 on Spain in the 61st minute, only to give up the equalizing goal 3 minutes later. Yet the Italians only played for 61 minutes and could not finish off the Spaniards. I think we saw a much different, determined squad in the semi-finals versus Germany. They had the on pitch prowess and a determination to get the job done. The struck fast and controlled every facet of the game. For all the accolades Germany had up to this point, with their talent, skill and experience, as well as being a favorite to win, Italy quieted them all.

Hard to go against the Italians at this point, who have the momentum coming off a big win. Spain struggled against Portugal and never got into their game, yet still had enough, as you would expect the FIFA #1 ranked team to do. It should be a very competitive game, but expect a 1-0 victory for Italy in regular time.

Italia Destiny

As a big fan of Italian football my expectations were low as start of the 2012 UEFA European Championship approached. After the Azzurri crashed out in South Africa in 2010, I thought their approach this season didn’t provide enough experience to compete on the international level. Yet their convincing 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-finals has reignited the excitement we experienced in 2008 when Italy defeated France to win the World Cup in Germany.

There are only a few holdovers from the 2008 World Cup team, including world class keeper, Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom bring experience and leadership to the 2012 UEFA squad (DeRossi and Barzagli were also on the ’08 squad). The 2010 World Cup was a forgettable event for Italy. Injuries to both Buffon and Pirlo, as well as an aging Azzurri saw them crash out in the group stage, finishing last. It was truly a low point for Italian football.

Enter Cesare Prandelli, succeeding 2006 World Cup manager, Marcello Lippi, who was a favorite, but rather set in his way when it came to the “old guard” who has worn the kit of the Azzurri. Prandelli wasn’t afraid to make changes, which he did. Many of the well known, now aging footballers were not recalled for international duty, the up and coming younger names got their chance.

Expectations, in my mind were not high entering this tournament, but the team did seem to have a good mix of old and new. It comes as no surprise that Buffon (119 caps) and Pilro (88 caps) are leading the way for Italia at age 33 and 34 respectively. On the other end are the young guns, players like Mario Balotelli, 21 years old (13 caps) and Riccardo Montolivo, 27 (36 caps) and Claudio Marchisio, 26 years old (25 caps). These will be names representing Italy in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

While their success in Euro 2012 has been wonderful, I believe it could be short lived. It’s great to see Balotelli playing very well (4 goals) and better yet, keep his head together and playing like the up and coming superstar he could he. There’s also some good younger talent in the midfield, but no “maestro” like Pirlo to control the game. I like Daniele De Rossi, but he is more of a defensive midfielder and doesn’t manage the game like Pirlo. We might have to wait and see, Pirlo will be 35 when the World Cup rolls around, he might be available for Brazil.

Mario Ballotelli has been playing above expectations. The knock against him has been his “disciplinary problems” a few years back at Inter while Jose Mourinho was manager. “Balotelli continued to be the subject of racist chants throughout the season, becoming the focus of Juventus fans even during games not involving Inter, leading to Juventus being fined twice and the club ultimately punished with a partial stadium closure” (source). Now at Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, Ballotelli has been playing much better. During this tournament he is garnering consideration as player of the tournament.

More pressing issues are in goal. Behind Buffon is a total of 7 caps between  Salvatore Sigiru (age 25) and Morgan De Sanctis (age 35). At age 34, I could see Buffon returning for one more shot at glory in Brazil. Hopefully during that time we could see another keeper step up and represent the national team. The only other recent call up was Emiliano Viviano (6 caps). Buffon’s leadership and experience has made the best keeper in the world and has put Italy into the position they are in now, to possibly win Euro 2012 when they face Spain on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Italy’s national team and fans should be proud at how the team has come together and played the last month. It does provide fans with a bright future with young talent being capped. Still there are some questions to answer. With any luck it will be the guidance of Prandelli and the combination of young talent and experience that wins the Henri Delaunay Trophy and allows Italy to qualify and be competitive for World Cup 2014.

Euro 2012 Update

I have been fortunate enough to catch just about every minute of the UEFA European Championship co-hosted by Poland/Ukraine. As of today all teams have played two of their three group stage games and only three teams are out of contention; Republic of Ireland, Sweden and surprisingly, the Netherlands. In my predictions I had the Dutch to make it to the finals. With all the talent and experience they brought to the European Championships, it just did not translate well on the pitch, scoring only 1 goal through two games.

Germany hasn’t been as impressive as many have reported. I do believe their defense is suspect, outside of Philip Lahm and Manuel Neuer in goal. I don’t even think it’s fair to compare on the same level as Spain, who have been much more impressive, especially in their 4-1 victory over Ireland. Yeah, it was just Ireland but I think Spain is only getting warmed up and should walk right into the finals.

Italy has pissed me off though. In 2 games they have played 90 minutes of good football, lost the leads both times in the second half and gone into a defensive shell to salvage a draw versus Spain and Croatia. They need to step up their performance and play 90 minutes against the Republic of Ireland to secure 3 points to have a chance to move into the quarterfinals.

France, my dark horse and England have both played well and sit on 4 points, which should see them both through to the quarterfinals. I was impressed with the changes Roy Hodgson made up front opting for Andy Carroll as his lone striker, a move that paid off. But more surprising was the fact England rebounded from 2-1, staged a nice comeback and defeated the Swedes, 3-2. I only see England stronger with Wayne Rooney returning in their final game versus Ukraine.

Finally, Russia. The have played very well through 2 games, including the 4-1 trashing of the Czech Republic, but could only muster a draw versus co-host, Poland. Not sure what sort of chance they stand once in the quarterfinals where they could face Portugal or Denmark. Offensive they have been strong with the attack mentality, yet the play of goalie, Vyacheslav Malafeev has been very good. Russia quietly making noise in these championships.

So far it’s been some enjoyable football, at times a bit sloppy from some teams. That might to be expected, even though these players are professional they aren’t playing with each other on a full time basis (unless of course you are Spain). Thankfully the play has been fairly fluid with not many games being decided by the officiating. I have liked the 5th official on the goal line, thankfully their decisions have not come into play at this point.

2010 World Cup: Final Thoughts

So I have just finished watching Espana defeat the Netherlands, 1-0 in the 2010 World Cup final. The game was not all that pretty, many yellow cards and a single red card marred the match, but a late goal in the 117 minute by Andrés Iniesta gave Spain their first Jules Rimet Trophy.

I won’t say I lost interest in the finals this year as opposed to 2006. I was frustrated at the display the Azzurri put on as defending World Cup Champions, but when you play like shit, you usually end up going home after the group stage, which they and the other 2006 finalist, France, did. Then again France got what they deserved after how they secured the final spot in the field of 32 for South Africa.

I was more upset with EPSN and their terrible coverage, once again. Sorry, but their in studio talent was terrible. Alexi Lalas was just as bad as his counterpart 4 years ago, Eric Wynalda. While not as negative he was unwatchable. Props to Jurgen Klinsmann, Steve McManaman, Roberto Martinez and Ruud Gullit, all provided good studio insight to upcoming matches. But the likes of Mike Trico, Chris Fowler, Bob Ley are terrible. Why? Because they don’t follow the beautiful game. I will give them their due credit for American sports (MLB,NFL, NBA, NHL), but football they don’t have the knowledge or the understanding of the game to bring out best of the in studio talent.

I had no problems with their actual coverage, but the commentary was bad all around, much like 2006. Why? Because Americans don’t follow soccer…football for the rest of the world. Derek Rae, Adrian Healey, Martin Tyler (outstanding!) and Ian Darke brought their talents, as well as accents to bring the matches alive. All are very talented, as well as knowledgeable when it comes to the game. Ally McCoist and Robby Mustoe were the others worth mentioning.

John Harkes. GO AWAY! Sure you played the game, but you don’t have a very good studio presence when it comes to calling a game and lending your insight. Not to mention we always had to hear about the US team when they were not even playing. I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE USA WHEN THEY ARE NOT PLAYING, so stop! I doubt we will see him in 4 years. Hopefully we don’t get the likes of Landon Donovan.

Sadly, I would have to catch the first half of many games driving in listening to ESPN Radio, which was worse than watching it on television. The only voice worth a mention, Tommy Smyth for obvious reasons. If you don’t know the voice or the experience, then it’s your loss. The rest of the bunch were awful!

As I said in 2006 about 2010, I don’t think the commentary will get any better. Chances are it won’t get better in 2014 down in Brazil. I guess I make the effort to learn Spanish and watch the games elsewhere, because ESPN fails again in bringing the World Cup to America.